I met Roger Cecil just once, in 2011. There was only one way of making initial contact with him, according to my instructions, that had any chance of success. You rang his number, twice, then put the phone down and rang again. If you were lucky he would then answer. I was lucky, and arranged to meet him in Abertillery. C and I went together, not knowing quite what to expect.
Roger still lived in the terrace house his parents brought him up in. He’d turned over almost the whole house to a studio. The front room upstairs was a kind of private gallery or display, and in one of the back rooms he kept his store of unsold paintings, carefully stacked. He worked in the downstairs front room, surrounded by a large array of tools, many handmade and all meticulously maintained, and by sheets and strips of paper on which he’d written, in his neat but cramped handwriting, quotations taken from his wide reading.
We were there for far longer than we had any right to expect. Once he’d worked out that we were serious but had no ulterior motives – and it helped that C was a fellow-artist – he talked to us for hours, generously showing us large numbers of his works and explaining some of his ways of working. He even gave C some of his surplus art materials before we left.
I already knew that Roger Cecil was an interesting artist. He’d been the featured artist in the Ebbw Vale National Eisteddfod in 2010, and some of his works were in the National Library of Wales’s art collection. But I left his house in Abertillery that day convinced that he was much more than interesting – he was exceptional. And now, after studying Peter Wakelin’s new book, Roger Cecil: a secret artist, I’d agree with William Gibbs’s assessment, quoted in the book, that ‘he is, I think, one of the great artists of Wales’. Others have made even larger claims, and I think they’re not unreasonable either.
It’s only April, but Roger Cecil: a secret artist may well turn out to be the art book of 2017. The text is superb, especially considering the difficulties faced by anyone reconstructing the life and career of one who guarded his privacy and placed his art above the curiosity of galleries, buyers or commentators. The illustrations, over 130 of them, are expertly chosen and placed, and brilliantly printed by Cambrian Printers of Aberystwyth. They come as a revelation. This is the first time most of the works have been seen – the majority are in private hands and even those in public collections have seldom been shown or reproduced.
What is it about Roger Cecil’s work that makes it so distinctive and distinguished?
Its all-of-a-pieceness is striking. Almost soon as he began making art at Newport College of Art in 1957 – his parents supported him wholeheartedly in his ambitions from the start – he began to form a style that stayed with him for the rest of his life. Its essence, abstracted landscape and figure forms, derives from the spirit of the age when he was a student. But he quickly found his own way of working, and stuck with it. A ‘Roger Cecil’ is not hard to spot, even if his emphases changed a bit over time (when we visited him he was in his later, ‘white-out’ stage).
A second feature of his work is its absolute sureness. Almost from the start, Peter Wakelin makes clear, Roger was certain what he wanted to do and how to go about doing it. However galleries or critics felt about his paintings, he himself knew they were serious and were good. There seems little that’s tentative or half-hearted about any of the paintings. His sense of how shapes fitted together on the canvas (or just as likely, board or card) was absolute, even if many of them were not conventional. You could say the same about his use of line, and his command of colour. During his most productive, middle period, from the late 1980s, the range and depth of his colours is astounding: bold pink, coal black, shining yellows and blues, earth browns and occasional burning reds.
Thirdly, painting for Roger Cecil, was rarely a two-dimensional operation. Most of his works were to some degree sculptural. He layered paint – and not just conventional oils but household paint, blacking, plaster and many other media – and scraped it back. He would scratch marks through to the background, and press punch tools into the paint surface. He often made small sculptures and jewellery out of brass, copper and silver fragments (never exhibited and often given away), and their ideas leak into the paintings. The subtlety of many of the paintings derives from contrasts in surface finish – some polished smooth, others roughened and three-dimensional.
And finally, I’d suggest, what’s so special about the paintings is their passion. Abstraction in art sometimes goes hand in hand with desiccation (when I see a Ben Nicholson I always think, fairly or unfairly, what a cold fish he must have been). Roger Cecil’s paintings, even where the content seems to have no obvious correlate in the real world, are always alive with feeling. Peter Wakelin gives a wonderfully sympathetic account of the ‘Angharad paintings’, many of which are clearly erotic in tone. But the same affection informs the ‘landscape’ pictures – a deep love of the country around Abertillery. It’s striking how often a painting will take an aerial view of the valley cupped in the surrounding folds of the parallel hills above. And all the pictures, whatever their level of figuration, are painted with such an obviously loving, enraptured attention in their making that it would be a hard-hearted soul who failed to be moved as well as intrigued by them.
One of my favourites among the paintings is ‘Untitled I’, now in MOMA, Machynlleth. It’s a large picture, painted in around 2000, in oil and other media on board. Like many of Roger’s paintings it combines very carefully constructed details with broad but variegated areas of colour. The background is a dark grey-brown, partly ‘stippled’ field, but crossed by two broad strips of slightly darker brown. The two browns partly obscure a rough circle of rich glowing red (a kind of reprise of the circle is hidden as an arc under the brown field to the left). Across the red march two vertical ‘roads’, like a dual carriageway except the one of the lanes diverges towards the bottom.
Peter Wakelin reports that the big exhibition on African art curated by Tom Phillips in the Royal Academy in 1995, and the gigantic illustrated catalogue that went with it, had a powerful effect on Roger. ‘Untitled I’ seems to reflect strongly this interest in traditional African art – in the details of the ‘roads’, and especially the sculptural elements like the punched ‘square of dots’, but also in the overall composition. The roundish red shape resembles that of a gourd, and it may be that Roger was recalling the shape of the west African kora or harp-lute, where a fingerboard sits astride the gourd resonator. The painting is an epitome of everything you might see in a Roger Cecil work – a bold but subtly varied composition, colours that resonate as deeply as any stringed instrument, contrasting textures, and a governing feeling – maybe a kind of nostalgic grandeur – that runs through the painting.
I recently saw the large exhibition of Vanessa Bell’s paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. They were pleasant enough, but I left with the suspicion that the curators were making too many claims for her. If she hadn’t been blessed with so many silver spoons – accident of birth into a wealthy and intellectual family, association with the Bloomsburyites, and first-hand exposure to French modernists – Bell’s works, with their unassimilated influences and stylistic uncertainties, wouldn’t be well remembered today. Roger Cecil, from a working class south Wales valleys background, had no such advantages. And he certainly sought none (his time at the Royal College of Art lasted only a few weeks: he walked out and returned home). But he was serious in purpose and completely dedicated to his art. His achievements were astonishing. He deserves far more recognition than he’s received so far. Maybe Peter Wakelin’s book and the MOMA exhibition that goes with it will help that to happen.
If it does, it will come too late for Roger, who died, in a cold field near Croesyceiliog in February 2015, in a confused attempt to find his way on foot from a hospital in Newport to his home in Abertillery. (I went to his funeral, at the crematorium close by.) Peter has some wise words about what most people saw as a desperately sad conclusion: ‘it seemed a tragic end, but it resonated with Roger’s lifetime of walking, spending nights under the stars and remaining resolutely independent.’
An exhibition of Roger Cecil’s paintings, In the studio, is at MOMA, Machynlleth, until 24 June 2017.