In an excellent film on BBC 4 last night, Visions of the Valleys, Kim Howells looked at how artists have responded to the natural splendour and industrial landscape of the Welsh valleys, and to the lives of those who have lived and worked in their mining communities.
Kim Howells was a familiar figure on the left to those of my generation. Born in Merthyr Tydfil, the son of a Communist mine-worker, at the time of the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike he was a full-time official of the South Wales National Union of Mineworkers, helping to co-ordinate the strike in South Wales. In 1989 he entered the Commons as a Labour MP, later occupying ministerial positions during the Blair-Brown period.
But Howells has art as well as politics in his blood: he studied at Hornsey College of Art (where he was active in the May 1968 student occupation), and last year presented Framing Wales, a series for BBC Wales on Welsh artists (shamefully, never broadcast outside Wales). Howells has told interviewers:
I was brought up in Aberdare, which had a very strong tradition of painters. I always remember my mother saying when I went off to art college in 1965, ‘Remember, boy, you come from the Athens of the coalfield!’
In Visions of the Valleys, Howells began with JMW Turner who visited the Vale of Neath in the 1790s and recorded the spectacular waterfalls there in a study, partially completed in watercolour, that is a virtuoso exercise in the rendering of moving water. Turner was an example of artists at the time who were drawn to areas of natural wilderness in their quest for the sublime. Soon, though, the imagination of artists was fuelled by a different kind of sublimity that inspired awe: the dramatic landscapes of the Industrial Revolution.
In the early 19th century, the Cyfarthfa Ironworks were the largest in the world, owned by the Crawshay dynasty who built Cyfarthfa Castle as their majestic residence overlooking the ironworks. In the manner of landed the gentry who in the previous century employed Gainsborough to paint their estate, so the Crawshays hoped to confirm their prestige when they commissioned Penry Williams to paint the ironworks.
Born in 1802 and the son of a house decorator, Williams was spotted by the Crawshays when he was working for his father decorating their Cyfarthfa Castle. Howells discussed two of his works which depict the ironworks. Interestingly, in Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior at Night, painted in 1825, Cyfarthfa Castle, built at great expense, can be seen, its windows illuminated, beyond the workers toiling in the foreground.
Its architect spoke of it in terms that no doubt reflected his patron’s opinion:
In the foreground, the terrace, park and river Taff, beyond which the great iron-works become conspicuous; these, at night, offer a truly magnificent scene, resembling the fabled Pandemonium, but upon which the eye may gaze with pleasure, and the mind derive high satisfaction, knowing that several thousand persons are there constantly employed and fed by that active spirit, perfect enterprise, and noble feeling, of the highly respected owner.
Thomas Carlyle saw things differently:
Poor creatures broiling all in sweat and dirt, amid their furnaces, pits and rolling-mills … grimy mortals, black and clammy… screwing out a living for themselves presided over by sooty Darkness, physical and spiritual, by beer, Methodism and the Devil.
It was Francis Crawshay, however, who was responsible for another artistic commission discussed by Howells. He asked W J Chapman, an itinerant artisan artist, to paint sixteen small portraits of his employees that he hung in his office. The subjects included workers as well as managers, all depicted in working dress and with the tools of their trade. Crawshay’s commission left to succeeding generations unique portraits of industrial workers. The portraits are an astonishing revelation. No other such images of industrial workers of this period are known. Even more unusually, the names and job titles of these workers were recorded. You can see some of these marvellous portraits in this earlier blog post.
Howells also featured a series of photographs, taken in the 1860s, of women who worked at Tredegar Ironworks. They were the work of local photographer William Clayton. Unlike Crayshaw’s portraits, the identity of the women is unknown and the elaborate studio backdrops serve to emphasise their class, and in many of the photos the women appear drained and dispirited by overwork. This was their purpose, since they were taken to highlight the impact of heavy industry on the domestic life of female labourers. Some of these photos can be viewed in the same blog post.
Howells told how the drama of industry attracted artists to the Valleys (and other early industrial sites, such as Coalbrookdale), citing Thomas Hornor’s view of Rolling Mills at Merthyr, deliberately viewed at night so that the drama of the scene could be emphasised by the shafts of light which penetrate the darkness.
By the 20th century, Howells argued, the people who lived in the Valleys, subject to low wages and harsh conditions, were amongst the most radicalised in the world. They organised themselves in unions, and their subscriptions raised the money to build the Welfare Halls that could be found in every community, and which supported a thriving culture of political debate, literary and artistic appreciation, music and song.
A new generation of artists emerged who had grown up alongside colliers and their families. Trained in Swansea’s School of Art, they brought a new realism to the portrayal of this industrial world, more concerned with social issues.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Evan Walters painted a series of images of coal miners, now largely unknown. They are, said Howells, ‘rare portraits portraits of working men, painted with deep understanding of who they were and the conditions they faced’. They are truly superb portraits, full of dignity and resolution, of men who faced hunger and hardship as the Great Depression brought poverty and unemployment to the Valleys.
Swansea-born Evan Walters achieved great success as a portrait artist in the 1920s and 1930s. He was the son of a publican and grew up near the coal mine at Llangyfelach, and in the late 1920s painted this series of haunting portraits of the men who worked there.
