Great Welsh artist gets a permanent place in the sun
The work of one of Wales’ best, if also most neglected artists, John Selway is now being permanently presented at a new gallery space, the John Selway Room, which has just been opened at the Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre in Cwmbran.
It’s an opportunity for the public to see a changing selection of paintings from an enormous body of work by the late, great painter, who died in 2017.
Louise Jones-Williams, the Director of the arts centre said: “John had a long association with Llantarnam, for well over forty years. When I came here to work 25 years ago I had the opportunity to show John’s work.
“So after he passed away the centre and his family felt passionately that we should keep it in the public eye, to ensure his work would not to be forgotten in any way and to celebrate the amazing artist that he was.
“Whatever his subject matter – be it political, or if he was illustrating Dylan Thomas or other literary texts – his works all have this sublime, mystical and visionary quality about them.”
Or as Selway himself once tried to explain: “‘Often the thing you imagine, the image in your mind, is so extraordinary it’s almost impossible to put it down because the painting won’t allow you to do so.”
John Selway attended the Royal College of Art in the late 1950s and early 1960s, alongside other ferociously gifted artists such as David Hockney, Allen Jones and R.B.Kitaj. Indeed Hockney thought Selway was the most gifted among them.
Unlike many of his contemporaries Selway didn’t gravitate to global centres of art such as Los Angeles and London. Rather, Selway returned to live in Abertillery, where he largely stayed under the art-world radar.
As his wife, Alison Howard, explained: “He couldn’t live in London, he didn’t like the way the arty world deals with artists, he didn’t like the way he was spoken to after his agent died. It was too much of a business, it wasn’t about the stuff.’
Yet he continued to work all of the time, inspired by memories of his childhood in Ash Tree Terrace, looking out at the busy railway yards of Six Bells (which also inspired one of L.S.Lowry’s most famous paintings) where Selway’s father kept rabbits and maintained a smallholding stocked with pigs and chickens.
These works are often domestic scenes, from Christmas dinners through cinema visits to a girl having piano lessons.
Other paintings of his were often reactions to work by writers, such as the Australian novelist Patrick White, J.M.Barrie, Jean Genet and especially the poetry and prose of Dylan Thomas. The last of these include some of his best work.
David Alston, the former Head of Arts at the Arts Council of Wales thought the “works in watercolour, drawn from Dylan Thomas’ inspiration… ‘Fern Hill’ etc., are for me some of the best things in Welsh Art in the late 20th century.”
Selway was incredibly well read and as his fellow artist Osi Rhys Osmond once put it: “Words are vital and fundemental to his pictorial examinations of memory and history; he reads extensively – newspapers, novels and poems, watches film and television and trawls the visible and imagined world in constant watchfulness.”
“Constant watchfulness” are very apt watchwords for describing Selway’s life and artistic practice.
He was always thinking, reading, travelling and working, as his wife Alison Howard affirms: “He always worked, it was paramount in his life. He produced a heck of a lot of work even in the last year of his life, generating a whole series of big watercolours about Peter Pan. He only stopped painting four weeks before he actually died, at the age of 78.”
Alison Howard also notes how “Some of the works on show at Llantarnam include landscapes of such places as the Basque country, reflecting John’s deep love of Spain and Portugal. These are countries he would often visit annually, sometimes even as many three times in a year. The colour of Spain interested him a lot and often in autumn in Abertillery he would look around and say ‘Look, look it’s like Spain.’”
That insight seems particularly resonant in this parched summer of 2022, when the hills around places such as Llanhilleth are beginning to look the sunburned lands of the Iberian peninsula.
In 2015 Llantarnam Grange exhibited ‘Trans Iberia’ – an exceptional body of work, reflecting, as Selway put it “the rather haphazard nature of my many journeys over the years and my different responses.”
They show the farmed patterns of the land and capture the quality of the unwavering light, which strafes the land like a laser, images that capture a sense of place much more evocatively than any holiday photographs.
Selway was a great colourist as a painter – they are brim full of vibrant hues and deep tones – and yet, curiously, one of the most distinctive colours he uses is black, which comes up even in his most vibrant landscapes or dream-like visions.
Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre Director Louise Jones-Williams agrees: “Even if he was painting Portuguese beach scenes there are black shadows and in the landscapes we’re showing at the moment there are huge swathes of black but that play of light and dark, that chiaroscuro effect was very important to him, to conveying the sort of emotion he was trying to get across.”
John Selway often didn’t have a painting in his head when he picked up a brush in front of a blank canvas: “That comes about through the making of it: it kinds of starts to happen and either you accept it and go with it or your get rid of it.
“I guess it’s much the same as any kind of art – accidents creep in, which you don’ t plan and you can go with it – as long as it expands the original concept: if it’s going against it then you pull back from it.
“The paintings themselves are claiming how they look.”
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