Bangor exhibition celebrating the work of RS Thomas gets international recognition
Dale Spridgeon, local democracy reporter
A Bangor exhibition which illuminates the life and work of a prolific Welsh poet lauded by the Queen is gathering literary interest from around the globe.
‘R.S. Thomas His Life and Writing’ celebrates the enigmatic former Anglican priest who would become recognised as one of Wales’ leading lights in modern poetry.
The Bangor University exhibition includes items from his glasses to his typewriter, his trademark red tie and braces, drafts of poems, personal notes – including one about his gold medal from the Queen.
Other memorabilia includes letters to his peers, rare manuscripts, photographs, illustrations, some by the poet himself others are by his first wife, the talented English artist nicknamed ‘Elsi’ (Mildred E Eldridge).
The items have been hand-picked by the co-directors of the R.S. Thomas Research Centre Professor Emeritus Tony Brown and Professor Jason Walford Davies.
So far, the on-line version has seen around 2000 visits, with many people accessing both Welsh and English sites from all over the world.
Sense of humour
The personal items on show are also helping to cast light on little known aspects of the famous poet’s personality.
According to Prof Brown, who met him several times, R.S. Thomas had something of a reputation for being a stern clergyman – “but those in his inner circle knew him to have a very strong sense of humour,” he said.
This was clearly demonstrated when he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1964.
The exhibition features a scribbled, self-effacing note from R.S. to his wife Elsi which quips:
“The Queen does so enjoy my poetry that she is going to give me a medal. Perhaps Gwydion [his son] will be able to realise a few shillings on it one day if he is hard up.”
Among his other many lifetime achievements, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.
Born in Cardiff in 1913, the son of a merchant seaman and raised in Anglesey, the family moved to Holyhead in 1918.
R.S. would later study classics at Bangor University before moving on to train to be a priest.
He became as a clergyman in parishes across North Wales, including Chirk, where he met his first wife, and at Eglwysfach, Tallarn Green Manafon and Aberdaron.
He died in 2000, aged 87, his last home was at Pentrefelin, near Criccieth. He was survived by his second wife Canadian Elisabeth Vernon.
Twenty two years after his death interest in R.S. Thomas is still as strong as ever.
“There are now editions of his work translated into everything from Chinese, to Slovak, Polish and German and there has been a swathe of critical studies, papers, academic journals published on both sides of the Atlantic.” Prof Brown said.
The Bangor exhibition is not only also testament to the development of one of the world’s most revered poets, but also represents years of painstaking work and dedication by the research centre to acquire and preserve R.S.T. and Elsi material.
The centre recently purchased what is considered to be the most important collection of manuscripts still in private hands.
Its £40,000 cost was funded by grants from the Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries as well as support from the University Development Fund and the Department of Welsh and Celtic Studies.
Among other items which have come into the centre’s hands are a collection of notebooks kept by R.S. from his time as the priest at Manafon, in the 1940s, which were recently donated by a private owner.
The first book reveals it was used as a journal – the page is open on an entry for 1944.
The staunch pacifist poet notes on June 6 – the day of the D-Day landings in France:
“Today the British and American forces landed again in France and a great slaughter was begun.”
R.S.T. was also an ardent member of Welsh CND – his anti-nuclear badge with daffodil emblem is on show along with his “infamous red tie.”
Another fascinating exhibit features a manuscript draft of his poem ‘West Coast’.
“Remarkably, seven working drafts of this poem which was first published in Destinations, 1985, have survived.” Prof Brown said.
“It was told to us, by R.S.’s son the late Gwydion Thomas, that on occasions his mother Elsi would venture into his father’s study and rescue the discarded poems and manuscripts thrown into the bin.
“She would then flatten out the crumpled papers using her clothes iron!”
The drafts of ‘West Coast’ are the many numerous manuscripts purchased by the centre from the collection of the late Peter Joliffe.
“They look likely to have undergone the Elsi treatment!” Prof Brown said.
The centre is always on the lookout for material and the centre often bids on items that occasionally come up for auction.
Lost and rare material does still occasionally turn up in attics, sheds and cupboards, with some of the items donated by members of the public.
One clipping of a previously unknown poem was found inside the back of a second hand R.S. Thomas book found for sale on a North Wales market stall.
Another, a black and white photograph, had been overlooked for years.
It showed R.S. Thomas seated in front of a bus on the day of a church outing, when he was a curate at St Mary’s Church, Chirk, in the late 1930s.
“Its owner had wondered, do you think that could be him?” Prof Brown said.
“I looked at it, there was no doubt – it was him!”
“It is quite possible there could still be items relating to him across North Wales,” Prof Brown said.
“We are always interested at the centre to hear from people who think they may have something.
The R.S. Thomas Research Centre is used by students, researchers and academics who come to Bangor from all over the world to study the poet.
Located in a former finance office, it houses precious items including the books removed from his home at Pentrefelin which are safely stored on shelves within a former strong room.
Other items include the poet’s chair, eggs he collected, he was a keen bird watcher, and a hat which is thought to have been Elsi’s.
In a later period of his life R.S. Thomas was known as the parish priest at Aberdaron.
He would become secretary of the Cyfeillion Llŷn – The Friends of Llŷn a pressure group that campaigned on behalf of the Welsh language and the cultural well-being of the peninsula.
The group discovered that two early medieval inscribed stones, Meini Penprys, were held at the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford – not on display but stored in a basement.
The exhibition features the letter R.S. wrote to the museum’s Deputy Keeper on behalf of the Cyfeillion saying:
‘We conduct our business and campaigns in Welsh.
“I write in English for your convenience only.” It urged a reply.
Happily, the campaign was a success, and the stones are now displayed either side of the main entrance to Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, Llanbedrog, near Pwllheli.
‘R.S. Thomas: His Life and Writing’ is open free to visitors that can be viewed in to Bangor University council chamber corridor until the December 16, 2022.
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