Sea Change at Aberystwyth University

Poster by Neil Holland, based on a design by Lauren Evans

Once a year, I stage an exhibition with undergraduate students of my module “Curating an Exhibition” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.  The student curators choose objects from the School’s collection, which, over a period of about three months, they research, interpret and narratively arrange in relation to a given theme. The theme for the 2018 exhibition (on show from 21 May until 28 September) is “Sea Change.”  The idea for it came to me watching CNN, where the phrase is frequently heard in promotional spots for Fareed Zakaria’s program.  What, I thought, would happen if we considered the literal meanings of each part of the phrase to examine how life along the coast is transformed and transforming as a result of environmental and socio-political developments.

Installation view showing John Roberts’s large painting Fond Farewell (1973)

As always, the narrative evolved gradually, shaped by the objects selected by the exhibition curators.  This is the text panel introducing the exhibition:

‘Sea change’ is one of the many expressions introduced to the English language by Shakespeare. It appears in The Tempest as a reference to death – and transformation – by drowning.

This exhibition of works from the School of Art collection explores both the metaphorical and the literal meanings of the phrase.

Today, ‘sea change’ is widely used to suggest moments of upheaval and reorientation. It may denote the end of a personal relationship or a geopolitical shift affecting the lives of millions. Whatever its measurable repercussions, ‘sea change’ is always felt to be profound.

Change may be dreaded or desired. It can mean at once breakdown and a chance for renewal. The storm that wrecks a ship and lays waste to dreams brings firewood to the beachcomber. The engines that turned villages into mill towns also transported workers to holidays by the sea.

Plate, from the series Cumbrian Blue(s) (1998) by Paul Scott

Many aspects of modern society were shaped in the Victorian era. Seaside towns like Aberystwyth owed their transformation to the Industrial Revolution. Since then, our coastal communities have continued to adapt. New challenges, from Global Warming to Brexit, lie ahead as Wales is celebrating the ‘Year of the Sea.’

The prints, paintings, photographs and ceramics on display encourage us to consider what we gain or lose through stability and change.

Works by Keith Vaughan feature prominently in the exhibition

Artists whose works are featured in this exhibition include Jean-Antoine Théodore Gudin (1802–1880), Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), Wilhelm Kümpel (1822–1880), Hans Saebens (1895 – 1969), Carlo Bevilacqua (1900 – 1988), Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983), Keith Vaughan (1912 – 1977), Robert Tavener (1920–2004), Gwyn Martin (1921 – 2001), John Vivian Roberts (1923–2003), Bernard Cheese (1925–2013), Terry Bell-Hughes (b. 1939), Chris Penn (1943–2014), Alistair Crawford (b. 1945), Paul Scott (b. 1953), and Kate Malone (b. 1959).

Curators: Lauren Evans, Gerry McGandy, Mike Kirton, Clodagh Metcalfe, Sophie Mockett, Ivy Napp, John Roberts, and Michelle Seifert; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).  Additional assistance by Karen Westendorf

‘To hell with nature!’: An Exhibition of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints

I am grateful for second chances. Following on from the 2017 Royal Academy exhibition “Second Nature,” which Robert Meyrick and I prepared in conjunction with the publication of our catalogue raisonné of Charles Tunnicliffe’s prints, I created a new show exploring the painter-printmaker’s career. “‘To hell with nature!’: A Reappraisal of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints” is on display at the School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth University, in Wales, until 12 March 2018.
Poster design by Neil Holland, showing
a detail of Tunnicliffe’s The Stuck Pig (1925)
The new show has been curated to highlight four phases of Tunnicliffe’s printmaking career: his student days, in which work on the family farm became the subject of his autobiographical prints; his success as a maker of fine art prints; his second career as an illustrator and commercial artist after the collapse of the print market in the early 1930s; and his ‘decorative’ works featuring birds to whose study he devoted much time after he moved to Anglesey in North Wales.

Charles Tunnicliffe (1901–1979) grew up and worked on a farm near Macclesfield in Cheshire. A scholarship enabled him to study at the Royal College of Art in London. Soon after his studies, he gained a reputation and a market in Britain and the United States as an etcher of farming subjects.

In 1929, Tunnicliffe married a fellow art student, Winifred Wonnacott. The couple settled in Macclesfield. Although Tunnicliffe enjoyed the theatre and the movies, as his diaries tell us, London never featured in his fine art prints. In middle age, not long after the end of the Second World War, Charles and Winifred Tunnicliffe relocated to Anglesey, where Tunnicliffe became an avid birdwatcher. Today, Tunnicliffe is closely associated with his study of birds and is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost twentieth-century wildlife artist.

Towards the end of a career spanning six decades, Tunnicliffe was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It may seem somewhat incongruous that, in an interview published in the Society’s magazine, Tunnicliffe stated:

‘I have shocked quite a lot of people by saying ‘To hell with nature!’ Nature is made to be used, not to be dictator, as far as the dyed-in-the-wool artist is concerned.’

I used this exclamation as the starting point for my exploration of Tunnicliffe’s career. To me, it expresses the frustration of an artist whose pictures are often judged on the strength of their fidelity to nature. Instead, Tunnicliffe’s prints show us nature transformed by culture and outdone by art. They demonstrate their maker’s knowledge of art history, his love of design, and the need to tell his own story.

