Bert Isaac

Painter of the Welsh landscape


Bert Isaac, painter and printmaker: born Cardiff 21 February 1923; married 1948 Joan Horsington (one daughter); died Abergavenny, Monmouthshire 21 March 2006.

The landscape artist Bert Isaac was a much-loved figure in the Welsh art world and well-known across the border as a teacher as well as a painter. He was a founder member of the Welsh Group - the leading association of artists in Wales - and also of the Watercolour Society of Wales, whose forthcoming Spring Exhibition at St David's Hall, Cardiff, will be dedicated to his memory.

It is often said that Wales has a musical but not a visual culture, but this has changed radically in recent years with the growth of large artistic communities in the south, north and west. There are many incomers in these communities but also home-grown artists like Isaac who returned to Wales after years spent in England. Sadly the artistic infrastructure has not kept pace with Welsh creativity. There is no Welsh Museum of Contemporary Art, no specialist magazine, few commercial galleries willing to take artistic risks and few local journalists with an intelligent interest in Welsh visual arts.

Significant artists such as Bert Isaac work in a cultural vacuum. He had no gallery exhibiting him on a regular basis, except the gallery he and his wife, Joan, created in their own home where the front room and hall became large exhibition spaces. Here they showed not only his own pictures but paintings and sculptures by many other artists, and exhibitions which were part of the annual Abergavenny Festival.

Although increasingly disabled by Parkinson's disease in his later years, Isaac kept on painting with remarkable vigour. His work seemed to gain in strength of expression and in vitality of colour as apparently his body grew weaker. He was enabled to keep working by Joan, who helped him up the stair-lift in their Abergavenny home and then pushed his wheelchair to his studio easel. She would support him when he rose to reach the tops of his pictures.

She also framed Bert's work and a poignant sight hanging by their front door is his last completed painting, about four feet across. It is almost abstract in its bold mark-making but its structure is that of a large entrance leading from the foreground to a space beyond. The Way Through is its prophetic title.

Bert Isaac was born in Cardiff in 1923, and he studied at Cardiff College of Art. As a student teacher there he worked alongside Ceri Richards, but equally important influences were the Neo-Romantics. In his early works there are constant echoes of Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper, Keith Vaughan, John Minton and Eric Ravilious. A number of these artists had drawn inspiration from the Welsh landscape with its heaving hills, rock formations, gnarled trees and huddled woods.

The Welsh landscape is not tame. Nature fights back, and Isaac enjoyed this sense of struggle - the sense that humanity's handiwork is never permanent and that nature is awesome and resurgent. He grew up in surroundings where the wilderness of overgrown quarries and mines was only a short step away. In later life he discovered the Dorothea Slate Quarry near Caernarfon in North Wales. The cliffs and flooded deeps provided him with subject matter over several decades as he explored the rhythmic formations of the slate workings, finding visual music in the shattered rock formations and thrusting vegetation.

Over the years his style changed. The critic Peter Wakelin wrote in 1998 that Isaac's work was deeply gestural. "Everywhere are slashes, flecks, stabbed lines and textures, suggestive of plant growth, wind and movement, or underlying structures". From the "starved brush" techniques of the Neo-Romantics he moved on to a much more fluid expressionism, which took on an abstract quality reminiscent of some Chinese landscape art - a flurry of mark-making dependent on intuitive feeling rather than intellectual control. Colour became dominant - singingblues, reds, carmines and purples quite unlike the gloomy tones typical of many other Welsh landscapists.

Bert Isaac spent many years teaching outside Wales. He became Head of Art at Borough Road College in Middlesex, and then at Battersea College of Education. He eventually joined the Art and Design Department of the Institute of Education at London University, where he worked until the 1980s. He then returned to South Wales to live in Joan's home town, Abergavenny - where her father had been three times mayor. He won a gold medal at the National Eisteddfod in 1989 and was appointed MBE in 1999.

As a painter and printmaker his output was enormous. In his very last years, despite his illness, he continued to produce around one large new work each month. Vast numbers of Isaac's paintings, prints and drawings remain stored in his home waiting for the day when posterity will stumble upon his legacy. Happily, in his last year, this storehouse was explored by Frances and Nicolas McDowall of the Old Stile Press, Llandogo. They were shown a collection of unpublished book designs that he had made in the 1940s, and recently they published these as Books that Never Were (2005).

This book reveals to the world Bert Isaac the Neo-Romantic, but the powerful paintings of his last years, with their freedom of colour and mark-making, are yet to receive a major showing.

Robert Macdonald

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