Peter Lord: iconographer / iconoclast

June 18, 2013 0 Comments

Peter Lord

On 23 May in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea Peter Lord gave an illustrated talk as part of the launch of his new book Relationships with pictures: an oblique autobiography (Parthian, 2013).

It was a remarkable performance.  As ever with Peter you couldn’t fail to be aware of the depth of feeling underlying his arguments and explanations.  Almost everything he’s written has been powered by a strong conviction – ‘belief’ is the word he uses throughout the book – of the rightness of his causes.

There can be very few people who have succeeded, as Peter has, in single-handedly rewriting the history of an entire subject – or rather, in truth, writing that history for the first time.  His great three volume series The visual culture of Wales (University of Wales Press, 1998-2003) restored to Wales a narrative of visual art that had been lost or denied for decades.  And he’s extended his influence in numerous other books and other writings over many years.

So the new book isn’t an apologia pro vita sua – Peter has no need for that – but it is a recapitulation of his achievements and his beliefs, and a partial autobiography, built around a framework of 15 visual images that hold a special place in his story.

The images and their backgrounds may be familiar to readers who already know Peter’s work, so for them the focus of interest in the book is in the ‘oblique autobiography’.  This is not only oblique, it’s highly selective.  Peter’s great-grandmother and other ancestors receive more space than his parents.  His mother is wholly absent from the story, and it’s clear that he was far from close, to say the least, to his father: ‘of the few happy things I inherited from my father, football has been the most important to me’ (p.39).  We hear little else about him, other than his social climbing and nostalgia for the British Empire, until his painful death: ‘there was no funeral – my mother’s family do not indulge in death rituals’ (p.52).

Peter was an only child.  ‘My childhood was entirely regulated by other people.  I was brought up to do as I was told, and without a sibling I had no ally or model for complaint’ (p.55).  But helped by an inspiring school art teacher he escaped from his Exeter home and its stifling conservatism and went to Reading to study art.  This seems to have released a rebellious instinct that has persisted.

But it was the move to live in Wales in 1973 that was most decisive.  It came about through Eliza Nicholson, the daughter of the painter Sir William Nicholson, who befriended Peter and led him to the village of Trefenter on Mynydd Bach in Ceredigion.  (He seems to have been drawn on more than one occasion to older women from privileged backgrounds.)  And so began his long exploration of Wales and especially its distinctive linguistic and artistic features.

Peter recounts his first adventures in Wales, his public art commissions in Whitland (the Hywel Dda Memorial) and Glynllifon (Gwerin y Graith).  Both proved problematic, Whitland on account of antagonistic local politics and Glynllifon through the action of unknown vandals, who destroyed almost all of the work except, ironically, the concrete letters spelling CHWALFA.  He acknowledges his lack of understanding of the complex social realities surrounding both commissions, and one senses too the possible impact of the artist’s ebullient and disputatious nature.  Having failed to become ‘active in the culture’ (Peter’s phrase), he turned to what was to make his name, excavating and describing the culture – the subject of the central chapters of the book.

Several Peter Lords emerge from his accounts of piecing together a Welsh visual art tradition: the Detective, tracking down pictures of forgotten or undervalued artists through persistent and ingenious investigation; the Anarchist, suspicious of all established institutions, even ones like the National Library of Wales that are by nature hospitable to his aims; the Polemicist, never shy of taking on enemies, in private and public, especially those dismissive of popular or ‘artisan’ art.  One of these, Timothy Stevens, at the time Keeper of Art at the National Museum of Wales, told him, in relation to one of Hugh Hughes’s portraits, ‘well, there’s no rubbish like your own rubbish, is there?’.  (On the other hand, Peter warms to fellow-polemicists, including the artist and critic Mervyn Levy, who wrote a murderous review of The artist in Wales by Peter’s art historian predecessor, David Bell.)

