The Paintings of Ivor John Powell

The vision of a border Welshman

Biography


Ivor John Powell was born in Pandy, near Abergavenny, in 1909, in the county of Monmouth, Wales. The family home of his father John and mother Annie was a cottage high on the hill above Penbidwal, beside the lane which climbs from the Abergavenny to Hereford road to the scattered farms towards Llangattock Lingoed, White Castle and Grosmont. His father was recorded as a water bailiff on Ivor’s marriage certificate and, with the Monnow as a fine trout river, much of his work would have revolved around his employer’s local fishing lodge, but, having worked previously as a builder (which had taken him to Llanthony and Capel y Ffin), his responsibilities also involved maintaining the farm buildings on the estate. Ivor’s interest in historic buildings, including especially Llanthony Priory, which was the subject for one of his best paintings, probably owed much to his father’s work. His paternal grandfather, George, had worked on the Kentchurch estate and is recorded as having been a farm labourer and gamekeeper at different stages of his career. He is also recorded as having lived in various places close to Kentchurch, and when his son left home for Penbidwal, the family was settled in Grosmont. Gentry service featured on Ivor’s mother’s side also, since his maternal grandmother, who came from Llanofer, had worked on Lady Llanofer’s estate. (For those unfamiliar with Welsh history, Lady Llanofer was a leading figure in the affirmation of Welsh identity in the 19th Century. She was best known for her efforts to support the wearing of a national costume and the playing of the triple harp).

Ivor attended the elementary school in Pandy, and he received no further formal education after he left it to begin his working life. A few years later, the same school gave Raymond Williams his first experience of education and, after grammar school and Cambridge, he became one of the leading thinkers, not only of Wales but of Europe, in the Twentieth Century. It was evidently a good school. Ivor was a meticulous penman and, even in his later years, could quote poetry he had learned there. Though in a rural setting, and apparently detached from the industrial valleys to the west, it would be mistaken to assume that the education received in this school was designed only to ensure acceptance of the status quo and, in particular, of work in a rural economy. Though Ivor’s personally unassertive character might have been assumed to have been formed by an education which had taught him to know his place and maintain the order of things, his attitudes were complex enough to make him, at the same time, independent, self-reliant and resolute in maintaining his own standards. The valleys culture of self-improvement played its part in his life and he may have experienced it first in his schooling.

Survivors will be prosecuted

Survivors will be prosecuted

His first work on leaving school was as a labourer at nearby Allt yr Ynys where, by his own account, amongst his tasks, he cared for Hereford bulls. This must have been a challenging job for a boy and it left a lasting impression on him. When, much later, he painted cattle in his pictures, his favoured breed was the Hereford. Also, during the years before he began to paint, one of the few indications that he had thought visually and could create pictures was the way he drew to entertain his two sons. What featured most often, in his hastily drawn cartoons, was an angry bull chasing a desperate fugitive. These drawings were confident and lively and, though, sadly, none survive, we are fortunate in having one of his paintings, Survivors will be prosecuted (9), on the bull and fugitive theme, in the National Library of Wales, and also a rapidly drawn bull, done in the same manner, on the reverse of his painting of his own house (in a private collection), which give some idea of what his earlier cartoons would have been like.

Having worked at two other farms, at Plas Ifor, near Cross Ash, and at White Castle, he then secured a job in the gardens on the Llanofer estate. The head gardener in his time was a man of some renown, Mr. Rees yr Ardd, who evidently did a thorough job in training his young assistants because, in later life, Ivor spent much of his free time gardening and he was very good at it. Through this hard physical work he grew into a strong and well-formed young man. We can only speculate on the impact life at Lord Treowen’s Llanofer had on him but, like his wife, Winifred Rachel Owen, who he met as a fellow-worker on the estate, he was a sensitive and refined person whose values and attitudes must surely have had not a little to do with his experience of life at Llanofer. He certainly received encouragement from his employers to secure coaching from a local school master to enable him to pass the examination to join the Police Force, which he entered in 1930. Winifred, who was from Goetre, near Pontypool, and the daughter of a stone mason, always took a serious interest in his painting and advised him in what he did. He would surely not have had the self-confidence to develop his art on his own if he had not had her critical support and encouragement.
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Though neither Ivor nor Winifred was Welsh-speaking (their grandparents would have been members of the last Welsh-speaking generation in their families), they were aware of their Welshness and their sons were regularly encouraged to overcome difficulties with the proverbial “three tries for a Welshman”. In spite of the strong pressures of anglicisation on their border communities, they were always loyal to their deep cultural roots and were never in any doubt over what had given them their particular identity. They had a strong sense of belonging, not only to a place but to an extended family, with which they maintained contact, both across Wales and abroad. They were confident in their value system and could not be swayed by alien pressures. As products of self-sufficient rural life, they were together able to do most tasks about the house and garden. Vegetables and fruit were grown, bicycles, shoes or sheds repaired, jumpers knitted and dresses made. Urban life did not change them in any way. They both showed great resourcefulness in ‘make do and mend’ husbandry in the days when policemen were securely employed but poorly paid. After a short period at Abergavenny, the headquarters of the local constabulary in those days, Ivor’s first posting as a constable was to Chepstow. He married Winifred in 1933 and, in the following photograph, they posed in front of the Owen family cottage on the day of their wedding.

Ivor and Winifred on their wedding day



They set up home in Green Street, in a house with its front overlooking the Wye and its back under the Thirteenth Century Port Wall of the old town, where their sons Roy and Geoffrey were born. His life as a Chepstow constable made him familiar with a historic town and the castle, especially, would have left a strong impression on him. Since so much of his family life had revolved around it – his sons began their education in the school opposite its entrance and the castle dell was a favourite place for family walks – it is not surprising that he chose it as the subject for one of his paintings.

In 1948 he was posted to Pontypool, where he had responsibility for Penygarn and Trefethin, living in a Police house overlooking the gorsedd stones of the 1924 Eisteddfod at the top of the park. Since he was promoted to become a sergeant in charge of the station at Pontnewydd almost immediately, it is not surprising that none of his later paintings were based on a Pontypool subject, other than Chum (20), which featured his dog acquired as a puppy in Penygarn. He was sergeant at Pontnewydd, now part of Cwmbran, from 1949 to 1955, when he retired to take up a post as a security officer in a local factory. The Police Station never featured in his paintings (which tells us something about the part it played, or failed to play, in his inner life), though his house in Highland Grove, which he bought on his retirement, appears in, or is related to, a number of his works. It still stands, modernised, but the Police Station has been demolished and replaced with new housing.

His personal standards and reserve made him very much a family man and he would never have made an excursion, nor had an evening out, without the company of family members. He never shared in the culture of team sports nor, indeed, of any sport, though, in his early years as a constable, perhaps because he was known to be a countryman and not unfamiliar with a shot gun, he was drawn into competitive rifle-shooting and he was successful enough to win various sets of china, and toys for his sons. Having had to engage in hard physical labour and ‘foot-slogging’ for a living, he was genuinely puzzled by those who considered it relaxing to run around a field after a ball or even to dance. Perhaps he thought his youthful lapse into rifle sport was justified in the days when skill with a rifle was needed for national defence.

Though he occasionally smoked a pipe, he never drank alcohol. (It is ironic that he was commended for preventing a brewery from burning down). The absence of alcoholic drinks in his household seemed not to be the result, so much, of a moral conviction as of a way of life which simply did not contain them. He may, of course, have come under the influence of the alcohol-free regime Lady Llanofer maintained on her estate, and, like other policemen, too often, he had to suffer indignities in having to deal with drunks (he had a slightly bent nose to prove it) and so had good reason to reject alcohol use, but if he had strong feelings on the issue he did not express them. He liked order and tidiness. He would regularly polish his boots twice a day, making him as ‘smart’ at the end of the day as at the beginning, and he took great pleasure in polishing the family car so that it always glistened, but tidiness for him concerned more than mere appearance. If he said of someone that he was a ‘tidy fellow’, this implied more than mere orderliness. He had detected desired moral qualities too.
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As someone who had spent much of his life serving the gentry and the Constabulary, he was deferential to authority and was no radical. He had a deep respect for those institutions which maintained order and belief even though, in his experience, they did not always live up to their own standards. He never talked about religion and was not, in any demonstrative sense, a religious man, even though he attended church regularly throughout his life, but the signs of a deep seriousness about the nature of life and the human condition were there for the observant to see. His exemplary life was not just an expression of conventional respectability and his later paintings, especially, show an understanding of, rather than mere compliance with, religious thought.

