Visionary Wales

It has been quite a while since I wrote about some of the many important Welsh contributors to the visual arts. The years roll by and now the list could do with updating to take account of those who have subsequently died, those who I was unaware of at the time and those who a fresh reassessment promotes to a place in the pantheon. Here then is a first supplement to The greats of Welsh Art

Joan Baker (1922-2017): A highly skilled painter of Welsh landscapes and people, Cardiff-born Joan Baker avoided the limelight and exhibited rarely – meaning much of her evocative, exquisitely-hued work is only belatedly being discovered and receiving the attention it deserves. Luminously intelligent and independent-minded, she was the first woman to run an art college in Wales; teaching, encouraging and inspiring generations of students at Cardiff College of Art (now part of Cardiff Met Uni in Llandaf) from 1945 to 1984. She lived to a grand old age in the house overlooking Victoria Park where she was born.

Wenallt Woods (1994)

Margaret Davies (1884-1963): Margaret Davies and her sister Gwendoline Davies (1882-1951) were the most influential collectors of Impressionist and 20th century art in Wales and Wales’ greatest ever philanthropists and patrons of the arts. They bequeathed their entire superb collection to the National Museum, and to this day the 260 works form the very core of the Museum’s art collection (what’s more, they also founded the still thriving Gregynog Press and Gregynog Music Festival and donated their magnificent mansion Gregynog Hall and its beautiful 750 acre estate, near Newtown, to the University of Wales as an arts centre dedicated to conservation, creativity and learning). Yes, instead of keeping it in the family, frittering it away on pointless consumption, indulging in scrooge-like accumulation or launching megalomaniac power-trips, the Davies sisters used their riches for the good of their beloved Wales. They were authentic benefactors in a way that is simply unheard of among today’s vile, robber-baron fat-cats – and thus have ensured an ‘immortality’ that will never be attained by the likes of, say, a Murdoch or a Musk. The Davies sisters’ wealth had come via their famed grandfather David Davies (1818-1890), who from humble beginnings on a Llandinam farm in Powys became Wales’ most notable home-grown industrialist, constructing bridges, building railways and sinking collieries across the country before his crowning achievement the construction of the Barry Railway and Barry Docks clinched Wales’ position as the centre of the global coal trade. Margaret Davies was more than just an art lover, she was actually a significant artist in her own right – but her modesty, her self-effacement and the subordinate position of women in the male-dominated art world meant she considered herself just an amateur hobbyist and hid her light under a bushel. It is only comparatively recently that her works have been properly examined and re-assessed. Inspired by her hero Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), her frail, subtle Post-Impressionist paintings of the luscious Montgomeryshire countryside now hang in galleries around Wales and never fail to impress.

The Harvest (1940)

Nicholas Evans (1907-2004): Even for an avowed atheist such as moi there is no denying the reciprocal beneficial relationship between art and religiosity – you’ve only got to glance at the architecture, the stained glass, the iconography, the stonework, the paintings and so on to see confirmation of the intimate connection. Of all the Welsh artists who have brought spirituality to their work, few have done it with such potency as Nicholas Evans from Aberdâr in the Cynon valley. Entirely self-taught, he followed his father down the coal mines at age 14 until being deeply affected by his death in 1923. He left mining and took a job on the railways while getting more and more involved in the Welsh Apostolic Church, part of the charismatic sub-branch of Protestant Christianity known as Pentecostalism. He took up art as a way of expressing his beliefs, his subject matter almost exclusively reflecting his two passions: coal-mining and Christianity. Many Welsh artists have portrayed miners, but none have done it with anything approaching the anguished empathy of Evans. For him, it wasn’t only Christ who was crucified. He continued to paint his unique monochrome masterpieces almost until his death at age 97.

Home from Work (1984)

Mike Jones (1941-2022): See Some more lives

Three Farmers (1980)

Philip Jones Griffiths (1936-2008): Recognised as the greatest photographer of war, and perhaps even the greatest ever photographer full stop, Jones Griffiths from Rhuddlan in Clwyd established his reputation as a supreme photojournalist in the Vietnam War. Working for the Magnum photographic cooperative, he found his photos difficult to sell to American newspapers and magazines – simply because they focused on the suffering of the Vietnamese people at the receiving end of American carpet-bombing, chemical weapons and multiple war crimes. So in 1971 he self-published his own work, under the title Vietnam Inc, and it became a classic of photojournalism and a definitive, damning survey of war and imperialism. The French master of photography Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), the man whose pictures had first inspired the 16-year-old Jones Griffiths at Rhyl Camera Club, said “Not since Goya has anyone portrayed war like Philip Jones Griffiths”. An implacable non-conformist, pacifist, rebel and Welsh patriot, he often stated that it was his knowledge of the brutal conquest and colonisation of Wales by the English that enabled him to identify with oppressed countries everywhere. In 2015 the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth acquired the entire Philip Jones Griffiths archive of over 150,000 slides and 30,000 prints.