The portrait of his friend, William Hopkins (above) was painted in the same year as the General Strike. Though the strike lasted only six days, the miners remained locked out for another six months, before being forced by starvation to return to work. Many were not taken back on, and those that were employed were forced to accept longer hours, lower wages, and district wage agreements. As Howells says, ‘It’s difficult not to see the painting as a comment on the conditions endured by the miners and their families as represented in William Hopkin’s gaunt face and penetrating glare.’
These were hard years in the South Wales valleys, said Kim Howells, with colliery closures, mass unemployment and near-starvation. Howells chose a painting by another Swansea art student, Archie Rhys Griffiths, to exemplify the mood of the 1930s. In Miners Returning from Work, a group of men are portrayed on their way home under a lowering sky, the painter’s palette uniformly dark.
But after the Second World War the mood changed and painters reflected the post-war optimism that followed the Labour victory in 1945 and the nationalization of the mines. Josef Herman saw mining as dignified labour, and was captivated by the masculinity and power of the miners.
Josef Herman was the son of a Jewish cobbler in the Warsaw ghetto who escaped Poland when the Nazis invaded in 1939. He came to Britain and settled in the small pit village of Ystradgynlais in the South Wales valleys in 1944. Howells told how ‘seeing miners going to work silhouetted against the sunset was an epiphany for Herman’. Influenced by Africa carvings, images of miners were central to his work for the next twenty years. His paintings were seen widely in the 1940s and 1950s; in 1951 he made a huge mural for the Festival of Britain depicting a group of crouching miners.
Heinz Koppel was another Jewish emigre who had fled the Nazis and settled in Dowlais, near Merthyr Tydfil. He was particularly influential, teaching art to unemployed miners and children, and inspiring the next generation of Valleys artists with his stylised, non-naturalistic vision of the local landscape.
Finally, Kim looked at the post-war generation of artists who ‘no longer painted scenes of industry, but streets brimming with shoppers: lively paintings in bright colours’. They included Gwyn Evans, one of the last survivors of the Rhondda Group, young art students from the valleys who studied at Cardiff School of Art in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and Ernest Zobole, born in the village of Ystrad in 1927, the son of Italian immigrants.
As his work matured, said Howells, ‘Zobole created his own iconography of the valleys. Often seen at night, his paintings show streets and houses clinging to the sides of the hills; street-lamps and car headlights illuminating this nocturnal world with the artist himself looking on’.
In the same period, Nan Youngman, an English painter and teacher, came to South Wales to organise a scheme which exhibited paintings in Welsh schools, and fell in love with the landscape of the mining valleys.
Valerie Ganz was a Swansea-born painter who began painting portraits of miners in the early 1980s. Just before the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike she lived for a year in the mining community of Six Bells creating a series of paintings portraying the men at work from sketches made down the mine and in the pit head showers. Now they appear to us as images of a vanished way of life. Following the disaster of the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike there are now no working mines left in the valleys, where there were once hundreds.
The 84/5 Miners’ Strike was, said Howells, little recorded by artists. In the main, the strike was documented by film-makers and photographers. We saw him sifting through posters designed during the strike, mainly by the miners themselves (some by Howells himself). But very little art was created about the strike at the time. But, he said, there was a rich vein of creativity that came after the strike.
The end of the strike saw the rapid closure of the mines and and steelworks that had defined the Valleys for so many people for so long. We saw Howells exploring the decaying remains of Tower Colliery that, taken over by the miners, stayed open until 2008. There, he came across a mural created by one of the miners, ‘an anonymous personal statement about 150 years of work at the site’.
In Blaengwnfi in the Afan valley north of Port Talbot, Kim Howells spoke to David Carpanini who, for over 50 years, has been painting the people and landscape of his home village. Carpanini’s work shows a community coming to terms with the closure of the coal mines following the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike: people who are stubborn survivors.
Towards the Bwlch has a very personal meaning for Carpanini, portraying the house where he grew up, a path he would walk many times, and the dramatic view – one of falling forms and rhythms – which he would see every day. ‘It was” he said, ‘a dynamic, recurring symbol of a a dynamic working community’.
Although Carpanini has lived in England for many years, his focus has remained the landscape and people of his childhood home.
My inspiration lies in the contemplation of the familiar. It is in the valleys and former mining communities of South Wales, scarred by industrialisation but home to a resolute people that I found the trigger for my creative imagination.
But, he insists, his paintings are not just about South Wales, but about ‘a broader spectrum of human experience where anyone in difficult circumstances has a found a way to survive’.
David Carpanini has been deeply concerned with the devastating after-effects of de-industrialization, but Kim Howells ended his survey with Kevin Sinnott, an artist whose vision, though equally powerful, is very different. Sinnott lives and works in the Garw valley, and is one of the most popular of contemporary Welsh artists. His work provided a joyous conclusion to the film. His work, as Howells said, is full of dynamism and colour; people out on the streets and up on the hills. ‘To me’, he said, ‘he captures the vitality of the valleys better than anyone. Paintings that celebrate the humour and panache of the people who live and love in these towns and villages’.
Running Away with the Hairdresser is Sinnott’s most famous work which became the National Museum of Wales’ best selling print after they acquired the painting for their permanent collection. Part of the appeal, says Howells, is the enigmatic title – which figure is the hairdresser and who, or what, are they running away from…or to?
- Visions of the Valleys: a personal collection of paintings curated by Kim Howells (BBC Your Paintings)
- Framing Wales: clips from the 4 episodes on Welsh painters (YouTube)