Starless and Bible Black

In which The Author visits an art exhibition

If you live in Wales, or have any interest in English literature, it can hardly have escaped your attention that 2014 marks the centenary of one of our most original and mercurial voices – Dylan Marlais Thomas. Across the country events are taking place to celebrate his life and works, and it was by sheer good fortune that I stumbled upon one of them today.
At about 10.30, Martin H. rang me to see if I fancied a day in Cardiff. It was dry, bright, and (whisper it) sunny when he phoned, and he’d decided to have a change of scene. It seemed like a good excuse to get out of Aberdare for a few hours, so I arranged to meet him in Mountain Ash and caught the lunchtime train down.
(Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now.) A return ticket to Cardiff has gone up with a bump, to a whopping £7.70! Luckily for me, I’d been paid very quickly for my last proofreading job, so I had a couple of quid to spare.
The train was quiet, so we grabbed a table and chatted until we arrived at Cathays, the nearest station to the National Museum of Wales. There’s been an exhibition about the life of Alfred Russel Wallace on for ages, but I still haven’t got round to seeing it. Martin had suggested a trip to the museum, and I had the Wallace exhibition in my mind, so it seemed as though a plan was coming together.
We jumped off and made our way over the footbridge into Park Place, where a number of students were taking advantage of the sudden break in the weather. There were patchy clouds, but still enough blue sky to make a sailor’s uniform; it’s the best kind of weather to wander around a city.
Martin’s very keen on art and architecture, and he drew my attention to the grand Victorian buildings on the east side of Park Place. I’ve passed them hundreds of times, but I’d never really looked at them in detail. Far from being a row of identical frontages, each one seems to have its own individual features. They must have been grand houses at the time they were built. Most of them are now used as offices attached to the University of Wales. (I’ve just looked on Wikipedia, and found that Henry Austin Bruce, the first Lord Aberdare, was instrumental in setting up the university. You live and learn!)
We’d only been in the museum for a couple of minutes when I spotted this poster on the stairwell:

Scanned Document

When I was in Salford for Brain of Britain in November 2012 (see It’s Grand Oop North!) there was a retrospective of Sir Peter Blake’s work at the Lowry Centre, only a pie’s throw from where I was staying. I’m not a huge art lover, but I do like the British Pop Art of the 1960s, so it was very tempting to visit it before heading for home again. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time (or the cash, which is a long story involving a long walk) to check it out for myself. I decided that I’d wait for the book, and sort-of forgot about it afterwards.
Suddenly, without any warning, Martin and I had stumbled across a new exhibition by the man who created the Sergeant Pepper LP cover. How’s that for serendipity? Martin was a bit dubious at first, thinking that it might have been a hasty cash-in on the Dylan Thomas centenary celebrations. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
It transpired that Sir Peter was introduced to Under Milk Wood by his Welsh colleagues when he was at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1950s. He’s admired the great ‘play for voices’ since he first heard it. For nearly thirty years, he’s been working on a series of illustrations inspired by Thomas’s timeless tale of Llareggub and its incredible incorrigible inhabitants. This exhibition brings together all his pieces (including a couple of works in progress) arranged in strict sequence.
It’s a real mixed-media frenzy, including watercolours, pencil sketches, collages, doctored photographs, and one piece which is entirely black (guess which line that relates to!) As well as illustrating the text (which is written out in the artist’s own hand beneath the scene or incident it refers to), Sir Peter has produced a separate piece for each of the characters’ dreams, and portraits of the villagers.
These last pieces are especially fascinating – the accompanying display says that they’re neither real nor imaginary, but were inspired by photos which Sir Peter found while flicking through magazines. I’m sure that I recognised some of them, but as a Welshman, I’m accustomed to seeing our country’s defining character on the faces of the people I meet.
None of the illustrations are protected by glass, so you’re right up close and personal with the raw materials of creative experimentation. I haven’t listened to the play for a long time, but I heard Richard Burton’s incomparable tones in my head as I drifted through the sequence. I can’t remember who said it (and I can’t find the original quotation), but somebody once said that the best response to a work of art is to execute another work, inspired by it, but in a different medium. In my opinion, Sir Peter seems to have produced the definitive response to Under Milk Wood in his loving, ingenious, and often suitably irreverent interpretations of the text. (Martin hadn’t realised the slightly rude joke in the name of the fictional village, until I pointed it out to him and whispered, ‘read it backwards.’)
There are other treasures to thrill Thomas enthusiasts, too. In a display case against one wall, you can see a first edition of his work (signed by Richard Burton, no less) among other priceless artefacts to excite book lovers like me. In a frame on the wall, one can see Daniel Jones’s manuscript for ‘Mr Waldo’s Song’ and the sleeve of a long-playing record of Thomas reading his work. In another case near the entrance to the gallery space, you can see some of woodblocks which Sir Peter made in the 1980s, when he first began working on this extraordinary labour of love.
The wall display told us that Sir Peter listens to the recording made by Sir George Martin in 1988, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as First Voice. at least twice a week. Once again, our timing was flawless: we were there at two o’clock, when music started to fill the gallery. Every day at that time, visitors can listen to Sir Peter’s favourite recording for themselves. It’s the perfect way to experience this exhibition, shifting slowly from picture to picture as the surreal ‘story’ unfolds.
This exhibition is at the National Museum of Wales until March 16. I daresay it will tour Wales subsequently, and probably travel further afield as well. Keep an eye open for it. Whether you’re an admirer of Thomas’s work, an aficionado of British Pop Art, or you just want to take in a rare and special treat on a visit to Cardiff, I can highly recommend it. (Just don’t make the mistake we’ve all made at some point, and turn up on a Monday. For reasons best known to the powers that be, the museum is closed.)
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