It was printmaking that earned Tunnicliffe his Royal Academy of Arts membership in 1954. By then, however, he rarely produced fine art prints. For decades, Tunnicliffe’s work in various media appeared in magazines, on calendars and biscuit tins.

The stock market crash of 1929 had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to rethink his career. Turning from etching to wood engraving, he became a prolific illustrator. His first project was Tarka the Otter.

Anglesey was no retreat for Tunnicliffe. Working on commission, he created colourful paintings he described as ‘decorations for modern rooms.’ He also continued to turn out mass-reproduced designs that promoted anything from pesticides to the Midland Bank. The messages these images conveyed were never the artist’s own.

Since the mid-1930s, Tunnicliffe’s work has been appreciated mainly second-hand. Until last year, when Robert Meyrick and I put together a catalogue raisonné of his etchings and wood engravings, Tunnicliffe never had a printmaking exhibition at the Royal Academy.

For some of his early prints, we were unable to trace contemporary impressions. The plates, which Tunnicliffe retained, were proofed by School of Art printmaker Andrew Baldwin.

Exhibitions like ‘To hell with nature!’ remind us what many histories of twentieth-century art omit in order to sustain their focus on the avant-garde. Tunnicliffe’s career does not fit into the narrative of Modernism. It is a product of modernity. In his work, at least, he never said ‘to hell’ with culture. Pragmatic yet passionate, he made images to make a living.

Ceri Pritchard: “The Strange Edge of Reality”

I was asked to say a few words at the opening of Ceri Pritchard’s solo exhibition The Strange Edge of Reality at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery on 6 August 2016.  Here is what I said:
Opening Ceri Pritchard’s solo exhibition The Strange Edge of Reality,
6 August 2016, at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, Tenby, Wales
Last December, Ceri Pritchard invited me to see some of his latest work, which he puts before us today in this gallery.  Walking up the steps to his studio here in Tenby, I felt as if I were about to be let in on a secret: canvases that were still underway, waiting – ready or reluctant – to come out into the open.

That air of mystery hardly dissipated at the sight of those canvases.  It was an unexpected, exciting introduction.  And although introductions are rather more formalised in a gallery setting, anyone stepping into this room may experience what I felt then.  Surprise, mystification.  Yes, but also that sense of being prompted, compelled to take part in a narrative unfolding.

What we witness here are not interior monologues.  We are not prying into someone else’s secrets, at least not without consent.  Ceri’s compositions are carefully staged.  They are spectacular set pieces with props, masks, and harlequin costumes fit for the Commedia dell’arte – if pantomimes were created by Franz Kafka and produced by Sigmund Freud.  The dramatic lighting and overall theatricality of Ceri’s paintings set them apart from the illusionistic.  We are not just taking in a performance.  We wonder what’s happening behind the scenes.
These compositions are finished in execution only.  In all other respects, they are incomplete – open to the complex mind games we call, for lack of a better word, “interpretation.”
Now, Ceri Pritchard is standing right over there.  But it would be our loss to turn this into an opportunity for putting him on a psychiatrist’s couch, as it were, and ask him: just what were you thinking when you painted those figures? Where does all this come from?

As if artists had – or should have – all the answers, let alone the last word on whatever they bring into being.
Instead of pointing in Ceri’s direction, why not accept the invitation proffered by his paintings and ask: what might they tell us about ourselves? About our desires, our doubts and our demons?
What a work of art has to say depends to a large – and often underestimated – degree on our receptiveness, on our willingness to let it speak to us, and perhaps of us.

Ceri Pritchard, The Atomic Age
When I look at a painting like The Atomic Age, for instance, I am reminded of the Cold War – the space race and the terror of nuclear proliferation – that became the stuff of childhood nightmares and, in my case, gave rise to compensatory fantasies.  There are plenty of mushrooms in Ceri’s paintings – not all of them suggestive of atomic clouds.  Some may be sprouting alternatives that the sensible – or insensitive – among us call “pipe dreams.”
The Strange Edge of Reality is an apt title for this exhibition. The works we see here are on the verge, teetering between worlds, not only in their set of imagery but also in their sense of place in art history and the art world of today.
Edginess is almost a prerequisite in contemporary art.  But few edges remain sharp for long.  And some become very blunt indeed – smooth and safe like a well-trodden threshold – a boundary with which to maintain our footing.  If it isn’t our voracious appetites that dull our senses to the cutting edge, it is our need to demarcate the terrain in which we might otherwise lose ourselves. 
 
In our appreciation of art, we tend to rely on classifications.  We might say, for instance, that Ceri’s work is surrealist, which would permit us to conclude that it is derived from or indebted to a certain, well-charted movement that originated in France in 1924.

Now, there is surrealist activity with a lower case “s.”  Henry Moore, for instance, argued that
[a]ll good art has contained both abstract and surrealist elements, just as it has contained both classical and romantic elements—order and surprise, intellect and imagination, conscious and unconscious.
This may be so vague as to take the edge off surrealism altogether, which is why such general applicationsof the term were frowned upon by Surrealists to whom the movement was an imperative.
 
“Movement” implies the coherence of a group through the adherence to a manifesto.  But Ceri, who adopted the term “neo-surrealist” to refer to his latest work, did not sign up to be part of a movement – there exists no Surrealist movement in Britain today.  What makes Ceri’s work edgy is that it reclaims a visual language that has long been neglected, at least in the medium of painting.
 
