Fred Uhlman in Wales

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EXTRACT FROM Fred Uhlman; Edited by Nicola Baird; p 87-101. DATE 2018. SOURCE Published by Burgh House and Hampstead Museum, London 2018. For further information see collection, exhibitions and research on

Fred Uhlman in Wales: The Making of an Anglo-German Welshman Rachel Dickson (published in Fred Uhlman, Nicola Baird ed., Burgh House & Hampstead Museum, 2018) In 1957 David Bell, English born artist, writer, Curator of the Glynn Vivian Gallery 1 in Swansea and Assistant Director of Welsh Arts Council, published The Artist in Wales, in which he sought to raise the profile of contemporary Welsh fine and applied arts and architecture in the face of numerous obstacles – declaring that ‘there is a sad deficiency in Wales of awareness of the world and values of art, both in child and in adult education’, adding ‘The fine arts have played a negligible part in Welsh life […] Half the terms which are commonly used in art criticism have no parallel in the Welsh language.’ In his chapter on ‘The Modern Artist in Wales’ Bell drew particular attention to’ another type of artist who is or has been working in Wales – the artist who has no roots of birth or family in Wales, but who has come there from England or abroad and made a home in the country and allowed his work to grow in Welsh soil. His coming to Wales and his working there should be appreciated and regarded by Welshmen as a privilege, because by doing so he has enriched our heritage as well as learned from it.2 In this category Bell featured Fred Uhlman, Hungarian-born, George [sic] Mayer-Marton who taught in Liverpool and hence had easy access to Wales 3, and Josef Herman. The latter, a Polish émigré painter, settled in the coal mining community of Ystradgynlais in South Wales, whilst Uhlman was drawn primarily to the north where the landscape and communities were defined by slate mining. Despite Bell’s best intentions, however, the publication became highly controversial and was furiously criticised by the Swansea-born artist and writer, Mervyn Levy, who derided Bell for producing ‘a thoroughly second rate and entirely provincial account’ 4. Uhlman first visited north Wales in the early 1940s as a bourgeois north Londoner, seeking a second home in the mountains, as a respite from the bombed capital. The family stayed at the Portmeirion Hotel, the heart of the fashionable Italianate resort in Cardigan Bay, designed by


The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery is the public art gallery of the City and County of Swansea, South Wales. The creation of the Gallery was made possible when in 1905 Richard Glynn Vivian offered his collection of paintings, drawings and china to the City with an endowment of £10,000. 2 The Artists in Wales, P. 172, David Bell, George G Harrap and Co, London, 1957 3 Georg Mayer-Marton (1897-1960) was a Hungarian Jewish artist who was a significant figure in Viennese artistic circles in the interwar years. Following his forced emigration to England in 1938, he subsequently relocated from London to Liverpool, creating decorative mosaic schemes for a number of northern churches. 4 Mervyn Levy, ‘wales’, #33 Oct 1958, pp68-70

Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis.5 Although both Williams-Ellis and Uhlman were celebrated Hampstead residents (in 1929 Williams-Ellis had bought George Romney's former residence at 5 Holly Bush Hill), Uhlman’s daughter Caroline suggests that a friendship between the two did not develop until the Uhlmans had visited Portmeirion where they had been obliged to find favour with the manager who wished to encourage a mix of interesting guests- others included Kenneth Clark and King Zog of Albania. After staying in borrowed houses, the Uhlmans acquired Beudy Neuwdd (New Barn), a ruined cowshed in the Croesor Valley on a 999 year lease. Built in 1666 for Katherine Anwyl daughter of the famous Royalist general and Vice Admiral of North Wales Sir John Owen of Clennenau it was restored and redesigned by Williams-Ellis in 1951. The Uhlman family would subsequently spend school holidays at Beudy Neuwdd where guests included the playwright Arnold Wesker, whose portrait was later painted by Josef Herman (NPG 1968) and painter, printmaker and official war artist, Edward Ardizzone. Despite its remoteness, this corner of north Wales, it seems, was a popular location for visiting intellectuals from London, including the historians Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson 6, whilst Bertrand Russell retired close by to Plas Penrhyn at Penrhyndeudraeth, a group with which the Uhlmans regularly socialized, rather than with their local Welsh neighbours. Set within its dramatic mountainscape, Beudy Newydd was captured in a series of images by renowned British landscape and architectural photographer, Edwin Smith (1912-70)7 and was also the subject of an article entitled ‘Why do I live here?’ published in House and Garden in 1958 in which Uhlman, one of four eminent British artists featured, was invited to describe his home. Referring both to its location and to the appeal of the landscape Uhlman elaborates: ‘My house stands on a ridge in the Croesor valley in Snowdonia, a few miles from Bedgellert and from Cardigan Bay. In the distance I can see the dam that Madock built, the little harbour named after him, the sea, and the hill on which stands Shelley’s house.[…]A few years ago my cottage was still a cowshed […] built in 1666 from enormous blocks of stone which, like the walls of all Welsh farms, will be standing after the shabby, shoddy subtopia around


The hotel opened at Easter 1926, a year after Williams-Ellis discovered the derelict and overgrown site. (author of The Making of the English Working Class) 7 Photographs by Edwin George Herbert Smith were commissioned by notable publishers such as Thames & Hudson and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, to illustrate publications such as: English Parish Churches (1952), English Cottages and Farmhouses (1954), Scotland (1955), England (1957 and 1971) and The Living City: A New View of the City of London (1957). 6

London is a ruin’ […] It stands in the most dramatic scenery of the whole British isles and of all Europe perhaps. I have travelled wide and far – and I know what I am talking about.’ 8 Uhlman's engagement with the Welsh landscape began with architectural and landscape paintings, but from 1951 onwards Beudy Newydd became the focal point for much of Uhlman’s Welsh work, and the base from which he would explore the local landscape. Uhlman would walk up the steep field behind the house to sit at a massive slate table sketching the changing panorama, the mountains a ‘deep rusty red’ beneath a Mediterranean sky. He did not use an easel and these visual notes were taken back to London to be worked up into finished paintings characterised by black outlines and exaggerated palette. In The Making of Fred Uhlman: Life and Work of the Painter and Writer in Exile (unpublished doctoral thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 2004) Anna Plodeck suggests that for Uhlman the Welsh landscape was a substitute for a lost German homeland. The artist’s daughter, however, refutes this, asserting that he was in fact dismissive of the German landscape of his youth, preferring instead the drama of Montenegrin and Bosnian countryside. Nevertheless, whatever pleasure and respite Uhlman received from immersion in the north Welsh landscape, did not extend to its local inhabitants. The reality of the fracture between his Continental, English and Welsh lives was emphasised by a distance between Uhlman and Gwynedd’s nationalistic natives, who had a fervent dislike of holiday-homers, in contrast to the profound sense of community experienced in south Wales by Herman, Heinz Koppel – who settled Dowlais, near Merthyr Tydfil in 1944 and, to a lesser degree, Martin Bloch, who was invited to visit Herman in Ystradgynlais. Graham Samuel writing in the Western Mail, on 11 March 1968, described Uhlman as an ‘Anglo-German Welshman’. Yet, unlike Herman, Uhlman was never going to be Fred-bach, and, although the landscape was a powerful inspiration to him, the almost complete absence of figures in his paintings perhaps reflects this difficult relationship. Uhlman’s Welsh paintings were included alongside his French and English work in group and solo shows at prestigious commercial London galleries over the next decade. In 1942 the Leicester Galleries showed Uhlman’s first Welsh works in a one man exhibition organised by the artist’s friend Kenneth Rowntree. Writer and critic, Raymond Mortimer, noted in his preface to the exhibition’s catalogue, Uhlman’s ‘debt to Caspar David Friedrich’; a ‘poetic delicacy’ in his handling of paint and his depiction of the 'English Scene' but, interestingly, 8

