The Fry Art Gallery’s first exhibition for 2017, opening on the 2nd of April and running to the 21st of May, features the work of George Chapman: George Chapman, 1908-1993: From Bardfield to the Rhondda. Chapman moved to Great Bardfield in 1950 with his wife Katy and stayed for ten years. It was only at the end of this time, however, that he found real success as an artist and then in association with a very different place.
On Chapman’s own account, he first went to the coal mining valleys of Wales by accident in the mid-1950s. He was forty seven and had just dropped off a picture for exhibition in Cardiff despite increasing doubts about his future as an artist. To get home in time he needed to take a short cut and that meant an unwanted trip through the industrial villages. However what he found there was a landscape unlike anything he had seen before and which he believed could be the basis for finally establishing him as a painter. Chapman’s instincts weren’t wrong. His 1960 exhibition of Welsh paintings at the Zwemmer gallery, along with the Rhondda Suite of etchings produced by the St George’s Press in the same year, transformed his reputation. In January 1961 the BBC broadcast George Chapman in the Rhondda Valley as part of an edition of Monitor. Though brief, the film gives a fascinating insight into the artist’s thinking and it will be shown alongside the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition; the autobiographical voiceover Chapman recorded is also preserved in a Monitor anthology which was published the following year.
Chapman is open and eloquent in talking about what he is trying to do in the Rhondda pictures. What first attracted him to the mining valleys was, he says, the romantic combination of old industrial buildings and dramatic landscape: ‘I don’t suppose everybody feels these valleys are beautiful, but I agree with Constable that time and the weather makes everything beautiful’. However that soon gave way to a feeling that it was the present and the people, intimately connected to their place and past, which really interested him; a humanised landscape where repeated television aerials structure the steep rise of a hill. His aim became to create a ‘visual novel of the mining valleys’, as full and encompassing as William Faulkner’s writing on the American south, ‘describing everything the people are doing’.
In this way, Chapman’s project was not so much about making individual pictures as the stories told by their combination. This was reflected in the way he worked. When he was in the valleys he sketched with concentrated productivity to create twenty or thirty drawings; back in the studio these would be worked up in parallel, with up to a dozen paintings in progress at any one time. Alternatively he might take etching plates and draw on them directly en plein air, combining the results into a ‘suite’ of prints.
In his Monitor recording Chapman is fully aware that the idea of story-telling through art had been deprecated since English formalism first made its attack from Bloomsbury, let alone following the triumph of American Abstract Expressionism, but he is unembarrassed, or perhaps more accurately uninterested, by this: ‘Of course narrative painting is supposed to be out of date and very dangerous ground for an Englishman, but so far as I am concerned it gives me an object and a purpose’.
He is also adamant, however, that despite his realism and his subject matter he is not a political painter. Across the 1950s the socialist critic John Berger, who died in January this year, had attempted to marshal realist artists under a political banner, as one side in a ‘battle for realism’ (in the phrase coined by art historian James Hyman). Chapman explicitly denies that there are any overt political messages within his work, but that’s not to say there might not be some social meaning to be found in the scenes depicted. He saw his job as an artist as to portray reality with veracity and sympathy, ‘to take things as they are’, and if he did his job properly ‘the social comment, if such a thing is needed, will come over by itself’.
Certainly there’s a moral quality in Chapman’s determination to look at and record every aspect of the mining village’s self-sufficient world. The Monitor anthology includes a still of him, sketchbook in hand, eyeing the scene in front of a pebble-dash wall, the oracle of the valleys.
All quotations are from Huw Wheldon, ed., Monitor: An Anthology, London: Macdonald, 1962.