Among the artists and writers who influenced him, Ceri names the Surrealists André Breton, Francis Picabia, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst.  Not that Ceri’s work is an homage to them, much less a lament for a lost cause.  Rather, it makes a case for our renewed engagement with practices associated with the movement – a movement that first startled the British public at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London eighty years ago, in 1936, at a moment in history when suspicion dawned that Britain was no longer a post-war society but a pre-war one.  
 
The English poet David Gascoyne, who organised the London exhibition together with the artist Roland Penrose and the critic Herbert Read, declared surrealism to be a revolutionary “instrument” – a means of making us aware of the insufficiency – and the fallacy – of an order we accept as “reality.”
According to Gascoyne, the “fundamental ambition of surrealism is to dismantle all formal distinctions between dream and reality, and subjectivity and objectivity” – so that a new vision may emerge.  We can see such dismantling operating in Ceri’s paintings, in which opposites not simply clash but fuse.
The strange edge of reality isn’t simply an outer limit.  It is also a line along which meetings occur, as well as separations. The danger may lie not on the other side but in our tendency to take sides, to dismiss alternatives or to deny the other within our self.
Ceri Pritchard, La Limpiadora
When it comes to making a clean break, to draw the line between chaos and order, there is nothing like a vacuum cleaner.  You will come across a number of those in Ceri’s paintings.  But, in Ceri’s invasion scenarios, hoovering proves futile.  Whatever we try to push away or keep apart from us creeps in from the margins to assume centre stage: fungi spreading over an interior floor space, insects crawling toward artificial light, and microbes taking over our grey cells.
And who is handling the equipment, anyway? The cleaner in La Limpiadora, for instance.  The creatures with which Ceri populates his scenes look like experiments conducted on the Island of Doctor Moreau, freaks of nature assembled in a game of Exquisite Corpse.  Anthropomorphic, androgynous – they defy the polarities of either/or we find so reassuring.
 
Ceri’s paintings call to mind the disorientation we experience not while dreaming but at the stage of waking, the state of being in and out of it at once.  It creates the unnerving sensation of estrangement that Freud termed the uncanny.
Such dislocations are also experienced when moving between cultures.  Ceri has long lived abroad, away from his native Wales.  Even the home that he has presumably come back to is not the Wales he knew as a child up in Anglesey.  Ceri, who studied art in England, has worked and exhibited in France, the United States and in Mexico – all countries, coincidentally, in which Surrealism thrived. 
Unlike ‘Modernism’ or ‘Art Deco,’ ‘Surrealism’ did not make it into the index of The Tradition: A New History of Welsh Art, 1400 – 1990, Peter Lord’s monumental new book on the visual culture of Wales.  That is not to say that those who look for it won’t find surrealist connections in Wales.  At that International Surrealist Exhibition in London, for instance, it was Dylan Thomas who handed out cups of plain water with a piece of string it, which he offered to serve “weak or strong.”  But as tempting as it may be to identify national or regional influences in these paintings, Ceri’s neo-surrealism, like the work of the Surrealists before him, is cosmopolitan rather than parochial, and its expressions of our inner worlds are universal.
Ceri Pritchard, Golau y Myfyrio
Ceri’s work resists being defined by – or confined to – any one place.  Trying to pin Ceri down by tracing his life story and his influences in his current paintings would mean to diminish the mystery and the trippy wondrousness of that work.  It is clear that he has been under the influence.  Ceri’s mind has altered many times.  That is to say, it has defied the pressure of being made up.
Ceri has experimented in many media, including sculpture, video and collage.  He has also been an abstract painter.  Figurative painting is where he is at the moment.  And that moment is also a time of introspection – a self-conscious exploration of the role of the artist and the function of art.
Many of the paintings in this exhibition are expressive of a tension between creative freedom and the demand placed on art to reflect the external world, that is, to be both mimetic and relevant, to resemble in order to matter.
 
This restrictive view is countered by an ambition to shine a light on our infinite inner world instead of reflecting the system that tends to delimit the world outside and our place in it.  This dichotomy is summed up by the title Golau y Myfyrio – “Reflecting the Light” – and is rendered pictorial through the mirrors with which the figures in Ceri’s paintings are taunted and tormented, and the lamps that put them in another light.
That the title is Welsh suggests, in the absence of any stereotypically Welsh iconography, a continued processing of that ostensible homecoming.
Claudia Williams, Children Painting
Ceri’s current work has been described as “mature.”  It is meant to be a compliment, no doubt, but there is to me something too finite about the word.  What Ceri has managed through decades of artistic practice is to remain in his “formative years.”
 
Now, I have, on a wall in my house, a reminder of Ceri’s lifelong creativity in the form of this painting of him by his mother, Claudia.  Here he is, aged six years old.  And there he is, never mind how many years later.  Ceri Pritchard has kept alive the urge to create by being alive to strangeness and by insisting on looking askance at “reality,” perched, as he is, on the edge.

