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Iconic Salem painting to go on display at Hay Festival as part of special lecture

19 May 2022 3 minute read
The famous Salem painting by Sydney Curnow Vosper, including the devil in the shawl.

One of Wales’ most iconic paintings will go on display at the Hay Festival as part of a special lecture about its history and significance.

On 31 May at 5:30pm on the Festival Friends Stage the art historian Peter Lord will discuss the Salem painting by Sydney Curnow Vosper, which was purchased by the National Library of Wales in 2019.  During the event, the original iconic painting will be on display.

Salem became a symbol of Welsh life and the nonconformist tradition in Wales and became ever-more well known due to the fact that some were able to see an image of the devil in the folds of the shawl worn by the painting’s central character.

In ‘Vosper’s Salem’, Peter Lord will review how the simple image became the focus of complex political identities and the wider question of iconic representations of nationhood in Wales.

“The Library is delighted that this iconic painting of the chapel service at Cefn Cymerau and Siân Owen and the devil in her shawl are part of our collections,” Pedr ap Llwyd, Chief Executive and Librarian said.

“This enigmatic work by Sydney Curnow Vosper is one of the nation’s treasures and we are very much looking forward to the opportunity to share it with the Hay Festival audience.”


Painted by Vosper in 1908, it portrays a scene in Salem Chapel, Cefncymerau, Llanbedr near Harlech and central to the painting is Siân Owen, an old woman dressed in traditional Welsh costume.

This painting is one of two versions painted by Vosper. The first version was originally purchased by the industrialist William Hesketh Lever and used as in image in a promotional campaign by Sunlight Soap, the Lever Brothers’ company. As a result, reproductions of the image were circulated across Britain and displayed in homes across Wales.

The image is famous because it came to symbolise the piety of the common people, and acquired a moralising mythic back story.

This second version – belonging to The National Library of Wales – was painted for the artist’s brother in law, Frank James.

During the twentieth century, against a background of bombings, the burning of holiday cottages and the language movement, it underwent a transformation, redeployed by activists as a token of political docility and colonial subservience.

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
2 years ago

How many extra car visits to view Llanbedr’s Capel Salem will this create?

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