John Selway writes to the Editor about Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan's review of A Taste of the Avant Garde. 56 Group Wales. 56 Years and Twelve/56: 12 Artists in 1956 Wales and Beyond. Read the review here.
I have read with interest the reviews in Planet of the two recent publications concerning the 56 Group Wales. While I cannot claim to speak for the authors of the books, who may have their own views to express, I should like, as the current Chairman of the group, to make the following points.
It is of course in the nature of reviewing to voice opinions concerning the subject matter of volumes one has been given to review. However I believe Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan's article emerges as less a critique of the books concerned and more a veiled attack on the 56 Group itself. Her quote from Kyffin Williams – which describes the members as 'English carpetbaggers seeking the status they failed to achieve in London' – immediately sets an antagonistic tone, which serves to undermine the group – using the words of a somewhat overrated Welsh artistic reactionary to represent a valid and objective criticism. It also does not reflect in any meaningful sense the makeup of the group, which after all began in Wales with a fair number of indigenous Welsh artists. It should also be borne in mind that several early members, such as Arthur Giardelli, Hubert Dalwood and Trevor Bates were known artistic entities in London before the group began. As the years unfolded, many other members of the group became known outside the 'parochial' art world of Wales. To what extent this is relevant I do not know – why a reputation in Wales should be regarded as less worthy than one in London is a matter I have never quite understood. In a culture which was Anglo-centric – when all roads led to London – it might have been understandable in terms of an inferiority complex, but I do not believe it is valid to think in this way now in post-devolution Wales when surely we should be promoting our culture rather than finding thinly-disguised ways of slating our creative art practitioners. To fail to recognise the social imperatives which drove artists out of Wales seems disingenuous, but to criticise artists who chose to identify with Wales in various ways by being here seems equally odd. For myself, it would not take the author of the article – who is after all a scholar – long to discover the very unique 'set' of which I was privileged to be part during my years at the Royal College, or to discover that while I was in London I was already well on the way to becoming a recognised figure in the 'British' scene. The same applied to other artists who became associated with the group – Terry Setch being one obvious example and a cursory perusal of the books would reveal others – yet why people such as us seem to merit the status of 'wannabes' or 'also-rans' because we chose either to come to Wales or to return to our homeland mystifies me. I could have stayed in London, but for me, home is where I am defined and the home front provides the hearth out of which I continue to create. I am sure other artists, be they present or past members of the 56 Group Wales, feel exactly as I do.
I am aware that a number of artists who found themselves turned down for membership of the 56 Group Wales may feel that they have axes to grind, and they are entitled to express their views. However, I believe that in the final analysis the group in all its forms will be found to have contributed greatly to fostering the creative arts in Wales. A nod in this direction could have been envisaged, rather than the somewhat intemperate tone of the review. As for the criticisms regarding the gender and linguistic composition of the group, it needs to be borne in mind that for a large part of its life the membership of the group was generated from within the membership by recommendation, which was then voted upon. Rightly or wrongly, the idea that someone would be accepted or rejected on the grounds of gender or language never featured – what mattered was the artistic integrity of the work. I will acknowledge that there would be a particular inbuilt cultural view which was coloured by internationalism – and one could argue against this as a valid criterion – but I do not know how this would be avoided, particularly as our internationalism was set against a narrow nationalism which was exemplified by Kyffin Williams and his ilk. In this regard I would say I am heartened by a revival of the Welsh language – and am a paid up member of Plaid Cymru to boot – but I cannot see for the life of me why the language of a visual artist should be relevant, except perhaps where one is using the language as a vehicle in a visual sense. Apparently to criticise artists for reviews they did or did not receive in Welsh – when it was hard enough to get any reviews in English – seems very peculiar, and the issue of bilingual catalogues, which first emerged from the 56 Group at the time when everyone else was also starting meaningfully to recognise the worth of the Welsh language, strikes me as a very strange stick to beat us with.
I hope that I shall be forgiven for making these points – if I have misread or misinterpreted the words of Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan then I can only apologise. However, in view of the fact that I was unable, in reading her article, to be quite sure whether she was reviewing books or writing a personalised interpretation of the history of 56 Group Wales I believe others may also have experienced the same problem of evaluation. For this reason, I believe my views are worth airing.
