Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Prospect of Wales

Last year I asked here 'why isn't the art of Recording Britain better known?'  Well Sheffield's Millenium Gallery is currently hosting a touring exhibition devoted to Recording Britain, with some of the original paintings from the 1940s set alongside earlier topographical watercolours and recent landscape art by people like Richard Long, Keith Arnatt and Ingrid Pollard.  A display case has books from the period, including A Prospect of Wales (1948), one of the old King Penguins (like John Piper's book on Romney Marsh which I described in  another post last summer). This book has illustrations by Kenneth Rowntree, whose contributions to the Prospect of Britain project were often quite unusual, e.g. The Smoke Room, Ashopton Inn, Derbyshire (1940) - a rather unprepossessing interior with dartboard, wall calendar and a fish mounted in a case. The accompanying essay is by Gwyn Jones, who founded The Welsh Review, wrote novels and translated Icelandic sagas.  Seeing this in the exhibition, and having just booked a week's holiday in Wales this summer, I thought I would get hold of a copy.

The title, A Prospect of Wales, sounds paradoxical - how is it possible to see the whole country?  To some extent Gwyn Jones' essay represents a kind of landscape writing I've mentioned here previously, the imaginary prospect which begins with the local and then spreads out far beyond the limits of sight.  Jacquetta Hawkes does this in A Land, which was published three years later than a A Prospect of Wales; as I wrote in an earlier post here, 'the book ends with 'A Prospect of Britain', from the city streets round her home in Primrose Hill to the different landscapes of Britain described in the order they were created: the chalk Downs, the Cotswold's, the West Riding, the Lake District.'  Another example: Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928), whose hero/ine is able to climb a hill so high 'that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine.'  And another, which I have not mentioned here before because it takes the reader completely beyond 'some landscapes': Olaf Stapledon's vision of the cosmos in Starmaker (1937), a book that begins with a view of suburbs and the sea's level darkness, and the opening sentence: 'One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill.'  A Prospect of Wales begins, by contrast, 'I have just come down from the hill fronting my house in mid-Cardiganshire', but a few pages later he is asking us to ascend again to a point where 'we may survey with swinging glance the western counties of Wales.'

In my photograph above, the book is open at two of Kenneth Rowntree's illustrations of Pembrokeshire, which is where we will be heading next month.  'This is a coast,' Jones writes, 'soaked in colour and radiant with light.'  He quotes Graham Sutherland's essay 'A Welsh Sketchbook', which had appeared in Horizon in 1942: 'The quality of light here is magical and transforming - as indeed it is in all this country.  Watching from the gloom as the sun's rays strike the further bank, one has the sensation of the after tranquillity of an explosion of light; or as if one had looked into the sun and had suddenly turned away.'  I will no doubt have more to say about Sutherland and his Pembrokeshire paintings after we've explored this landscape. I'll conclude here with four lines of Welsh poetry quoted at the end of A Prospect of Wales which encapsulate what Jones sees as the real essence of the country, to be found 'not in the famed vistas ... but in some corner of a field, a pool under a rock, in a bare sheep-walk or a cottage folded in a gulley.'  The poem is by Hedd Wyn and Jones translates these lines as follows: 'Only the purple moon at the edge of the bare mountain, and the sound of the old river Prysor singing in the valley.'
Dim ond lleuad borffor
Ar fin y mynydd llwm,
A sŵn hen afon Prysor
Yn canu yn y cwm 


IAN said...

Good to be reminded of the poet of the Black Chair - but if you don't mind a small correction - it should be 'hen afon' (the old river). Hope you have a wonderful time in Pembrokeshire. Be sure to visit Nevern.

Plinius said...

Thanks - I should have typed it rather than cut and paste from 'Wikiquote'!

I remember watching the film that was made about him twenty years ago.