As an active, practical man, he was not bookish, nor did he listen to much music. His good-humoured response on hearing a late Beethoven or Bartok quartet would be that it sounded like “the tune the donkey died on”. He was especially sensitive to nature, people, animals and buildings, for these had made his world, and he cherished them all. This is not to say that he did not read. When his sons were in Junior School, while most boys only saw the headmaster’s office to be punished, they would be called into the inner sanctum to collect books to take home for him to read. Such a studious friendship between a policeman and a headmaster was probably not that common. When his sons were in higher education, his curiosity would lead him to dip into the books they brought home and he expressed particular admiration for the paintings of George Stubbs. He gave pride of place in his living room to a print of his A Lady and Gentleman in a Carriage in the National Gallery, London. The other print which hung there was of Claude’s Coast View of Delos with Aeneas, again from the National Gallery.

He liked the balanced combination of architecture, figures and nature in this work and, of course, its rich colour harmonies. Perhaps Ivor’s viewing of this late Claude, in which the golden haziness and complexity of his earlier paintings gave way to simpler and clearer formal and narrative structures, contributed in some way to his own skill in attending to both form and content in his paintings. He was, therefore, certainly aware of ‘High’ art but it provided no models for him to work from. For the kind of thing he wanted to say, he was on his own. The artist who we might have expected him to have tried to copy was Stubbs but he did not do so. He admired the way he painted horses, in particular, but his world was not Ivor’s.

Ivor and Roy Powell

Ivor and Roy Powell

During the time he lived in the Police Station he was in constant readiness, and his life, as he used to put it, was never ‘his own’, so it is not surprising that, although his son, Roy, received academic training as a painter in Cardiff College of Art, and the accoutrements of the artist soon became familiar items in his household, he showed no signs of being inclined to paint, himself, until he became e security officer, with regular hours of work and a private home to which he could retreat undisturbed. Even then, it seems unlikely that he would have taken up painting in acrylic if Roy had not equipped him with the necessary materials, but, once he had them, he soon set about acquiring the skill necessary to create a visual realisation of the world he wished to celebrate.

Though he was a man of deep feeling and strong conviction, he left no written record of his thoughts. Perhaps, because of his life as a policeman, he would not engage in debates on contentious issues and had probably found that this circumspect approach was the right one to adopt in order to avoid compromising his professional position. It seems, therefore, that, once the opportunity arose, his art became for him a secure and unobtrusive means of giving expression to his thinking.
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He was entirely self-taught, since Roy wanted to avoid exercising any kind of controlling influence over his work. His ability to use acrylic as though he was using oil paint he developed entirely on his own. His decisions over choice of colour and composition were also entirely his own. He never acquired knowledge of academic solutions to the painter’s problems and all his challenges he had to respond to in his own way. It would never have occurred to him to have attended classes or consulted ‘how-to-do-it’ books since, with his independence of mind, he set about painting in the same way as he engaged in shoe-repairing or woodwork. His amateur art, therefore, was not an attempt to emulate the aesthetic of others (and this made it so unusual) but a unique expression of his own experience of a culture of Wales.

The more he painted, the more he became aware of his responsibilities as a painter. From ‘holiday’ painter he progressed to becoming a recorder of a culture, of a whole way of seeing the world. His first paintings were of what he saw on his New Forest holidays. When his son, Geoff, took up a post at Coleg Harlech, he spent a holiday nearby and two paintings resulted from the experience. While these Bontddu studies were still holiday pictures, he probably found attempting these buildings so satisfying that it was almost inevitable that he would move on to the buildings in his home area, sooner or later, and have to paint on a more ambitious scale. His first version of his neighbour’s house probably dates from this period. There is also another painting, of quite a different kind, which he composed early in his development, which indicates that he was considering extending the communicative possibilities of his art. Survivors will be prosecuted (9) is a purely imaginary subject iwhich he was able to create a comic image which, like all good humour, also has a serious reflective purpose. A number of his later paintings maintained his comic manner. It was impossible to be in Ivor’s company for long without laughing, and it was the kind of healing laughter that made one wiser, not more foolish.

