The Paintings of Ivor John Powell

The vision of a border Welshman

The Paintings

Ivor Powell's normal practice was to paint at the dining table, in front of his coal fire, with his painting lying flat on the table surface. He used his brushes, therefore, in the way he would use a pen when writing at the table. Indeed, his painting style almost seems an extension of his meticulous penmanship. He never used an easel, even though there was one easily available in his house, and if he needed to view his painting at a distance and in better light, he might take it outside and prop it up on top of a kitchen chair (which he can be seen doing in this, the only photograph of him working as an artist, giving the finishing touches to Dwy Olwyn (24).

Ivor Powell at Work

Though to categorise his paintings in any precise way would be mistaken, he seems to have adopted four main strategies for composing a painting.

1. Where he could keep in visual contact with his subject, as his composition developed, he was quite capable of creating a convincing presentation of a subject, from life (and he did this on a number of occasions).

2. Where he needed information on subjects he could no longer see, he used photographs.

3. Where he did not need photographs, he relied on his memory to interpret what he had seen.

4. Some of his compositions were built from his imagination alone. One of his strengths was that, because he had no inhibitions over whether what he painted simulated appearance, he could extemporise with his visual memory.

Ivor's son Roy, a professional artist, adds:

"I was careful not to rub the bloom from my father's work by providing him with too much technical knowledge. I gave him what he asked for. As he asked for no advice on perspective, no advice was given. Apart from providing the canvas, the boards, and some of the frames, I suppose my influence, if any, came with the supply of colours, which reflected my own prejudices at that time; no black, three of each of the primaries and three earth colours. With these, he made his own characteristic harmonies. The subtlety of the organisation of the pictures and the richness of his colour developed naturally with little help from me, apart from the encouragement I could give. There was also the appreciation of his admiring friends. From time to time buyers came to the house, and some work was sold from exhibitions. Further encouragement was received when an agent came from George Melly's gallery, offering him an exhibition in London.

I think he continually consulted my mother for practical advice and valued it greatly. Like a robust plant, his work required little watering, and only gentle digging."

In the following numbered sequence, an attempt has been made to arrange the paintings in chronological order. However, Ivor dated only a few of them. Where he put a year on a picture, it is taken to be reliable, but when he tried to recollect when he had completed a particular composition, for exhibition purposes, his memory may have played some tricks with him. When ‘c’ appears before a date, whether written by Ivor himself or someone else, it should be treated as an abbreviation for ‘caution’ as well as ‘circa’. In the comments attached to the paintings, evidence is given for dating where it is available. Changes in technique – in his later paintings, for example, he tended to work with a lighter palette – are a help, but the development of his thought about his art and the world is the best guide to assembling a chronology. Since, however, he developed a range of communicative modes (he could change from one to another or, for that matter, compose with them simultaneously), no claim is made for precision in locating many of the paintings.

He painted some seventy or more compositions and most of them have survived. Even those feared lost may surface again some day. Only three of these paintings he had displayed in his own home, on his sitting room walls. These were Llanthony Priory (52), the first, and smallest, Holy Trinity Church, Pontnewydd (23), and Chum (20). The remainder, not in the hands of others, were stored securely in a cupboard, only to see daylight if visitors were interested in them. The National Library of Wales currently has 47 of his compositions.
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Since not all the paintings were adequately framed, a decision was made to conserve where possible, (so that his own framing choices should be respected), and to provide uniform new frames where necessary. These paintings have been preserved, not only for their aesthetic value, but because they are evidence of a way of life and thought, in a particular place, at a specific time, and the frames provide evidence too. Where he made his own frames, the results were not always that sturdy. His abilities as a maker of frames were limited largely because, without adequate work bench or vice, he had no proper wood-working facilities. Where he engaged in eccentric, rather than imprecise carpentry, however, he did so for a reason. Unhappy at the prospect of losing any of a painting’s surface to the overlap of a frame’s retaining structure, on a number of occasions he simply reversed the frame. He re-used old, often glazed frames where he could. Though some of them seem to have been selected or chosen to suit particular pictures – the frame of Llanthony Priory especially – most of them were what he had available, and their matching size, rather than their colour or their texture, was what mattered. In general, the frames he acquired or made for his pictures were not meant for public view. They were not chosen to enhance a work, to grace a drawing room or show to best effect, but simply to contain and circumscribe his compositions.

In the following catalogue, the paintings in the collection of the National Library of Wales are given the Library’s catalogue numbers before their suggested titles. With the exception of Black Mountains Landscape (13), for which a watercolour summary is provided, the images included have been generously made available by the Library. All other paintings are in private collections. Photographs of paintings follow comment on them and, as was noted earlier, all his paintings were executed in acrylic. Sizes, where known, are given in centimetres. For those unfamiliar with Wales and the English border, it is hoped the following map will help in locating his subjects in the area included.

Browse thumbnails of the collection
List of all catalogued paintings
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