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Looking Into Wales: A Nation Displayed (March 2002)

This article was first published on openDemocracy

“There are only two British news stories about Germany: new Nazis and old Nazis.” If the small Bavarian town of Landsberg is known at all it will be because Hitler wrote Mein Kampf there in 1923-4. But only a couple of hundred metres away from the prison there’s a prickly gothic tower, outside it the English and Bavarian flags, and the Red Dragon of Wales: the Herkomer Museum.

Hubert von Herkomer, son of a Bavarian radical who fled to the USA after 1848, made himself an English knight, a Welsh patriot and a Bavarian painter. His wife was Welsh, and he confected the gear which the Welsh crachach transform themselves each summer into the Druids at their National Eisteddfod.

There’s a timely moral here for those worried about an English tide swamping the language – a theme at the 2001 Eisteddfod, thanks to a speech by John Elfed Jones – but perhaps even more for a London which has, since devolution, become steadily more self-obsessed.

Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation, 1688-1837 (1992) became a central text of New Labour’s constitutional reform project. Its selection of illustrations – mainly caricatures of the identities of the imperial components of the eighteenth century – was widely praised. Only on a closer look did it become clear that nearly all of them were by London artists and printmakers.

In a study of national heterogeneity, and a somewhat mechanical fusion – by protestantism and war – of three of the nations (Scotland, England, Wales) into Britain, this seemed strange. Yet it conformed to the notion that New Labour has used history only to the degree that it serves its own ends. The implication in Britons that the partnership between the nations was up for renegotiation – but would stay within British bounds – was evidently regarded as on message.

Colley is of Welsh descent (although there are very few references to Wales in her book). Peter Lord is a Devon man, and an ‘incomer’ to Wales. But he’s a Devon man unlikely to sing for his supper at the court of King Tony.

II

For over six years Lord and a team based at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth have been documenting art, industry and nationalism in Wales. Through enthusiasm and a boldly comprehensive grasp of Welsh language and culture, they have turned a lottery grant into an attempt to present the partially self-governing nation with a corpus of evidence about its identity which until recently few had thought existed. The results are, so far, two elegant volumes and a TV series, The Big Picture, much praised and discussed in Wales, completely ignored in London.

Lord discovered Wales in the 1960s while working, like many other volunteers (the present writer among them) on the country’s narrow-gauge railways. He went native and learned Welsh. His experience as a sculptor as well as an art historian gives a peculiar density to his interpretation, especially when analysing the intertextuality of the graphic arts and their relationship to social and religious change.

Museum curators and picture researchers are themselves archaeologists, yet they tend to be deflected by the pot of gold at the end of the gallery rainbow, into placing aesthetic or connoisseur values ahead of what John Berger called the “way of seeing” of a society struggling out of subordination. The nation as visual discourse, the representational and symbolic branch of what Benedict Anderson called “print capitalism”, had made little progress before Lord’s remarkable work came out.

Colley’s point of departure was the same as that of Lord: framing a nation’s art in the context of its ideas and beliefs. Yet her analysis of images is purely political, and consequently restricted in its range. By limiting herself to London productions, she completely ignored the countervailing power of local political aesthetics and agendas elsewhere.

These have been explored by scholars such as Luke Gibbons and the late Jeanette Sheehy in the Ireland of the 1830s-40s; the painters Charles Mulready and Daniel Maclise and the caricaturist Dicky Doyle (he of the Punch frontispiece); and by Duncan MacMillan’s exploration of Scotland of “the Great Age” from Henry Raeburn and the cartoons of Thomas Kay, to David Wilkie and the Hill-Adamson photographs.

In contrast to Colley’s metropolitan insularity, Lord has also – like the much-missed Gwyn Alf Williams – the ability to tell the story around a painting in contrasting and fricative ways: how subject matter, creative tradition and context can be played off against each other, in a period of unceasing industrial change. Despite MacMillan, and literary parallels in the study of Victorian vernacular literature by William Donaldson, only now is the study of Scottish painting beginning to move into this avenue.

The planning of Lord’s massive volumes – works of art in themselves – assists this: a lean and easily-read text accompanies the illustrations, nearly all in colour and with numerous details. As well as the captions there are unobtrusive but telling footnotes and references, and an excellent index. Publisher, assistants and printer have done the project proud.

III

Lord’s initial volume is Industrial Society: important, as in Wales the economic shock pre-empted the usual liberal nation-building order. The historian John Williams has questioned how industrial Wales actually was: its extractive industries preceded and followed the industrial revolution – first lead, copper and silver, then slate and coal.