New discoveries and new connections – between Mervyn Levy and L.S. Lowry, between Jack Jones and Kyffin Williams – abound, but at the heart of this section are three chapters on what must count as Peter’s most significant single discovery, the collection and archive of Winifred Coombe Tennant.  The exhibition of the collection brought to light ‘new’ works by artists such as Evan Walters, Archie Rees Griffiths and John Cyrlas Williams, while the archive, now housed in the National Library, demonstrated that from the 1920s Wales had at least one major network of artistic patronage and collecting.

In many ways the most striking and impressive chapter, though, is the last, where Peter tries to bring together his achievements and to express what it is that unites his life experiences.  He himself is an acquirer of historic Welsh art, and around him on the walls of his house as he writes is his collection, built up over many years from artists and themes that have meant the most to him personally.  His chapter image is the ‘canopy of honour’, or array of saints painted in the fifteenth century on the ceiling of Gyffin Church, Conwy.  The saints call to mind St Paul’s ‘cloud of witnesses’, a sacred analogue for the painted portraits arrayed on the walls of Peter’s house.  But Peter is no ‘believer’ and must search for a non-religious focus for his work both as an historian and as a member of a community in which he arrived as an outsider.  In the end the ‘witnesses’ cannot be supernatural agents: instead he equates them with the individual’s own conscience, a conscience aware of what Peter terms a state of cultural crisis and threatened identity.  ‘Doing what we can to maintain the coherence of the matrix [of history, topology and language] is a responsibility of all of us’ (p.283).

In pondering his status as an outsider Peter calls in evidence the Welsh philosopher J.R. Jones, and his distinction between ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ identification with a land and culture: explicit, or learned identification being contrasted with an embedded and unconscious feeling for one’s cultural context.  But this too fails: both forms are actually in play in the outsider, and Jones (once an influential figure but now little read) falls back too readily on a Christian teleology and holds too directional a view of a country’s ‘destiny’.  There are no ‘wrong histories’, Peter concludes, there are only what he calls ‘immoral histories’.  He doesn’t explain the meaning of this phrase, and the chapter comes to an uncertain conclusion with the statement, ‘the only meaningful reality is, indeed, belief’.

A theme of this chapter is restoration, and Peter’s whole work has been what he calls ‘a contribution towards restoration’ (p.292).  He goes on, ‘Mending things has been an instinct with me since the 1960s – the reconstruction of the past into something more than a chaotic wasteland of discarded material and intellectual fragments, dysfunctional, concluded and, as a consequence, potentially lost’.  (Does this sentence contain a conscious or unconscious echo of T.S. Eliot’s phrase in The Waste Land ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’?)  The materiality of physical made objects, endowed by meaning by their creators, is a powerful notion, and the survival and rescue of those objects are critical aims.  But ‘for what?’ is a question that has no simple answer.

It may be that one of the difficulties Peter faces here stems from his basic philosophy of art, one that has informed all his practice and all his writing from the beginning.  It is well expressed by Kenneth L. Ames in the epigraph to Peter’s book: ‘… art should be studied as a historical and sociological phenomenon’, and by Peter himself in the introduction to the first volume of The visual culture of Wales, where he states that it’s easier to understand an image in the context of the world it is a part of than in the context of art alone.

This outlook has proved its worth, as a guide in mapping a quite new cartography of the development of art in Wales.  But is a sociologically contextual treatment of art, necessary though it is at this stage, enough of an organising framework for thinking about how art works?  Without seeking to ignore the economic, political and social origins and context of art, is there not room too for an appreciation that transcends immediate context (avoiding resort to ‘high art’ hierarchies and the like) and helps tell us more about ourselves as well as about the object?  A good example of how this might be done is given towards the end of a recent essay by the philosopher Raymond Tallis, ‘Was Schubert a musical brain?’, in reaction to (neurologically rather than sociologically) reductionist explanations of artistic creativity.

But perhaps the note of uncertainty and lack of dogmatism is a fitting, as well as being an unexpected and unLordian, end to this absorbing book.  Incidentally, it boasts a striking cover, designed by Olwen Fowler, which reproduces the only oil painting by Peter Lord to have survived from his time as an art student (c.1968).  It is an assured piece and an arresting picture, and makes you wish he’d continued to produce such images.  But not, of course, at the expense of his life’s work, the historiography of art in Wales.

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