The Pink Standard: Legally Blonde at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Okay, I am blond, gay and European. So it isn’t all that difficult for me to relate to this year’s summer season offering at the Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. “Positive” and “Omigod You Guys,” it’s Legally Blonde: The Musical. Ever since I relocated, for love and legal reasons, to this little Welsh town – from an island, no less, that has Broadway running through it – I have not missed a single one of these seasonal spectaculars. After all, they are often the only indication that summer actually takes place here. And since that very first show – which was Oliver! back in 2005 – I have been coming back to the scene it would be a crime to miss.
I’ve also seen the summer season grow up over the years, and the characters along with it, from a criminally mistreated but dutifully hoofing and oh-so-adorable Victorian orphan to a stylish, twenty-first-century Harvard Law graduate who seems to be fighting a lost cause but ends up winning her first case and her true love besides. 
In Legally Blonde, justice is served as in Dickensian days, except that what you deserve is no longer dished out as a helping of destiny. I won’t say that either way is “So Much Better” than the other – for entertainment purposes, at least – but it sure is about time to have, at the heart of it all, three persevering females who don’t have to suffer Nancy’s fate so that the Olivers of this world can enjoy the twist of their own.
Legally Blonde does its part to “Bend” if not quite “Snap” the long string of boy-meets-girl plots of theatrical yesteryear; at the same time, it cheekily pays tribute to the ancient laws of Western drama, right down to its cheerleading Greek Chorus. The conventions are not discarded here but effectively “Whipped Into Shape.” And what it all shapes up to be is an updated fairytale of boy meets girl in which girl ditches boy since boy doesn’t meet the standards girl learns to set for herself.
The lads, meanwhile, perform parts traditionally forced upon the ladies: they are the chosen or discarded partners of the women taking charge. Unless they are objectionable representatives of their sex, like the opportunistic Warner Huntington III (convincingly played by Barnaby Hughes), the men of Legally Blonde are mainly paraded as sex objects, flesh or fantasy.  Exhibit A: stuff-strutting Kyle (inhabited by a delivering Wade Lewin).  Exhibit B: gaydar-testing Nikos (gleefully typecast Ricardo Castro, returning to Aberystwyth after last year’s turn as Pablo in the divine Sister Act).  Come to think of it, even the two dogs in the show are male – and how well behaved these pets are in the hands, or handbags, of the women who keep them.
Not that it looks at first like the women have a clue or a fighting chance. I mean, how can a gal be oblivious for so long to the connubially desirable qualities of gentle, reliable if fashion-unconscious Emmett Forrest (played by David Barrett, who was unmissable as Mr. Cellophane in the Aberystwyth production of Chicago)? That Elle Woods ultimately finds her way and gets to sings about it is the so not gender-blind justice of Legally Blonde.
And that we side with the spoiled, seemingly besotted sorority sister is to a considerable degree owing to Rebecca Stenhouse’s ability to make Elle mature in front of our eyes, from bouncily naïve and misguided to fiercely determined yet morally upright. And, as her character gets to prove, a valedictorian is not just Malibu Ken’s girlfriend in a different outfit. Legally Blonde demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can be pretty and “Serious” in pink, even though I, personally, have failed on both accounts.
Depending on Elle’s success in getting her act together is the life and career of Brooke Wyndham (energetically played by endorphin-level raising Helena Petrovna), a celebrity on trial whose fitness empire is endangered by a dirty secret of a potential alibi. And if you are a cynic out for a hanging, just wait and see what Brooke (and Petrovna) can do with a piece of rope.
As it turns out, Brooke does not have to make a case for orange being the new pink, which of course was the old black. Ultimately, not wardrobe but a serious case of TTP saves the day, for which the production hairdresser can take some credit. Follicles play nearly as big a part in Legally Blonde as in Hairspray, to name another property Aberystwyth Arts Centre has laid its skilled hands on in recent years. And if that production had a showstopper in “big, blonde and beautiful” Motormouth Maybelle, Legally Blonde has down-but-not-out stylist Paulette Bonafonte, a role Kiara Jay makes her own with warmth, knowing and extensions in her voice that reach from here to “Ireland.”
Legally Blonde is not without its share of injustices. It takes a seasoned professional like Peter Karrie to accept a plea bargain of a part that allows him to be the villain of the piece but denies him the moment his Phantom-adoring followers may have been hoping for. It was Karrie I saw in that memorable Oliver! production, and he is back here as Professor Callahan, a suave shark with a nose for “Blood in the Water.” Like Fagin, he is a law unto himself; but unlike Fagan, the professor is ill served by a book that bars him from tunefully “Reviewing the Situation” once he gets his just deserts. Not that you won’t be gasping at the scene that constitutes his downfall.
Now, had I a Manhattan-sized “Chip on My Shoulder,” I could object that, if “What You Want” to produce is a musical, you might consider putting a few instruments back into the pit. I mean, with sets as swanky as Acapulco, why should the singing be practically a cappella? The overture out of the way, any such objections are largely overruled, given the plain evidence that these troupers hardly depend on orchestral crutches. “Break a leg” to all of them – dancing, skipping and rollerskating – for keeping the pace brisk and making Legally Blonde such an infectiously high-spirited show.
This was the first season I attended as a legally married blond, gay European – and I think it is no overstatement to say that, for all their heterosexual pairings, shows like Legally Blonde have helped to take on patriarchal bullies, to rethink masculinity and what means to “Take It Like a Man.” It’s not the American flag alone that is prominently on display here. Whatever your angle, I can bear witness to the fact that, by any standard – gold, platinum blonde, or otherwise – the Aberystwyth Summer Season is in the pink.