Eighteenth century realism was necessary both to show off complicated production processes, and to convey to a mildly interested metropolitan literati the sublime qualities of the giant quarries and shafts of what was a key element in England’s marine power: the copper industry which sheathed all those three-deckers and merchantmen. Industrial power, however, enabled the nouveau riche to follow those who had come into money with the Tudors, and ape metropolitan fashions: Lord’s early mineral millionaires were just like the Scots coalowner Sir George Bruce in seventeenth century Culross, buying in his elaborate family tomb from the south.

Against this were the artisan painters – unacademically trained but scientific in their world-view. Their political discourse relates to the sort of people whom E.P.Thomson rescued from “the monstrous condescension of posterity”, who were seeing the world on the ground and constructing democratic, organised responses to suit.

Among them Hugh Hughes emerges as Welsh nonconformity’s answer to the romantic overkill of Edward Williams’ Iolo Morganwyg, the inventor of Druidism and much more: Hughes was a figure quite remarkable in his skill and productivity, whose oeuvre scarcely registered before Lord’s researches, when only a handful of his paintings had been traced.

Hughes was not only a portraitist of great talent, but had a range of subject-matter which distances him radically from run-of-the-mill academic painters. What made his work count in nonconformist Wales was his satiric flair and in particular the controversy over the Blue Books in 1848 (for a long time almost all that was known of him was his cartoon of the three silly-ass Education Commissioners who reviled Welsh nonconformity and a language they didn’t know a word of).

A contemporary Scots crisis produced a rather different outcome: David Octavius Hill’s vast picture The Signing of the Deeds of Demission, in which the remarkable calotype portraits Hill made with Robert Adamson were pasted up into a huge shapeless splurge of a painting. Hughes’ paintings of farmers, preachers and businessmen have the fine-drawn republican dignity of seventeenth century Holland: a Welsh Milton who has remained mute and inglorious for too long.

Much of this was an art for petty-bourgeois entrepreneurs: the sea-captains of Cardigan Bay, competent types in their stiff black stocks, sextants in hand, the early coalowners, furnacemen and engineers of Glamorgan. The naïve but compelling Crawshay portraits – detected by an earlier project of Lord’s – show what Marx called the subjective order of industry, where the human factor had to be appeased, or at least understood. Yet by the 1860s such art was in retreat before the advance of photography and the ease with which its images could be multiplied – just as the brigs and schooners and the little slate ports were yielding to the vast mechanics of the Cambrian Coal Combine, the Taff Vale Railway, Barry Docks, and Cardiff, the tramp steamer capital of the world.

IV

Under what Tom Nairn called in a British context the “synthetic conservatism” of late Victorian Britain, in its Welsh-speaking intellectual form, the defence clustered round the National Eisteddfod. Artists like Clarence Whaite and the Betws-y-Coed colony, and the promethean Herkomer, dignified peasantry and landscape into a ruralist alternative to the Moloch of the southern valleys.

Herkomer was Welsh-inclined through his wife; he had the great American architect Henry Richardson build him his jugendstil house – long demolished – in Bushey, near Watford. Given the North Western main line to north and mid-Wales, it was a very sensible site. The situation was that complex, and got more so.

For all his Druidism, Herkomer ended up symbolic of the creative chaos of American South Wales: from the Marquis of Bute and William Burges going over the top at Cardiff Castle to the sugar-cake monumentalism of Cathays Park – an American exposition suddenly changed from pasteboard to portland stone, and filled with a gallery of heroes from the nation’s hitherto hidden past. As late as 1939 it could still cook up an anthology of the eccentricities of world capitalism: America-Wales produced not just John Ford’s How Green was my Valley, but Paul Robeson in Proud Valley and the original of Xanadu, William Randolph Hearst’s St. Donats, in Welles’ Citizen Kane.

The money of western Europe’s version of the Gulf (with coal trucks and locomotives instead of pipelines; the huge profits of coal, tinplate, shipping and railways) meant art patronage. Was it to be the international art market, where innovations was permissible, subject to the economic order of patrons, art galleries and dealers, and a free-floating avant-garde?

Impressionism and post-impressionism were not just permissible but commended: petty-bourgeois Paris, seen by Monet or Pisarro, or Brittany, seen by Gauguin, counted for more than the industry of the Valleys or of North Wales, although the European or metropolitan avant-garde – Robert Delaunay, Augustus John and J.D. Innes – could still find Wales a thrill.

