On Monday evening I went along to Liverpool’s newest live music venue – the Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room – to see Seckou Keita give another outstanding performance on the kora. I say another because a year ago we saw him, along with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, in what we decided was one of the best concerts we had ever attended. Continue reading “Seckou Keita in the Phil’s new Music Room”
Half-way through our week on the Lleyn, and the wind which had got up on the second day was still blowing strongly as we drove into the car park at Porth Neigwl (aka Hell’s Mouth) to begin a walk around the headland of Mynydd Cilan. Continue reading “Lleyn walks: Lost and no way out at Hell’s Mouth”
The last time we were here was more than two decades ago, when this remote and awesome valley was more often known in guide books as ‘Vortigern’s Valley’. Today, the Welsh traitor Vortigern has been expunged from the valley memory: there is no mention of his name in the historical display at the Welsh Language Centre that now thrives at the end of the mountain road. More of that later. Continue reading “Quarrying for rock and an ancient language at Nant Gwrtheryn”
Aberdaron is, I think, the most characterful village on the Lleyn, a picturesque cluster of white-washed stone buildings huddled around two small, hump-backed bridges and a church that edges the shore. Its present appearance belies the village past. Long a fishing village, in the 18th and 19th centuries it developed as a shipbuilding centre and port, exporting limestone, lead, jasper and manganese from local mines and quarries. At low tide you can still make out the ruins of an old pier running out to sea at the western end of the beach. Continue reading “Porth y Swnt at Aberdaron: the poetry of a place”
Recently I was presented with a beautiful gift – a book by Dominick Tyler called Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape. The book is the product of a year that Tyler spent travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles to photograph specific features of the natural world.
Realising how limited was his vocabulary for naming the things he saw in the landscape – ‘There was a hill, then a dip then some lumpy bits and then it got stony’ – Tyler began collecting words for landscape features that would improve upon the vague generalisations we tend to use today, such as hill, rock or stream. The terms he collected had invariably been used for generations by ancestors who depended on specific words to give directions, tell a story, find a place, or describe the land on which they worked.
The words collected by Tyler – words like zawn, jackstraw, clitter, logan, cowbelly, corrie, spinney and tor – are as varied, rich and poetic as the landscapes they describe. Often they are words in local dialect or the various languages of these isles that describe the same thing: so a corrie in Scotland is a cwm in Wales and a coombe in England. Tyler has arranged his book in eight regional sections, starting in the South West and finishing in the Fenlands of eastern England. Following his journey, it’s easy to see how regional language reflects the intertwining of regional geography with human activity and culture.
Uncommon Ground has the square format of one of those ‘1001 Things to See/Hear/Read/Experience before you die. Each two-page spread consists of Tyler’s photograph of a particular landscape feature, with text on the facing page. Tyler’s words are are as good as his photos: each regional section is prefaced by a personal account of how he explored the area and captured the images, while the explanations of the words are engaging and witty, with the result that reading the book feels far removed from the sensation of ploughing your way through a glossary or dictionary of terms.
Tyler begins in the South West with the term that was already familiar from our many holidays in the far-flung West Penwith tip of Cornwall: Zawn.
Let’s start at the end, or close to it. In flagrant inversion of alphabetisation we begin with zawns, some of the best examples of which are found near Land’s End in Cornwall. Zawn is derived from ‘sawan’, a Cornish word for chasm. […] These steep-sided coastal inlets are formed by wave erosion on weak spots in the cliff face. In taller cliffs, zawns can be formed when waves carve out a cave that grows until its roof collapses completely. […] The Zawn pictured is at at Nanjizal beach, a few miles south of Land’s End, and is called Zawn Pyg (‘pyg’ means ‘pitch’ or ‘tar’ in Cornish, a reference to the black marks on the granite here, perhaps). […] This stretch of coastline, where the unhindered force of the Atlantic Ocean dashes against the seemingly immutable granite cliffs, is punctuated by zawns, a reminder that in geological terms there really is no such thing as immutable.