"Cofion, G": Remembering Gwilym Pri[t]chard

“I haven’t kept any diaries as such, apart from the odd word or two in my sketch books.  I have never felt the need to write anything and I really cannot see the point why anyone would be interested in what I would have to say.”  This is what the painter Gwilym Prichard wrote to me in reply to some questions I had while I was working on a monograph on his life and art.  Knowing Gwilym, I also knew that, though he was a man of his word, one word might have to suffice even when I, as a would-be biographer, was hoping for a thousand.

Gwilym talked – and continues to talk – to us through his art; he also talked to his art and had, he told me, private conversations with the works as they came into being on the canvas.  He didn’t think much of critics or the need for interpretation.  He believed that an artist’s work should speak for itself.  Terse as his words to me might sound, they were uttered in humility rather than indignation.  “I am grateful,” he added in parenthesis, “that I have had some success with my painting – I really have very little confidence but what I produce or show is stuff that I have painted with love and sincerity.  I hope that this comes through.”  That love – and the success it brought – was easily documented, mostly through Gwilym’s paintings.


Above Rhostryfan (1982), the painting I chose for my 
obituary of Gwilym in the Guardian

“Any more questions?” Gwilym continued his notes, which, much to my surprise, amounted to over thirty handwritten pages.  Clearly, he did not mean to cut me off, and wished me and my partner, Robert Meyrick, “all the best with the writing” with which he had entrusted us.  He answered every question, right down to the matter of the “t,” the letter he dropped from his surname in midlife whenever he signed his art.


That “writing,” A Lifetime’s Gazing, was a very special assignment for me.  Through Bob, I met Gwilym and his artist wife, Claudia Williams not long after I had moved to Wales in November 2004.  Back then, I felt distanced from Wales and the Welsh; I found it difficult to find myself or to find any purpose for myself here.  In fact, I still struggle with that.  I did not know then that I would end up working on Gwilym’s monograph.  Though it began years later, the project offered me an opportunity to write about the culture that I, a German with a New York education, could never presume to call my own.

I could relate to Gwilym in his difficulties of expressing himself fully – I mean truthfully and meaningfully – in English, Welsh being his first language, the language of his childhood.  Welsh spoke to him differently.  “I am a Welsh painter because I am Welsh,” he wrote, refusing to make an issue of what he felt to be at the core of his being … something understood.

Gwilym described himself as “emotional,” and English was perhaps too much the language of adulthood or reason, too abstract for an artist who treasured the concrete – the rock, the sea, and the soil.  The concrete had weight and depth for him, a weight and depth he did not have to measure because he felt it as an immeasurably rich presence, a constant in a life full of change and challenge.

How fortunate Gwilym was to have developed such a language; and how lucky we are to be hearing him with our own eyes whenever we look at the works that chart his journey …

Queer Tastes: Works from the George Powell Bequest

George Powell
Poster design by Neil Holland

Queer Tastes is an exhibition I curated with students of my undergraduate module Staging an Exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. Each year, the module culminates in a student-curated show on a given theme. 


This year’s exhibition, which is open to the public from 18 May to 11 September, explores the identity of the Welsh-English dilettante George Ernest John Powell (1842 – 1882) through the collection that he bequeathed to Aberystwyth University. The objects were selected by students of the School of Art, which holds part of Powell’s bequest.  

The exhibition includes works by Simeon Solomon, Rebecca Solomon, Edward Burne-Jones, Richard Westall and Hubert von Herkomer as well as artefacts and curios ranging from a plaster cast of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s hand and a glass casket that allegedly once contained a splinter from Robert Schumann’s coffin.

The Powell family owned the Nant-Eos estate a few miles inland from Aberystwyth. Educated at Eton and Oxford, George Powell spent little time at Nant-Eos, which he would inherit in 1878. It was an unhappy place for him. His parents were estranged. His mother and younger sister died when Powell was a teenager.

Powell was a dreamer, much to his father’s disappointment. Instead of going hunting, the boy wrote poems about death, loss and betrayed love. Eager to get away, Powell travelled to Europe, Russia, North Africa and Iceland. In the company of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, Powell spent summers on the Normandy coast. There, he entertained writers and artists in a cottage he named after a bisexually promiscuous character in de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.

Powell has been called ‘eccentric’, ‘sinister’ and ‘sad’. He has also been labelled ‘homosexual’, a term not used in his day. ‘Queer’ suggests something – or someone – strange or at odds with our views. It asks that we trace our responses to otherness in ourselves.

A man of the world, Powell wanted to be remembered back in Wales as a patron and benefactor. He offered parts of his collection to Aberystwyth Town Council, on provision that a public gallery be created for their display. When the deal fell through, Powell gave the objects you see here to the University of his ‘dear but benighted town’.


Making our possessions public is in a way a ‘coming out’. It invites others to wonder about our past. It also means saying ‘I matter’. Collections like Powell’s encourage us to question how a person’s worth is determined.

Curators: Danielle Harrison, Kayla McInnes, Alice Morshead, Jenny Skemp, Valerija Zudro, with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).

