Yesterday the gallery was very busy. I spent a few final hours there bidding farewell to many paintings that I shall probably never see again. I also did the thing that I’d long intended, which was to study each poem from my well-thumbed reading copy of The Book of Ystwyth with its corresponding painting in front of me. Between poems there were conversations with many people. There have been some fascinating encounters with visitors over the past three months. It’s been quite difficult for me to pass un-noticed at the exhibition, try though I might, given that my face has been on view in the two films playing on loop in the gallery. Some visitors have shyly approached and others have taken a more confident stand, breezily striding up to me to say hello. Whenever I’ve sensed that people wanted to speak but have been a little hesitant, I’ve endeavoured to make things easier for them by initiating conversations. On a few occasions I’ve been followed at a distance around the exhibition, furtively watched though not approached, an experience I found to be odd and not a little unnerving. But yesterday many of the visitors made eye contact and then spoke, which was fine with me. Then just as the hands of the clock drew close to closing time, a security guard briskly rounded a corner and approached, and for the first time over the run of the show it was a man unknown to me. “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave now sir.” he announced in a business-like way. “The doors are about to close.” Thus it was that I was evicted from the gallery in the closing minutes of my own retrospective exhibition, by a man who had no idea who I was. I didn’t mind at all, rather enjoying both the irony and the return of the anonymity that is my usual condition. Of course I went like a lamb. It seemed a fitting close.
Photograph courtesy of Bernard Mitchell
Tomorrow at close of day, my sixtieth birthday retrospective exhibition at the National Library of Wales comes to the end of its three month run. It has been an extraordinary summer. People have poured through the gallery and through Ty Isaf. Friends and family have travelled far to be with us and to see the exhibition. The Gregynog Gallery visitor book is crammed with comments that shall stay with me for my lifetime. I met the friends that until now had been enjoyed only at an e-mail distance. Dave Bonta and Marly Youmans arrived from Pennsylvania and New York State, and coming face to face them was a wonderful though oddly familiar experience, because of course, they were both as I had known they would be, utterly marvellous people. Anita Mills and Andrea Selch arrived from N Carolina (old hands at the trip because together and separately they have made it a good few times now) and by the 6th May Ty Isaf was in the state of high energy you’d expect from such a gathering of creative, buzzed-up American poets and writers waiting for the party to begin. We had the most fun with them, and when we set set out in convoy for the National Library on the afternoon of the exhibition opening, I felt as though I had my gang to protect me. Liz and Graham Sangster… friends back from my days as a stage designer when Liz was the head of the scenic department at Welsh National Opera… arrived from France, and together with Eric and Angharad Roberts (opera singer and stage designer respectively) made their base just down the coast at our cottage. (Angharad’s and Eric’s Jack Russell terrier Moli came too, as did Moli’s daughter from a litter fathered by our own Jacket!) Hotels and guest-houses around Aberystwyth were full of friends for who we had no room at Ty Isaf, and Anne and Basil Wolf generously offered overflow accommodation so no-one had to sleep in a tent on our lawn.
Throughout the three months of the exhibition visitors have continued to come. Every week our guest rooms have been almost permanently occupied. Yesterday our friend Pete Goodridge, art carrier, curator and all-round star, arrived with his wife Mel to see the show. (Pete safely transports my work around country and indeed the globe.) Friends Gareth and Kate came too, a treat as we’d thought they wouldn’t make it because Gareth’s job as a television and radio journalist keeps him travelling. I’ve given tours and talks at the gallery and have been staggered by the number of people who have sought me out to tell me about what my work means to them. There have been the e-mails and letters too, many of which I have yet to answer. It’s been rather overwhelming.
It will take me a while to make sense of all that has happened and to get some kind of perspective on it. So many contributed to make the exhibition and the publications everything that we had hoped for and more. I’m agog with admiration for the chief architects of what has been achieved. Andrew Wakelin was tireless and heroic throughout the process of designing the books. We asked much of him, and he gave us so much more. Most of the team have been thanked in person or in public, some in writing, and some even here on the Artlog.
But of course there is one without who none of it would have happened. He bore the worst of my insecurities in the run-up to the show, endured my rants and occasional rages and held fast to the tiller when the waters we negotiated were turbulent and my emotional states matched them. So please raise a cheer for my partner, friend and hero, APW.
Thank you Peter. Just like you said you would, you made it all happen.
The new Saint Kevin drawing moves closer to completion. It’s to be titled Flown.
