Evan Walters. Moments of Vision.
Edited by Barry Plummer. Bridgend, 2011, ISBN 978-1-85411-542-3. £12.99.
The 20th century Welsh art world can be described in a few sentences. But that is at least partly because it has not, until recently, had enough attention paid to it to enable a proper, full description. Gradually this shortcoming is being remedied. Peter Lord has been at the forefront of championing Welsh art studies and his work on Winifred Coombe Tennant, published in 2007, was a milestone. Similarly, the study of the Davies sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline, at Gregynog, which also appeared in 2007, was very timely. Once we get a biography of the 2nd Viscount Tredegar of Tredegar House we will have covered some of the main Welsh art patrons of the immediate post-War period.
The problem remains that not enough is known about the Welsh artists who have traditionally fallen outside the attention of the London art world and the writers who historically insist upon an English-centric vision of British art. We all know about Augustus John. We almost know too much about him. We have two volumes of biography of him by Michael Holroyd, which comprehensively deal with his life, not to mention various volumes of autobiography, which give the artist’s viewpoint. We know plenty about Ceri Richards, Gwen John, Kyffin Williams and Sir Cedric Morris. We even have a nice book about John Elwyn by Robert Meyrick.
Now what we have is a nice book about a less well-known Welsh artist, Evan Walters. This book is less than a full biography, and less than a full critical study of the work. It is something else entirely. After a short, sensible introduction by Barry Plummer, the book then does something which other art books tend not to do – it prints responses to Walters’ work by a large range of people. Some are descriptive; others relate the pictures to some aspect of their own lives; others write poems about the pictures. Many of the contributors are distinguished in their individual areas.
Does this unusual approach work? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. As with any anthology, readers will not necessarily like or agree with every contribution. But there is enough sophisticated and mature writing here to make the book a pleasure. It is also highly revealing to enable what might be called normal people, rather than professional art writers or critics, to give us their thoughts on the work of Evan Walters.
The work is exceptionally varied. Art writers who are used to seeing the history of 20th century British art through the English painters must try to widen their horizons to include what might loosely be called the fringe areas. Scottish artists already get their fair share of attention, at least in Scotland, because there is a body of Scottish writers who properly promote them. Irish artists get dealt with as an Irish matter; the Welsh artists less so. But all must be considered in an integrated way if we are to develop a full and objective view of the whole British art world.
Because of the form of this book, with no coherent policy as to the reproduction of images of the work, it cannot be used to assess Walters objectively. One very much needs either a catalogue raisonée or a detailed, chronological analysis, with ordered reproductions, to be able to assess an artist’s career; either that, or familiarity with his work in the saleroom. In the case of Welsh artists, and Walters in particular, the London salerooms do not hold sales of Welsh art, either in London or in Wales, unlike in the case of Scottish and Irish art, so we are denied an easy opportunity to form a view of the work as a whole.
Therefore, even the eagle-eyed will not have seen much work by Walters coming through the London market. This combination of things means that Walters’ work remains difficult to assess. There are some very striking major set-piece works, visible here and in Peter Lord’s biography of Walters’ big patron, Winifred Coombe Tennant. Some are highly satisfactory self-portraits; others are penetrating portraits of Welsh sitters. Some works are very Welsh, in the sense that they show the normal working people of Wales in the 1930’s. Some are joyously rich depictions of the Welsh countryside. Anyone approaching these pictures with an open mind and a readiness to find talent in unfamiliar places will be able to see pictures which they like and respect.
Some pictures are less successful, as with the work of all artists. Mel Gooding in his contribution points this out in a perfectly fair and acceptable way. As one of the few contributors with a background in professional art criticism, it would be fascinating if he could be induced to write a longer, illustrated piece about Walters’ work. What we do not want or need is any wild promotional writing about artists such as Walters; they need to be subtly slotted in to an existing framework and given their proper due.
There are too many individual contributions to make it possible to review them all. I will just pick out two to mention. Walters lived with a lady called Erna Meinel. In 1938 he painted her portrait, under the title ‘Lady in a Black Hat’. It is an exceptionally arresting work. The woman’s expression is tantalisingly opaque: what is her mood? Two female contributors have picked this work to comment on. Elizabeth Stead appears from her biographical details to be a retired mathematics lecturer. Geraldine Scott is also retired, but there is no indication as to what she did previously. Both write with great care and insight. Here is Elizabeth Stead:
“He has painted a tender and admiring psychological study of a vivacious woman and has realised her character in all its uniqueness. He has not merely described but analysed. She is offered to us not because of her possessions or status but because of her character and personality. She has a hinterland.”
That is a good example of the sort of work this book contains – sensitive, thoughtful personal views. And what a well-placed use of that comparatively rare word, hinterland!
Now here is Geraldine Scott:
“Superficially, the painting conveys an impression of a prim, mature, and confident woman, quintessentially sophisticated, cultured and intelligent, and a representation of the female spirit abounding in the 1930’s within a certain social class. But her facial expression blatantly reveals much more. There is an air of almost regal superiority here, smugness even, and her direct, steadfast gaze towards the viewer is distinctly challenging. Behind the eyes, however, there is more than just a hint of pensive nostalgia, with the mouth suggesting more of a smirk than a smile, but the chin, quite strong, very resolute, and possessing a rather incongruous, masculine quality”.
This is an unusual, thought-provoking book. Those reading this who want to know about important British artists of the 20th century, rather than just English ones, would do well to buy this and begin their re-education programme.