Cefn Bryn and the painters

May 1, 2020 1 Comment

Looking out of the window of my lockdown attic, I’ve a south-west view of south Gower.  If I stretch my neck I can see the eastern end of the ridge of Cefn Bryn, the long sandstone backbone of the peninsula.  All through the bright days of April the sun has set, often spectacularly, on one or other side of the ridge.  Cefn Bryn has begun to dominate my mental landscape too, especially since it became out-of-bounds to visit.  I’ve even begun to think that it may hold some kind of apotropaic power, a magical shield against the malign force of the coronavirus.

From Penmaen it’s an easy climb up to the summit of the ridge.  Then the path leads west, almost in a straight line for over four miles, until the sandstone runs out at Fairy Hill.  On a clear day, at almost any point along the way, there are long views in both directions, south across the Bristol Channel and north across the Burry Inlet to the Carmarthenshire coast and beyond.  This is common land, and Gower ponies and sheep graze on the heath among the grass, gorse and scrub (there are no trees).  Once across the road from Reynoldston to Llanrhidian that bisects the ridge, you can take a small detour to see Cefn Bryn’s main attraction, the Neolithic chambered tomb called Maen Ceti or Arthur’s Stone, with its huge capstone weighing around twenty-five tons.  Close by lies the white mass of the Great Ring Cairn, which dates to the Bronze Age.

Anon., Arthur’s Stone (1828)
(Glynn Vivian Art Gallery)

Cefn Bryn has always attracted walkers – often locals rather than the visitors who stick to the south coast of Gower – and it’s also been a magnet for writers and artists.  Amy Dillwyn, in her radical novel The Rebecca rioter, has her outlaw hero Evan Williams flee from his pursuers across Cefn Bryn to Penrice and Oxwich.  It’s said that in the early 1930s Dylan Thomas, after a Gower production by Swansea’s Little Theatre, led his fellow actors on an eerie night-time ramble on the slopes of Cefn Bryn to Arthur’s Stone.

George Grant Murray, Arthur’s Stone
(n.d.) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery

Visual artists too have been drawn to the ridge’s profile and closer features – especially Arthur’s Stone, a natural subject for more antiquarian-minded artists.  The Glynn Vivian has a coloured etching of the monument by an unknown artist from 1828, and over a hundred years later William Grant Murray, the first director of the Gallery and of Swansea School of Art, painted it from a different viewpoint.

Lucien Pissarro, Cefn Bryn, Gower (1933) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery)
Lucien Pissarro, View of Reynoldston, September 1933

Lucien Pissarro, the eldest son of the leading French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, first came to Britain during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and settled permanently in London in 1890.  He inherited his father’s bright impressionist style, but was also close to the Camden Town group of less scintillating English painters.  He visited Wales on painting expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s.  He was 70 years old when he stayed at Reynoldston between late August to early October 1933.  He chose Cefn Bryn as one of the subjects for the four paintings he completed there.  It’s now in the collection of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery.  His view looks westward along the ridge, with Llanmadoc Hill in the distance.  (A preparatory drawing in black chalk is among the many works given to the Ashmolean Museum after the artist’s death.) One of the other 1933 works, of Reynoldston, hows Cefn Bryn in the background.

Cedric Morris, Llanmadoc Hill, Gower (1928) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery)

The Swansea-born painter Cedric Morris knew Gower well from his boyhood.  After many travels in Europe, he returned to his home town in 1928, painting in and around Gower.  He too was taken with the mass of the Gower hills, and made fine paintings of Harding’s Down and Llanmadoc Hill, opposite Cefn Bryn (it’s possible he painted Cefn Bryn itself, but if he did I can’t locate any such work).  Returning to Gower after decades away awoke strong feelings in Morris.  He wrote to his partner, Arthur Lett-Haines,

I always said this was the most lovely country in the world, & it is – it’s so beautiful that I hardly dare look at it & I realise now that all my painting is the result of pure nostalgia & nothing else … everywhere is paintable and it all looks like my landscapes only 10 million times better – the colour is marvellous and so is the shape …

John Nash, Llanmadoc, Gower (n.d.)

Of Cefn Bryn Morris wrote, ‘the highest point hereabouts, [it] used to be a place of great mystery to me with Arthur’s Stone on the top – you will have to climb up and pay your respects to your namesake – he sat there when he read out the laws.’  Haines may have been reluctant to come, but a painter Morris did succeed in persuading to Gower was John Nash, the brother of Paul Nash, who completed several works there from 1938. 

Yet another artist working in Gower in the 1930s was Carey Morris of Llandeilo: less well-known and no relation to Cedric.  His view, Cefn Bryn, Gower, from Kilvrough, is now in the National Library of Wales.  It’s an intriguing work: far from being a conventional landscape, it seems to place the hill behind a window smeared with vertical marks and hints of gold tint.  The effect is to endow Cefn Bryn with a mysterious glow.

Carey Morris, Cefn Bryn, Gower, from Kilvrough (n.d.) (National Library of Wales)
Glenys Cour, Cefn Bryn (after Pissarro) (1981)

A younger painter, Ceri Richards, brought up in Dunvant, not far from Cefn Bryn, was equally influenced by the Gower landforms familiar from his boyhood, even though they didn’t feed explicitly into his paintings.  One of his pupils, Glenys Cour, has throughout her long career taken Gower as a powerful source for her work on canvas.  In her retrospective exhibition in Swansea in 2017 Pissarro’s picture was happily hung next to her own 1981 tribute to it, Cefn Bryn (after Pissarro).  Also in the show was one of Glenys’s finest works, The pool, Cefn Bryn (1963).  (Cefn Bryn has several pools and ponds, some ephemeral, others permanent, the largest being Broad Pool on the north side of the common.) 

Glenys Cour, The Pool, Cefn Bryn (1963) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery)

The pool has a strong, semi-abstract construction, varied textures and more restrained colour than Glenys later used.  Peter Wakelin wrote of it

… [it] is redolent immediately of peat and heather scrub at dusk.  But it takes a little longer to see the minute reflection of the moon in the deepest part of the water, the reeds flexing against reflected light, and the dark shape of the ridge repositioned so that the moon shines not over, but within it.  It is a painting that conjures up the mystery of being in a place, not to take an instant view, but to experience the hours of falling dusk.

Cefn Bryn may lack the obvious attractions of Gower’s limestone coastline.  Its Devonian rocks are older and its landforms more reticent.  It combines the openness of treeless heathland, public commons and unchecked views with a certain secrecy – a secrecy that attracts the kind of artist interested in the inner nature, rather than the surface appearance, of natural things.

Lucien Pissarro, Cefn Bryn (Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology)

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  1. Peter Wakelin says:

    Thank you for picking out that little piece of text to quote and extending its life. Is the moon really beneath the hill rather than in a bank of cloud? I like the idea that it is.

    As a teenager studying geomorphology in Swansea I loved discovering the term ‘Monadnock’ (from the Native American name for a mountain in New Hampshire) and learning that the familiar ridge of Cefn Bryn was a rather classy exemplar.

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