Powell’s life and collection are the subject of my essay “‘Please don’t whip me this time’: The Passions of George Powell of Nant-Eos” in the forthcoming anthology Queer Wales (University of Wales Press).

Blind Man’s Stuff: Alec Templeton in Time and Space

Last night, I had the good fortune to hear the music of Alec Templeton. Live and by proxy—and right here in town. Templeton’s compositions, among them barrier-obliterating and class-unconscious numbers like “Bach Goes to Town” and “Debussy in Dubuque,” were performed at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips was ably assisted by Templeton himself, whose voice and ways on the keyboard were heard in a variety of radio recordings from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Why here? Why now? Well, Templeton was a Welshman by birth, a fact that seems to have eluded most of the Welsh who pride themselves to be a nation of song. So, last night was as good and as high a time as any for his countrymen and women to acknowledge Templeton’s remarkable against-almost-all-odds career, even if the will to embark upon it took the composer-pianist as far West from the West of Britain as Hollywood. The countrywoman who did the acknowledging was Rhian Davies, teller of Templeton’s life in words and images. Davies, who generously acknowledged as well all the support and assistance her project received from broadcasting buffs and music lovers around the inter-networked world, has known about Templeton practically all her life. Eager to share her readily transmitted enthusiasm, she brought home to us, the assembled audience, that it is always Alec Templeton Time.

Templeton’s life is the stuff of legend. Born blind, he developed an ear so keen and a wit so sharp that he was destined to play tunes made for the cutting of rugs. That he was an expert at middlebrow musical culture has a lot to do with the fact that the eyes beneath his brows saw nothing and that his ears saw nothing but potential. Others, left in the dark yet accustomed to light, might have seen an insurmountable impediment.

The mind’s eye of Alec Templeton saw no such manifestations of doubt. He saw, say, Lower Basin Street . . . and took it. It may be that sightless people, who sense space by feeling their way around and listening intently, are not so much impressed by the walls facing them as their seeing contemporaries, not so much concerned with apparent boundaries, be they cultural or national.

“I understand,” a writer for Radio Guide remarked in 1936, “why his friends, when you start glooming about his sightless eyes, smile superciliously and say: ‘Save your sympathy for someone who needs it.’”

The stuff sighted folks concern themselves with is so much nonsense to a man like Templeton. Sensing a universe where others might imagine chaos, he crossed the waves and made a home for himself on the airwaves, authoring an etherized existence.

“Radio,” Templeton reportedly said, “is to me the greatest miracle of man’s ingenuity. My ears are my eyes, and I tune in at every opportunity, listening to everything from Vic and Sade to Toscanini.”

Hearing Templeton’s music performed live and seeing his career celebrated was a thrill. Yet as pleased as I was that all this happened in the little Welsh town where I now live, I wonder what claim Wales has to her native son. After all, the place of his birth, like his blindness, was not of his choosing. Indeed, he chose to unfurl his pinions, take to the air, and come to live for all willing to be all ears, in a medium whose art is not limited by space but that is instead the stuff—the no-matter—of time.  Make that Alec Templeton Time.

“The lady of the house speaking”: A Bucket for Myra Hess

Eve Arden is Our Miss Brooks. Joan Collins is Alexis. Estelle Getty, Sophia. Whatever else these ladies did in their long stage, screen and television careers, they have become identified with a single, signature role they had the good fortune to create in midlife. Grabbing their second chances at a second skin, they experienced a regenerative ecdysis. The character or caricature that emerges in the process obscures the body of work thus transformed. Another such anew-comer coming readily to mind is Patricia Routledge, who, for better or worse, makes us forget that she has ever done anything else before or since she took on the role of Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances back in 1990. Would she forever keep up the charade, or might she yet have the power to make this our image of her disappear? Could she spring to new lives by kicking that Bucket? Those questions were on my mind when we drove up to the ancient market town of Machynlleth, here in mid-Wales, where Ms. Routledge was scheduled to make an appearance in a one-woman show.

Well, it was bucketing down that afternoon, which, had I been metaphorically minded at that spirit-dampening moment, I might have taken as an omen. Not that the rain had the force to keep the crowd, chiefly composed of folks scrambling to make the final check marks on their bucket list, from gathering in the old Tabernacle. Here, the stage was set for Admission: One Shilling. Not much of a stage, mind; there was barely “room for a pony.” Piano, I mean. But little more than that piano was required to transport those assembled to 1940s London, where, for the price of the titular coin, wartime audiences were briefly relieved from the terror of the Blitz by the strains of classical music . . .

The music, back then, was played by British concert pianist Myra Hess who, though much in demand in the United States, put her career on hold to boost the morale of her assailed country(wo)men. Hess did so at the National Gallery, a repository of culture that, at the outbreak of war, had taken on a funereal aspect when its paintings were removed from the walls and carted to Wales to be hidden in caves for the benefit of generations unborn and uncertain.

Meanwhile, those living or on leave in London at the time were confronted with a shrine that held none of the riches worth fighting for but that instead bespoke loss and devastation. From October 1939 to April 1946, Hess filled this ominous placeholder with music; much of it, like her own name, was German—a reminder that the Nazi regime and the likes of Rudolf Hess had no claim to the culture they did not hesitate to extinguish if it could not be made to serve fascist aims.

