Peter Wakelin introduces the exhibition he has curated at this year’s National Eisteddfod of four Welsh realist painters working in the 1940s and 1950s.
Last year I was asked if I would put together a proposal for the Special Exhibition at the 2016 National Eisteddfod, to be held at Abergavenny. Pete Goodridge of Art Works suggested I might find a way of honouring the great Abergavenny-set novel, Border Country by Raymond Williams (1960). What the art committee selected was an exhibition of four artist contemporaries of Williams – Joan Baker, Charles Burton, John Elwyn and Bert Isaac. Ffiniau: Four painters in Raymond Williams’ Border Country, runs at the National Eisteddfod until 6 August then tours to Wrexham, Machynlleth and Chepstow.
What is most striking to many people about the paintings brought together is their vivid conjuring of a particular time and place – south Wales in the decades before 1960. All four artists, like Williams himself, took a clear-eyed view of their own communities, and in their own medium they depicted many of the same people and landscapes with equal realism and integrity. Only Bert Isaac worked at the geographical border between Wales and England, but all of them reflected through their work the even deeper borders that preoccupied Williams, between vale and coalfield, town and farm, sexes, generations, classes.
The novel offers a profound understanding of how cultures change as people test and cross the barriers that separate them. It was set in and around Abergavenny (fictionalised as the town of ‘Gwenton’) and the hamlet of Pandy (‘Glynmawr’) from the 1920s to the 1950s. At the core of the story a young university lecturer comes back home from London to help look after his dying father and in the process remakes connections with his working-class upbringing and the life of his community.
All four artists were born within a few years of Raymond Williams and brought the perspectives of the insider to their depictions of south Wales. Whereas visiting artists might have been beguiled by the beauty of the hills or horrified by coal-tips violating the land, these painters all knew their subject intimately enough to see it dispassionately. Like Raymond Williams they were all acute observers committed to a kind of social realism. They composed their pictures just as Williams constructed his fiction, not transcribing reality but seeking to convey the truth as they saw it. Dai Smith’s comment on Border Country could equally describe their paintings: ‘there is not a false or sentimental note anywhere in this book. Nothing is romanticised and nobody is idealised’.
Their own, individual temperaments come through in distinctive visions – Baker the quiet people-watcher, Elwyn entranced by hiraeth, Burton the master of formal composition, Isaac beguiled by nature and renewal. John Elwyn (1916-1997) was born near Newcastle Emlyn and painted rural life and the work of men and women around the farm with a sensitivity to match Williams’ own feeling for home. The Cardiff artist Joan Baker (born 1922) at this stage of her career was fascinated by the people she saw around her – strolling over Ely Bridge on a spring evening, working in a farmhouse kitchen or aloof from one another in the city centre. Charles Burton (born 1929), grew up at Treherbert and painted the coalfield communities that appear in Border Country as the ‘black’ valleys contrasted with the ‘green’ to the north. Bert Isaac (1923-2006) painted Abergavenny and its surrounding countryside as a young man in the 1940s, capturing unexpected views and hidden corners of dereliction and decay.
The creation of work like this was noted in Wales in the 1950s and even perceived as the beginnings of a distinct style. Carel Weight, John Piper and David Bell wrote after selecting an Arts Council Open Exhibition in 1953, ‘A feeling is conveyed in many of the pictures of love and compassion for humanity and a consciousness of the relations of men and women to nature, buildings and every day life in Wales.’
Two years later Carel Weight added: ‘The average Welsh painter is not interested in the “isms” of art – he paints from the heart rather than the head.’
To let people reconsider this work today, this exhibition has brought out paintings from both public and private collections that are hardly ever seen. Encountering pictures of this period put together for the first time since the 1950s makes it clear that some Welsh artists at the time were indeed forging a distinctive strain of honest depiction of their everyday surroundings. In their approaches they were quiet, unassuming, almost deliberately not eye-catching. Perhaps their spurning of fashionable style is one of the reasons why they have not yet featured strongly in museum displays or art publications and received the attention they deserve.
Both Raymond Williams’ novel and these paintings inspire comparisons with the very different rhythms of the past. They help us to engage imaginatively across differences, reaching from times long gone to a present in which we need to be reminded, sometimes urgently, that more unites us than divides us.
Finiau: Four painters in Raymond Williams’ Border Country is at Y Lle Celf, National Eisteddfod, until 6 August. It then tours to Oriel Wrecsam (13 August-3 September), MOMA Machynlleth (17 September-19 November) and Chepstow Museum (26 November-26 February).