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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself with remarkable success
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower