The Paintings of Ivor John Powell

The vision of a border Welshman

Criticism

Peter Lord

The following article by Peter Lord first appeared in Planet 104, and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author and publishers.


The Paintings of Ivor Powell

It seems unlikely that Ivor Powell would have turned to painting at the age of about sixty without his son’s encouragement. Roy Powell is an academically trained painter, who was then teaching in the English Midlands. All his father’s paintings were made between about 1966 and his death in 1983. Roy recognises that painting was, in part, a therapy for his father who ‘never really got over the death of his wife – he was always grieving’. One of his pictures shows a table laid for four, but only three people are sat down. Is it a place laid for an absent wife? There are four blue cups. Ivor Powell had occasionally drawn for his children – Roy has a brother who is an amateur painter – and made pictures from cut-outs. ‘He used to make amazing scarecrow things and cut-out cats suspended from canes which jumped about in the wind.’ Since he had no training as a painter, his only reference points were books and magazines. Through them he became aware of particular painters. ‘He was very impressed with Stubbs. I remember him cutting some Stubbs horses out of a magazine when we were small children and rearranging them into another composition. He stuck it on a piece of card and put passe-partout around it. He liked Stubbs.’

Ivor Powell was born in Pandy on the Monmouthshire border with England, the village in which Raymond Williams grew up. Roy Powell thinks both men were taught by the same village school teacher. At fourteen years old his father became a gardener at Llanofer, where he met Roy’s mother, Winnie, who was a housemaid at the hall. For some reason the head gardener advised Ivor Powell to become a policeman. He spent the rest of his life doing that work, much of it in the string of villages that are now engulfed by Cwmbran. ‘He was very successful as a country policeman – you know, the kind of policeman that people rhapsodise about these days. He knew what was going to happen before it happened.’ Being a policeman, even in a rural area, seems a particularly unlikely career for someone who would portray such a simple and innocent world in his paintings, even though careful examination of the lives of naive painters such as Robert Hughes of Uwchlaw’r Ffynnon in Llŷn demonstrates that there is no necessary correlation between being a naive painter and a naive person. ‘I think if he’d remained a gardener he would have become a head gardener. He was a bit too sensitive for a policeman. I can remember he had to attend an accident – a very small child was killed and it had a terrible effect on him.’ If Ivor Powell was in any sense a naïve person it may have been in the sense that he had an uncomplicated concept of society – of right and wrong and of duty and responsibility:

Some of his approaches to life were a bit naïve. For example, he wasn’t very worldly-wise. He thought that a solicitor was somebody who was there to help people, not just a man making money. Oh yes, he was naïve – you would have thought him naïve.
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This kind of naivety, perhaps better described as simplicity, is evident both in his acceptance of the most humble subjects as worthy of his attention – a pot of tulips, for instance – and in his rosy and uncomplicated portrayal of the past. Like many naïve painters, he often worked from memory to recreate the places associated with his own background. He painted his house at Pandy and his dog Duke – but though the places are specific the occasions are not. The memories are of a timeless geography under blue skies, dotted with white clouds. Generally, he did not chose to recall moments of psychological tension or of human incident. In this he differs markedly from another naïve painter working in the south-east of the country, Victor Morgan. Morgan’s images are motivated by a much more specific sense of history and of the relatedness of place and people.

Historians and critics make comparisons like these between Powell and Morgan, and the work of Robert Hughes, a century earlier, largely because of the mysterious and apparently unconscious commonality of style which largely defines naïve painting.[1] Yet the formal qualities which appeal most to the sophisticated eye are often the very qualities which the painter seems to regard as least important. For the honest naïve painter the essence of the thing seems to be in subject matter.