I don’t always have a model present in the studio, and so frequently I use mirror reflections of my own hands and feet for reference. This has been my practice ever since I started drawing and painting the human figure. A couple of months ago while at the National Library preparing notes for a gallery talk, I noticed a young man sitting in front of the painting Green George. To begin with he barely registered with me, but then when I looked over again ten minutes later he was still in front of the painting. After he’d been in the same place for twenty minutes I walked over and sat next to him. His elbows were resting on his knees, his body hunched forward, eyes focussed on the floor. He didn’t look up when I spoke to him. I said that surveys had shown visitors to art galleries rarely spend more than two seconds looking at any painting, and that consequently I thought it remarkable anyone should study Green George so thoroughly and for so long as he had. To which he replied, quick as a flash, that he thought it pretty remarkable to suddenly find himself looking down at the artist’s feet in the same shoes the saint was wearing in the painting!
A correct observation wittily expressed. Most people don’t notice footwear very much, either on feet or in paintings. Here are details from a few works in which the shoes appear. (For anyone wondering, the manufacturer has kept the design continuously in production, so I’m on my third pair to date!)
Detail from Flight of Swallows Over the Field of Gold
Detail from The Blind Boy and his Beast
Detail from Leap
Detail from Study for an Annunciation
Detail from The Virgin of the Goldfinches
The toy theatre I made for displaying in the exhibition has provoked much by way of comment among visitors to the gallery. Certainly a lot more than I’d expected. I made it because I thought it might look good in a large glass display-case that was going spare. Moreover I knew that after the exhibition was over, then it would be useful as a compositional aid in the studio.
People have been kind enough to say that they covet it and would like to be able to go out and purchase one just like it. I fear that’s just not going to be possible as I’m not planning on going into production. However once it’s back at Ty Isaf, friends will be more than welcome to come and play with it.
For the longest time I don’t think I really noticed the frequency with which toy theatres appeared in my paintings. They were lying around the house and studio, so I guess it was inevitable they’d join the list of objects with which I populate my still-life compositions. I thought it might be interesting to assemble them in one spot, though when I came to count them I could see there were far too many to accommodate in a single Artlog post. Instead I’ve selected a few.
All of the toy theatres that serve as models are ones I make myself. Some are tiny, about the size of a matchbox. A couple have been made in ceramic as tea-light-holders. Here’s one.
Also included are a couple of preparatory drawings as stand-ins for paintings that regular Artlog readers may recognise from earlier posts. Finally at the bottom of the page, I’ve included a couple of examples of the miniature type I sometimes use in my paintings. Over the years I’ve made many of these tiny theatres. They hang over the tiny lights of the tree each Christmas, the stages illuminated from within to conjure the season of pantomime magic and mirth.
Just a reminder to anyone still hoping to get to my retrospective at the National Library, that it will be finishing on August 20th. I can hardly believe how fast the summer is flying past. Many thanks to all who’ve made the long journey to date. Your support has been much appreciated. There’s a marvellous review of the exhibition by Roderic Dunnett in the current issue of the Church Times, and a review by Anne Price-Owen of both the exhibition and the book that’s due in the next issue of Planet.
Yesterday at the National Library I spoke about my work to a large group of delegates attending a conference on conservation. By a staggering coincidence, two women present were paper conservators from the National Museum of Wales and had actually worked on the Mari Lwyd drawing from the NMW collection that has been loaned to the exhibition. (It’s practice at the larger institutions to carry out any conservation work on a painting or drawing before dispatching it for loan, to ensure the work is safe to travel and exhibit.) The news of their presence came as a surprise… though a very pleasant one… just as I was about to start my talk. People took photographs of the three of us shaking hands in front of the drawing, which was funny, but also felt rather surreal, perhaps akin to unexpectedly meeting one’s surgeon at a dinner party. The planned ‘talk’ turned into a dialogue between the artist and the two conservators (much more entertaining and informative), the latter describing at my prompting the options that had been open to them, the work they carried out and their discovery of little bits of evidence indicating how Stumbles and Cannot Rise had been made and what its history might be. (It had mistakenly been described in the NMW inventory as a work made in ‘oil’.) They explained that this had been the largest drawing they’d worked on to date at the NMW (a record since broken) and both had considered trying to find and contact me in order to ask questions about it, though in the end time had been too short to do so.
