This weekend saw the opening of a new exhibition, The Faculty Divine, in Caerphilly, bringing together the work of photographer Fergus Thomas and poet William “Islwyn” Thomas. Here, we explore the background to the exhibition, delving a little deeper into the landscape which has inspired these two artists and previewing some of the images from the collection.
St Tudor’s, a grade-II listed church located high on a mountain top in remote South Wales, may not seem like the obvious venue for an photography exhibition, but the setting provides an atmospheric backdrop for a powerful new exhibition about the sacred force of nature. The Faculty Divine brings together William “Islwyn” Thomas, the 19th century Welsh poet and Methodist minister and Fergus Thomas, a contemporary photographer.
When Fergus Thomas first moved to a small village in Caerphilly from London in the autumn of 2021, he was deeply affected by the surrounding natural landscape. Talking about making the transition to his new home, Thomas described his feelings of gratitude to “this remote, wooded valley. There’s something very special about spending hours absorbed in its sights and sounds.”
Thomas soon discovered that another artist had felt the force of the same landscape, some 170 years earlier: William “Islwyn” Thomas, the poet and Methodist minister. His best-known poem is “Y Storm” (“The Storm”) written after the sudden death of his fiancee in 1853, at the age of 20. The poem, over 9000 lines long, talks of the sacred animating force that flows through nature whilst grappling with existential questions around mourning, death and spirituality.
from, “The Storm”
Its voice exalts like a trumpet on the hill,
And the vale harkens
While trembling like a bough on a torrent right then.
Do you tremble? Come, listen undaunted,
It’s natures voice on high,
Nature who’s singing our anthem to us.
William “Islwyn” Thomas
A Methodist minister born in the Sirhowy valley in 1832, William Thomas has been described as one of the greatest Welsh poets of the 19th century. Islwyn won four bardic chairs and two other prizes for his poetry in local Eisteddfods. Although he never had a chapel of his own, he was a regular preacher at Babel Chapel, Cwmfelinfach and is buried in the chapel’s church yard, after his death in 1878, at the age of 46.
It is through this lens that Fergus Thomas began making images of the Sirhowy valley, soon gravitating to the river that runs through it. A British photographer based in Wales, Fergus Thomas is a graduate of documentary photography, Newport South Wales. His long-term photographic bodies of work explore the intersection between nature and culture. His project “Colville” was published in Granta magazine, long-listed for the Magnum graduate award, exhibited at Warsaw photo-days, in Poland and in the Ian parry scholarship exhibition in London. For Fergus Thomas, the river running through the Sirhowy valley was essential to the vitality of the natural world, but also bears the scars of the heavy industrial history of the region.
St Tudor’s Church, situated on Mynyddislwyn, the mountain near Islwyn’s home and the name he took as a poet, is to showcase Fergus Thomas’ large-scale photographs of the Sirhowy valley and river. In the sacred space of the church, both men’s work come together. This extraordinary exhibition is perhaps best understood not as a solo show, but as the multi-layered response of two artists to a very particular place. This connection between the work of poet and photographer has been noted by Dr David Hale, who overves that “it’s brilliant that this exhibition is bringing to life the work of a largely forgotten Welsh poet” through the lens of Fergus Thomas’s work.
Speaking about the exhibition’s ability to draw together history and contemporary photography, St Tudor’s Church Warden, Elizabeth Tomlin mentions the “powerful feeling of flowing from the past to the present and onto the future” in Fergus Thomas’s photography. “We’re so excited to be opening up our church as the centre for this exhibition. We hope it will encourage young people to be involved in the history of this area, which is plentiful”.
The Faculty Divine shows at St Tudor’s Church, Mynyddislwyn, Blackwood, NP12 2BG, until the 22 of November 2022 with hours of 10am – 4pm. An expanded version will later open in CUTVR Lab, Cardiff, where The Faculty Divine will be displayed alongside previous work made by Fergus Thomas in Wales.
The Faculty Divine is curated by Isaac Blease, with art direction by Alejandro Actin (IC Visual Lab). Both exhibitions are supported by the Arts Council of Wales, the Cwm a Mynydd Rural Development Programme for Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent through the Welsh Governments Rural Communities Rural Development Programme 2014-2020.