As I walked into the room I saw a world I knew so very well but a world that to a large extent doesn’t exist anymore.
(All images copyright Swansea Museum/Swansea Council.)
I had gone to Swansea Museum on Thursday evening for the launch of a new book, ‘The Ugly Lovely Landscape’, featuring the work of Swansea Artist George Little.
The launch was held in a room housing an exhibition ‘Twentieth Century Swansea’. The walls were full of images and artefacts that captured my childhood. A Swansea in my memory that is still black and white, but a Swansea that has long since been knocked down and built over before being knocked down and built over again… and again.
Anyone who knows Swansea knows that Dylan Thomas’s description of the seaside town is meant with love, honesty and humour. That is reflected in the book and in George’s body of work that we were there to honour. Whether using paint or collage or photography George was always creating a ‘love letter’ to the town of his birth. George saw Swansea ‘warts and all’ but he saw them as beauty spots rather than anything that needed to be hidden away.
I first met George in the 1990s when he was a guest on my afternoon Arts show for BBC Radio Wales. The programme was broadcast from the BBC Studios in Alexandra Road, a building synonymous with Dylan Thomas and those other members of that Golden Age of creativity in Swansea ‘The Kardomah Boys’.
What I soon grew to realise was that whilst that Golden Age was remarkable it was not completely unusual. Dylan’s friends included artists like Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy, musicians Daniel Jones and the poet Vernon Watkins but these creatives didn’t suddenly emerge out of nowhere. Swansea has always had artists, poets, musicians, even philosophers creating work that deserves to be celebrated and shared. It seems we either ignore them or we have simply forgotten to remember them!
In my own small way I try my best to shine a little light when possible and with the artist’s permission. A few Christmas’s ago I was struggling to find the right image for our first ‘Everyone Deserves a Christmas’ EP. I went hunting through some of our Swansea art galleries and found the perfect ‘angel’ by Glenys Cour.
A year or so later I was again searching for an image to use for a summer release when I came across a painting by George Little’s widow Carolyn. Carolyn remembered me from the chats I used to have with George and very kindly allowed me to use her work. Since then we’ve kept in touch and it was lovely to hear from Carolyn that there was a going to be a new book about George.
(Artwork by Glenys Cour)
As a boy George had loved the museum walking down to explore its contents from his home in Danygraig. Stories were told of how as kids George and his mates used to sneak past the museum staff and slide down the main bannister before jumping off the elephant in the foyer only to be chased by uniformed staff as they made for the safety of the docks.
The room used for the launch was perfect as its current exhibition features some of George’s photographs as well as his paintings, photographs that also feature in the book.
(Mal Pope with Carolyn Little)
The book’s author Peter Wakelin managed to capture the significance of George’s work in a way that helped explain how the ugly in some people’s eyes can be beautiful to the artist. As Peter says in the opening chapter,
‘Heavy Industry at work and the gaunt aftermath of deindustrialisation and urban decay generally inspire horror or repulsion but with those with the eyes to see them differently, such environments are perennially compelling.’
George’s collection of photographs and paintings captures a moment in time that George knew himself was fast disappearing. On the inside sleeve of George’s book he is quoted as saying,
‘Everywhere the images of my choice are disappearing, pithead wheels, slag heaps, heavy industry. The fishing industry, even the streets of workers houses, and the Swansea docks as I knew them are virtually no more. The Hafod copperworks are disintegrating and all being tidied up. Undoubtedly for the good but it means my subject matter is almost a memory.’.
(The iconic Weaver’s Building)
For me that’s what makes the book and the current exhibition in Swansea Museum so wonderful. I was born in 1960, just 15 years after the end of World War 2. To put that into some context that’s like the distance in time from now back to 2008!!
I remember playing on the ‘waste ground’ that was covered in discarded copper ore and covered up mine shafts. I remember trips with my grandfather to old garages housed in the arches of the strand or trips to the docks to buy fish direct from the boats.
Where once there was the Cwmfelin Steel works there are now pretty family houses. The Weaver Building, one of the first reinforced concrete structures in the world managed to survive the Swansea Blitz but came crashing down in 1984 to make room for a Supermarket. Where once the land looked like the surface of Mars now stands proudly the Swansea.com Stadium.
As George says ‘undoubtedly for the good’ but without paintings and photographs like those found in George’s book and the exhibition these memories would be gone forever.
I would encourage everyone who loves the ‘town’ (I know it’s a city, but old habits die hard) to get along to Swansea Museum to see the exhibition including the work by George Little.
For those of us of a certain age I can guarantee it will provoke in you feelings and emotions long forgotten and for those too young to remember old Swansea I’m sure it will be fascinating to see how the town has changed as it has become a modern city… still ugly, but still lovely.