Unpaginated cutting, courtesy of Caroline Compton.

does not acknowledge the artist’s Welsh subjects. In his final sentence he refers to Uhlman as a painter of ‘enemy origin’, reminding visitors that in December 1942 Britain was still in the midst of war. This exhibition was followed in 1950 by Recent Paintings by Fred Uhlman 9. In 1945 The Redfern Gallery held a group show in which Uhlman featured as the main attraction- represented by 42 works including Welsh scenes,10 and in 1947 Lefevre Gallery11exhibited at least three Welsh landscapes alongside work by Matthew Smith, John Piper, Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Christopher Wood, John Minton, and Graham Sutherland, thus placing Uhlman firmly within a British landscape and figurative tradition. Welsh work shown in London culminated in the 1959 joint Uhlman and Carel Weight exhibition at Zwemmers, where Uhlman showed 21 oils. In 1946 Uhlman illustrated a slim volume of 18 black and white and coloured landscape sketches, largely unpopulated, with commentary by Williams-Ellis. The background to the commission is unknown – whether through Williams-Ellis, or the émigré publisher Paul Elek - part of Uhlman’s wider circle and described by fellow publisher Anthony Blond as ‘a small and shaky publisher in nether Bloomsbury’. Williams-Ellis declared that his collaborator ‘has said in his pictures so much about north Wales in a general sort of way…and next to nothing specifically [...] But - and this is the startling thing about these productions of Fred Uhlman - they are the authentic north wales. They breathe it, they cry it aloud, and they could be nowhere else’12. In a letter to Uhlman Kenneth Clark, who circled with some ambivalence around émigré artists, particularly in his role as Chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee, enthused: ‘I love that part of the world and am very glad to be so vividly reminded of it. It is extraordinary by what means you have rendered the atmosphere, especially in the black and white drawings.’ 13 This type of volume was clearly popular in the


This exhibition was shown alongside First exhibition of Paintings by Charles McCall and Urban landscapes by Stephen Bone - views of Morocco, France, jostling alongside Welsh and English landscapes. 10 8 – 31 March 1945, Redfern Gallery held ‘Recent Paintings by Fred Uhlman / Paintings by French and English artists; the latter included Matthew Smith, John Piper, Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Christopher Wood and John Minton, placing Uhlman within a British landscape and figurative tradition. May 1948; 1951, Group show inc Heron, Spender, Sutherland); 11 Lefevre Gallery held Fred Uhlman / New paintings British Artists, including Lowry, Wood, Hitchens and Nicholson, in which at least three Welsh paintings were shown amongst landscapes of the British Isles. 12 Clough Williams-Ellis, An Artist in North Wales, p 5-6 13 Kenneth Clark to Fred Uhlman, 11 July 1947; courtesy of Caroline Compton, Croft Castle.

postwar period, with Kenneth Rowntree illustrating A Prospect of Wales, an essay by Welsh writer and academic Gwyn Jones, published by Penguin in 1948.14 During the 1950s and early 1960s Uhlman began to engage with public collections in Wales, providing works for schools in Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire via the ‘Welsh local education authorities’15 and exhibiting via various Arts Council initiatives 16. The Welsh Committee of the Arts Council had formed an independent office with autonomy over its budget in 1953, after existing as a regional office under David Bell from 1946. Two of Uhlman’s paintings were included in the Coronation Year Exhibition: British Romantic Painting in the Twentieth Century shown in Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Swansea between July and October 1953, and were exhibited alongside the work of English painters Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland and Keith Vaughan. In 1954 a piece by Uhlman was lent by the Glynn Vivian for inclusion in Thirty Welsh Paintings of Today at the University of North Wales, Bangor. In March 1958 the AIA celebrated its 25th anniversary with an exhibition at the at RBA Galleries.17 The catalogue praised the contribution of émigrés and a painting by Uhlman was displayed along with works by his continental peers: Oskar Kokoschka, Martin Bloch and Kurt Schwitters. The 8th exhibition of contemporary Welsh Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, 1961 which toured to Cardiff, Bangor, Aberystwyth and Swansea, included two works by Uhlman, both priced at £47, 5 shillings.18. Designed as a celebration of the culmination of the Art Council’s annual conference The Arts in Wales, the intention of which was to ‘focus attention on the needs of the arts in Wales’, it was hoped that the exhibition would offer ‘something of the spirit that invigorates Welsh painting.’19 The same year the Welsh


