Review: Looking Out is a volume by a critic at the top of his game
The indefatigible art critic Peter Lord has done more than anyone to explore and explain Welsh art via a veritable gush of books, TV series, exhibitions and broadsides. In this collection of six essays he looks at the role of the middle class and the gentry and at the work they commissioned and consumed over the centuries. In so doing he also looks at himself as he has reached what he considers to be his ‘age of reflection.’ Looking Out thus presents a vivid cast of decadent collectors and artisan artists busily satisfying the middle class demand for oil portraits of themselves and is also a sort of portrait of the critic himself.
Born to a working class father and a lower middle class mother (note the fine calibration employed) Lord’s introduction tells us that he was born, in the 1940s, into a world of mass culture, when the arts were democratised as part of the welfare state. He recalls the weekly ritual of borrowing books from Boots the chemist and the time when he realized that his generation was allowed to make art not just study it in school. Which he did, for it is easy to overlook his own art, such as the Hywel Dda memorial in Whitland. Luckily he also gave art his critical attention, to the net benefit of Wales.
From the early days when he made his case in pamphlets such as The Aesthetics of Relevance, through a sumptuous three volume account of Welsh art he has almost energetically ferreted out works, and indeed the story of our national art that had been overlooked or deliberately neglected.
These latest essays introduce a fascinating array of characters, not least Lord Howard de Walden, a man rich enough to lease his own castle at Chirk, where his love of enacting medieval fantasy extended to dressing up in armour and possibly attempting to make clanking love to his wife, Lady Margot, whilst clad in heavy metal. He learned Welsh, wrote operas on the theme of The Mabinogion, helped to establish a Welsh National Theatre Company and fostered productive relationships with Welsh artists such as Augustus John and J. D. Innes.
There was a deep paradox at the heart of this gaudy man who had lived a sad and isolated childhood. This led to a deeply felt need to belong somewhere, which Lord neatly sums up in the essay’s closing lines. ‘Given that the purpose of constructing make-believe worlds is to avoid living in the real one, this is surely a strange thing for a man blessed by birth with fabulous wealth, which would have enabled him to do almost anything he chose.’
In addition to patrons such as de Walden Peter Lord presents some engaging artists, too, such as Edgar Thomas. The Pembrokeshire painter, a native of Narberth was feted and promoted as a bone fide genius, even at a young age, when he was fast-tracked through his education in London and Antwerp with the help of wealthy believers in his gifts such as the Marquess of Bute. Such was Thomas’ reputation that there were unseemly disputes between the Western Mail – which had supported the young man through an apprenticeship – and his patrons over who had helped him the most.
But a traumatic event was to change the course of his life, when he was taken to the Bridgend Lunatic Asylum where he had strange visions of the Book of Daniel. His brother took him out of there, believing Edgar to be quite sane and in the years that followed watched him produce work of distinction, not least a series of paintings around the canal at Blackweir in Cardiff. Here light and colour were his true subjects, notwithstanding the different weather moods and tropes of the seasons. In total he produced no fewer than 80 small oil studies over the course of two decades, a bit like Monet painting the gardens at Giverny over and over again.
One of the essays finds Lord revisiting and reappraising a subject he has previously considered, namely Mildred Eldridge, who produced works both substantial – such as the series of murals at Gobowen – and intimate, such as her fine studies of birds. The latter subject leads to an obvious overlap with her husband, the pantheistic poet and birdwatcher, R.S. Thomas. Lord had suggested in an essay of 1998 that hers was a parallel life of unacknowledged quality with her husband but now reconsiders it, suggesting it might be a ‘voluntary self-effacement as the R.S. Thomas she had set on his way expanded by the mysterious processes of legend building to fill the space available for an anachronistic incarnation as that ancient national archetype, the Welsh bardic visionary.’
The sheer depth of research behind pretty much every sentence of these finely-wrought and level-headed essays is typical of a critic equipped with fine antennae. The texts are shot through with literary quotes, sometimes culled from obscure sources, such as the dusty memoirs of non-conformist ministers. There are, of course, insights galore, such as ascribing the quality of Evan Williams’ portraiture to his training as a coach painter, where he had explaining how being taught to ‘apply a brilliant finish to the craftsmanship of carpenters and wheelwrights’ came through in the gloss of his portrait paintings.
Lord revisits the Betws-y-Coed artists’ colony and tells us things he’s found out since he last considered it or explores a pan-European trend for paintings of funerals, exemplified, in Wales, by the work of David Cox. But as if the many considerations and illuminations in the essays weren’t enough, the book is beautifully designed by Olwen Fowler, so that the pleasures of the text are amplified and enhanced by the dovetailing, attendant images. Looking Out is a volume by a critic at the top of his game and, to boot, an art work in and of itself.
Buy Looking Out: Welsh painting, social class and international context here.