Shaping Art in Wales
We are pleased to publish the introduction to a new book by Ceri Thomas which is partly a biography of the many-sided David Bell and partly a survey of Welsh art.
“Wales has been a country rich in sensibility but poor in opportunity, and when that opportunity is created the artist in Wales may come into his own.… I have devoted the last few years of my life, the years which are normally regarded as the best years of a man’s life, to finding and creating this opportunity in Wales.” (David Bell)
The main text of this book is presented in chronological sequence and, quoting extensively from numerous primary sources, it is written in the present tense. It covers the period from David Bell’s birth in London in 1915 to his untimely death there in 1959. It also looks at certain aspects of the modern art scene in 1960s Wales, a decade which began with his posthumous retrospective and ended with his inclusion in a Welsh Arts Council survey exhibition titled Art in Wales: the 20th Century — The Early Years 1900-1956.
Although his nationality was primarily English, the majority of his professional career was spent in Wales, and his wife and children were born there. The Welsh ancestry on his father’s side of the family meant a great deal to him and his forebears. For example, two years prior to his own birth, his father Harold Idris Bell published Poems from the Welsh (The Welsh Publishing Company, 1913) which included additional contributions by his grandfather Charles Christopher Bell. And, as a child and young adult his summer holidays were spent in north-west Wales. Perhaps not surprisingly then, poetry and landscape were to be central to his taste. However, his first love was undoubtedly painting.
Shaping Art in Wales: David Bell, Kathleen Armistead and the Modern Artist is something of a hybrid. On the one hand, it is partly a biography of the many-sided David Bell whose tragically short career was wide-ranging and jam-packed. In his first book The Language of Pictures, published by Batsford in 1953, he is described on the dust jacket as “an art expert” — “as curator of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, at Swansea … an explorer in Nubia … an hydrographer … and a member of the Historical Section of the War Cabinet Offices”. He is also referred to “as a translator (from the Welsh)”, his principal interest is given as Wales and “his principal recreation, walking”.
On the other hand, this present book is part art survey and a selective one at that. For, whilst recognising Bell’s deep interest in, and energetic promotion of, art from various periods and places, it concentrates upon the modern artist and the contemporary art scene in Wales over an approximately twenty-five-year period from around 1945 onwards.
Moreover, the emphasis here is on art activity in Swansea which is where Bell lived and worked for the last eight years of his life and Kathleen Armistead lived and worked for the last seven years of her professional career. It is also where the present author was based from 1993 to 2022. In this way, it differs from the Cardiff-centric (and Anglocentric) position adopted by Eric Rowan, author of Art in Wales: An Illustrated History 1850-1980 (Welsh Arts Council & University of Wales Press, 1985), or the mid and north Wales, Welsh-speaking one since favoured by Peter Lord.
In the 1969 Welsh Arts Council survey, Bell was identified as a one-time employee of the Arts Council based in its Cardiff office, a portrait painter and the writer of The Artist in Wales (Harrap, 1957). This, his second and final book, adopted a sympathetic yet not uncritical approach in order to examine and present what he judged to be a limited, indigenous art scene in Wales in the past and a growing one in the present.
He wrote it from a metropolitan perspective and out of a deep commitment to Wales and art, together with a recognition of the inescapable reality of modernity. His exclamation that “at no time since the Norman conquest … has the Welshman had any visual artistic tradition” was primarily a comment on what he, over sixty-five years ago, saw as the country’s historical, economic weakness and it was not mentioned or challenged by two contemporary reviewers of his book, perhaps because his opinion was by no means unique.
The fact that Bell’s sweeping statement seems surprisingly harsh, and perhaps even rather shocking, to us today is because of subsequent discoveries and evolving attitudes. More specifically, it is in no small part due to the extensive and influential writings of Peter Lord which, a quarter of a century after Bell’s death, began to address the issue of tradition and culminate in Lord’s book The Tradition: A New History of Welsh Art 1400-1990 published by Parthian in 2016. And even in his recent collaborative book, with Rhian Davies, The Art of Music: Branding the Welsh Nation(Parthian, 2022), the word “tradition” is referred to extensively.
The last two chapters of Bell’s The Artist in Wales are titled ‘The Modern Artist’ and ‘The Welsh Artist’. In these Bell was writing about the period since 1900 but he did not give the reader a definition of ‘modern’. Instead, he alluded to one; for instance, when he refers to the Contemporary Art Society for Wales and its picture purchasing policy:
“The buyer of pictures, if he is spending public money, is inevitably under fire from every self-appointed critic, and people who otherwise show no interest in pictures will grow hot under the collar if they see their subscription or even their interest expended on what they consider ‘modern’, or out of accord with their own limited taste.”
The key term that Peter Lord uses to define and critique Bell’s preferences is “high art”, one that was not used at the time because the “high art” to which Lord refers was generally accepted as the mainstream art within the art world.
This term and the writings and actions of Bell inevitably raise issues of taste, class and hierarchy. The art tradition to which he and others subscribed is what Lord describes as a “high art”, metropolitan tradition alien to an essentially rural, craft-based Welsh art. This urban art tradition had its centuries-old roots in, for example, the monied and scholarly Italian Renaissance. It led to the taste for classical art and the grand tour amongst British patrons and artists. It helps to explain Bell’s reference to Richard Wilson and Augustus John as “great artists” and as two exceptions within Welsh art whose achievements “owe far more to an English or European tradition”. It is central to the linear development model constructed by much art history that embraced the modernism of, for instance, French art and Paris, and subsequently that of American art and New York.