The Battle for Saigon (1968)

Roy Powell (1934-2022): See Some more lives

Still Life with Folding Mirror & Skull (2003)

Gwilym Prichard (1931-2015): A prolific painter of the landscapes of Wales, who captured the dramatic beauty of Cymru with striking use of colour and perspective, Prichard grew up in Llanystumdwy on the Llŷn peninsular in Gwynedd. His paintings were so popular in Wales he was able to give up his job as a teacher to become a full-time artist by the 1970s. Along with his wife, artist Claudia Williams, he lived and painted in Greece and Brittany before returning home and settling in Tenby. A scion of the Royal Cambrian Academy in Conwy and Honorary Fellow of the University of Wales, he became the Grand Old Man of Welsh painting, his flowing shock of long white hair and thick white beard a reassuring presence searching for new vistas on the rocky Pembrokeshire coast.

Rough Seas (1992)

John Uzzell Edwards (1934-2014): From Deri, a mining village near Bargod on the old Glamorgan/Gwent border, Uzzell Edwards was inspired by Wales in particular and Celtic iconography generally. He utilised all aspects of Wales in his vivid works: from the industrial landscape through ancient manuscripts, quilts, crosses, stones and tiles to the people themselves. An adventurous auto-didact thirsty for knowledge, he spent the late 1950s in Paris soaking up the bohemian and artistic culture before returning to Wales in the 1960s, living in Tenby and then Swansea and building a reputation as an artist who could somehow meld the ancient and the modern with insight and originality. He exhibited across Wales (12 of his works are held in public galleries around the country), twice won the main painting prize at the National Eisteddfod and formed Ysbryd – Spirit Wales with other Welsh painters. John Uzzell Edwards finally settled in close-knit Rhiwfawr in the hills above Cwm Twrch, a restless experimenter to the end.

Penydarren (1983)

Andrew Vicari (1932-2016): Port Talbot portraitist Vicari threw away his early promise. Seduced by money and status, he sold out his artistic credentials for the sake of a long stint as the in-house painter of the super-rich Saudi royals, for whom he churned out inept figurative flatteries that wouldn’t have passed muster on the lid of a biscuit tin. However, when push comes to shove, were his mercenary motives really any different from those of the famous ‘court’ painters of old who also depended on royal patronage – like Hans Holbein (c1497-1543), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), to name just a few? Or was his fawning to the oil tyrants any worse than, say, Newcastle United FC gleefully embracing a demeaning future as a sportswashing tool of the Middle-East despots? Looked at purely on financial terms, Vicari’s policy paid off: by 2006 he had become the wealthiest Welsh artist of all time with a fortune of £92million and homes in Cannes, Riyadh and Monte Carlo. But it didn’t last. He was increasingly spurned by the fickle sheikhs as they got more sophisticated, learned about portraiture and realised Vicari’s work was not very good. Unwilling to live within his means, he rapidly squandered his millions, ran out of road and was bankrupt by 2014. In his hour of need he returned to Wales, his first love. Hiraeth called him home, and having been the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo he ended up broken but unbowed in Morriston Hospital. In many ways his life was his ultimate work of art.

Aneurin Bevan (1958)

Islwyn Watkins (1938-2018): A devotee of Dadaism, an avant-garde art movement born in Europe in the early 20th century, Islwyn Watkins from Tonypandy in the Rhondda Fawr valley never strayed far from the Dada principles of revolutionary leftwing politics, rejection of capitalism and general loathing of bourgeois values. After studying at Cardiff College of Art in the late 1950s he taught art in London in the 1960s and was at the heart of that decade’s radicalism and counterculture, participating in provocative ‘happenings’ and performance art. In the 1970s he returned to Wales, settling in Knighton (Tref-y-clawdd) in Radnorshire. There he immersed himself in the Welsh art world, ran an antique pottery business and honed his talents as an outstanding maker of large-scale installations, constructions and collages in the Dadaist traditions of his great influence, the German sculptor and collagist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948). He exhibited regularly throughout Wales, including a memorable walk-through installation at the 2000 Brecon Jazz festival, and never ceased being a stimulating, highly intelligent, imaginative communicator at the heart of Welsh artistic life.

Sun Painting II: Stop Light for Gaby (1962)

Penry Williams (1802-1885): Penry Williams, the son of a Merthyr Tydfil stone mason, had the good fortune and the charm to get vital support from a series of mentors and patrons, enabling him to become one of the major painters of the 19th century. At school he was encouraged by his teacher Taliesin Williams (1787-1847), a bard and an author and the son of the famed antiquarian Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826). Then he was noticed by William Crawshay (1764-1834), owner of the Cyfarthfa ironworks, and Josiah Guest (1785-1852) owner of the Dowlais ironworks, and the two iron-masters agreed to pay for Williams to continue his education at the Royal Academy schools. In London he came under the wing of Swiss painter and influential writer on art Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). He seized the opportunity to improve his skills and, while still in his teens, was being regularly exhibited and winning critical praise. In 1827 he took the momentous decision to relocate to Rome, leaving his beloved Wales with parting gifts of a series of spectacular paintings of Welsh landscapes. He lived in Rome for the rest of his life. There he produced many fabulous watercolours of Italian views and ancient Roman tales and, before there was any such concept as ‘gay’, openly conducted a life-long relationship with fellow Welshman John Gibson (1790-1866), a top-notch neo-Classical sculptor from Conwy. Well, you know what they say, when in Rome…

Bridge at Taffs Well (1826)

Pictures: University of South Wales;; Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust; Fosse Gallery; National Library of Wales; National Library of Wales; Robert Meyrick; Public domain; Andrew Vicari estate; Brecknock Museum; Cyfarthfa Castle Museum