Picking up on a thread from previous blog http://wp.me/pTfaP-gL, which looked at contemporary Welsh painters, here in alphabetical order is a selection of great Welsh artists from the past. This is merely the tip of the iceberg to illustrate the vast riches that could be permanently exhibited, not just bought out of storage now and then for an airing, were Wales ever to acquire a purpose-built national gallery. Incidentally, it is noteworthy that not one born-and-bred Cardiffian appears on this list; evidence, perhaps, of the primacy of the verbal over the visual in the capital.
CHARLES BYRD (1916-2018): Pontypridd-born Byrd moved to Cardiff with his family at age 14 and, like so many from the valleys, he fell in love with the Cardiff cityscape. Largely self-taught, he developed into the prime documenter of disappearing Tiger Bay and the docks with moody, realist paintings of fresh naivety and precise detailing. He lived to 101 and, never one to stand still, moved on in later life to kinetic sculpture, making unique ‘magic machines’ from recycled materials.
BRENDA CHAMBERLAIN (1912-1971): A painter, poet and writer from Bangor who forsook the mountains for her greater love, the sea. Her years on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) and Idhra (Hydra, in the Aegean Sea) resulted in a succession of salt-laden atmospheric seascapes that make her one of the paramount exponents of the island experience. Never restricted to a single genre, her deeply personal studies of humanity are also a wonder to behold. She took an overdose to end her own life. Today the sacred site of Enlli, where 20,000 Celtic saints are interred, is a thriving artists’ colony where a shifting cast of residents work in Chamberlain’s footsteps.
WILFRED DAVIES (1895-1966): For 40 years he was illustrator and cartoonist for Cymru’r Plant, the monthly magazine of the Urdd, paving the way for today’s healthy Welsh cartoon/animation sector. He also painted gorgeous oils and watercolours of the landscapes of his Ynys Môn home, found in living-rooms across Wales.
JOHN ELWYN (1916-1997): Elwyn synthesized realism with abstraction and came up with something quite distinct in each painting and lithograph, returning again and again to the area of his childhood around Newcastle Emlyn in Ceredigion for his material. His evocative illustrations for the Welsh and Scottish editions of the 1950s Shell Guides still delight today.
MOSES GRIFFITH (1747-1819): The ‘drawing manservant’ of the naturalist, antiquary and traveller Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), Moses Griffith of Botwnnog on the Llŷn peninsular was an unsung watercolourist and engraver who produced over 200 exquisitely detailed Welsh views.
NINA HAMNETT (1890-1956): The legendary ‘Queen of Bohemia’ was a talented portrait painter and designer of textiles, fabrics and clothes. A true eccentric, the Tenby libertine was the lynch-pin of ‘Fitzrovia’, London’s deeply influential artistic epicentre in the 1920s and 1930s. When Augustus John (see below) met her in a late-night drinking club, he famously remarked to the girl who had been born in the same Tenby street: “We are the sort of people our fathers warned us against!” Hamnett died impaled on railings after throwing herself out of her apartment window.
JOSEF HERMAN (1911-2000): Born in Warsaw, Herman fled the Nazi invasion of Poland and moved to the mining village of Ystradgynlais in 1944. ‘Joe Bach’, as locals affectionately came to call him, lived and worked in Ystradgynlais for 11 years, producing bold, sombre, realist studies of miners that have captured the heroic humanity and sad grandeur of the Welsh miner for posterity.
HUGH HUGHES (1790-1863): An artist, author and religious radical from Llansantffraid Glan Conwy who hit his peak in 1823 with 60 wood-engravings under the title The Beauties of Cambria. The panoramas of almost photographic accuracy clinched Wales’ status as the natural home of the neo-romantic movement.
JAMES DICKSON INNES (1887-1914): Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1908, Innes from Llanelli travelled around the Mediterranean with artist friends seeking warm climes for his health. On his return he painted Welsh landscapes in the jewel-bright colours of Morocco and southern France with no regard for any artistic school of thought. The true original’s sudden explosion of creativity was cut short by his early death.
ALFRED JANES (1911-1999): One of the ‘Kardomah Boys’ along with Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), Ceri Richards (see below), composer Daniel Jones (1912-1993) and poet Vernon Watkins (1906-1967) – that supremely gifted group of friends who emerged from Swansea in the 1930s – Fred Janes was a painter of startling originality, the ultimate modernist celebrating infinite variety with painstaking care. His 1934 representation of young Dylan as impertinent cherub, foreseeing the self-destruction ahead, is one of the all-time peaks of portraiture.
AUGUSTUS JOHN (1878-1961): The finest draughtsman since the old masters patented the technique of oil sketching and was the leading portrait painter of his generation, delivering the definitive images of T E Lawrence (1888-1935), W B Yeats (1865-1939), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) with bravura psychological insight. What’s more, the randy Tenby rebel revamped the Boho blueprint for the 20th century.
GWEN JOHN (1876-1939): Overshadowed by brother Augustus, introverted, contemplative Gwen spent most of her life in France, settling in Brittany where she could be reminded of the rugged coast of her native Pembrokeshire. Her body of work amounts to over 200 paintings and a thousand sketches, most small-scale portraits of seated women and contented cats in subtle colours and tones. Some critical opinion now rates her even better than her sybaritic sibling.
COLIN JONES (1928-1967): This Newport-born painter, a graduate from Cardiff School of Art, perfected the portrait genre with acute observation and aesthetic sensibility. He moved more and more into heavier, expressionist areas, best epitomised by his series of paintings of Welsh miners underground and his stunning response to the Aberfan disaster, Pit Head Funeral, before meeting an untimely death falling from a ladder.
