Obituary: Ernest Zobole

ERNEST ZOBOLE was a Welsh painter who, despite his untypical surname, was firmly rooted in industrial South Wales, more specifically the Rhondda Valleys, formerly one of the great coal-bearing districts of Britain and still visually spectacular in its juxtaposition of densely populated townships and, on the hills above, stretches of wild moorland which not even afforestation has spoiled.

He painted the bustling streets of Rhondda Fawr (to distinguish it from the Rhondda Fach, the lesser valley which joins it at Porth), the bridges over the Stygian-black river, the railway with its level-crossings, the buses and lorries, the terraces and the people for whom they are the main conduits of life up and down the narrow valley ending at Pontypridd. This "marvellous place" was not so much documented or commented upon in his paintings as internalised by an artist who considered himself part of the landscape.

Unlike many Welsh artists who soon leave their native patch for the metropolis, whether Cardiff or London, Zobole spent most of his life in the valley, hardly ever moving more than a few miles from Ystrad, the village where he was born in 1927, the year after the General Strike in which the militant miners of Rhondda played a leading part. Both his parents were Italians who had emigrated to Wales in 1910. His father worked above ground at the local pit and his mother kept a small shop in the village; for years, one of the boy's early paintings was proudly displayed above the counter.

The Zoboles were thus among the numerous Italians - generically known as Bracchis after the pioneers of the trade, though more likely to be Bernis, Severinis, Fulgonis, Sidolis, Marenghis or Castagnettis - who became part of the social fabric of South Wales at a critical time in its history. Among other distinguished Welsh painters of Italian extraction are Andrew Vicari and David Carpanini, while the actor Victor Spinetti comes from the same background.

These families became well integrated and popular among the convivial Welsh who patronised their cafes, chip-shops and ice-cream parlours. It was as if something in the Italian character chimed with that of their hosts; not for nothing have the Welsh been called "Mediterraneans in the rain". When, in July 1940, the Arandora Star, a boat in which hundreds of "enemy aliens" were being deported back to Italy, was sunk by a German torpedo off the north-west coast of Ireland, with the loss of 486 lives, many from South Wales, sympathy was widespread and the outcry heartfelt.

The young Erni, who was brought up bilingual in English and Italian, attended the Grammar School at Porth and, after serving with the British army in Palestine and Egypt, married his childhood sweetheart and then spent five years training at Cardiff College of Art. He was an early admirer of Chagall, particularly his Surreal sense of perspective in which, for example, houses are seen from several viewpoints in the same picture and figures, out of scale, often appear larger than the buildings over which they float.

Many of his canvases have a dreamlike, lyrical, phantasmagorical quality, with the frequent use of a translucent blue to suggest an aesthetic space contained within the actual confines of the valley, while at the same time taking in panoramas which, strictly speaking, must have been beyond the artist's field of vision.

"There is a real space," he told Tony Curtis in a rare interview published in Welsh Painters Talking in 1997, "and the space in a painting." In many of his canvases it is as if he is trying to make contact with everything - the moon, the hills, the wet road, the street-lamps, the houses, the figure hurrying through the rain - and to be everywhere at the same time, not missing anything. There is, too, a hint at a personal iconography which, given the painter's reluctance to explain his work, whether on film or for publication, awaits its interpreter.

The daily train-journey to and from Cardiff, which in the post-war years took two hours, proved a splendid opportunity for Zobole to discuss art with his companions - Charles Burton, Glyn Morgan, Nigel Flower, David Mainwaring and Robert Thomas, all Rhondda men who got on at stations down the line. The six students would spread their work over the seats to give the impression that their compartment was full and so have it for their own boisterous arguments. The Rhondda Group was never a school and published no manifesto, but these painters were to help create an awareness of industrial landscapes as a fit subject for Welsh art.

The work they produced over the next decade, although social in its concerns, reflected their growing interest in abstraction which tended to over-ride the descriptive element, the subject being retained only when it served as a point of entry into a satisfying pictorial form and as an additional means of communication with the viewer. Zobole, in particular, was determined "to overthrow the tyranny of perspective" and to explore "other worlds". As a consequence, the Welsh began to see the mining valleys, as the poet Idris Davies put it, "more beautiful than we ever saw them with our eyes".

The main influence on Zobole at this time was Heinz Koppel, a German expatriate with a studio at Dowlais in the nearby valley of the Taff. It was Koppel's devotion to his painting and the Germanic harshness and barbaric intensity of his work, something akin to Mexican art, which convinced Zobole that he wanted to be a professional painter. He was encouraged in this ambition by David Tinker, Eric Malthouse and Arthur Giardelli, with whom he formed the 56 Group with a view to promoting contemporary Welsh art by means of exhibitions both at home and abroad.

But alas in those days, as now, there were few opportunities in Wales for young men intent on earning a living with their brush and, like so many, he took up teaching. Zobole's first post as an art teacher was at Llangefni in Anglesey, where he stayed from 1953 to 1957. It proved a barren time for the painter: he found the island flat, featureless, desolate, "all wind and chapel", and the largely unpopulated mountains of Snowdonia, so often painted since the time of Richard Wilson, held little appeal for him; his lack of Welsh, moreover, made it difficult for him to participate in the life of the community.

Above all, he was homesick for the teeming valleys of South Wales, still a vibrant working-class society despite the rundown of the mines, to which he now returned to take up an appointment at a Church in Wales school in Aberdare; two years later he moved even closer to home, to the County Secondary School at Treorchy in the Rhondda. "When I did return," he said. "it was like getting back into a warm bed."

In 1963 he began teaching at Newport College of Art, where he remained until his retirement. Although the college was going through a period of rapid change in which the emphasis on traditional skills was fast giving way to the claims of photography and film, Zobole held fast to his conviction that creativity found its highest expression in painting. He was deeply suspicious, too, that courses now had to be sanctioned by civil servants who did not know much about art, if the college was to attract government funding.

It was a relief when in 1984, on taking early retirement, it became possible for him to spend the rest of his painting life in the former Victorian vicarage which was his last home, just under the Penrhys housing estate, notorious as one of the most socially deprived places in South Wales, but from which - on days without cloud or rain - there are breathtaking views down the valley.

A modest, private man, not easily deflected from his daily stint at the easel and wryly amused by what his neighbours thought of his occupation, he worked slowly and painstakingly, claiming that he was not particularly interested in aesthetic theory and giving the impression that he was loath to talk much about his own work. "Of course it is possible to have all sorts of theories and ideas," he was quoted as saying in the catalogue to the 1963 exhibition which he shared with Brenda Chamberlain, "but what it comes to in the end is to use paint rather than words - to do your talking or thinking with your medium.

"The only thing with which you should concern yourself when working is the craft of making a picture. Things have to fit into a picture to remake a world."

Meic Stephens

Ernest Zobole, painter and teacher: born Ystrad Rhondda, Glamorgan 25 April 1927; Lecturer, Newport College of Art, 1963-84; married 1950 Christine Baker (died 1997; one son, one daughter); died Llwynypia, Rhondda Cynon Taff 27 November 1999.

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