Mary Lloyd Jones

November 17, 2017 0 Comments

‘Ystumtuen pools’ and studies

Mary Lloyd Jones has been exhibiting her paintings since the 1960s.  She’s a consistent and prolific artist, and it can seem hard to find new things to say about her work – especially since she’s written and spoken often about it herself (many others have too, including Ann Price-Owen, Ceridwen Lloyd Morgan and Iwan Bala).  A new show of around thirty recent paintings at the Martin Tinny Gallery in Cardiff – two very large oil paintings supported by smaller, mixed media works – is a chance to try to look at her paintings with fresh eyes. 

The first thing the innocent eye fastens on, as with almost all of Mary’s work, is colour.  Her choice and treatment of colour are an obvious way into her world.  When I went to see Mary a few weeks ago in her studio in the Old College in Aberystwyth I asked her more than once about her colours.  I suspect they’re now so familiar to her that the way she uses them is instinctive, even unexceptional.  But for the viewer it’s two things about them that make her paintings distinctive.  The first is the choice of them.  Most are earthy colours, almost literally.  They take their cue from the colours to be found in actual, local earth and rock and what grows on them (animated, it’s true, with the addition of much brighter, sometimes primary colours).  The second thing is the sound and movement of the colours.  Mary suggested to me the strong musical associations they hold for her: any individual work has its own key, rhythm, orchestration – and dynamic movement.  Her forms don’t share the immobility of the American abstract expressionist paintings she admires.  Her colour blocks and lines slide and zigzag about the canvas, sometimes they topple over, or they want to escape out of the picture plane.


A good example of this is Ysgwrn, one of two very large paintings in the show.  (To see it you need to leave the gallery, go round the back of the building and look at it through a large picture window.)  Within a dark ‘frame’ on two sides of the landscape canvas, a complicated assemblage of colour shapes – almost a Cezanne-like construction – fills the centre: blues, greens and browns, with occasional splashes of orange and red.  There’s a suggestion of separate geometric planes slipping diagonally down the canvas towards the bottom right, towards a more disturbed passage of yellowy streaks and thin angular blue lines.  This mobility gives the painting a Kandinsky-like vibrancy.

Watercolour sketch

Here, as in most of the paintings, the colours echo a landscape.  Not selected parts of it, as with most artists, but the entirety of what the place has to show: sky above, land surface, and – crucially for Mary – the soil and rock lying beneath the land’s surface.  Almost all the colours take their cue from these three realms, though their combination owes little to the externals of landscape convention and almost everything to the internal demands of the painting itself.  The artist’s eye is in several places at once: gazing up at the (unusually) blue sky, looking down from far above on the quiltwork of fields stretching out from the farmhouse of Yr Ysgwrn, and scrutinising at close range the markings on ancient stones lodged in the land (maybe these are ogham stones).  Some of the smaller works in the show, by the way, can be read as ‘landscapes’ but also as close-up studies of, say, growths and marks on stones.

Anyone who’s visited Yr Ysgwrn, a few miles from Trawsfynydd in Meirionydd, will sense immediately how the vast upland landscape that rolls out eastwards from the farm has found its way, by so many transformations, into the painting.  As often with Mary’s work, the landscape is no purely ‘natural’ phenomenon: it’s been formed by humans and pierced by their marks over many millennia.  The ‘ogham’ marks in Ysgwrn make the point clearly.  I wonder whether there’s a further, yet more human element in the painting.  The most famous resident of Yr Ysgwrn was the poet Hedd Wyn, killed in the Third Battle of Ypres in July 1917, and it’s tempting to see the blood-red scar on the right of the canvas, and the violent, angular marks surrounding it, as an oblique reference to Hedd Wyn’s fatal wrenching from his home and habitat.

