BOOK REVIEW / Druids and bards in bright landscapes: Jan Morris on a striking book which confirms that the Welsh have eyes as well as voices: 'Gwenllian: Essays on Visual Culture' - Peter Lord: Gomer, 12.95 pounds

Click to follow
The Welsh have no eyes, decrees the popular calumny - they have tongues, they have voices and they can sometimes write like angels, but they have no gift for the visual.

Not only the English say this: the Welsh have long deplored their own lack of visual sensitivity, and wryly compared their supposed scarcity of artists and architects with their plethora of poets. Ask the most cultivated Welsh patriots about a national visual tradition, and until a few years ego they were likely only to murmur something about Richard Wilson, Augustus John, David Jones and Kyffin Williams, perhaps petering out with the thought that Inigo Jones and William Morris were sort of Welsh, weren't they?

Like an angry knight-at-arms the sculptor and art historian Peter Lord has come galloping into the arena to right these wrongs, and during the past few decades he has opened our eyes to the existence of a genuine Welsh visual culture, embedded in the sensibility of what Welsh romantics used to call Y Werin, The Folk. Much of his writing about it has been in Welsh, and most of it has been published within Wales, so that he has been jousting largely for an indigenous audience: perhaps this beautifully produced and illustrated collection of his essays will persuade English readers too that the idea of a Welsh artistic tradition deserves more than their usual horse-laugh.

Not that they will all find it easy to share his attitudes. His view of art is powerfully political - he believes strongly in the power of image-making, and he sees Welsh art as an aspect of nationhood. Every country is the centre of its own world, seems to be his idea; folk-art in Aberystwyth is as valid as Abstract Expressionism in New York; he fights against the obliteration of Welshness in art as in nationality - against 'genocide by assimilation'.

Some of his English readers will find this approach parochial (the favourite English pejorative for things Welsh), though heaven knows much of their own art has been politically inspired. Lord, however, is anything but chauvinist. He merely wants his country's art to be explored on its own terms, not as an adjunct to the English genius, or a mere tributary to a universal cultural river.

The tradition that he reveals for us is in fact an extraordinary muddle of ideologies and aspirations. Welsh literature never lacked assurance because it possessed its own language, the language of Heaven, 'the badge of the nation'. Welsh visual art was plagued by contradiction and defensiveness. On the one hand it paid fulsome tribute to the imperial splendours to which (so the assimilationists maintained) Wales was a junior heir. On the other hand it sought to promote, through images of specifically Welsh emotion and anti-

quity, a national identity. Sometimes it tried to do both at the same time, and druids, bards, preachers, harpers, liberal statesmen and suitable landscapes were all pressed into the service of its ambiguous cause.

You may not think this qualifies as a coherent national tradition, and there is certainly no such thing as a Welsh artistic style. But Lord's case (I hope I've got it right) is that tradition in art is as much the viewer's as the artist's province, that content is as important as manner, the message more vital than the method. To an art-for-art-sake's hedonist like me his arguments can seem rather too earnest, but he has undoubtedly proved his point: that the Welsh do have eyes, and that visual culture has played a vital part in the meaning of Welshness.

A fascinating gallery of artists peoples his essays. Quarry-men carve the beguiling pictorial chimney-pieces of the north. Unknown farm-builders honour the spirit of the genius loci as fervently as any geomancers of China. Portraitists create icons of the great revivalists of the 19th century - Thomas Charles, John Elias, the charismatically one-eyed Christmas Evans. Welsh naive paintings of exquisite beauty are reproduced in colour in this book, and will prove a revelation to those who associate Wales always with the colour grey, as they have already given a smack in the eye to the more slavishly Anglocentric members of the Welsh artistic establishment.

Lord seems to believe that art is in the nature of a mosaic, each of the world's cultures providing its own chips, and in writing about the particular artistic preoccupations of the Welsh he is touching upon the condition of lesser peoples in general, threatened as they all are by more powerful contemporaries. For all its elegance his present book is really no more than an interim collection, and would have been better in my view for some editing, pruning and rearrangement; but one day this bold and learned cultural activist, who has already done so much to encourage Welsh self-esteem, will doubtless transmute his thoughts on the matter into a definitive work of scholarship, and thus contribute to the confidence of all small nations, everywhere.

(Photograph omitted)