Contained within this modern, metropolitan art tradition was the battle between form and content. This was manifested in England and Wales by — to take just a few examples — Clive Bell and Roger Fry’s admiration of Cézanne (which David Bell shared), the regard for Barbara Hepworth by Kathleen Armistead (David Bell’s successor at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in the sixties) and the formation of the 56 Group in 1956.
It was only with the socio-economic changes of post-war Britain and the eventual breakdown of the linear, modernistmodel, which privileged abstraction and experimentation, that other voices began to emerge. In England, these included John Berger and his social critique of art. In Wales, an alternative focus upon a Welsh-speaking, rural, artisan and craft tradition cultivated by Iorwerth Peate has been supported by Peter Lord. In turn, it is Lord’s own position that caused him to write in 1998: “… Bell’s understanding of art historical tradition, expressed in his books The Language of Pictures (1953) and The Artist in Wales (1957), reaffirmed the aesthetics and values of aristocratic art.”
The use of the word “aristocratic” is arguably much more applicable to Kenneth Clark than it is to David Bell whose position was complex. Furthermore, Clark’s groundbreaking 1969 book and BBC television series Civilisation(which now appear dated in comparison to Berger’s 1972 book and BBC television series Ways of Seeing) were at the time described as “truly great” by Huw Wheldon, Bell’s Arts Council colleague in post-war Cardiff.
David Bell belonged to that educated, pre- to post-war middle-class generation who occupied the wide, middle ground between the upper and working classes. Interestingly he was midway in age between Clark and Berger. Like them, but in his own way, he used the term “peasant”, although once again the reviewers of his second book did not take issue with it. In terms of art production, appreciation and consumption, Bell had a strong, democratic commitment to increase access and opportunity. His deep regard for the primacy of painting in all its manifestations (from the content-based to the abstract) was revealed in his agency as Arts Council employee, art writer and curator.
In other words, his taste ranged widely. Rather than being narrowly bourgeois, it was that of a well-educated and well-read “art expert” whose interest in aesthetics rather than class meant that he admired a spectrum of art ranging from the aristocratic and historical to the democratic and modern. As a painter he was less progressive and more rooted, preferring to adhere to his highly personal depictions of Welsh landscapes and individuals. This approach aligned with an environment-based, representational style of painting which he spotlighted and promoted in the immediate post-war period in Wales and which Lord has labelled ‘Welsh Environmentalism’.
Cusp of change
Bell’s two books and his life ended on the cusp of change. The Artist in Wales covered the period up to 1955, so it did not include the 56 Group. His writing, curation and taste extended to Paris and the European continent but, it seems, not to the New World. In 1959, the year of Bell’s death, the Tate showed The New American Painting and Harold Rosenberg’s book The Tradition of the New was published in New York.
The re-visiting by others in the sixties of Bell’s Wales-based contributions — and, thereby, this present book’s coverage of both his and Kathleen Armistead’s time in Wales — is one of the main reasons for encompassing this posthumous decade. Another is the continuing activity of certain modern artists in or associated with Wales whom he had supported, along with those modern artists in or associated with Wales and Yorkshire whom she favoured.
For example, the acquisition and promotion of the avant-garde art of Ceri Richards was a common thread running through Bell and Armistead’s tenures. Armistead was half a generation older than Bell and therefore very similar in age to Richards. And, whereas Bell was from a well-to-do, middle-class, London-based family (his father rose to become a head of department at the British Museum), both she and Richards came from working-class backgrounds.
Her father was a superintendent at the local steelworks in Hunslet, Leeds, and his was a tinplate worker in Gowerton, near Swansea. Her middle-class and upper middle-class, establishment contemporaries in the English art world were Barbara Hepworth (whose work she acquired for the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery), Kenneth Clark and her Leeds boss and mentor Philip Hendy (who succeeded Clark as Director of the National Gallery, London, in 1946).
A third reason to reconsider the sixties art scene is that it serves to contextualise David Bell and Kathleen Armistead in relation to each other and what was an accelerating expansion of international modernism in Wales; in other words, the shift away from the Welsh environment-based art, or ‘Welsh Environmentalism’, (which Bell had championed) to the growth of British abstraction from the later 1950s onwards (and cultivated by Armistead in the decade that followed).
Lastly, the word “shaping” in the title of this book is seen as something of a two-way dynamic. For, whilst David Bell and Kathleen Armistead contributed to the shaping of the art of modern Wales, so too did Wales act as shaping agent upon them, and particularly on him from childhood onwards.
In 1979, Raymond Williams produced a short introduction to The Arts in Wales 1950-75 published by the Welsh Arts Council. In it he wrote: “We learn to see by distinguishing shapes, and this is as true of a culture as of the physical world.” Williams talked about “the shape of Wales” and, in the context of Britain as a whole, “the glamorous and aching pull of a metropolis” and the role of the Arts Council itself: “In the larger process of shaping culture it is a necessary agency, a necessary kind of agency.”
Raymond Williams referred to “the active culture of a contemporary Wales”, shifting cultural dominance and the changing relations between rootedness and the international. He closed his introduction by pointing out that one way of approaching this complexity is “to see what is happening where you are” because “sometimes … you find that the most local is the most general.”
Shaping Art in Wales: David Bell, Kathleen Armistead & The Modern Artist by Ceri Thomas is published by the H’mm Foundation and is available from all good bookshops.
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