Last week I paid a visit to Parc Howard Museum and Art Gallery in Llanelli. I was on a particular mission in the museum, but had time to look round the paintings on display. The collection is mixed but interesting. It includes an early view of Llanelli from Furnace Quarry by the town’s most famous artist, J.D. Innes, and several paintings by Evan Walters.
But the work that held my attention longest was a large oil painting entitled In the golden weather, made in 1905 by an artist I’d never registered before, Charles William Mansel Lewis. The more I stared at it the more remarkable it seemed.
Born in 1845, Mansel Lewis was the son of David Lewis, MP for Carmarthen Borough in 1835-37 and the owner of Stradey Castle, which he built in the 1850s. The son was brought up in the Castle and its estate of 3,000 acres. On the face of it he was a typical product of the wealthier Anglo-Welsh gentry of the period. He was sent to Eton College and studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford before returning to Stradey, which he inherited on his father’s death in 1872. He had an extension built to the Castle, including a tower, and built a wall all round his estate. He involved himself in local Conservative politics.
If this was the whole story Mansel Lewis would hardly merit remembrance. But from his childhood he showed a gift for art. His mother, Laetitia Way, was a keen amateur watercolourist. At Eton he was encouraged by the art teacher, Samuel Evans, who was of Welsh extraction, and at Oxford he continued to practise painting, influenced by the artist and teacher William Rivière. While a student there he painted a remarkable oval-shaped self-portrait. It shows him sitting on a chair in his room, head on hand, having taken the contents of a decanter lying on a table beside him. He’s in a reverie, surrounded by a variety of nightmare figures from central Gothic casting: a winged ghoul, a monarch with obeisant subjects, two pairs of entwined lovers, and a dagger-wielding murderer. It’s hard to know whether the image is a genuine outpouring of psychic horror or a self-parodying student prank, but Mansel Lewis’s ultimate model must be Goya’s famous etching The sleep of reason produces monsters (c1799).
When he returned to Stradey Mansel Lewis didn’t set his art aside. Indeed, part of the extension he added to the Castle was designed as a studio. He continued to paint, enjoyed visiting galleries, and began to build a collection of the works of other artists. One of his purchases in the 1870s was from a then unknown painter of German origin called Hubert Herkomer, who later became a well-known ‘social realist’ and portrait painter (and an early film director). The two became close friends and until 1884 shared a habit of taking long artistic camping tours in north Wales, where they sketched and painted the landscape from tents and ‘painting-huts’ erected for the purpose.
Herkomer became prominent as an art critic and promoter as well as a painter, and Mansel Lewis involved him in the art exhibitions arranged by the National Eisteddfod. In the Llanelli Eisteddfod of 1895 Herkomer famously attacked what he regarded as the woeful condition of contemporary Welsh art. Mansel Lewis’s work with Eisteddfod continued, and a year before his death he presided over the exhibition at the Llanelli Eisteddfod on 1930, which featured work by Gwen John, David Jones and Cedric Morris.
The few art historians who have given Mansel Lewis any attention have tended to highlight his work as an art organiser and supporter (he was also responsible for establishing the Llanelli School of Art in 1907). Even Stephanie Jones, in her short monograph, underplays his work as an artist. He deserves much better.
Some of his earlier work falls easily into the genre painting presented at the time in Britain by Luke Fildes, George Clausen and G.F. Watts. This style, derived from French realist painters like Courbet, Millet and Bastien-Lepage, made a point of depicting scenes from everyday life, and especially workers on the land. Herkomer, a firm adherent of the realist tendency, was clearly a strong influence, and several of Mansel Lewis’s paintings and etchings from the 1870s feature working class women and boys: Woman at a spinning wheel (c1874), Near home (boy with rabbits (c1878), The dairy maid (c1979), Old Bet collecting firewood (c1879). It’s a mark of the severe limitations of Mansel Lewis’s realist practice that while it was acceptable to portray workers on the family estate, where presumably he found his models, industrial workers, available in large numbers in Llanelli only a couple of miles away, were clearly unsuitable subjects.
These genre works are competent but not out of the ordinary. One of them, though, Near home, gives more than a hint of what was Mansel Lewis’s real strength, as a landscape painter. The boy holding rabbits, apparently a poacher-turned-model, is really an excuse for a carefully composed and detailed study of woodland in late autumn, with low light silhouetting the trunks and lending a glow to the modulated reds, browns and greens of the undergrowth below. The three dead rabbits on the boy’s back in the bottom left of the canvas are counterpointed by a flock of birds flying free about the treetops.
Autumn seems to have held a strong attraction for Mansel Lewis. It’s again the season in what may be his very best work, In the golden weather in Parc Howard. This is a large (100 x 149cm) oil painting that was exhibited at the Royal Academy. It dates from 1905, much later than Near home, and shows his complete mastery of painting technique. The scene is a broad river. On its surface, completely still, float leaves from the boughs overhanging the water from left and right. Sun, filtered through the branches, glints on the water in a sinuous line from the far bank to the near, giving the composition the only sense of motion it has. Because this picture is a grand and ambitious attempt to capture a still moment in time – a moment before the wind rises, dislodging the precarious leaves and cracking the river’s mirror. The colour range of the painting, when you stand in front of it, is overwhelming. Mansel Lewis renders the branches and the leaves on them in minute detail, but the reflections on the river’s surface are quite different – impressionistic, in a way that would have been unlikely if the picture had been painted in the 1870s. Everything about the painting – the balanced composition, the multitudinous colours, the wholly unsentimental, almost metaphysical tone – make it exceptional, and the work of an artist at the height of his considerable powers.
The other Parc Howard oil painting by Mansel Lewis, Woodland scene, Stradey Pond, dating from the same period, is smaller and more sombre, but no less accomplished. We’re now in late autumn or early winter. The tall trees are bare, although bushes at the water’s edge still glow orange. Again the weather is cloudless and still – the pond’s surface is unbroken, reflecting the tree trunks – but the prevailing colours and the overall mood are now chill.
There are other surviving paintings of scenes in the Stradey estate, like In the woods (no date), and other pictures from further afield. The most striking of these are a fine beach scene at Fairwater West, Pembrokeshire, and The Devil’s Kitchen, which dates from Mansel Lewis’s travels to Snowdonia in the 1880s with Herkomer. As well as the oil paintings there are at least two sensitive landscapes in watercolour.
Very few paintings by Mansel Lewis are in public collections. ArtUK lists only the two Parc Howard pictures, and another, a view of Dowlais, in Cyfarthfa Castle that is attributed to him, but is clearly not by him. The artist himself appears not to have valued his own work. He seldom exhibited paintings or sold them, and he avoided publicity for them. No wonder he’s been overlooked as an artist. But I think he was a painter of real interest and accomplishment. The time has come for someone to collect the evidence and reassess his achievement.