Aneurin M. Thomas: First director of the Welsh Arts Council

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Aneurin M. Thomas was the first director of the Welsh Arts Council. He was appointed in 1966 when it was merely the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain and had responsibility, on taking up his post in the year following, for overseeing the various changes and restructuring required by the new set-up.

One of his first initiatives, which the Council's new royal charter allowed, was the appointment of a Literature Director and a committee whose brief was the formulation of a policy for the financial support of writers, books, magazines and publishers in Wales. A highly literate man, Thomas was especially keen that the literature committee's work should succeed, and in both the languages of Wales, because he had argued consistently for the devolution of arts funding and here was an opportunity to prove that it made sense. From modest beginnings – the grant in 1968/69, its first full year, was £18,000 – the literature department's work grew rapidly and its policies, tentative though they were, were soon adopted by other arts bodies in the United Kingdom.

Although Thomas's own training and background were in the visual arts, he was perfectly content to let his subject directors pursue their own notions of what their art forms needed, and to back them to the hilt, which earned him the respect of his colleagues. As a consequence, the real power, or at least the responsibility for gathering new ideas and seeing them through the grant-making process, lay with the Council's specialist officers and their committees, in whose business he rarely intervened. Towards the end of his career, however, he felt as if he had had too little involvement in the Council's day-to-day affairs and this weighed on him heavily.

Thomas did a great deal of reading from books which he purchased, at staff discount, from the Council's Oriel Bookshop. He also managed, on one famous occasion, to raise the hackles of underfunded actors with a comment, during a television interview, to the effect that at a conference of seals the delegates will always call for more fish.

In 1972 he served as a member of the Committee of Inquiry into Bilingual Traffic Signs, publishing a one-man minority report in which he argued for dropping anglicised place-names such as Bridgend, Fishguard, Holyhead and Cardigan, in favour of their Welsh forms. The Committee eventually agreed to recommend the bilingual signs which are now seen in all parts of Wales.

Thomas had come back to Wales on his appointment to the Arts Council post after spending seven years as Vice-Principal of Hornsey College of Art in north London and 13 as Lecturer and Vice-Principal at Somerset College of Art.

His time at Hornsey coincided with the student occupation of the college, after disputes involving student union funding and student grants. He had some sympathy with the protestors and was among those who welcomed the chance to implement change in the college's syllabus and timetable, but he did not approve of the rowdier element and their bully-boy tactics, and so became a target for their spleen. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the prospect of taking up the directorship of the Arts Council in Wales held so much appeal for him.

Thomas was born in 1921 to working-class parents in Cilybebyll, a Welsh-speaking village near the tinplate town of Pontardawe in Glamorgan. His own Welsh was rudimentary and, after long years in England, he was never confident enough to use it except for mundane purposes. He received his secondary education at Ystalyfera Intermediate School and from there went on to the Swansea School of Art and Crafts.

The Second World War broke out while he was still at Swansea and, as soon as he qualified in1941, he enlisted in the army. For the next five years he served in the British and Indian Armies, ending his military career in the rank of Major. He never spoke to colleagues about his military service, although (despite his egalitarian instincts) his time in the army sometimes showed in his imperious manner and insistence on protocol.

His love of strategy, not to say plotting, was often put to good effect in his dealings with the Arts Council of Great Britain, of which the Welsh Arts Council was technically only a consultative committee, albeit with a very wide degree of autonomy and its own budget. In this delicate and sometimes daunting relationship – the Welsh members were once described by Lord Goodman as robber barons who grabbed what spoils they could from London before making their way home over the hills on their mules – he had the staunch backing of three successive Chairmen, namely Professor Gwyn Jones, Colonel Sir William Crawshay and the Marchioness of Anglesey.

During the years of their stewardship in Wales, the Council's grant-in-aid grew from £320,000 in 1967 to £6.5m in 1984, the year of Aneurin Thomas's retirement. Among the many successes in which he and his colleagues played a leading role were the work of the various bodies which were called into existence to become part of the artistic landscape of present-day Wales. These included the Welsh National Opera Company, the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, the Welsh Books Council, the Welsh Academy, and the three Regional Arts Associations, as well as myriad projects in drama, film, crafts and the visual arts – though the dream of a National Theatre remained beyond the Council's reach.

With hindsight, the years from 1967 to 1984 now seem like a golden age of arts funding in Wales, for they saw rapid and substantial growth in all areas, which slowed down thereafter. Aneurin Thomas would not have claimed credit for this huge improvement in the nation's artistic affairs, for he was by nature self-effacing and somewhat laconically detached from the artistic community, but it cannot be denied that he played a key role in it.

In retirement he lived quietly in the seaside town of Penarth, near Cardiff, where he continued to take keen pleasure in the arts and kept up his hobby of painting in watercolours, an activity at which, despite the loss of sight in one eye, he had excelled since his student days.

Meic Stephens

Aneurin Morgan Thomas, arts administrator: born 3 April 1921 Cilybebyll, near Pontardawe, Glamorgan; Lecturer and Vice-Principal, Somerset College of Art (1947-60), Vice-Principal, Hornsey College of Art (1960-67), Director, Welsh Arts Council (1966-84); married 1947 Mary Dineen (deceased 2005, one son, one daughter); died St Hilary, Vale of Glamorgan 16 January 2009.