Mining the Past

 

Evan Walters Miner
Evan Walters 1893-1951 ‘A Welsh Collier’ (Thomas Rees of Llangyfelach), oil on canvas, 1936. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

MINERS BLACK AS THE ACE OF SPADES.  Working togs, Dai cap and Tommy box. Pigeon coops and allotments. The colliery hooter signalling a change of shift, followed by the whirr of the pithead winding gear. Steam trains puffing day and night along the valley, pulling their noisy convoy of wagons laden with freshly hewn coal destined for the nearby washery. Women chattering on the doorstep, taking the coal delivery by lump and bucket up the gwli from kerbside to coalhouse. Children competing at hopscotch in the schoolyard, riding scooters and gyrating hula-hoops on the streets, yelling at their play. Street parties, summer carnivals, the annual miners’ gala in Cardiff and charabanc outings to Porthcawl. The smell of the green-grey smog-laden winter evening air and a myriad of chimneys belching sulphurous smoke from tidy homes. Gutters running black when it’s raining nasty. These sights, sounds and scents comprising my childhood memories of life in industrial south Wales are vividly evoked by A Welsh Collier. To me, from a family of coal miners, Evan Walters’ 1936 portrait carries with it a special sense of belonging to a close community defined by geography and geology, a belonging expressing itself in a language affectionately known as Wenglish.

Robert Kendall
Robert George Kendall, maternal great-grandfather 1881-1936

Like me, Walters was steeped in the culture, language and tradition of a small Welsh village. Unlike most of the artists who travelled to Wales in pursuit of its mountains, coastal, natural and industrial landscapes, Walters was a native. He was raised at the Welcome Inn, Mynyddbach where miners relaxed and socialised, and he followed their daily routine as they filed past his home at change of shift. The sitter for A Welsh Collier was Thomas Rees who lived at nearby Tirdeunaw. Walters painted him on at least three occasions. Indeed, he would have probably considered him to be a butty. No doubt they shared a few pints at the Plough and Harrow public house at Llangyfelach. Walters would have been regarded as something of a big noise. He had studied in London, had gone to live in America and had painted the rich and the famous; but he had come home to live and work among friends.

William Henry Champion
William Henry ‘Harry’ Champion, maternal grandfather 1899-1980

Walters produced some of the most insightful paintings to concern themselves with Wales’ industrial landscape and its people. A Welsh Collier celebrates the working class hero upon whose true grit the great Welsh coal industry was founded. Drawn from the low-key palette of his landscape, the broken colours, horizontal brushstrokes and ruggedness of modelling convey something of the stony yet kindly appearance of the sitter. Looking at his blackened face and the white circles around his eyes and mouth, I imagine Rees at home from the pit, just about to swill his hands and face at the wash up before sitting down to a hot cooked dinner. On the table, a plate of bread and butter and cuppa tea, the tablecloth protected by pages of the Daily Herald, then organ of the Labour Party and voice of the Trades Union Congress. After dinner, it was off to a tin bath in front of the fire to have his back and neck scrubbed by his mother, wife or sister.

William Henry Champion
William Henry Champion, maternal grandfather 1899-1980

The sitter was an exact contemporary of both my grandfathers, whose parents moved to the valleys in the 1890s in search of work at the newly opened coalmines. I never knew my paternal grandfather, Robert Meyrick, a collier; he died of tuberculosis in the 1940s along with two of his daughters who succumbed to the same disease within a year. After demobilisation, my father—Robert ‘Dilwyn’ Meyrick—worked for the recently established National Coal Board as a fitter travelling with a mobile gang across the south Wales coalfield. A Welsh Collier could easily be a portrait of my maternal grandfather, William Henry ‘Harry’ Champion who was born in 1899. His story was that of Thomas Rees and countless other colliers. He started at the coalface as a teenager, crouched on all fours, easing out the coal with pick axe and bare hands, naked, with no breathing equipment and just a candle for illumination. Less than a year after he married, he faced near death in a pitfall. Like Rees, he met with an accident that left him with a scarred cheek; his face was slashed when a haulage rope snapped under strain. My grandfather remained in the valley all his life and, though he lived to see much of the 20th century, some fifty years of those years were spent underground at the coalface.

Robert Meyrick
Robert Meyrick, paternal grandfather 1890-1949
Robert Dilwyn Meyrick
Robert Dilwyn ‘Dil’ Meyrick, father 1924-1990

A Welsh Collier is an early manifestation in the arts of a growing interest in the working classes that a decade or so later was celebrated in the films of John Osborne, realist drama of the ‘Angry Young Men’ of literature, and the ‘Kitchen Sink’ artists who painted scenes from the daily life of the workers and their families. Walters’ portrait embodies the hardship that brought communities together through shared experience. There is in the sitter’s face fortitude, resilience and determination borne of adversity and sacrifice—economic, physical and emotional. During the 1920s and 30s, Britain saw large-scale unemployment, strikes, unrest and poverty. The social and political agitation and change was inevitably reflected in painting as artists chose more contemporary subjects and documented everyday life. L. S. Lowry made popular his views of Salford and the mill towns of Lancashire, while William Coldstream painted the working-class communities in Bolton and Julian Trevelyan the workers of the Staffordshire potteries.

Not just a record of the south Wales coal miners, Walters’ paintings convey a universal expression of the dignity of physical work and as such have come to speak for all blue-collar workers, from the Cornish tin miners and Stoke-on-Trent potters to the Sheffield steelworkers, Lancashire cotton spinners and Clydesdale ship builders. The paintings exhibit a genuine affection for the people, landscape and community of his beloved Llangyfelach. Paintings like A Welsh Collier convey the warmth, camaraderie and sanctuary of industrial communities that have since lost their lifeblood through the closure of the coal mines, chapels and corner shops. These villages have changed almost beyond recognition and as such Walters’ paintings have become important historical records of the industrial face of Wales.

Robert Meyrick
Robert Kendall Meyrick in 1963

Walters’ world of collieries and chapels, of Miners’ Gala and Gymanfa Ganu, was a world I still knew when in the 1960s I grew up in the Ogmore Valley which at that time was still dominated by the Ocean, Wyndham, Western and Penllwyngwent collieries. The landscape I remember was that of precipitous rows of steeply-terraced houses built by nineteenth-century coal owners as the barracks of the workforce. In the midst stood ponderous stone chapels, Victorian schools, working men’s clubs and the collieries. Above and beyond the villages, the mountains capped with slagheaps and clouds spanning the valley created a sense of enclosure and defined the community by setting its boundaries. The sights that were onetime commonplace, the sounds that habitually echoed across the valleys, have since disappeared; but conjured up by A Welsh Collier, they continue to reverberate for me today.

Robert Kendall Meyrick
March 2011 & 2019

A personal response to Evan Walters’ 1936 painting A Welsh Collier. First published in Barry Plummer (ed.) Evan Walters: Moments of Vision (Seren, 2011).

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