We’re in Merthyr Tydfil to spend an afternoon in Cyfarthfa Castle and its estate, above the town to the north-east. The house was built as a home by the Crawshay family, owners of one of the town’s great ironworks in the nineteenth century. ‘Castle’ is the right word for it. Stone turreted and battlemented, it glares down ostentatiously at the valley below. It was intended to dominate and oppress the other classes who toiled in and around the ironworks of the town. Through the open side of the huge ironworks shed in Penry Williams’s night painting of 1825 can be seen the lights of the Castle far away on the hill, keeping watch over the Crawshays’ investments.
Today the Castle houses Merthyr’s museum and art gallery. There’s no better place for anyone interested in the role of Wales as the world’s first industrial nation to learn about the astonishing growth of the iron industry in Cyfarthfa, Penydarren, Plymouth and Dowlais. The museum gives a vivid picture of the Crawshays and their fellow-owners – and it also commemorates and celebrates their workers, who developed a distinctive political and social culture as radical as anywhere else in the UK at the time.
It’s fitting that the Castle also contains works of art. The Crawshays and others were keen patrons and collectors, and all kinds of artist came to Merthyr to respond to its dramatic natural and man-made landscapes. Turner visited the town at the beginning of its industrial growth. Penry Williams, taken up by the Crawshays, painted the ironworks before pursuing his career in Italy. William Jones Chapman painted individual workers in the Cyfarthfa works for Francis Crawshay. The tradition continued into the twentieth century, and a whole large room is dedicated to works by Valleys painters, including Heinz Koppel, Will Roberts, Cedric Morris and David Carpanini.
I gravitate towards a painting I’ve noticed and admired on previous visits, hidden away on a wall at the far end of the room. It’s a very simple picture. On the right is the back of a pink-washed house, with a lean-to extension showing a window and door. On the left and in the foreground is a garden, run wild with ferns, flowers, shrubs and tall grasses – some of them highlighted by a fleeting sun – and, at the back, a parade of tall sunflowers. Farther off are a couple of trees, and further still a darker wood and cloudy sky. And that’s all. There are no figures and nothing is happening. Yet together the various elements of the painting blend into a perfectly balanced composition, a symphony of colours that recalls Gaugin’s Tahitian paintings. It also has a curious mood, one of peace and restfulness that could disguise, in its lush foliage, something hidden, exotic or dangerous.
The picture’s title is ‘Sunflower tops’ and it was painted in the early 1950s by Esther Grainger. She was responsible for a work I first came across years before this one, in the collection of the National Library of Wales. It’s called ‘Pontypridd at night’ and it was painted in 1953. On the face of it this looks a very different work. It’s painted on rough board, not canvas. The oil treatment lacks the delicacy of touch of the sunflower picture. The scene is urban, not rural: streets, houses and chapels nestle around one another for comfort in a rough bowl or circle. Artificial lights from streetlamps and houses find an echo in the moon and stars, above the dark surrounding hills. In the foreground, in front of a flagstoned path leading down to the streets, is a large bush, flaring a brilliant orange-red, as if on fire.
‘Pontypridd at night’ is a bold, striking painting. It’s semi-abstract but it has things to say about the community it shows: its closeness and vitality.
Although ‘Pontypridd at night’ has been reproduced a couple of times in recent years Esther Grainger remains a virtually unknown figure today. She lacks an entry in the Oxford dictionary of national biography and the Dictionary of Welsh biography. Who was she, and why has such an interesting artist been overlooked?
Grainger was born in Cardiff in 1912, trained at Cardiff School or Art between 1928 and 1934, and became an art and craft teacher in Pontypridd. She had a strong social conscience and became associated with the ‘settlement’ in the town. This had been established by the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service as one of a series of settlements in ‘special areas’ of high unemployment during the interwar period to offer adults learning opportunities. Esther’s job as tutor was to promote the practice and exhibition of art in and around Pontypridd. She met Cedric Morris in the town in 1942 and became firm friends with him and his partner Arthur Lett Haines (they lived at Benton End in Suffolk, probably the house depicted in ‘Sunflower tops’). Later she introduced the German refugee painter Heinz Koppel to Morris, who arranged a base as a teacher for him in the similar settlement at Dowlais.
At the end of the Second World War Grainger, Morris and Arthur Giardelli, another of the Pontypridd settlement artists, established a Federation of Welsh Music and Art Clubs to coordinate the scattered voluntary cultural activity, and Grainger became its Secretary. Later she organised art exhibitions in the National Eisteddfod. But a new age was dawning, and state intervention – first CEMA and then the Arts Council – began to take over the role of community organisation, as Peter Lord explains in his recent book The tradition. Esther went on to teach in a girls’ grammar school in Caerphilly and later in Cardiff College of Education.
Esther Grainger continued to paint (and embroider) and to exhibit, and was joined by a new generation of Valleys painters, including Glyn Morgan, Ernest Zobole, Charles Burton and others who belonged to a loose grouping known as the Rhondda Group, as well as Nan Youngman (at last women were beginning to break the men’s near-monopoly on art in Wales). Esther died in 1990.
Why is Esther Grainger not better known? I suspect there may be several reasons. First, it’s possible she subordinated her own creative practice to her other work, teaching, promotion and organisation. Second, as a woman in a man’s age she may have attracted less attention at exhibitions and among buyers, private and public. It’s interesting that few of her works are represented in public collections. As well as the two already mentioned, the Public Catalogue Foundation’s ArtUK lists just eight other oil-based paintings, in Newport, National Museum Wales, Pontypridd, Swansea and Maesteg. All of these are of rural scenes, except for ‘Baptist chapel’ (Pontypridd Museum), ‘Ryder Street’ [London] and ‘Portrait of a miner’s wife’ (both in National Museum Wales). Her paintings appear regularly at auction and there must be many good examples hidden in private collections.
Talented 20th century women artists overshadowed by their male contemporaries are slowly beginning to come into proper view in the 21st century. Winifred Nicholson, so long ignored in favour of her husband Ben, is at last being valued as a fine painter. Before long Donald Treharne’s detailed research on the art of Vera Bassett, the Pontarddulais-born painter and near-contemporary of Esther Grainger, will be published. The time has surely come for someone to perform a similar tribute to Grainger, and help pull her forward from the back of the stage where she’s stayed for far too long.