Further evidence that he was having to find his own way as a painter lies in a number of paintings, in which he explored possible ways forward. In Landscape with Horse, Sheep and Rabbits (10) he created an imagined landscape in which a dominant horse is set in a yellow or golden circle at the centre of the composition. Perhaps he had seen William Blake’s Ancient of Days, similarly set within the circle of the Sun, and thought that he too ought to explore the possibilities of a symbolic art. The background of Village Green (11), with its fringe of village buildings on the skyline and its neat rows of sheep, seems to indicate that he wanted to persevere with symbolism, but the convincing this-worldliness of the horses in the foreground shows that he was also having second thoughts about it. There were clearly things that he wanted to communicate about his own very substantial world and there are several paintings which show him moving away from symbolism to a narrative art which celebrated what he valued in the world. His Sheepdog Trial (12) is unusual in showing a farmer and his dog trying to pen the sheep without having any spectators to admire or find fault with them. It seems likely that the painting is unfinished, but if not, his intention may still have been symbolic, with the farmers trial of skill representing the trials experienced by us all in trying to reach our goals in life.

Black Mountains landscape

Black Mountains landscape

If this painting does contain a symbolic element, however, it would have been his last in this vein, for his largest painting, Black Mountains Landscape (13), shows us a panorama of the country that he loved and introduces us to those aspects of the landscape of his home area which meant so much to him. It is a country which, not only provides work and sustenance, but leisure and play also, as the pony trekkers set off and a child rides on an improvised swing attached to the branch of a tree. That he was to be an artist with greater responsibilities also became evident in the paintings he made of buildings in his home area. More specifically, he was also beginning to reflect on his own particular life, and he completed some of his most sophisticated paintings of his house, garden and dog, who had died some years earlier. By adding his still life studies of flowers to his repertoire, he had almost completed the range of means available to him, which he maintained over his remaining years as a painter.
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Winifred died in August 1974, and this terrible blow brought about the beginning of his own decline. They were both devoted to each other, and any painting he did beyond this point in his life must always have involved some kind of reflection on, or coming to terms with, his loss. He lived on, courageously, in spite of his personal suffering but, by 1979, his great physical strength had been seriously undermined. However, in the period between his wife’s death and his own, in 1983, he managed to produce much of his best work. Perhaps no longer able to care for Winifred, he put much more of his time and effort into his paintings, since a number of them are both larger and more finely worked than his earlier compositions. There was, understandably, for someone who was having to reflect on his own life and on human experience in general more than ever, also an increase in the number of paintings which involved his own particular experience. From the Vale of Ewyas landscape,
St Martin's Church, Cwmyoy

St Martin's Church, Cwmyoy

Llanthony Priory (52), to his Cattle Market (54) (which he probably attended as a young labourer), his St. Mary’s Church, Abergavenny (55) and Cwmyoy Church (64), to his birthplace of Penbidwal Cottage (63), he selected subjects which were markers in his own life. Not that he was ever the kind of man to be preoccupied with his own existence alone. A series of comic subjects, likely to have been painted in these later years, shows that he still wanted to communicate about the human condition in general and not simply his own. A sense of the tragicomic nature of life seems to have been strong in his background, since it was highly cultivated in his own mother.

His fox hunting studies, which were of his culture and not himself (since he would never have engaged in fox hunting), also probably belong to this period, and his views of a flourishing rural life he would never see again most certainly do, since one of them, with horses ploughing in the foreground, he signed with the year 1979. In painting Kitchen Scene (65) (signed 1981), which is likely to have been his last composition, he brought together his rural life theme and his own biography. (As is explained in more detail in the note on the painting, it seems likely that he saw this domestic scene, in which a family is eating a meal at the kitchen table, as at the heart of the kind of life he had loved, but it was one to which he could not return).

Ivor was not without recognition in his lifetime. His paintings were exhibited on several occasions and, at one point, a number of them attracted the attention of connoisseurs, but he had no interest in gaining entry to the art world and, though a small number were reluctantly sold to collectors, most of those not in the possession of the National Library of Wales were given to friends and relatives. More recently, Peter Lord built a study of naive art around his work in Planet, 104, and a colour print of Little Moreton Hall (31) provided part of the cover illustration for that edition.

It should be of interest to cultural historians that, while Raymond Williams gave verbal expression to the culture of the Pandy area, Ivor made it visible. With no formal education outside his village, he gave expression to a view of things which had taken many generations to develop. His art, like his career of public service, grew naturally out of the culture that had nurtured him. Though there may have been other native painters in the area before him, he never mentioned them and he was not the conscious upholder of a visual tradition. Circumstances had put a brush in his hand and he used it in the way he thought he should, unassumingly and without any fuss (though, at least by the time he painted Penbidwal, one of his last compositions, he was willing to call himself a painter and to be remembered as such). In a period of less than twenty years, he had not only found his own way as an artist but created paintings which gave expression to his way of life and both challenged and moved viewers.
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