Chairman, 56 Group Wales
Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan responds
I very much regret that John Selway – an artist whose work I have long admired – has read my review as ‘a veiled attack on the 56 Group itself’. This was far from being my intention and I am dismayed that he should read this into what was intended as an even-handed description and assessment of two very informative volumes. Neither was the review intended to provide a particular narrative of the Group’s history or to give my own views on it, but simply to indicate some of the points that emerge from those publications. The negative comments, including the characteristically and very obviously hyperbolic words of Kyffin Williams, were in fact drawn from David Moore’s account of the history of the Group, which is, of course, based on its archives. I quoted them in order to illustrate what strong reactions the Group has inspired in the past, which may come as a shock to readers familiar with the Group only in its more recent incarnation.
It is indisputable that the Group attracted controversy from various quarters over the years, and whether or not any particular criticism was fair or unfair, that is still a significant part of its history and cannot be ignored. In his account Moore, as a conscientious historian, has celebrated the Group’s achievements whilst not shirking from recording the fact that, rightly or wrongly, the Group’s membership, activities and work have not always be seen in a positive light. One cannot read his text without becoming aware of the less harmonious episodes, whether disagreement arose within the Group or whether criticism was directed at it from outside. Given that its founders intended it to be a ‘radical’ and ‘forwarding-looking’ body, it was surely natural and indeed expected, perhaps even desirable, that it should stimulate lively debate. Conflict can often have a creative outcome, and it might be useful to explore whether without such criticism the Group would have evolved from what it was in its earlier decades to the more balanced and inclusive body it is by now.
Over its long lifetime the 56 Group Wales has undoubtedly made a huge contribution to the art of Wales, but in different ways at different times, and a lack of open dialogue undoubtedly led to polarised attitudes at certain junctures. Welsh-speakers do often have a different view of events, hence my regret that contemporary Welsh-medium sources, with their different narrative to the English ones, had not been explored. During the 1980s, a period when political feelings were running particularly high, there was considerable debate amongst Welsh speakers about the role of the Welsh-speaking artist, and some questioned very vocally the extent to which the 56 Group Wales, given its composition at that time, could claim to represent Welsh art. Having witnessed this from the sidelines, I was naturally interested to read Moore’s account of that period, but being based mainly on English-language archives, notably those of the Group, I felt it left some gaps.
The tensions between some Welsh-speaking artists and the 56 Group were not unique: one obvious parallel was the sometimes difficult relationship between the Association of Artists and Designers in Wales and Gweled, the Welsh-medium association for artists and those interested in Welsh art, to which I belonged. I recall several anglophone artists regularly ear-bashing me about Gweled ‘hoovering up’ Arts Council funding which they felt should rightly be spent on the AADW! As I stressed in my review of the 56 Group’s 50th anniversary exhibition (Taliesin, no. 130, 2007), all this was very much part of the Zeitgeist in the Wales of the 1980s, when there were similar, equally heated debates about the extent to which contemporary Welsh writing in English should reflect specifically Welsh experience and concerns.
That same period in Wales saw lively, if rather belated, activity on the feminist front, in which I was more directly involved. The continuing under-representation of women not only in the 56 Group but in the arts in general in Wales was a matter of great concern to us, as were the difficulties and discomfort faced by the first women then admitted into male-dominated circles, including the Group; these have previously been aired in print, including in Moore’s book. The reasons for that situation are well-known, and though happily nowadays it is a little easier than it was for women to succeed in their careers in the arts, any organisation where men predominate can still be slow to welcome women into their ranks.
I can assure John Selway that I have no animus against the 56 Group Wales. Preferring bridge-building to conflict, when Arthur Giardelli asked me if I would write an article in Welsh about the Group I welcomed the opportunity to present a more balanced account. This I did in my article in Barn 335-6 (Dec. 1990-Jan. 1991), which some readers, indeed, found too generous for their taste! It was also at Arthur Giardelli’s request that for for several years, without payment, I provided the Group with Welsh translations for its catalogues and related textual material, which would otherwise have remained monolingual. More recently, it was at the suggestion of Peter Spriggs, the Group’s Chair, that I reviewed the 2007 exhibition; in my appreciative review I stressed the important and long-lasting contribution the Group has made to Welsh art.
In both the volumes reviewed in Planet, the focus is on the past not the present. Reading that history, however unpalatable parts of it may be to us today, enhances our appreciation of the work of the current 56 Group as well as our understanding of its changing nature over the past 57 years.
