This year’s National Eisteddfod was held in Abergavenny, the border town beloved of those who like good markets, independent shops, cafés, and the dramatic vistas that can only come from winding through the Brecon Beacons from the gateway of the Black Mountains. It is also the nearest town to the village that the writer, novelist, critic, and theorist, Raymond Williams grew up in – Pandy. Given such proximity, and Williams’s centrality to contemporary Welsh thought, it is of no surprise that the National Eisteddfod’s return to the Monmouthshire borderlands presented a golden opportunity to respond to his work in a variety of different ways. One of the most innovative was Peter Wakelin’s curation of an exhibition of artworks by Joan Baker, Charles Burton, John Elwyn, and Bert Isaac. All of them responded to life in South Wales through their art, teasing out of its undulating, ever changing landscape, shades of light and colour that strike you as immediately – perhaps even uniquely – South Walian. And to be South Walian, I think, is to inhabit the consciousness of the border, to exist as a borderlander, and to know what it is to have your thoughts and your habits pulled in two competing directions simultaneously.
Raymond Williams’s novel Border Country, published in 1960, is easily his greatest work of fiction. As Dai Smith has written – quoted in the book by Wakelin – it is ‘one of the most moving and accomplished novels of the twentieth century, written anywhere by anyone’. For those South Walians who have gone to Oxford or Cambridge, a cohort of which Williams, Wakelin, Smith, and I, are part, the novel has a particular resonance, occupying some of the space, some of the borderland, between home and college. And how it is that no sooner we leave, do we mentally return in the form of work: ‘Matthew Price had been eight years a university lecturer […] he was working on population movements into the Welsh mining valleys in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. But I have moved myself, he objected, and what is it really that I must measure?’ The visual artist, like the writer, and the scholar (perhaps more controversially), works best when they are the insider-outsider – able to look beyond the beguiling familiarity to see something more humane.
Of the four, Charles Burton is the most intriguing. At times his work offers something akin to a South Walian Lowry – his characters given form more as impressions of the crowd than as individuals. His use of colour, particularly the contrasting green and black and white on the one hand and the blues, browns, and greys, on the other, is quite unlike any of the other artists featured in Wakelin’s collection. His world offers the casual observer just what they want to see – the valleys are dark, the valleys are grey, the valleys are industrial places uninviting to the rest of the world – but more fundamentally what those who know the coalfield understand of their home. The sense of community, the richness of the landscape, the comfort of the regimented terraces indented only with a chapel, a co-op or a school, and the rhythms associated with life on a mountainside. Something of that rhythm emerges in Bert Isaac’s work too, unsurprising given he came from Church Village not all that far from Burton’s home in the Rhondda. I’ll come back to Isaac shortly.
If Burton offers a collective vision of South Wales, Joan Baker and John Elwyn draw us into a very different world, faces find fuller form (the fullest in Elwyn’s work), individuals are able to express themselves with greater clarity, and we are no longer looking in on the world outside the closed door, but are in the kitchen, in a group engaged in conversation outside chapel, inside the chapel service itself, shopping. It’s hard to imagine Baker’s oranges and purples finding a place in Burton’s grey-blue or green-black landscapes. Even at her most subdued – in Spring Evening – there is something more personal about Baker’s choice of colour, the greys tending towards lilac, the blues and greens towards the lighter end of the spectrum. As Wakelin suggests, Baker’s art was led by ‘the diversity of personalities’ found in Cardiff’s environs. Had this been a Burton work, there would surely have been a train on the tracks and something more substantial than a bicycle. Instead ‘apart from one cyclist everyone is on foot’ and the tracks are empty. The rhythm of life is a human one. Elwyn is the most westerly of the four artists and this, I think, explains the quite different use of light, colour (a yellow-green, rich and inviting, for instance), and up-close focus on individuals within a community. There is also a much greater sense of space, the mountains more in the distance than looming immediately afore as in Burton’s Rhondda.
Bert Isaac’s art ranges most in Wakelin’s selections and is the clearest echo of the art of Falcon Hildred, whose work Wakelin collected in Worktown: The Drawings of Falcon Hildred published by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales in 2012. But where Hildred was endeavouring to capture and record nineteenth century industry and its impress on the urban and semi-urban landscape, Isaac pushes us further back. We see the detritus of life and of industry at a remove, objects blurring, perspective bent out of shape, wreckage scattered in an otherwise ordered natural landscape. And in Isaac’s hand, on the natural really retains its normality. As we stand and face the rope walk, are we not on the edge of a 1930s cartoon just as our eyes lose all sense of what is and is not real?
This is a short book of just sixty-five pages but Wakelin engages sympathetically with his subjects weaving deftly from the source novel to the art to the reality of artist and context. It has all the depth and weight of a book two or three times its size. And what of the border itself? That is a tantalising question. All the paintings in the exhibition and in the book were painted before 1960, on the cusp of major change – what the Germans call a Wende or turn – life emerging from the long darkness of the 1930s, the war and austerity years of the 1940s, and the calm rebuilding of the 1950s. The old ways were decaying, not least in John Elwyn’s chapel – but there was still (just about) an appetite for that way of life. And yet there were signs of something new, too – skiffle bands, rock and roll, jive clubs, and the first signs of the pop art movement and minimalism that would so utterly transform the way the world thought about visual culture. There was, very clearly, something of the border to be found in the South Wales of the late-1940s and 1950s, and that is what came to find expression on the pages of Raymond Williams’s novel and on the canvases of Joan Baker, Charles Burton, John Elwyn, and Bert Isaac.
But let me turn, in drawing this review to a close, to the most compelling border of all – which Wakelin hints at tellingly in his introduction – that of the insider-outsider. The further we move from the end of the mining industry, the more at remove we all are from the world that it helped to create in the South Wales Valleys. If it was the privilege of the artists collected by Wakelin here to exist in and express the borderland between the insider and the outsider, and it was the privilege of Raymond Williams to express that on the page of his novel Border Country, and the privilege of historians such as Dai Smith to analyse it on television, radio, or in book form, then what happens when subsequent historians, artists, and novelists, are left only with the beguiling impression of the outsider? Where are the succeeding generations of borderlanders to come from? Perhaps, in the end, the borderland becomes the realm of the imagination, a fusion of the elements that once were. Or perhaps instead it becomes the beguiling, the familiar imagined darkness and the reality missed: nostalgia.