With the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition of works by George Chapman, George Chapman, 1908-1993: From Bardfield to the Rhondda, running from the 2nd of April to the 21st of May 2017, the Fry Blog talked to its curator, Philip Neale, about what visitors can expect to see and the contrasting impacts of rural Essex and the Rhondda valley on Chapman and his art.
Fry Blog: What would you say to someone unfamiliar with Chapman about what to expect in the exhibition?
Philip Neale: George Chapman was an artist who found fame in a limited period of time in the 1950s and 1960s. Before then he had worked in commercial design for various companies including Shell and London Transport. He moved to North West Essex in the 1950s and became part of the thriving artist community in Great Bardfield. His work from this time shows that the other Bardfield artists did influence him, but he struggled to find his ‘own distinctive style’. In 1953, on a journey to South Wales, he discovered the Rhondda valley and the mining communities which lived and worked there. This was his ‘Eureka’ moment, as at last he had found subject matter which interested and inspired him. From then on he visited the Rhondda for sustained periods and painted and etched numerous works. This exhibition includes both paintings and etchings from his South Wales work, for which he is best known, together with some of his earlier graphic designs. There are also many photographs and artist related ephemera on display associated with both George and his second wife Kate, who was also an artist.
FB: What part do you think North West Essex and Great Bardfield played in Chapman’s life and career?
PN: Chapman was influenced by the other more famous artists in Great Bardfield, including Edward Bawden, Bernard Cheese and John Aldridge. Michael Rothenstein introduced Chapman to etching and his first prints were made under Rothenstein’s guidance in his studio. The first etchings displayed an inventive use of texture and an experimentation in process which fitted well with the environment of decaying buildings and gloomy light Chapman found in the Rhondda valleys.
George also became involved in the famous Great Bardfield ‘Open House’ exhibitions in the 1950s and played a large part in their organisation and promotion. He used these exhibitions to show his Welsh pictures and it was at these occasions that he came to the attention of galleries in Cambridge and London, which then started to exhibit his works.
FB: Chapman said he lost interest in the Rhondda when the sun shone: did he have a miserabilist tendency?
PN: There is no evidence that he had a ‘misrerabilist’ tendency. His colleagues and friends speak very warmly of him and stories demonstrate that he possessed a love of humanity and the environment. He did suffer problems with his hearing from an early age and this made him nervous and detached at times.
The relatively dark and wet environment of the Rhondda valley was very much part of the pictures he painted. The continuous dark and brooding weather created light and dark reflections from such things as the rain washing the wet pavements, and people hurrying to find shelter and keep dry, and these aspects made his pictures even more eloquent and unique. If the sun shone and the weather was bright, his subject matter became less interesting and inspiring to him, as he felt that the harshness of the weather was needed to convey the real spirit of the area.
FB: Chapman worked in oils and as a lithographer, as well as being a prolific draftsman: do you think different media meant something different to him?
PN: I believe his use of different media and particularly his experimentation with the etching process grew his confidence as an artist. He often etched his plates outside and used scraping, polishing and burnishing techniques to add texture and tone to his pictures. These different processes allowed him to become more inventive, something he also experienced with the two dimensional space and simplification of forms in his early lithographic work as a graphic designer, in the 1930s. When he discovered the communities of the Rhondda, and the buildings and street scenes he wanted to portray, he found that both oils and etchings satisfied his ability to observe and record the inhabitants and their way of life. Both types of media were able to reflect a mood inspired by the character of the place, and people and places were recorded with much sincerity, and often a lot of humour.
FB: Where do you feel Chapman’s reputation rests now and is the 2017 exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery part of a gathering interest?
PN: Chapman’s work has always been a key part of the Collection in the Fry Art Gallery, which continues to seek out and buy works by him. Sales of his works have remained steady over the years. Putting this exhibition together has made me realise that there are a lot of people out there interested in his work, often seeking out unknown work by him. His reputation obviously rests on the South Wales pictures and he is far more famous in Wales, as evidenced by the wealth of his work in collections and exhibitions held in the Principality. His contribution is not only to the history of British post-war art and culture, but particularly to the history of contemporary art in Wales. His depiction of social history is also important as he was able to portray the South Wales mining communities, in a snapshot of time, which have almost disappeared now. I am sure that the current exhibition will gather and generate more interest in him.
FB: Do you have a favourite work in the display and, if so, which and why?
PN: One of my favourite works in the exhibition is the etching entitled The First Building. This is one of the seven etchings which made up The Rhondda Suite, a portfolio of prints published by the St George’s Gallery in 1960. The Rhondda Suite and particularly The First Building epitomises the themes that were a continual part of Chapman’s work: dark brooding streets, telegraph poles, railway signals, slag heaps in the distance, dark figures walking along the street. There is also a strange little bubble car on the road, looking like a cartoonish space craft, but very characteristic of the time. The title of the piece refers to the first ‘open air’ gentlemen’s lavatories in the Rhondda valley, and Chapman must be the only artist ever to use public toilets as a subject matter.
Philip went to college in South Wales and subsequently worked in various scientific roles, mainly in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. He has a longstanding interest in Twentieth Century art and design, and has been a volunteer at the Fry Art Gallery since 2000.