Faith on the Art Trail! By The Reverend Doctor Caroline Jones
Since taking up my post last year in Garnant I have been surprised once more by just how effective art is as a tool to help underpin our meditations, reflections and workshops. For our Advent meditations we looked at images of the nativity down through the ages. Spanning a time period of over a thousand years we looked at how the artists in those different eras depicted the Holy Family.
During Lent we looked at images of the Passion, again over a period of hundreds of years. We looked at Jesus during this trial and at all the other separate players in the drama; the Temple Guard, Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, Barabbas, Mary and Mary of Clopas and it was something which drew out of us a kind of corporate and shared pathos and awe over exactly what our Lord had suffered for us.
My first degree back in the 1980s was a combined BA honours in Art and English and for my thesis I ‘did’ the Davies sisters’ collection of French Art in the National Gallery in Cardiff. Back in the day I actually had hands on access to their letters where they wrote about what they had seen and bought and how much they had paid. It was such a privilege to read about it in their own hand how these two women, with little or no art training, began to admire and buy works of art some of which were considered to be, by the establishment of the day, the work of lunatics.
It was also revelatory to discover how two very wealthy Welsh women started collecting pieces, initially in a quite traditional way and then, after working for the Red Cross in France during and just after the first World War, discovered for themselves the works of the Impressionist painters and started buying them up. They bought wonderfully well and added more important works by Welsh and European painters throughout their lifetimes. The main collections were often loaned out and other pieces housed in their beautiful manor house, Gregynog, near New Town in Powys.
When people talk of great art collections you think of London, Florence, Paris, New York and a myriad of other world famous cities, but Cardiff? And yet, right here in our lovely nation of Wales’ capital we find such a fabulous collection of great art, much of it bequeathed to us as a nation by these very generous Welsh women and yet, sadly, it goes mostly ignored by the masses.
These two sterling women Margaret and Gwendoline Davies had such an amazing eye for art and especially for modern art. They were the first serious collectors in Britain of Impressionist and Post-impressionist art including works by such greats as Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne and the female Impressionist Berthe Morisot. They exhibited many of these pieces of art in London at the V&A and in Bath and Cardiff.
By 1924 the collection contained some 200 works. The money they inherited came out of the Industrial Revolution in Wales, from the mega wealth that was amassed by pit owners, railway builders and the building of Barry Dock. The scars of our industrial past have faded well with the current and ongoing greening of our valleys and all the redevelopment of docks, but these national treasures which came about as a result of that black gold rush do not need to be cleaned up, modernised, sanitized or forgotten as they are still ours for the taking – which is why our combined Parish of Garnant and Cwmgors away day was to head for the National Gallery to see them.
We set off in drizzly gloom on a big luxury coach at 10am and with a prayer for our Creator God and for all human art creators under our belts we set off East. Even though it was a Sunday Cardiff was absolutely bustling with people, mostly tourists and the National Gallery was equally busy and buzzing with expectant energy.
I definitely breached every copyright law there is I think by producing a colourful trip leaflet. I picked out some religious paintings for us to view in earnest on arrival and then just one big Monet as a teaser for the Davies Collection. I confessed this to all on the bus before we set off and suggested that maybe they shouldn’t wave these leaflets in front of the gallery attendants as I might be arrested!
When I confirmed our booking at the main desk in the National and retrieved our restaurant discount red lapel stickers – which someone remarked made us look like we were at a Labour party conference – I confessed my sins to the receptionist. But because I had bought the main catalogue by post before the trip (where I’d taken the images and information from) they let me off with a tut tut – looking straight at my collar – and a big smile saying it was okay.
The Renaissance and Baroque paintings were superb and we looked at things like the baby Jesus wearing a fabulous coral necklace in one painting only to discover this was to ward off the evil eye. We noticed a wonderful work depicting Hagar and Ishmael being rescued from death by a gorgeous angel pointing to a spring and we marvelled together at El Greco’s mannerist elongated work of Christ dressed in scarlet being taunted by the soldiers.
The Davies collection of French art we saved for after lunch and indeed it was a feast of a different sort. We lingered there for a good hour marvelling at the luminosity and sheer looseness of the brush work in many of the paintings. Renoir’s Lady in Blue dominated the room. Soon after we found a new small exhibition of Kyffin Williams’s portraits and landscapes in a side gallery. His portrait of Mary, a person unknown the label said, struck us all very much. She looked worn out and saddened by life, a woman truly full of sorrows, not unlike her famous namesake that we had viewed in the other galleries before lunch. She had pale green hair, which funnily enough enhanced her impish beauty.
I think I can safely say we all saw things that will stay with us for a long time.
It is true I believe that art can change you. Certainly our trip felt like a pilgrimage in many ways, not very far granted, and certainly not very hard to endure either, but it was a journey of people of faith to see art treasures together and when we gazed at those images, like kids grouped around and underneath pieces high above us on gallery walls, I think we all were reminded of our blessings, and how all of life is Holy.