Tyler’s superb photographs are supported by interesting and sometimes witty accounts of the terms they illustrate. So clitter in Devon (clatter in Cornwall) are the piles of irregular granite boulders that litter and clutter the hillsides around tors. Tyler’s description of how tors came into existence some 280 million years ago, and how clitter was created at the end of the ice ages when water that had seeped into cracks in the granite expanded as it froze and levered off rocks that then tumbled down the hillsides, is accompanied by his remarkable photo – the twisting forms of tree branches in ancient woodland contrasted with the rounded, noss-covered shapes of the fallen boulders – taken at Wistman’s Wood in the West Dart valley
Erratics are large rocks that have been carried by glaciers that subsequently melted, abandoning rocks that are strangers to the local geology. This can happen to individual rocks (we’ve passed the Logan Rock at Treen in West Penwith many times), or to a whole group, as with the Norber erratics near Austwick in Yorkshire, a whole pod of beached greywacke boulders stranded on a Carboniferous limestone pavement. Tyler’s photograph for this term is of the Blaxhall Stone, a five-ton erratic that in the last ice age made its way as far south as Suffolk (though the local legend is that it simply grew there, having been ploughed up in the 1800s as a stone the size of ‘two fists’.
Sgwd, Rhaeadr, Pistyll, Berw and Ffrwd: Topology and climate have given Wales a good number of waterfalls in a variety of forms, explains Tyler; as a result, the Welsh language has a variety of words for waterfall, of which these are the five most common. The distinctions between these Welsh terms are not straightforward. ‘Rhaeadr’, which translates as ‘cascade’ is the most common and widespread in use. ‘Sgwd’ meaning ‘a shoot of water’ or ‘cascade’ is practically synonymous with ‘rhaeadr’ but only used in South Wales. A waterfall of lesser volume that a rhaeadr, or one that is temporary or seasonal, is known as a ‘pistyll’.
Dell or dingle: both have the same meaning, the former word coming down unchanged from Old English, the latter of uncertain origin, but brought into literary use by Milton in his 1634 work Comus:
I know each lane, and every alley green
Dingle or bushy dell of this wilde Wood,
And every bosky bourn from side to side.
Both terms have the same meaning: a small valley or hollow, usually wooded. In Liverpool, there are two familiar locations that bear these names. We have an allotment in the Dingle, a valley which ran down to the Mersey and gave its name to the densely-populated district of working-class terraced housing that grew up around it in the 19th century. The allotment plots still sprawl up and down the banks of the former dingle. Meanwhile, over in Sefton Park, there’s The Dell, a landscaped hollow in which waterfalls tumble amidst shrubs and winding paths.
On Vimeo you can watch a short video made by Dominick Tyler to illustrate Dell and Dingle:
The Dell video is just one of a series posted on Vimeo by the Landreader Project, established by Dominick Tyler to promote the idea of preserving the ancient vocabulary of landscape.
Turning the pages of this book brings encounters with beautiful images and wonderful words. Some words are familiar – machair, glen, scarp, carr, rime, beck and briar – while others – such as daddock, dumbledore, scowle and shivver – were new to me. Most of the terms are local. As Tyler writes:
For all the creeping homogeny of culture and corporations there is also a strong seam of localism in Britain. People value local knowledge and a lot of the words are used only in a small geographical area.
Oddly enough, Robert Macfarlane was engaged at the same time on a similar project, also compiling landscape terms for his latest book Landmarks. I heard the book serialized recently on Radio 4, but haven’t yet read it. In Landmarks, Macfarlane states that knowing the right word for something in nature re-emphasises its value. “Language-deficit leads to attention-deficit”, he writes, adding:
What is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word-magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.
The potency of his assertion is underlined by the fact that in January Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and other writers were compelled to protest to Oxford University Press about the removal of nature-related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary – words such as acorn, blackberry, hamster, heron, magpie and catkin have been dropped to make room for words such as analog, broadband, blog, chatroom, and cut and paste. “Children no longer use these words,” OUP responded in defence.
As for Uncommon Ground, Dominick Tyler hopes that his book:
By starting to re-enrich our nature vocabulary and our landscape stories … will be a reminder that there was a time when our ancestors read the lines on the land as clearly as any text. We can learn to read it again, perhaps never as fluently as before, but maybe well enough to make it feel more familiar, more real and more connected. In order for us to belong to a place, and it to us, we must first name it.
- An honest conversation with Earth (New Internationalist)
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?
I was saddened to read of the death this week of the poet of Pembrokeshire landscape painting, John Knapp-Fisher. He was one of the few artists I have shaken by the hand, the result of having sought him out at his small roadside studio and gallery at Croesgoch on the road to St David’s in 2011.
Then, he was approaching his 80th birthday, and the reason for our quest was that we had known and admired his work for thirty years, having discovered it while we were on holiday in Pembrokeshire. Born in London in 1931, he moved to west Wales in the 1960s. It was there that he began to paint his distinctive landscapes, inspired by scenery near his studio in Croesgoch and the harbour at Porthgain. Continue reading “John Knapp-Fisher: poet of Pembrokeshire landscape painting”