Why does Wales look that way? Part 1

If you didn’t already know I’ve set up my family home in Wales.  I live here, study here and my wife and daughter are both Welsh. If I asked you to think about how Wales and its people look I’m sure that many different images would be brought to mind but that the stereotypical ideas shown in the Blackadder clip at the opening of this post might prevail.  When speaking about a group of third-generation American descendants of Welsh emigrants Patrick Hannan said:

The image many of them carried was erratically familiar: of a nation of Welsh-speaking, chapel-going, hymn-singing, rugby-playing, coal-mining, iron-making, slate-cutting, sheep-farming, look-you troglodytes peering truculently through a permanent light drizzle.

Many of the readers of this blog will never have been to Wales and so their idea of what the country and its people look like. If we have never visited a country our notions are preconceived by various cultural strands: literature, the visual arts, sculpture and even architecture – all easily accessed with a few clicks on google!

I think Hannan’s quote on Wales addressed pretty much every stereotype there is of the Welsh (other than one or two ruder ones). As a photographer I always try to make myself aware of the visual representations of anywhere I shoot. Research is a vital weapon in the photographer’s arsenal and so I dug around a bit to find out how our photographic perception of Wales has been formed. This lead me to look at how modern photographers are still subconsciously, and consciously, shaping their work based on these images.

The Role of Painters

Ibbetson's Llangollen
Ibbetson – Llangollen

Photography is a relatively new branch of the arts and as so it is the smell of paint that draws us to early visual representations of the country. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unspoilt and beautiful landscapes of a pre-industrialised Wales that was the main attraction to painters. Although there were Welsh artists working in the country it is the works of visiting artists that became the most well-known. Francis Towne (1759-1816), JMW Turner (1775-1851) and David Cox (1783-1859) were all Englishman that came to love Wales and the Welsh landscape. Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817) was an exception to the rule as he came to Wales to paint the Welsh people rather than the mountains. In his work Llangollen he presents an idealised vision of rural welsh life. His subjects are well dressed, clean and enjoying an early evening together.  There is little indication of the realities of the hard life of poverty.

It can be argued that the Welsh artist tradition was to a large extent enriched by foreign artists who settled in Wales while Welsh-born artists lived and worked outside Wales.  In his introduction to The Welsh Lens 12 Contemporary Photographers from Wales (1997) Crawford wrote:

In the nineteenth century there was really no indigenous appreciate value applied to the landscape, either as a source of beauty or wonder or visual splendour.  On the contrary, you can find by comparison, even into the late nineteenth century more apologies from those who lived here.


Morris - Caeharris Post Office
Morris – Caeharris Post Office

This was because the landscape of Wales was considered to be wild and close to nature.  Until only recently, in the mid-twentieth century, these were thought of as negative traits.  For modern painters and photographers the ‘wildness’ now eludes to a romantic woodland or a quiet dell.  This pride in the landscape is apparent in many of the paintings of Cedric Morris (1889-1992).  Morris has the distinction of being one of the first Welsh artists to fix the character of the Welsh industrial landscape in paint.

Zobole - Rhondda Landscape
Zobole – Rhondda Landscape

Another Welsh painter, Ernest Zobole (1927-1999) chose the Rhondda Valley to become the centre for the ‘The Rhondda Group of Painters’.  These painters changed the grim industrial scenery of the Rhondda and the Taff Valleys into a world of rainbow colours and unforgettable imagination with their often surreal interpretations.

Herman - Miners Singing
Herman – Miners Singing

The work of modern foreign painters cannot be overlooked, Josef Herman (1911-2000), a Polish painter, moved to Swansea in 1944 and fell in love with the Swansea Valley and the miners who he depicted in many of his paintings. The subjects in his paintings represent a metaphor for the exploitation of the work force and the associated hardship and poverty, but also their strength and courage to survive their conditions.

We have now looked at a wide historical scope of paintings.  If you clicked through some of the slideshow links I’ve provided you should hopefully have already started to recognise the role that this paintings have played in forming the early photographic images.  Before we move on to photography my next post will take a quick dip into the role that movies and TV have played in creating the visual language of Wales…