|John Piper, Llanthony Priory, 1941 (private collection)|
But I wasn't in Cardiff to look at Royal portraits. In fact I didn't know the exhibition was on until I walked into the room and saw the same face repeated over and over, reimagined by Warhol, Gilbert and George and sundry others but still essentially the same unknowable woman. If there is a real, hidden Elizabeth beneath the public persona, this exhibition leaves her in peace.
|Pietro Annigoni, Queen Elizabeth II, 1969 (Nat Port Gall)|
Once inside the museum I headed straight for the Piper show, a public display of a private collection comprised mostly of dramatic mountain scenes. I hadn't realised before quite how much time that quintessential wandering artist spent in Wales, but it seems he practically lived in Snowdonia in the 1940s and 1950s. Personally, I don't think that the mountain paintings, which are dramatic but rather formless, show him at his best, but there was one gorgeous treat: a painting of Llanthony Priory from the 1940s. Nobody has ever captured the peculiar atmosphere surrounding an English or Welsh church quite like Piper, and here the dramatic contrast of darkness and light (the wall on the right is a dazzling golden yellow) is enhanced by a wonderful texture; the paint surface is covered in swirls and squiggles that almost form a pattern but instead reinforce the sense of age and beauty.
Thank heavens he gave up abstraction.
|David Jones, Capel-y-ffin, 1926/7 (NM Wales)|
A Londoner of mixed Anglo-Welsh parentage, Jones served in the Great War and subsequently suffered two nervous breakdowns that hampered his career just as he was becoming established. This was in the early 1930s, after a productive decade which he had spent working alongside Eric Gill, first at Ditchling, Sussex, and then at Capel-y-Ffin in the Welsh Marches. In later years Jones produced increasingly odd pictures, often in pencil and crayon, covering the paper with mythical figures, plants and flowers and symbols of one kind and another. These are fascinating but less accessible than his landscapes from the 1920s which, though sometimes agonisingly delicate, are beautifully crafted and highly original.
|Gwen John, Girl in a Green Dress (NM Wales)|
Another artist of that productive era of whom the same could be said is Gwen John (who was born in Pembrokeshire), and it was a pleasant surprise to happen upon a clutch of her portraits hanging next to a group of her brother's. Where Augustus John's pictures are bright and expressive - crying out to be noticed, you might say - Gwen's are self-effacing and thoughtful. In a couple of the portraits the subjects seem about to fade into the background, but they are beautiful nevertheless.
|James Dickson Innes, Arenig, 1913 (NM Wales)|
One final surprise awaited me in the room devoted to Welsh landscape: a picture I've been thinking about a lot over the past year. 'Waterwheel' is one of my favourite Ravilious paintings, and one that features in 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', and it was fascinating to come across it like that, unexpectedly and in a room full of landscapes by other artists of different generations. What struck me instantly was the quality of the light, both the luminous sky and the radiance surrounding the waterwheel like a halo. In that brightness I felt the motion of the waterwheel and heard the gurgling water - a place (Capel-y-Ffin) and a moment (dawn, early March 1938) brought to life.
|Eric Ravilious, Waterwheel, 1938 (Brecknock Museum)|
'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is being bound, and will be available very soon! Come and say hello at the RWA, Bristol on Saturday March 10th, when I'll be signing copies...