Commentary by Jo Walter in conversation with David Barron
The starting point for this exhibition was recent work carried out in Lockdown, featuring the changing Swansea skyline seen from the studio and studies of our backyard garden. Jackie Ford suggested expanding this to include earlier work on the three themes of gardens, collected objects, plus studies of Swansea. This selection of drawings, paintings and prints has been a chance to revisit some special memories of times past. Broadly speaking the work is grouped chronologically, exploring specific places and spaces over different periods.
A Stepney Garden
The dreamlike setting of a ‘ty haf’ beside Salmon Lane in the East End of London. The magic of an enclosed garden with square flags, plants in rows and a cat against the moonlight (11). The same theme is explored in more sharply contrasting charcoal (21). The cat walks along the wall of a bombed house just above the old chimney stack. A drawing of contrasts, both tonal and linear, with plant shapes shown against the paving slabs and bricks. As noted by poet Nigel Jenkins in his thoughtful catalogue essay for the exhibition ‘In a City Garden’, this productive phase marked a return to urban living in both Swansea and London, after a decade farming in Carmarthenshire.
Jenkins’ observation that these ‘works of cryptic autobiography are also meditations on the relation between nature and people’ is celebrated in this series of garden drawings and encapsulated in the image ‘Stepney Interior’ (66). This features the lily pond, the focal point of this garden, around which the structure has been developed, as seen in the large pencil study Lilypond (58). In the colour pencil drawing Lily Pond and Garden, Late Summer (20), the water lily leaves, almost bleached white, are contrasted with dark blue shadows with the shape of the path behind being echoed by the plank bridge. Pool and Terrace (22), shows blue green and orange leaves contrasted by an old watering can. The ancillary details (a Kilner jar and an abandoned fish tank) poignantly indicate what was previously there. Flowers and vegetables grow alongside each other.
Marking the garden corner, the dilapidated fence appears in winter (Broken Fence and Elder, 10), with disparate forms both man-made and natural. Similarly Leeks Under Netting (61) are shown encased in a mesh grid.
In a city garden – exploring colour and structure through drawing
Introducing the device of a higher viewpoint and architectural structure, looking out through the upper floor Kitchen Window from above (13); the grey spikey house plant inside, outlined against an exterior pink wall, accented with yellow. Beyond lies an ancient magnolia tree which has since spread further, marking time over the years (Magnolia, 8).
In Summer Garden (6) blue shadows cross the path. The gently diffused colours of the watering cans and water butt next to the green netting obscure and change the overall form of a gooseberry bush. The Raspberry Canes (14) are seen in winter, yellow standing out against blue.
Looking at Poppies and Marigolds (15), the viewer has to make connections in this drawing which is about using the white space of the paper to accentuate the reds and gold of the flowers. Hollyhocks (18) is an all-over, rather chintzy profusion of colour, with the flower shapes delineated against the dark toned evergreen tree.
Within a French garden the notion of overlooking continues to be explored in La Farigoule, Balcony (27), seen in high summer. The shapes and tones of the trees in the garden beyond make a pleasing contrast with the formal lines of the balcony.
Swansea studio – still life studies: objects found and seen
The studio space is a repository of meaningful objects collected over the years: glass, ceramics, textiles, toys, decorative foiled chocolates, a Corinthian capital, a chair hand carved from ash and hazel. A cabinet of such curiosities appears in Glass Collection (68), where glasses, bottles and a pyramid inkwell sit inside a Fry’s Chocolate case. Mirrors reflect the light and the objects, playfully framing the silhouette of the artist.
More glass appears tonally in the aquatint Decanter (82) and in the three colour drypoint Empty Decanter (91).
Paintbrushes (67) gives another sense of the studio work space, with brushes standing in various containers against the light. The process usually starts with sketch book drawing to sort out the visual relationships of shapes within a space or boundary. Depending on the end product, whether that be print, drawing or painting, size and scale are important considerations. How big can something be and still look convincing?
Smaller paintings allow for direct and fast working with a quick drying medium. The work stays open for as long as possible, aiming for a resolution in one painting session. Thin layers of paint loosely worked with a rag might then be overlaid with a thicker layer of colour applied with a palette knife, as in the two studies of Apples (70 and 71).
Fruits are a frequent subject, placed against simple backgrounds such as a faded blue tea towel, as in Blue Bowl and Apricots (75) and Victorias (81).
The daylight reflected off the sea reveals the colour in the still life forms. The stunning sea view from the studio window appears in Apricots, Town and Sea (76).
The diffusion of light and interplay with colour informs other object groupings such as Blue Bottle (77), Oxwich Bay Shells (72), the pansy studies (85, 89 and 90), Bouquet (73) and Bowls (79). In Lemons in a Green Bowl (78), the silhouette of the artist again appears, reflected in the side of the bowl.
Swansea studio – still life studies: the printmaking process
The prints are developed in sketchbook drawings as works in themselves, rather than being versions of paintings. The drypoint method, where lines are scored into metal, plastic or card plates allows for a direct approach. The inking process is the most critical – choosing how much or how little ink to leave on the plate; allowing a film of one colour to blend with another; using three colours, the primaries red, yellow and blue, as in the Marmite and Marmalade drypoint (92). Other images using this method are Slipware Jug by David Frith (93) and Victorian Jug (94).