One described how she’d found newsprint offset onto the reverse of the drawing, and also a footprint, presumably mine! I’d made all the Mari Lwyd works on my hands and knees, as at that time I’d had no clear studio wall space to tape the sheets of Arches paper against in order to work vertically. Instead I’d cleared back the furniture in our dining-room and spread newspapers on the floor to cushion the sheets of Arches and prevent frottage impressions of the floorboards appearing in the finished works. It comes as no surprise that I’d left a footprint on the reverse of the drawing.
The work carried out by the NMW conservation department was carefully considered and beautifully accomplished. It’s reassuring to know that there are such skills at hand when intervention is necessary, and I’m very much obliged to Emily O’Reilly and to Elspeth Jordan for what they’ve jointly done to ensure the safe keeping and optimum presentation of this drawing.
Not a Hervé post today, but for the many of you who were unable to attend the Retrospective opening and yet wanted to know what happened there, a video instead. This was made by the National Library of Wales, and in it I can be seen doing my utmost to be coherent while feeling a tad more emotional than I’d anticipated.
Just click: HERE
Earlier this year we were able to trace and contact Karen Whiteside, who when she was working as a director at the BBC, made an item about my Mari Lwyd drawings for an arts programme. At the time Karen acquired one of the drawings from the series (Stumbles and Falls, made in 2001 and shown above) after which we lost touch with each other. However thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we were able to find her again, and she agreed to the loan of the drawing to my Retrospective. It transpires that at the time of acquisition she had written about the drawing and what it meant to her. She recently wrote to me in an e-mail:
‘Just a couple of weeks ago, looking through some papers, I came across something I’d written not long after we did the filming together and Peter and I drove to Bristol in a van the size of Essex, for the Rostrum shoot. So you were already in my thoughts.
Of course, it may not be at all as you told me – memory does funny things. I’d thought that I’d put it on the back of the drawing some time. Anyway, you might find it interesting.
I hope you’ve been able to bring together the whole series. I remember going round and round the exhibition in Newport, swithering over whether I should/could buy such and thing.
I am so very glad, so very often, that I did.’
With Karen’s permission, I’ve posted her piece about her drawing here.
‘He told me the story himself, how his father, night after night, every week of his life had wakened, screaming from some fearful dream, drenched in a rush of sweat and fear. He said it seemed strange in retrospect that no one had thought to ask what the dream was. The family assumed it was some gruesome legacy of the war and from politeness and respect tiptoed around it. He couldn’t remember, perhaps they had asked, been given the closed door of no reply.
Night after night, the household wrenched from sleep, occasionally startled, but often, in the way of families building it seamlessly into the familiar, unremarkable pattern of their life.
He’d recently begun to establish a reputation as an artist, after years of work in the theatre and the slow roll call of death that was Aids in the 1980s. When he’d first begun to paint and draw he’d returned to Wales, to his father’s birthplace near Crickhowell. He took a job selling entry tickets from a wooden shed, to visitors to Tretower Court. Here, rarely disturbed, he’d spent two years with paper and pencil, honing this new craft, easing the memory of lost friends. And here he’d heard the story of the Mari Llwyd, one of Wales’ lost traditions; a horse’s skull, borne through the streets by a band of men, trading insults with the householders until honour was served and some beer money won. It had caught his imagination and now he was making a series of sketches of the hollow-eyed Mari Llwyd.
His studio was in his home and his father, now in his eighties was visiting. As he told it, his father had entered the busy room, full of the practicalities of paint and pencil and his eyes had fallen on the sketch. ‘I know that face,’ he said. ’I know that face.’
When he was a child, a babe in arms, the Mari Llwyd had come to visit. In the dark streets of the town, heavy boots had sparked against cobbles. The horse’s skull, decked in ribbons was carried on a pole, its bearer covered in a dark cloth. The men, the grinning skull with its long yellow teeth and the glint of bottles in its eye sockets, their loud laughter, all this was more than enough to frighten a child. But they came taunting at the door, extemporising bawdy insults at the top of their lungs, daring the young couple with their small children to join in the fun, to take them on.
He remembered being held in his mother’s arms. He remembered a wide round coin being placed in his soft palm, and the window being opened to the flare of the torch and the rush of the cold and the awful bucking head, the clacking jaws.
He remembered that all had stilled, that the head had turned and the jaws had opened and out from the long yellow teeth, a spoon, red ribbons and a spoon had come towards him, the small hot child gripped in his mother’s arms. She’d held his fist tight in her own, held it out to the leering skull, prised the bitter penny from his grasp.