Or was it to be national, as Tom Ellis MP, a European liberal-nationalist of the sort that pullulated in Prague or Helsinki, had urged in the 1880s? The treasure-house of Celtic mythology was opened up by the likes of O.M. Edwards and Thomas Stephens, and the national cause was fused with progressive art. The sculptor Goscombe John modelled himself on Rodin (see his Lewis Edwards bust at Capel Bangor); Gwen John slept with him. Christopher Williams caught up with the Irish successors of the likes of Maclise: Orpen and Lavery.

Lavery also qualified as a Glasgow Boy. Turn-of-the-century influences travelled up and down the sea-coast, with Scots such as Grant Murray at Swansea Art College, George Walton building what’s now Coleg Harlech for James Davison, the boss of Eastman-Kodak, and Murray Urquhart painting the Owain Glyndwr murals at Machynlleth. They carried the bacillae of their own contradictory nationalism. Wales hadn’t its own Walter Scott to fuse romanticism and print-capitalism, but its liberals brought a visual equivalent on stream, to cope with a menacing proletariat and chapel-culture which (though they said this sotto voce) had shot its bolt.

One Glasgow-Wales magus was the arch-networker Tom Jones, assistant to Sir Henry Jones at the University, later confidant of Lloyd George. Another was the busy, highly literate, etcher and engraver Muirhead Bone, the friend of Christopher Williams: a fine marine draughtsman but also a shrewd portraitist of Clydeside Man. There was no equivalent pre-war figure in Wales: by the time the élite were aware of the miners – largely, as Lord shows, through photo-journalism and its ancestors – they were scared stiff by them.

V

The climacteric approaches. But the climacteric was David Lloyd George, and after August 1914 the Angel of Death, whom he persuaded his countrymen to applaud. Augustus John’s portrait of 1916, which he disliked doing as much as Lloyd George disliked sitting shows powerful, imaginative, and sinister. Glyndwr must have been rather like this, or some Tudor confederate eyeing a monastery: a man with the Matter of Britain in his hands, or pocket. The man who won the war, and turned the pacific Welsh into an unusually blood-boltered lot, remained in Dod “a radical and Welsh nationalist” until 1922.

Lloyd George was visually illiterate, but at the same time out of a true, grim Welsh past: something brought out in Christopher Williams’ commemoration of the Somme: The Welsh Division at Mametz Wood. Here is no abstract desolation of the Paul Nash sort but soldiers killing and as brutally being killed, as at Catraeth or Bosworth. In Maurice Elvey’s strange suppressed Lloyd George biopic of 1919, propaganda absurdities accompany haunting scenes – an election rally in Carnarfon which might be by Eisenstein – of a career born out of national suppression.

What transpired was eerily tragic. The cash from coal bankrolled the creation of a South Wales school of painters – something whose origins were composite: new wealth wanted to gain civic virtue, to socialise potentially alienated workers, to nurture talent which was so evidently there. But painters like Evan Walters, Archie Rhys Griffiths and Vincent Evans matured in the 1920s when the Welsh coal industry was in free-fall. Scottish colleagues could depend on a sophisticated art market. In Ireland it was precisely a nationalist form of art which provoked one of the greatest of W.B. Yeats’ poems, The Municipal Gallery Revisited –

Was this the Ireland of my youth
Or an Ireland the poets had imagined
Terrible and gay?

– and sustained his brother Jack, but the latter’s magnificent paintings depended on a particular melding of the national, the urban and the fantastic which was remote from the thin possibilities of South Wales in the pit of the depression. Ceri Richards had painted Archie Rhys Griffiths in 1928 as “a grave figure of some dignity … the artist of dreams”. But Griffiths ended as an alcoholic in the 1950s “depressed, crumpled, monosyllabic”, as if in a bitter story by Caradoc Evans.

On the other hand, it was to be the openness of Welsh industrial society to a pushed-about international proletariat which revived the Valleys as a centre for art in the post-1945 period. The work of Josef Hermann and Ernest Zobole fricatively interacted with that of George Chapman and John Emlyn, while the shape-changer Kyffin Williams careered among the peaks of Eryri, like a latter-day Glyndwr, with the spirits answering when he called. Even these were only a small fraction of an unusually rich imaginative landscape. Lord ends his narrative in 1960. One is left demanding “More! More!”

If the Matter of Britain were still serious, an Arts Minister would be trying to activate a Peter Lord in all the regions of England, with the same programme in mind. And they would pay for this by cutting off funds to the commercialised, yobbish, self-publicity of Young British Art. (Kyffin Williams formulated a line like this a year or so back, but less politely…) Instead our Arts Czar – note the loopy reaction of the title – Gerry Robinson of Granada Entertainment, has only just been stopped from squashing the Regional Arts Associations.

Thus does SS Britannic, with the turbines full on, head for the iceberg.

 
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