Ceri Thomas writes to the Editor about the same review.
Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan concludes her review of David Moore’s excellent book (on the full, fifty-six year trajectory of the 56 Group Wales) and the collaborative one by Barrie Maskell and me (on the Group’s twelve founder members) by writing that 'each narrative of a particular history will of course differ according to the writer’s sources, purpose, cultural background and personal hobby-horses; reading these two publications illustrates the point perfectly.'
Her 'reading' of our narratives highlights her main concerns: the Group’s underrepresentation of women, of artists from regions outside south Wales and of the culture and language of Wales. They happen to be her 'personal hobby-horses' and in my 'understated essay' charting the early years I address these issues to some degree.
With regard to women, I consider Brenda Chamberlain, the only woman approached to join the Group in 1956, and I note Mary Lloyd Jones, its first female member in the early Seventies. In passing, I acknowledge also other significant women (with indirect links to the Group) such as Shelagh Hourahane and Lady Megan Lloyd George. Moreover, the male dominance of the Group – not unusual for the times – is established from the outset, with the twelve founders’ surnames (listed across the front cover of our book) being qualified by their male first names (across the back cover).
On the interconnected issues of the geography, culture and language of Wales, I refer to Chamberlain being in north Wales and I describe Mary Lloyd Jones as Welsh-speaking and based in west (mid) Wales. In addition, I point out that the Group did not adopt the word ‘Wales’ for ten years and hence I bracket this word in my essay title. I indicate a Cardiff-centric art history and art practice and, more generally, a south-Wales art school bias (applicable to all the founders save for Will Roberts).
Lloyd-Morgan’s point that 'neither publication takes account of criticism published in Welsh over the years' is an interesting but somewhat misleading one in that it highlights a chronic imbalance in the art history and art criticism of Wales over the last fifty or sixty years, much of which has been published in English only. Those who have addressed this tendency over the last ten to thirty years and counterbalanced it in print and on screen include Iwan Bala, Lloyd Morgan herself, Peter Lord and Osi Rhys Osmond. Indeed, S4C has provided an important and, in recent years, more regular Welsh art platform than (English-speaking) BBC Wales has.
The tardy development of a Welsh language dimension is illustrated in her statement that the Group began producing bilingual catalogues 'as staggeringly late as 1988'. And then there is her reference to 'a single review in Welsh ... noted in Moore’s book'. In fact, this is to one of her own reviews, published in the literary magazine Taliesin in 2007.
The problem is what she calls 'cultural background'. After all, eight of the founder members of the Group were English and none of the dozen members were Welsh-speakers. Furthermore, we the authors of these two new publications, either do not speak Welsh or, in my case, have limited Welsh. What is more, from 1960 onwards there was a strong drive within and beyond Wales towards an internationalist (and therefore English-language dominated) art approach which even the Group’s two indigenous founder members Will Roberts and Ernest Zobole enthusiastically shared.
The solution is greater engagement, understanding and empathy on both sides of the divide. In my 'useful introduction', I refer to the London-born David Bell’s concern to encourage a 'native tradition of Welsh painting' and his inclusion (in his 1957 survey book) of 'the Scot George Fairley and the Welsh-born Will Roberts and Ernest Zobole'.
As for 'the writer’s sources [and] purpose', unlike Moore, neither Maskell nor I had access to the Group’s extensive archive and we were covering about one seventh of the total number of artists that the very thorough Moore was able to cover. My stated aims were 'to revisit with a more historical turn of mind and a different and maybe less subjective eye that which constituted the 56 Group' and to define and contextualise some of its twelve founders and their art – curiously Lloyd-Morgan describes me as 'curator and critic' rather than as 'curator, art historian and artist', my designation in our book. Maskell and I were also aiming to provide a permanent reminder of the related exhibition, ‘56 Group – Then’, which was based on his remarkable private collection and which I curated, Nicholas Thornton of Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum Wales opened and the University of Glamorgan (now the University of South Wales) displayed in the winter of 2012-13.
In these challenging times for art in Wales and beyond, let us hope for greater co-operation and that both books, and subsequent 56 Group and 56 Group Wales publications and exhibitions, reach as many people as possible (whatever their language, gender or formation) and thereby stimulate new and old audiences to constructively engage and re-engage with the subject.