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Climbing the peaks of 20th century Welsh art

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Kim Howells Kim Howells | 14:54 UK time, Tuesday, 22 February 2011

A miracle: I'm to climb a cliff near Blaenau Ffestiniog and it isn't raining. Colin Thomas, the director of our first programme, keeps glancing across the brooding ridges of the Moelwyns. He chews his lip at the sight of dark, churning clouds gathering above Tremadog Bay.

Two professional climbers have anchored themselves to the rock. They tighten the ropes that connect them to the cameraman and me. The camera starts turning, I start climbing and we start filming the first of four programmes that will tell the story of art created in Wales during the 20th century.

As I climb, I struggle to remember when I was last in Blaenau without being drenched. Muscles straining, I reach a rocky promontory from which Augustus John, artistic superstar of Edwardian Britain, painted one of his rare Welsh landscapes.

Colin Thomas has worked out the spot where the great man must have stood his easel, more or less. There's no record, of course, of Augustus having got there by rock-climbing but Colin figured that, visually, me hanging by my fingernails before saying my bit in front of the camera would be a lot more interesting than the sight of me squelching up a boggy Blaenau track.

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For me, this is paradise. Art, climbing, Snowdonia, a great story and a wonderful production crew: no-one in the world could have been more fortunate than me on that miraculously dry day just west of Blaenau.

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After our exertions - all prolonged by me stumbling over my lines as I tried not to stumble over tangled climbing ropes - we needed tea and found it in a cafe just opposite the Queens Hotel. As I stirred my cup I remembered the warmth and support that the marvellous people of Blaenau had given to the striking miners in 1984/85. It was another reason why I had wanted so much to present these programmes.

Each journey, the length of Wales, which I drove from the southern coalfield to the nuclear power stations that we were picketing in the north during those historic 12 months, reminded me that there can be few more beautiful landscapes anywhere in the world. Those journeys had made me want to paint again, after almost two decades of denouncing 'gallery art' as 'bourgeois individualism'.

Where did I learn such ghastly rhetoric? In London, of course, during the mad, wonderful 1960s when I studied Fine Art (and revolution) at Hornsey, one of the most famous art colleges in the land. As my mother had put it at the time, when I told her I'd given up painting in order to advance the revolutionary cause, 'You're completely cracked, boy. I knew it would happen when you went up to London to live!'

She was completely right, of course. Renouncing painting had led me, via all kinds of tortuous industrial, academic and trade union tracks to the doors of Parliament and ministerial office in government. But, now, 45 years after I'd set-off from Aberdare for London, gripping my portfolio of sixth-form paintings, BBC Wales was giving me a chance to make amends for being 'cracked' back in 1968 and to contribute to the brave trail pioneered by a handful of art historians who have reminded all who are prepared to listen that the art of Wales in the 20th century is of a quality that compares with art produced anywhere in the world.

Framing Wales begins on Thursday 24 February at 7.30pm on BBC Two Wales.


  • Comment number 1.

    They did everything they could to persuade us to be Sunday painters in 1968 - get a proper job they said - and now I can see why. All that art education at Ally Pally, and yet also all that absolutely correct criticism of the Turner Prize, and now we have water colours from the valleys or alpine oil paintings from the garden shed. Painting by numbers could bring more to the canvas? So what is this mystification, Welsh artists but they study in the Slade, in was it Camberwell, in Hornsey and in Paris. Are they any the more or less Welsh for studying elsewhere in Europe or Britain? Are they any the better for looking at ancient rocks anywhere in the world. No. Small minded Nationalism doesn't create original, revolutionary or creative art. As for politics? How many times in the last century has a Labour government left the country bankrupt and the intervening governments having to rebuild the economy. Get back to the day job boyo, but please don't return to politics either.


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