Taking her seat on the stage, the formidable, elegantly accoutred Ms. Routledge seemed well suited to impersonate Dame Myra as a woman looking back at her career in later life. It mattered little that Routledge did not herself play the piano while she reminisced about the concerts she had given. Selections from these performances were played by accompanist Piers Lane, who filled in the musical blanks whenever Routledge paused in her speech.

Writing that speech posed somewhat of a challenge, considering that Hess never published a diary. According to her great nephew, who created this tribute, the script is based on press releases and radio interviews. Indeed, the entire affair comes across as a piece made for radio, if it weren’t for those occasional darts shot at no one in particular from Ms. Routledge’s eyes, frowns that remind you of irritable Ms. Bucket’s priceless double-takes.

Perhaps, it does take a little more—and a little less—to pull off this impression. On the air, we could hear Dame Myra Hess at the piano. If the performance were more carefully rehearsed, or edited, we would not have before our mind’s eye the script from which Routledge reads throughout. We would not require the distractions of a screen onto which photographs of the wartime concerts are projected. We would not be as distanced from the life that yet unfolds in Hess’s own sparse words.

Never mind that Admission: One Shilling has about as much edge as a Laura Ashley throw pillow. What got me is that I felt as if I were attending one of Ms. Bucket’s ill-conceived candlelight suppers, whose decorous make-believe remains ultimately unconvincing. I found myself hoping for something undignified—a pratfall, even—as if I had come to see this woman but not come to see her succeed. Such, I guess, is the lasting legacy, the curse of Hyacinth Bucket that, as I exited, I was wondering what Sheridan might have done with the money . . .

“More Easily,” My Eye; or, Kaltenborn and the Dragon

“Education comes more easily through the ear than through the eye,” H. V. Kaltenborn declared back in 1926. He had to believe that, or needed to convince others of it, at least. After all, the newspaper editor had embarked on a new career that was entirely dependent on the public’s ability to listen and learn when he, as early as 1921, first stepped behind a microphone to throw his disembodied voice onto the airwaves, eventually to become America’s foremost radio commentator. Writing about “Radio’s Responsibility as a Molder of Public Opinion,” Kaltenborn argued education to be the medium’s “greatest opportunity.” And even though the opportunity seized most eagerly was advertising, some sixty American colleges and universities were broadcasting educational programs during those early, pre-network days of the “Fifth Estate.”

Kaltenborn reasoned that education by radio was superior to traditional correspondence courses since the aural medium could make up for the “imperfect contact between student and teacher” through “the appeal of voice and personality.” Among the subjects particular suited to radio he numbered “literature, oral English, foreign languages, history, and music,” but added that any class not requiring special “apparatus or laboratory work [could] be taught on the air.”

Not that a polyglot like H(ans) V(on), whose father was born in Germany, had any use for such on-air instructions, but a number of local stations (KFAB, Nebraska, and WMBQ, Brooklyn, among them) broadcast introductory courses in German during the early to mid-1930s. According to Waldo Abbot, who, in the 1930s, directed the University of Michigan’s educational broadcasts heard over WJR, Detroit, nearly four hundred stations in the US accepted foreign language programs, many of which were geared toward non-English communities, be they German, Albanian or Mesquakie. In 1942, as Variety radio editor Robert Landry pointed out, some two hundred local stations in the US were broadcasting in thirty languages other than English, at which time in history the efficacy of services in the public interest was being hotly debated.

Growing up in West Germany, I frequently tuned in to the English language Broadcasting Service of the British Forces (BFBS) and, lying in bed at night, twisted the dial in search of faraway international stations. Yet as much as the chatter of different, distant voices intrigued me, I was not so much enlightened as I was enchanted; and rather than translating what I heard, I was transported by it. I may have had an ear for language, but whatever came my way by way of the airwaves back then was mostly in one ear and out of the other.

Even when language poses no barrier to understanding, I do not assimilate spoken utterances as readily as written words. I was raised in the age of television and, to some degree, by that medium. So insurmountable was the visual bias that I have never been able entirely to rely on my ear when it comes to taking even the simplest instructions. I discovered early on, for instance, that it was difficult for me to write down a number taken from dictation; to this day, I struggle to piece together words that are being spelled out for me. My chirographic transcriptions of speech are often incomplete or frustratingly inaccurate.

Yes, I have long been keenly aware of the pig’s ear that nature made of my senses. I learned that those cartilaginous funnels couldn’t be relied upon to make, let alone fill, a purse, silken or otherwise. My head being thoroughly porcine, I nonetheless chose radio as the subject for my doctoral study—if only to give my eyes an earful.

If only education came “more easily” to me “through the ear than through the eye,” now that I am once again putting my ear for language to the test. I’ve been living in Wales for over five years now, but, insofar as I had occasion to mingle with the locals, I have communicated exclusively in English. Contrary to a travel guide one of my German friends showed me upon visiting, Welsh is by no means a language in extremis, even if its rejuvenescence is largely owing to the resuscitative measures of nationalist politics. Taking our recent move from a remote cottage in the country to a house in town as an incentive, I decided to grab the red dragon by its forked tongue at last. I started taking classes. “Dwi ‘n dysgu Cymraeg.”