Areas of solid block colour can then be applied using cut-out card shapes, as in Workshop Mugs (95)and Pink Orchid (96). Llanelli Mug (97), a stencil print using flatly applied colour, is more like a painting.
While the two quince drypoint prints celebrate the fruit for its shape and taste, they also combine image and text, hinting at associations redolent of its scented fragrance. Quince – the aromatic fruit of love, called Aphrodite’s Apple, is praised by 10th century Andalusian-Arabic poet Shafer ben Utman al-Mushafi, whose words intertwine with the luscious fruits: in ‘It stood fragrant on the bough’ (83) and ‘I gently put up my hand to pluck it’ (86).
Swansea studio -The Promenade Garden
Outside, another enclosed garden grown over previously neglected ground provides rich subject matter for interpretation. The brush and ink drawing Along the Promenade (65) shows the context of the location: looking due East from a scaffold, the front gables of The Promenade terraced houses are shown in sepia, overlooking Swansea Bay beyond in blue pastel. Victorian traces remain (Urns, 34); planting softens the edges, in Promenade Garden (19) and Apple Tree (7). Summer Shadows (1) leads the viewer up a tiled garden pathway.
Looking West over a series of narrow gardens, in Promenade Gardens (5), with different fences framed by vertical window edges. In the foreground, carnations sit in a glass vase in the studio, contrasting in colour and form with the explosion of pampas grass outside. The same viewpoint is seen at night under the glare of the street light in Blue Tree by Lamplight (62).
The Vegetable Garden (36) painting achieves a successful balance between the drawn forms and their colour. The blue brassicas contrast with the pink violet earth, while the two tones of the yellow compost bin complement the pair of pink violet tones. The green leaves act as a foil to the red of the earth and the purple shadows on the right. This painting would look very flat in a black and white photograph; tones are deliberately low key so that the colours can glow.
In Autumn Garden Gate (37), it is as if the tree on the right wants to be in the studio – creeping round the vertical window frame, while the silver birch on the left gently curves away. The garden gate frames the view to the outside world; your eye travels along the foreshore buildings and the sea, (with a meths bottle being included for its colour).
The structural element of the gateway is explored tonally in the charcoal drawing Garden Gate (3) and similarly in print, using aquatint: In the Garden: Daylilies (98). The painting Garden Gate and Town (48) looks beyond The Promenade to a now vacant space where once The Odeon stood on The Kingsway below.
Swansea city studies: the changing skyline
The high viewpoint of The Promenade affords a 180 degree panorama of Swansea Bay, stretching across from Porthcawl and Port Talbot over to Mumbles Head. The light changes endlessly, giving rise to myriad variations of colour and tone to be trailed. Coupled with this is the visual stimulus of wide city views, especially responding to urban regeneration work taking place.
Looking eastwards at night, the full moon rises over the steam from the steel works, while the Tawe flows into the bay from the harbour mouth interpreted in a pair of charcoal drawings, Moon Over Harbour Mouth (40) and Moon Over Port Talbot (41). The same view is seen by daylight in the colour studies, at dawn in Steelworks (55) and Jetties (56). To the West the moon lights the clouds, reflected in calm water, atmospherically explored through aquatint in Moon over Mumbles (104) and in the painting Moon and Clouds Over Swansea Skyline (63).
South Dock Clearance (42) offers an almost apocalyptic vision: craters formed before the council realised they could create a marina rather than a rubbish filled redundant dock. This flattened earth image echoes an earlier study Snow on Waste Ground (60), the largest drawing in this collection. Here the focus is on the transformative power of snow. A landscape of building rubble, twisted reinforcing, buddleia bushes, corrugated iron and steel fences throws up intriguing lines, dark against white. The light snow is contrasted by the dark brick industrial units, distinguished by their large scale numbers which echo the road signs gently delineated with watercolour.
The now vanished Vetch resurfaces in Welcome to Swansea (57), being recorded alongside the 1970’s brutalist Civic Centre and the Victorian prison building in Vetch Field (53). Print versions are also explored (99, 100 and 101), using drypoint. County Hall reappears (38 and 39) in colour tone drawings with the tonality of the town buildings in Sandfields set against the sun flecked sea.
City centre views are recorded in Cradock Street (49), with the towers of The Carlton Cinema in a damp roofscape, Oxford Street and The Carlton (50). Similarly The Odeon features in darker toned winter studies (51 and 52).
Swansea studies in Lockdown
The beachside Meridian Tower has become an established part of the Swansea skyline, but during Lockdown seemed a good time to explore its obelisk shape set against the horizon in counterpoint to the city buildings.
In contrast with the city views, other Lockdown studies have a closer focus on aspects of backyard planting. Like the Stepney garden from before, this is a walled space with a tranquil water feature – simple tubs planted with water lilies, surrounded by trees and plants growing in pots. The jumble of different leaf shapes includes weeds, self-seeded plants like docks and wild orchids. A fig tree has rooted in the ground and now gives fruit and striking yellow leaves in autumn
Jenkins, N (1987) In a City Garden. Exhibition held at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, 16 May – 20 June [Exhibition catalogue]