Almost all Mary’s paintings start from a specific place, and most are identified in the other paintings in the Martin Tinney show.  Some are spots in her native Ceredigion – Nant-y-Moch, Cwmystwyth, Cors Fochno, Ponterwyd – others are places in other parts of the rural west, the Preselis to the south, and Arthog and the Mawddach estuary to the north.  Almost all are places injured by human intervention in the past – often by mining and quarrying.  These are activities that hold a special appeal to Mary, I suspect, because, more than any other industrial process, they spill out, as spoil and rubble, the innards of what usually lies hidden beneath the land’s surface.  These underearth elements are combined, as an equal partner with a place’s surface and its weather, to paint a complete visual digest of it.

Ystumtuen pools

The second large oil painting in the show is called Ystumtuen pools.  It’s flanked by two small studies and elsewhere there are two others belonging to the same series.  (Maybe there are even earlier versions: in her studio Mary showed me some watercolour sketches of other scenes, themselves made from on-site drawings, earlier still).  These allow you to trace the winding path that led from the studies to the finished work.  In the earlier studies the forms are fluid.  They float free of one another in an experimental way.  In the later ones shapes begin to coalesce, and the meandering lines that unify the picture begin to be fixed.  But it’s only in the finished oil painting that you feel that everything’s finally been carpentered together, in a rich but tightly organised composition. 

Ystumtuen is a village in north Ceredigion.  It lies between Ponterwyd and Mary’s native Devil’s Bridge.  The area’s depopulated, dispersed and difficult to get to.  Once there were lead mines there, but that was a century ago.  It can seem a bleak, monochrome place and could easily be the setting for an episode of Hinterland (for all I know, it already has been).  But for Mary it’s long been a place of limitless interest, historic and visual complexity, and beauty.  At the heart of the oil painting is a rectangle containing a nest of the most intense, gemlike blues, a reflection or maybe a crystalisation of the ‘pools’ of the title.  Around it are other blocks of less brilliant colour, microcosms of the earth, mineral workings and sky of the village.  They’re locked in a kind of framework, but they’re also bound together by three ‘manuscript’ black and white lines that wander across the canvas with minds of their own.  And there are other, shorter marks, shorthand memories of the prehistoric scratches and marks found on rocks, in Wales and in many parts of the world, that have fascinated Mary for decades.

These ‘marks’ are as important as anything in Mary’s works.  In their various forms – ogham strokes, spirals, zigzags, hatches and many others – they’re evidence of human antiquity and continuity through deep time.   And more than that, they’re a sign for language and language’s survival through time, often against the odds.  It’s a worldwide phenomenon – one of the mixed media paintings here is called Alberquerque petroglyphs and reproduces some of the ancient pre-Columbian symbols surviving on rocks in New Mexico – but in Wales there’s a particular connection with the survival of the Welsh language.  Nowadays archaeologists have given up believing in their old idea of gangs of prehistoric invaders sweeping into Britain, each supplanting the cultural traditions of the preceding bunch.  They’ve finally caught up with Mary’s long-held intuition that Brythonic, the ancestor of the Welsh language, was probably spoken here millennia ago.  If so, that makes the survival of Welsh into the future even more critical.

The layering of deep history and language on place, I’d suggest, is the most distinctive of all aspects of Mary’s art, and it places her as the only true heir in Wales to the inheritance of David Jones.  The period when it was most explicit and extreme was when she worked in the National Library of Wales on the works published as First language (Gwasg Gomer, 2006).  Inspired by the Library’s manuscripts, and with the aid of new ‘digital palimpsest’ techniques, she produced works that mingled painting, manuscript writing, inscriptions, typescript, and marks and symbols of various kinds – works of great richness, variety and challenge.

Watercolour sketch

The new show is quieter.  It has nothing quite so exuberant as the works of the First language period.  But the central idea is still here – that the best way to see the continuity and persistence of human activity over millennia, and its interrelationship with nature and the present, is through an intensive, all-embracing study of a particular, local place –  like Yr Ysgwrn and Ystumtuen, the settings for the two superb oil paintings here.   It’s an insight that lends to all Mary’s paintings, even the ones that appear to be closest to the old landscape tradition, a public, and often a political edge.  They may be the expression of a very personal vision, realised in personal ways, but they have important things to say to all of us about more than personal matters.

Leave a Reply