Newport Museum and Art Gallery
Book by Peter Wakelin
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales
The drawings of Falcon Hildred in this exhibition drew admiration on their original showing at the National Library. For the exhibition in Newport the selection has been augmented by drawings commissioned from the artist by Newport’s Museum and Art Gallery in 1988. It is an exhibition of significance that comes accompanied by a filmed interview with the artist. The interviewer is Peter Wakelin who has threaded the artist’s words into his exemplary catalogue for the exhibition.
Falcon Hildred has been resident in Gwynedd since his purchase of Melin Pant-yr-Ynn in Bethania in 1969. He warmed at once to the landscape around Blaenau Ffestiniog with its twenty quarries, its abandoned tramway tracks, its tips and terraces. Most importantly it had ‘no fat ring of mediocrity around it’. The restoration of the mill, still smelling strongly of rust, was done on a negligible income, a tribute to craft where not an item of plastic intrudes. Pete Telfer’s film depicts the artist as lucid, expository and unshowy. ‘I didn’t want to do work that only brought in money,’ he says; ‘My drawings have a job to do.’
Falcon Hildred is a unique artist and Peter Wakelin’s book does full and rightful honour. The late recognition is a natural extension to the Royal Commission’s curatorial role. With support from the Lottery, it acquired in 2011 over six hundred of Hildred’s drawings in joint ownership with the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
The artist’s life mission has been simple and underpinned by a moral thrust. The industry of Britain ‘achieved more in two centuries to transform and improve the lives of every ordinary person than everything throughout our entire history.’ Hildred echoes the voices of historians of Wales that the innovations, scientific and technological, of the industrial titans deserve to be better celebrated. Historical memory alights, and rightly, on the environmental despoliation, the cost to human health and the class conflict. Yet Victorian Britain delivered year on year a two percent real rise in wages.
This book does not dwell on the economics, but for four centuries Britain had no price inflation at all. The price of a loaf of bread after labour markets had reshaped themselves in the wake of the Black Death remained as it was century upon century. In 1870 wage levels in Manchester and Shanghai were the same. The two percent wage rise compounded year on year created by the masters of Victorian industry sent the two cities on utterly divergent trajectories.
The vast body of the architectural legacy, from factory to chapel via the lines of terraced housing, are for Hildred more than brick and stone. In buildings ‘we celebrate, we teach, we live, we work, we heal, we compete, we store – everything is done in and around buildings.’ This saturation in all of human activity endows them with a higher meaning. ‘They are the symbols of all our values, really, in civilisation, from cottage to cathedral. They are the symbols of what we want and what we believe.’ It would be intriguing to invite the artist away from his mill home for the last half century to take a walk through Britain’s host of resuscitated docklands. Hildred and his work have been witnesses to decay, demolition and clearance. ‘Destroy a building,’ he says, ‘and you risk destroying something of ourselves.’
The life, as traced by Peter Wakelin, is straightforward. Born in Grimsby in 1935 Hildred’s first name is most likely in honour of Antarctica’s Captain Scott, a figure held in popular adulation. As a child, he and his parents keep to the middle name of ‘David’, but by the age of seventeen and at art college the ‘Falcon’ endows distinctiveness. The industrial heritage strikes the artist at an early age. A family trip across the Humber at age five reveals the vast warehouses and harbour buildings of booming Hull. The family home backs onto a jam factory with brewery, gasworks, railway goods yards, smokehouses and fishdocks not far away. It is an environment of unceasing activity. ‘I would lie in my bed waiting to catch the sounds of the little shunting engines marshalling wagons… and every so often the gasworks would sigh… That was my lullaby.’
The artist sees things with a particularity that is their own. Where we may see building from the age of mass building as drab or predictable Hildred reads their history. Crucially he sees no distinction between them and the architecture of earlier eras. From the demolitions at Blaenau Ffestiniog he salvages a fireplace. Unusually he places above it in his mill the photograph of a quarryman. The note for visitors specifically says that there is nothing special to him. He is one of the countless who brought about ‘the easy life we now take for granted.’ He is just one ‘who toiled all their lives in mines and mills, or who hauled, stitched, laid bricks, riveted, farmed the land or fished the perilous seas.’
Peter Wakelin traces the development of a personal style emerging from early influence. The echo of Neo-romanticism drops away, exactitude coming to replace the hints of John Piper, John Minton or Alan Sorrell. He draws comparison with a quarry depicted by Bert Isaac and one by Hildred. Isaac in the wonderful ‘Dorothea Quarry’ is abstract and evocative. Hildred’s eye is that of the archaeologist or designer.
