Friday, 24 February 2012

John Piper, David Jones & The Queen: Art in Cardiff

John Piper, Llanthony Priory, 1941 (private collection)
By the time I'd worked my way through both rooms of the The Queen: Art and Image at the National Museum of Wales, one thing was clear: this is a monarch who likes having her picture taken. There are photos of her smiling, photos of her tight-lipped, magisterial pictures in which she looms over the viewer. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about the monarchy, but one or two of the photos oozed power. Never mind all that democratic nonsense, I found myself thinking, she's the boss. By contrast, Lucian Freud's tiny painting makes her look like a camp little man of a certain age. I guess he was trying to tell us something too.

But I wasn't in Cardiff to look at Royal portraits. In fact I didn't know the exhibition was on until I walked into the room and saw the same face repeated over and over, reimagined by Warhol, Gilbert and George and sundry others but still essentially the same unknowable woman. If there is a real, hidden Elizabeth beneath the public persona, this exhibition leaves her in peace.

Pietro Annigoni, Queen Elizabeth II, 1969 (Nat Port Gall)
I'd been meaning to visit the Welsh equivalent of the National Gallery for a while, to see a temporary exhibition of work by David Jones, and when I read that a Piper exhibition had just started as well I rushed down to Temple Meads and took a train Across the Border. It's been a while since I visited Cardiff, and I was struck on arrival by how different it is: flat, expansive and conceived on a grand scale. The place has the air of a provincial French city, a character best expressed in the flamboyant old stone palaces that house the City Hall and National Museum, and in the neighbouring parks and boulevards.

Once inside the museum I headed straight for the Piper show, a public display of a private collection comprised mostly of dramatic mountain scenes. I hadn't realised before quite how much time that quintessential wandering artist spent in Wales, but it seems he practically lived in Snowdonia in the 1940s and 1950s. Personally, I don't think that the mountain paintings, which are dramatic but rather formless, show him at his best, but there was one gorgeous treat: a painting of Llanthony Priory from the 1940s. Nobody has ever captured the peculiar atmosphere surrounding an English or Welsh church quite like Piper, and here the dramatic contrast of darkness and light (the wall on the right is a dazzling golden yellow) is enhanced by a wonderful texture; the paint surface is covered in swirls and squiggles that almost form a pattern but instead reinforce the sense of age and beauty.

Thank heavens he gave up abstraction.

David Jones, Capel-y-ffin, 1926/7 (NM Wales)
I got distracted by the Queen after that, but presently located the corridor where a dozen or so paintings by David Jones hang in light so carefully controlled that you peer at the pictures as if through a Welsh mist. Which I suppose is authentic. Jones is less well-known than Ravilious, Bawden and other watercolourists of the age, partly because his subject matter and style are eccentric, to say the least, and partly because he chose to work so lightly that he makes Rav, by contrast, seem as bold as Matisse.

A Londoner of mixed Anglo-Welsh parentage, Jones served in the Great War and subsequently suffered two nervous breakdowns that hampered his career just as he was becoming established. This was in the early 1930s, after a productive decade which he had spent working alongside Eric Gill, first at Ditchling, Sussex, and then at Capel-y-Ffin in the Welsh Marches. In later years Jones produced increasingly odd pictures, often in pencil and crayon, covering the paper with mythical figures, plants and flowers and symbols of one kind and another. These are fascinating but less accessible than his landscapes from the 1920s which, though sometimes agonisingly delicate, are beautifully crafted and highly original.

Gwen John, Girl in a Green Dress (NM Wales)
I was hoping to see some of his work from Capel-y-Ffin, and was rewarded with one lovely picture. The man was evidently brilliant (TS Eliot described his epic 1937 war poem 'In Parenthesis' as a work of genius) but with little interest in artistic fame. I want to see more!

Another artist of that productive era of whom the same could be said is Gwen John (who was born in Pembrokeshire), and it was a pleasant surprise to happen upon a clutch of her portraits hanging next to a group of her brother's. Where Augustus John's pictures are bright and expressive - crying out to be noticed, you might say - Gwen's are self-effacing and thoughtful. In a couple of the portraits the subjects seem about to fade into the background, but they are beautiful nevertheless.

James Dickson Innes, Arenig, 1913 (NM Wales)
The art galleries of the National Museum are full of treats like this. I'd been wanting for a long time to see some paintings by James Dickson Innes, a bohemian friend of Augustus John who died of TB in his twenties, and here were half a dozen or more, scattered through the collection. I could see right away why people used to rave (maybe they still do) about the jewel-like colours in his landscapes, which are mostly small but striking.

One final surprise awaited me in the room devoted to Welsh landscape: a picture I've been thinking about a lot over the past year. 'Waterwheel' is one of my favourite Ravilious paintings, and one that features in 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', and it was fascinating to come across it like that, unexpectedly and in a room full of landscapes by other artists of different generations. What struck me instantly was the quality of the light, both the luminous sky and the radiance surrounding the waterwheel like a halo. In that brightness I felt the motion of the waterwheel and heard the gurgling water - a place (Capel-y-Ffin) and a moment (dawn, early March 1938) brought to life.

Eric Ravilious, Waterwheel, 1938 (Brecknock Museum)

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is being bound, and will be available very soon! Come and say hello at the RWA, Bristol on Saturday March 10th, when I'll be signing copies...


  1. Cardiff here I come! David Jones & Piper - zowie. How did I miss the invitation to that one? Thanks for the tip-off JR!

  2. The John Piper, Llanthony Priory, reminds me of a Samuel Palmer. Maybe the colour or the texture, or perhaps the lighting? Anyway, I am smitten.

    I look forward to seeing Ravilious in Pictures, I am sure it will be a gem.

  3. Thanks for your comments: Murgatroyd, I hope the Museum lives up to the billing!

    Acornmoon, yes very Palmerish. In person the yellow is really bright, just gorgeous. Thanks for your comment about the new book - hope you enjoy it!