Rowntree like Uhlman, avoided ‘the oft-sung show pieces of Wales’ and his watercolours were subsequently exhibited by the Arts Council in Cardiff in 1949- the catalogue reference to ‘the everyday made significant by vision and craftsmanship’ applicable as much to Uhlman’s work as to Rowntree’s. 15 See Ulhman’s biography in the catalogue accompanying British Romantic Painting in the Twentieth Century, July – October 1953. 16 Uhlman was not included in the 1951 Festival Exhibition of Contemporary Welsh Painting, whilst Herman and Koppel were; nor was he included in Contemporary Painting in Wales from the Arts Council Collection in 1952 which featured over 100 paintings, organised by National Library of Wales and Welsh Office of the Arts Council, and selected by Henry Moore, Ceri Richards and Eric Newton, the latter a friend of Uhlman’s and an exponent of a similar neo-romantic tendency. The exhibition was shown at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth from May-October 1952, 17 Diana Uhlman had been Secretary when AIA’s new centre in Lisle Street opened in 1947 and was on the exhibition committee. 18 Uhlman’s address was given as 47 Downshire Hill, Hampstead; a number of Welsh expat painters were also noted as living in London 19 8th exhibition of contemporary Welsh Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, 1961. Rowntree on the committee.

Committee hosted Paintings from the Arts Council’s Welsh Collection aiming at a ‘survey of the developments that have taken place in Welsh art in recent years.’ Uhlman was excluded. The catalogue did note, however, the important contribution provided by European émigrés, who ‘see Wales in the light of their very different social, cultural and stylistic backgrounds.’ For practical and personal reasons, time spent in Wales was gradually exchanged, from the end of the 1950s, for time at Croft Castle, Diana’s ancestral home, though Uhlman continued to paint Welsh landscapes into the 1970s, now often comprising black structures silhouetted against deep red or purple skies. In this period his palette became darker, his painting moodier. Anna Plodeck describes these works, ‘dominated by black and red horizons, orange mountains and gloomy houses’, as the ‘mirror image of his soul rather than of Wales.’


this brief review of Uhlman’s 30 year relationship with Wales, it is clear that landscape not only provided a literal refuge in Beudy Newydd, but also presented subject matter which resonated with his conflicted state of mind, through a shifting palette, alternating between lightness of touch and a heavier, more emotional response, charged with a sense of isolation. In 1960 Uhlman published his autobiography, The Making of An Englishman. The title, as has been frequently discussed, serves to highlight his complex identity as anything but an Englishman - and whom it could be argued had greater success, from the 1950s onwards, as a painter both ‘of’ and ‘in’ Wales. Indeed, in March 1960, Bangor Arts Festival hosted: Fred Uhlman 1935-60, 25 Years in Retrospect, an exhibition honour which was barely reciprocated in London.20 Although the Welsh pictures found some early success in the London art world, both Uhlman’s Welsh second ‘home’ and local subject matter allowed him to acquire a Welsh identity of sorts, enabling him to participate in exhibitions in Wales, just as his reputation was waning in London. And as if to exemplify this shift from the centre to the margins, where he was able to reclaim a position, in 1967 Uhlman was elected Academician – not of the Royal Academy, Burlington House, London - but of the Royal Cambrian Academy, Wales: Academi Frenhinol Gymreig.

77GB, National Art Library, V&A, p. xx 20 Leighton House, Kensington held Fred Uhlman Selected Works from the Thirties to the Sixties from 4-23 March 1968.