Wakelin touches revealingly on the too easily misunderstood relationship between the human eye and the artificial lens. He cites Hockney on the tendency of the lens to either force a subject centre-stage or with a fish-eye view that pushes the subject away. A view of Maenofferen quarry has a panoramic aspect to it that is akin to the view that the eye makes. The difference is also an issue of detail and emphasis. Hildred’s drawing of the chimney of Cash’s weaving factory in Coventry is impossible to capture photographically. It is in part the elevation and in part the attention he gives, out of admiration, to the regular bands of blue and the star motifs.
In Cardiff he uses both camera and sketchbook. On examining both he finds the latter has picked up on a slightly ornamental gable that the camera has passed over.
The drawings selected for Worktown roam across locations in Wales and England, Hildred’s northernmost subject is the Fifeshire coast. The fishing villages of the East Neuk, Cellardyke and Pittenweem, rather than the mining centre of Kirkcaldy, are his subjects. The Eastern-northern light was hailed by poet Douglas Dunn and its echo is caught in the tall Scots architectural style. The impact of the drawings is felt in the expanses of untouched white paper.
On the east coast Hildred observes the building of the bridge over the Ouseburn for the Byker Metro. In 1978 he sees the steamship Lincoln Castle in duty as a ferry over the Humber, a role to be made redundant three years later with the opening of the bridge. Ports are now hidden behind high walls and to linger with a camera is to invite suspicion. In his picture of Newport’s Moderator Wharf a plain ship is composed one-third of the way up – Hildred knows his aesthetics. The background is comprised of hazily seen blocks of concrete and a far-off Victorian spire. The location, notes Wakelin, is now a car park adjacent to the Riverside Arts Centre.
Hildred is absorbed in function, how things are made to work. A large single sheet contains ten drawings of Fort Belan, the intriguing 1820’s fort-cum-harbour that protrudes into the Menai Straits. It comes with hand-written pieces of text that explain ‘old gas retorts used as bollards.’ This closest of close-up attention is repeated in the intricate representation of Newport’s Transporter Bridge. His scrutinising eye closes in on the detail of metal gate and the turnstile gate with an explanatory note given on the foot control that operates it. A pencil and watercolour, forty-two by thirty centimetres, shows the conversion of Moelwyn Mill to a home in six different drawings and elevations. Appropriately he was commissioned for a cover for Melin, the journal of the Welsh Mills Society. The gearing, cogs, hopper and stairs of a mill’s interior betoken not just an artist’s illustrative skill but an adoring attention.
The illustrations regularly transcend the purely descriptive eye. In 1979, he recreates a scene from the Grimsby of his childhood. A bowed man pushes a handcart. Another cloth-capped pedestrian and a mother and child pause while an open-backed lorry in yellow comes out of the Tickler’s Preserves factory. The greens of tree and grass interrupt the monochromes of the steep lane that leads to Blaenau’s Pant-y-Celyn. A building in Coventry’s Hertford Square, a mix of weavers’ houses and workshops, is part-survivor of clearance with fireplace and cupboard exposed. The process of demolition in this post-war era might take years and the half-completed work was occupied by squatters.
The best of all arts makes its audience see in a different way, however slight. A double page shows on one side Rudge Street, Coventry, a dusk view, as a line of terraces, windows smashed and the site to be that of a ring road. Opposite the silhouette of a coal man totes a sack into the bright entrance of Eli Green’s Cottage Factory. It is a masterly exercise in memory, tribute and the subtlest of shadings of light and hue. Rural England – particularly in the east, the Cotswolds and Somerset – is populated with spires and churches of elegance in a way that the local landscape is not. When Hildred draws Newport’s Methodist Church in Havelock Street it makes the eye see all the real-world equivalents with a greater sharpness and appreciation. A building that is pure Hildred sits on the arterial road a mile south of Newport’s gallery.
Wakelin’s testimony to Hildred’s art is based on commitment. The work has been largely made neither for sale nor for gallery exhibition. Wakelin sees it as ‘an act of homage… an artist whose commitment adds up to much more than the sum of its parts and whose lifetime project has been a passion, a fervour.’ That he is under-recognised Wakelin sees simply ‘because the work is too individual, too purposeful and because it sits outside current fashions.’ This is a testament to a life of the highest worth in both word and image.
Worktown continues at Newport Art Gallery until 27 September.