Night after night, through the long years of his life, that skull, that moment had revisited him. ‘I know that face, he’d said. ‘I know that face.’’
His father had died not long afterwards and his son caught hold of the Mari Llwyd, the small child’s terror and his own loss; friend after friend, strong and beautiful young men for the most part, visited in the dark night by that awful death’s head. Thirteen drawings, thirteen Stations of the Cross. The Mari Llwyd grew from a series of sketches to a series of great drawings, pencil on paper; sometimes the skull, sometimes a heaving mass of muscled horse, men falling naked beneath it, or in cloth caps and heavy boots struggling to master its sinister mischief. He drew black on white, pressing deep into the paper, moonlight catching the ancient tower, transforming familiar objects, a landscape, strange and awesome to mediate the mystery and the fear. He wound in all of them just a single thread of colour, a scarlet ribbon, bright as blood. Thirteen huge drawings, thirteen Stations of the Cross, a journey through pain towards redemption.
I bought the drawing having seen him work on it, and heard this story. It spoke to me of hope.’
In the space set aside for the Mari Lwyd work, the drawing shown here has been loaned by the National Museum of Wales. Peter’s idea that the end walls be painted black didn’t appeal to me when first suggested, but the result is striking and marvellously dramatic.
‘Red Flow’, one of the later works in the series. The smaller one to the left is titled ‘Stumbles and Falls’ and is a drawing I haven’t seen in a decade. The owner recently e-mailed us a beautiful description of what the drawing means to her, and had the text for the monograph not already been signed off and sent to the printers I think that Peter would have tried to include it in the chapter notes.
The glory that is the Gregynog Gallery stretches out magnificently, all gleaming waxed floor and glittering lights.
Some of objects I’ve most used in still-life paintings have been arranged under glass in the gallery. From left to right: a Delft plate from my friend Catriona Urquhart: a small porcelain figurine by ceramic artist Meri Wells: my late father’s coffee mug: a child’s wooden pecking-hens toy: a milk jug with a design by the ‘outsider’ artist Scottie Wilson: one of a pair of Staffordshire Scottish huntsmen.
In the space hung with ‘The Temptations of Solitude’, seven of the eight works from the series have been gathered together from private and public collections. Above, ‘The Penitent Roasted by the Sun’.
‘The Comfort of Angels Attending the Dying’.
In the space showing works on the theme of ‘the miraculous’ hangs ‘Kevin and the Sunflowers’, on loan from a collection in Scotland.
Maquettes pinioned in Perspex boxes…
… in free-fall through glass display cases…
… and even animated. Pete Telfer’s film on maquettes is being screened in the gallery, but it can also be watched
The Retrospective has been taking shape in our heads for more than two years. I recall an initial discussion with Peter about how the exhibition and book might be subdivided in such ways as would make sense of my work to those coming to it for the first time. The genre paintings of still-life and landscape would have areas/chapters to themselves, though landscape would later be titled ‘places’ for the sake of clarity. The paintings and drawings made in series, The Temptations of Solitude and the Mari Lwyd, would have their own enclosed spaces in the gallery, as would the maquettes. The slighter wider theme of the generally ‘miraculous’, including paintings on the themes of Kevin and the Blackbird, Hervé and the Wolf, Elijah and the Raven and the three Annunciation paintings, would group together at one end of the gallery space. Green George, the largest painting I’ve made to date, would greet visitors as they moved from the smaller exhibition space known as the ‘annex’ into the Gregynog Gallery. This overall plan survived intact as we progressed through the many stages of preparing for the retrospective, and is the way the exhibition appears today.
Showing the books I’ve done in collaboration with Nicolas and Frances McDowall in the annex as a precursor to the main event in the Gregynog, seemed appropriate in what is, after all, the National Library of Wales. We’ve used copies of my Old Stile books from the institute’s collection to display in glass cases alongside original artworks, workbooks and the special edition of my most recent OSP book, Peter Shaffer’s play Equus.
Above: once in the the main gallery, the chiaroscuro ‘On the Mountain’ beckons from the left, drawing visitors to the Mari Lwyd section of the exhibition, while ‘Flight of Swallows Over the Field of Gold’ leads the way right to paintings on the theme of ‘the miraculous’. From a directional audio hood out of sight above visitors’ heads as they enter the gallery, Damian Walford Davies’ rich voice can be heard reciting his poem ‘Green George’.
To be continued.