Wales

Artist Charles Burton's milestone Cardiff show and book at 90

Charles Burton
Image caption "I am the same now as I was when I was four," says Charles Burton

Welsh painter Charles Burton says he has the same passion for art as he did as a child, as he celebrates turning 90.

Burton, who was born in Treherbert, is the oldest surviving member of the Rhondda Group of artists.

A new book about his work and a sale of his paintings have accompanied his 90th birthday celebrations.

He has been a professional painter for 70 years, and showed a talent for art from the age of four.

Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption A self-portrait ink on paper sketch from his youth, in 1946

He said: "I am just the same as when I was four years old. That's when I started. I used to go to my great-grandmother's house, she had a tin box in the bay window and I used to stand on that and draw.

"I never did 'child' art. Because there were no art teachers in school, I just drew what I saw. But not by looking, but by knowing what I saw.

"So I did little drawings of coal trucks going across the bridge, and so on. And in fact, the whole of my life has been simply painting the things that I know."

Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption Separate portraits of his parents, painted in 1983

A rare solo exhibition of his works has opened at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff as part of his 90th birthday celebrations, while the art writer Peter Wakelin has produced a book documenting Burton's achievements.

As a student in the 1950s he was one of a number of prominent artists from Rhondda who formed a friendship while travelling to art school in Cardiff, and who were given the name the Rhondda Group.

Fellow members included Ernest Zobole, Glyn Morgan, Nigel Flower, David Mainwaring and Robert Thomas.

Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption Being congratulated on receiving the Eisteddfod gold medal for fine arts at the age of 24

Burton has also taught art. He was head of painting at Liverpool College of Art at the time when John Lennon was a student, while from 1970 he was head of art and design at the Polytechnic of Wales until his retirement.

Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption Untitled (Ton Pentre) from 1956
Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption A 2001 painting of his home village, Treherbert
Image copyright Charles Burton/Newport Museum and Art Gallery
Image caption Back from the Club, an oil painting from 1954

Despite being recognised by the art world as a member of the Rhondda Group, Burton insists their talents were diverse - and it was their journey to college that bonded them.

"What brought us together was the train, and simply that. We travelled down together. We painted pictures, it was a wonderful time.

"The war had finished, people came back from the war and were so keen to make up for the time they had lost.

"We had a mantra of finding gold in one's own back yard, and we simply painted what we knew. Other people called us the Rhondda Group, but we were all individuals."

Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption Portrait of the artist as a young man - working in his studio in 1956

Burton paid his way through art school by selling paintings to his Rhondda neighbours, who were unpretentious about art.

"When I was in the Rhondda I painted pictures for Rhondda people, and they used to come and buy them. Which was lovely really.

"It had nothing to do with 'art' in big letters, it was just what I did. Quite lovely.

"The thing that I found quite natural was to be myself. I never had any problems at all in feeling that one had to paint in a certain way or anything, it was just my own way, it was what I did. And it is exactly the same now. So you could say that I am the same now as I was when I was four."

Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption Bute Street in Treherbert, ink on paper (1948)

He now lives in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan, and says the industrial landscape of the Rhondda Fawr valley has changed dramatically since he left.

"If you go up there now it's like the Alsace, it's all green and beautiful. It is exactly the way we had hoped it would become, but it is a different Rhondda.

"It doesn't belong to me anymore, it's so strange, it has almost left me homeless."

Peter Wakelin, whose book Charles Burton: Painting Still charts his life and work, said it was important to recognise one of our greatest painters.

"At the beginning of his career, in his 20s, he was head of the Rhondda Group who, for the first time, really persuaded people that there was wonderful art to be made in the Rhondda Valley.

"So he did that, and then he painted for another 70 years after that and has continued to produce work of incredible, serene beauty."

Image copyright Charles Burton/BBC
Image caption Charles Burton - and his younger self, aged about 14

Mr Wakelin said Charles Burton deserved wider public recognition.

"Charlie has tended to hide his light under a bushel, really. He has often gone for quite long periods without exhibiting.

"He was immensely popular at the beginning of his career, and he thinks he probably sold 150 or 200 paintings of the Rhondda while he was still a student. And he won the gold medal at the National Eisteddfod when he was just 24, which was an incredible achievement.

"Now, with his 90th birthday, this exhibition and the new book, it's a real opportunity for people to understand the great breadth of his career and I think he will become very popular again."

Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption Close-up of a Charles Burton painting of a wounded ambulance man in World War One
Image copyright Charles Burton
Image caption Red Fruit, painted 2003-2004

Charles Burton is modest about his accomplishments, and says his grand age is a bigger deal for others than for him.

"I only know that I'm 90 because I'm being told that I am, really. I don't know what 90 year olds are supposed to feel like, but I feel perfectly OK."

But he is pleased - and humbled - about the book and exhibition focusing on his success as a painter.

"Well, you can't miss it. Yes, it is very nice. I'm very pleased about it."

Charles Burton's 90th birthday exhibition is at the Martin Tinney Gallery, St Andrew's Crescent, Cardiff, until 29 August, excluding Bank Holiday.

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