The vexed question of the definition of naïve painting is rooted in the paradox that, in the twentieth century, it has found its audience mainly among the visually sophisticated. This is the Alfred Wallace phenomenon – the painter from St Ives in Cornwall who was celebrated by the avant-garde English painters and sculptors who gathered there in the 1920s. His fame did much to raise the consciousness of the English public about naïve or primitive painting as a category of art. Ivor Powell’s paintings are no exception in finding their audience among visual sophisticates. He exhibited several times in art galleries in Wales and also in London, at the gallery of RONA – the Register of Naïve Artists. Buyers of his work came almost exclusively from the community of academic artists and their patrons with whom he came into contact through his son. Roy Powell told me that very few of his father’s paintings were owned by local people and that he was never asked to paint their portraits or pictures of their houses. This is in marked contrast to the social role of Robert Hughes of Uwchlaw’r Ffynnon. His portraits and landscapes were widely disbursed in his own community at a time when the art historian’s category of naïve painting had yet to be invented. They were certainly highly valued for their content – the record of the faces and homes of the people of the community, and also of national religious leaders, who were a part of popular mythology. The pictures do not seem to have been criticised negatively for their non-academic visual conventions. In the 1880s it was the sophisticated who regarded Hughes as, at best, an interesting eccentric and at worst undisciplined and awkward. A century later, it is more likely to be the visually untrained person who will react negatively and the sophisticate who will eulogise. This inverted situation is fraught with suspect class connotations.

[1] For a discussion of this issue and the work of Robert Hughes see Peter Lord, ‘The Meaning of the Naïve Image’, Gwenllian. Essays on Visual Culture (Llandysul, 1994), pp. 73-92.
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Roy Powell’s position, at one and the same time as a visual sophisticate, educated out of his own social origins, and also the son of the painter, makes his perception untypical. For him, the power of the imagery is the appealing thing in the naïve painting, not the formal quality. I think that the case of Wallace, characterised by the interest of sterile formalists like Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in his work, is more characteristic of sophisticated attitudes. However, if Roy’s close observation of his father at work clouds this general art historical and social point, it gives us a much clearer insight into the meaning of the painting to the naïve painter. ‘The subject matter was very important. That’s the delight of the primitive, that they are concerned with subject matter and the arty bit doesn’t get in the way – it just comes of its own accord.’

This is a matter of great importance not only for Roy’s appreciation of his father’s paintings, but also for his own work. Having encouraged his father to paint, he tried to pursue a policy of non-intervention. ‘Only once I took him to Cardiff Museum and he was very taken with Richard Wilson, [but] I took care not to foist too much on him – just let him develop. We gave him a book on Constable. He thought it was wonderful but it didn’t appear to daunt him at all if he saw a piece of academic drawing.’ Ivor Powell does not seem to have made comparisons between his own formal conventions and those of academic art. Roy believes his father saw his own work as ‘proper pictures’ and does not seem to have been aware of the work of other naïve painters. Since ‘the arty bit’ – the formal quality of the painting – ‘just comes of its own accord’, Roy is convinced that his father’s work was not faux naïve like, perhaps, that of Beryl Cook – ‘Terrible!’ He neither copied naïve drawing nor was he encouraged to draw in that way by his son. ‘No. He just sort of started and it just grew. You could see the thing emerging, and I don’t think it ever worried him. He just stuck at it – and he was always astonished at how the time elapsed. He’d be sitting there at the kitchen table. He’d get totally absorbed.’

Roy Powell says that just as he had no influence on his father’s work, other than in encouraging him to do it, his father’s work had no influence on him. But I think, perhaps, this intense involvement which he observed at the kitchen table must have confirmed his own perception of the meditative nature of painting, or even of the mystical nature of the relationship between painter and painted image. I asked Roy Powell if painting had been a meditation for his father:

Yes, I think so, [though] I never mentioned the word involvement to him. It’s always meant a lot to me – painting from nature and so on. What makes any work of art is the involvement of the artist in his subject matter. If you haven’t got that you’ve got nothing – just formalism.

Roy Powell’s own recent work bears out this belief. Ironically, working in the genre through which formalism has often been pushed to its extremes, the still life, he has sought to place his subject matter – Vanitas – in the central place. Surrounding this concern for meaning, his paintings nevertheless demonstrate a concern with formal values as well. They are also soaked through with a sensuality which many male artists reserve for the painting of women. Feminine surrogates in the form of fabrics with rich and highly coloured patterns dominate and unify the construction of the still lifes. This unity of content, formal concerns and sensuality of paint is a large achievement. Roy Powell is concerned that his father’s painting has not been celebrated as it should have been. He believes that naïve painting should be seen in public collections and valued as highly as academic painting, and that his father’s work deserves a place in such a collection in Wales. I agree with him, but I would add that his own exhibition at Brecon in 1993 revealed that he too is an undervalued painter of great seriousness and quality.

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