The history of art in Wales, and of Welsh art in particular, is still a relatively new phenomenon which has only really begun to grow since the advent of Welsh devolution in the late 1990s. This chronology applies to the development of collections of modern and contemporary Welsh art in Wales, including the collection at the University of South Wakes, which focuses on the visual culture of south Wales over the last eighty years. It mainly consists of paintings and works on paper but it also has some examples of fine art photography, ceramics and metal and wood sculpture.
The first works entered the collection during the Second World War when the university was still the South Wales and Monmouthshire School of Mines (established in 1913, at the peak of the south Wales coal industry). They included a wartime image of south Wales tinplate workers by Ceri Richards (1903-71), Roller at the ‘Bosh’ with Doubler and Furnaceman (1942). Dating to a similar period is Derailed Coal Tram (c. 1941), a painting by Vincent Evans (1895-1976) which shows miners at work underground. Both Richards and Evans were products of the exceptional, inter-war Swansea School of Art and Crafts.
In sharp contrast is the finger-and-rag-painted Miners (1984) by the self-taught painter Nicholas Evans (1907-2004) from Aberdare who was ‘discovered’ by Lawrence Gowing in the 1970s. Miners and mining in south Wales are captured too by the Lancashire painter Jack Crabtree (b 1938) who taught at Newport College of Art. One of his teaching colleagues there was the Abertillery painter-printmaker John Selway (b 1938) who had been a student contemporary of David Hockney at the Royal College of Art and is also represented in the collection.
In 2002, on the tenth anniversary of the transition from Polytechnic of Wales to new university, the University of Glamorgan was awarded registered museum status and this enabled it to successfully bid for artworks gifted by the Arts Council of Wales and the Contemporary Art Society for Wales. Seven years later, the university gained fully accredited museum status. Acquisitions by gift and purchase are administered and coordinated by the university’s curator in conjunction with the museum art committee.
Over the last decade, the art exhibition, collection and publication programmes have been developing and expanding. These have included the securing of a significant, research, loan collection of paintings and works on paper by the Rhondda artist Ernest Zobole (1927-99) who trained at Cardiff College of Art and is now considered to be a major figure in Welsh painting. Some key pictures by him have been acquired such as the semi-abstract Black Valley (1962-63), the deeply personal but also outward-looking Interior no 3 (1985-86) and the magic realist Painter and Surroundings no 1 (1991). Amongst his and John Selway’s students at Newport was Ken Elias (b 1944) whose picture ‘Days are where we live’ (1968-69) was inspired by Zobole’s work and a Philip Larkin poem. Elias’s subsequent imagery, as seen in Parlour Cabinet Painting: Remembering Katy I (1998-99), is generated by his memory and experience of cinema in south Wales. Both Zobole and Elias have been the subjects of Wales touring exhibitions either wholly or partly originated by the University of Glamorgan and artist monographs (published by Seren in 2007 and 2009 respectively). In 2013, one work by each of them was loaned to Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, Cardiff, for the Pop and Abstract exhibition.
The collection reflects too the emergence of women artists in south Wales. For example, it features works by Joan Baker (b 1922) such as her bluebell wood triptych Wenallt Woods (1994) and the vertiginous, coastal view From High Cliff between Marcross and Monknash (1988). Trained at Cardiff during the war by Evan Charlton (1904-84) and Ceri Richards, she went on to teach and inspire the likes of Zobole and his Rhondda contemporary Charles Burton (b 1929), who has produced paintings of the south Wales Valleys and a series of domestic interiors with chairs like Leather Chair with a Painting of Marion (1981-98). Other women painters whose work is represented include Judith Beecher (b 1950), Valerie Ganz (b 1936), Gillian Hilbourne, née Potter (b 1935), Carol Hiles (b 1959) and Sue Williams (b 1956)
Works by younger artists have entered the collection via the university’s annual art purchase prize competition. For instance, there are the large paintings Mist Wet with Rain (1998), an abstract derived from sustained contemplation of the Pembrokeshire coast by Brendan Burns (b 1963), the somewhat surreal Wallpaper Composition in Black and Red (2008) by Richard Monahan (b 1979), the mixed media piece Blue Wallpaper (Tredegar House) (2010) by Tiffany Oben (b 1969) and the imagined seascape Island no 1 (2006) by Emrys Williams (b 1958).