DAVID JONES (1895-1974): Best known for two extraordinary poetic works, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, passionate London Welshman Jones was also an exalted artist. Whether as illustrator, taking wood and copperplate engraving to new levels of refinement; as painter, unconventionally mixing pencil and watercolour; or as calligrapher, devising the genre of painted inscription, he never stopped being creative, his imagination fired by his two lifelong obsessions, Catholicism and Wales, and darkly deepened by his three years with the 38th (Welsh) Division in the trenches of the Western Front.
THOMAS JONES (1742-1803): From Pencerrig near Builth, Jones was a consummate landscape painter, taught by Richard Wilson (see below). He received many commissions in Italy, where he lived for nearly 20 years before coming home to complete a portfolio of Welsh landscapes that only improve with time.
EDWARD MORLAND LEWIS (1903-1943): The delicate tones and warm hues of Morland Lewis’s timeless seaside evocations have gradually garnered posthumous praise for the Carmarthen-born painter who died on active service in north Africa in WW2.
CEDRIC MORRIS (1889-1982): A largely self-taught landscape and still-life painter of deceptive simplicity and clarity from Sgeti in Swansea, Morris was a descendant of John Morris (1745-1819), the industrialist after whom Morriston was named. His paintings of Gŵyr peninsular farmland, his work with the unemployed in Dowlais in the 1920s and his leading role organising Wales’ first contemporary art exhibition in 1935 make him a key figure in Welsh art.
PETER PRENDERGAST (1946-2007): A miner’s son from Abertridwr who won a Glamorgan county scholarship to Cardiff School of Art in 1961, Prendergast became a formidable painter of superbly coloured, turbulent expressionist landscapes, inspired by the mountains and quarries surrounding his Bethesda home in Gwynedd. He linked the coal tips of the south to the slate tips of the north to become a paramount pan-Wales figure.
CERI RICHARDS (1903-1971): Widely regarded as one of the giants of 20th century art, the dazzling style-shifter, brilliant technician and restlessly evolving modernist from Dynfant near Swansea produced a body of work of incredible invention, from his 1930s surrealist period through to his late semi-abstract seascapes. Uniquely, his art responded to musicians and poets: notably Beethoven, Debussy and his friend Dylan Thomas. His lithographic interpretations of Thomas’s poems are Welsh masterpieces.
FREDERICK RICHARDS (1878-1932): An etcher, drawer and letterer of the utmost refinement, Newport-born Richards executed marvellous St David’s Day booklets for the Welsh Board of Education for many years before undertaking his great project A Persian Journey – 48 defining, delicious illustrations of his travels in Arabia. The effort he put into completing his magnum opus killed him.
WILL ROBERTS (1907-2000): Roberts was steeped in every aspect of life in Neath, where he lived until his death having moved south from Rhiwabon at age 10. His large charcoals of tinplate workers, the Neath Galv series of the 1950s, are profoundly sensitive depictions of the stature and grace of a dying craft, and his wonderful sequence of paintings of his wife and daughter, spanning 50 years, are belatedly being recognised as expressionist classics.
EVAN WALTERS (1893-1951): The shy country-boy from Llangyfelach near Swansea became an in-demand portrait painter, skilfully capturing the likeness of sitters from Lloyd George (1863-1945) to Ramsey MacDonald (1866-1937), before his career veered off in a surprising, experimental direction. Blurry images and stripped-down colours, years ahead of their time, were not as popular, but now Walters is recognised as a bold precursor of deconstructionist art.
CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS (1873-1934): This masterful manipulator of oil-paints from Maesteg is another Welsh artist who should be better known, both for his portraits and his ambitious allegorical pictures. His 1916 pièce de résistance, The Charge of the Welsh Division at Mametz Wood, is one of the seminal WW1 images.
KYFFIN WILLIAMS (1918-2006): The self-proclaimed “obsessive, depressive, diabetic epileptic” from Llangefni is Wales’ most famed artist. His darkly romantic, windswept Gwynedd mountainscapes hover in the hallways of middle-class Cardiff homes far away on the Glamorgan coast, speaking to some deep collective memory.
MARGARET WILLIAMS (1888-1960): After studying at Cardiff Technical College, Barry-born Williams was a prize-winning student at the Royal Academy in London. Her unusual and original imagination gained her many commissions and she became a specialist in portrait painting, closely linked to all the leading figures of the nascent Welsh national revival after WW1. The luminous watercolours of her Maidens of Llyn-y-Fan series rank as her outstanding achievement.
RICHARD WILSON (1714-1782): No less than the father of landscape painting in the British Isles, Wilson would be a household name had he been born in, say, Peckham rather than Penegoes (near Machynlleth). But Welsh talent and ingenuity was belittled for centuries to palliate the insecurities of our neighbour, so this founder of the Royal Academy (the letters ‘RA’ have since come to be shorthand for ‘artist’) who learnt at the easel of Italian maestros in the 1750s and conjured up exquisite swimming tones and shades, is only now receiving his due praise.
ERNEST ZOBOLE (1927-1999): Born in Ystrad Rhondda to Italian parents, Zobole was a leading member of ‘The Rhondda Group’ – young tyros challenging the accepted ways at Cardiff School of Art in the 1940s and 1950s under the slogan ‘make it new, but make it true’. He matured into a daring conceptual artist, pioneering techniques with palette-knife, wrap-around horizons and concentrated colour as he explored his constant theme – the Rhondda and its people.
Pictures: Cardiff Council; Peoples Collection Wales; Oriel Ynys Môn; Josef Herman Estate; Antique Prints; Tate Gallery; National Museum of Wales; Duke’s Auctioneers; Tate Gallery; National Museum of Wales; Carmarthenshire Museums; Ceri Richards Estate; Carmarthenshire Museums; National Museum of Wales; Ernest Zobole Estate