To augment my weekly lessons, I am listening to recordings of the BBC’s Catchphrase program, a late-20th-century radio series designed to introduce English speakers to the Welsh language. While it is a comfort to me that fleeting speech is reproducible at the touch of a button or key, I am still finding it difficult to take in and recall what I am hearing, particularly as I am being asked to learn “parrot fashion,” to play and replay by ear without being given a table or chart that would allow me to discern a grammatical pattern. Much of what I have heard still sounds to me what the Germans call Kauderwelsch—or plain gibberish.

Though I am not quite licked yet, the Welsh ddraig keeps sticking out its tongue to make a mockery of my efforts. It’s no use slaying it by ear. I simply wasn’t born—nor am I Kaltenborn—to do it.


Related writings
“‘. . . from hell to breakfast’: H. V. Kaltenborn Reporting”
“‘Alone Together’: A Portrait of the Artist as an Artist’s Spouse”

“. . . from a civilized land called Wales”: A Puzzlement Involving The King and I

I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil [ . . .]. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime; but the memory of two round, tender arms, and two little dimpled hands, that so lately had made themselves loving fetters round my neck, in the vain hope of holding mamma fast, blinded my outlook; and as, with a nervous tremor and a rude jerk, we came to anchor there, so with a shock and a tremor I came to my hard realities.

With those words, capturing her first impression and anticipation of a “strange land” as, on 15 March 1862, it came into partial view—the “outlook” being “blinded”—aboard the steamer Chow Phya, Anna Harriette Leonowens commenced The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), the “Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok.” The account of her experience was to be followed up by a sensational sequel, Romance of the Harem (1872), both of which volumes became the source for a bestselling novel, Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (1944), several film and television adaptations, as well as the enduringly crowd-pleasing musical The King and I.

Conceived for musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence, the titular “I” is currently impersonated by Shona Lindsay, who, until the end of August 2009, stars in the handsomely designed Aberystwyth Arts Centre Summer Musical Production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic.

The title of the musical personalizes the story, at once suggesting authenticity and acknowledging bias. Just as it was meant to signal the true star of the original production—until Yul Brynner stole the show—it seems to fix the perspective, assuming that we, the audience, see Siam and read its ruler through Anna’s eyes. And yet, what makes The King and I something truly wonderful—and rather more complex than a one-sided missionary’s tale—is that we get to know and understand not only the Western governess, but the proud “Lord and Master” and his daring slave Tuptim.

Instead of accepting Anna as model or guide, we can all become the “I” in this story of identity, otherness and oppression. Tuptim’s experience, in particular, resonates with anyone who, like myself, has ever been compelled, metaphorically speaking, to “kiss in a shadow,” to love without enjoying equality or protection under the law. Tuptim’s readily translatable story, which has been rejected as fictive and insensitive, is emotionally rather than culturally true.

“Truth is often stranger than fiction,” Leonowens remarked in her preface to Romance of the Harem, insisting on the veracity of her account. Truth is, truth is no stranger to fiction. All history is narrative and, as such, fiction—that is, it is made up, however authentic the fabric, and woven into logical and intelligible patterns. Whoever determines or imposes such patterns—the historian, the novelist, the reporter—is responsible for selecting, evaluating, and shaping a story that, in turn, is capable of shaping us.

Tuptim’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which strikes us at first strange and laughable—then uncanny and eerily interchangeable—in its inauthentic, allegorical retelling of a fiction that not only made but changed history, is an explanation of and validation for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sentimental formula. Through the estrangement from the historically and culturally familiar, strange characters become familiar to us, just Leonowens may have been aided rather than mislead by an “outlook” that was “blinded” by the intimate knowledge of a child’s love.

Strange it was, then, to have historicity or nationality thrust upon me as Anna exclaims, in her undelivered speech to the King, that she hails “from a civilized land called Wales.” It was a claim made by Leonowens herself and propagated in accounts like Mrs. Leonowens by John MacNaughton (1915); yet, according to Susan Brown’s “Alternatives to the Missionary Position: Anna Leonowens as Victorian Travel Writer” (1995), “no evidence supports” the assertion that Leonowens was raised or educated in Wales.

Still, there was an audible if politely subdued cheer in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre auditorium as Anna revealed her fictive origins to us. Granted, I may be more suspicious of nationalism than I am of globalization; but to define Leonowens’s experience with and derive a sense of identity from a single—and rather ironic reference to home—seems strangely out of place, considering that the play encourages us to examine ourselves in the reflection or refraction of another culture, however counterfeit or vague. Beside, unlike last year’s miscast Eliza (in the Arts Centre’s production of My Fair Lady), Anna, as interpreted by Ms. Lindsay, has no trace of a Welsh accent.

As readers and theatergoers, we have been “getting to know you,” Anna Leonowens, for nearly one and a half centuries now; but the various (auto)biographical accounts are so inconclusive and diverging that it seems futile to insist on “getting to know all about you,” no matter now much the quest for verifiable truths might be our “cup of tea.” What is a “puzzlement” to the historians is also the key to the musical, mythical kingdom, an understood realm in which understanding lies beyond the finite boundaries of the factual.


Related writings
“By [David], she’s got it”; or, To Be Fair About the Lady
Delayed Exposure: A Man, a Monument, and a Musical

Related recordings
“Meet Gertrude Lawrence,” Biography in Sound (23 January 1955)
Hear It Now (25 May 1951), which includes recorded auditions for the role of Prince Chulalongkorn in The King and I