Friday, 26 October 2018

STONE AND SLATE

I stepped back in time when I entered the kitchen.

The floor was paved with huge slabs of slate, about a yard wide.  A coal fire was burning in the grate of a black range.  I noticed the baking oven and a fire crane holding a soot-encrusted kettle.  No sign of a tap - the water had to be carried in from a mountain stream which ran nearby.   A Welsh dresser, filled with willow pattern plates, took up most of one wall  - I suspect it had not been moved into the kitchen but built there.   On the worn wooden table there was a large Bible, the front page inscribed with the names of children born into the family.  A grandfather clock ticking in the corner made no impact on the passing of a hundred years.

On Saturday I visited Yr Ysgwrn (near Trawfynydd), the home of the poet, Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans).    The house has been lovingly preserved by the Snowdonia National Park authority.

In Wales the moving story of Hedd Wyn is well-known.    The gifted poet died at Ypres in 1917.  Before his death he had sent off a poem for the Welsh national eisteddfod, and subsequently the poem won the highest honour (the chair) for a poem in traditional Welsh form.    At the awards ceremony the winner's name was called three times, then the empty chair was brought in draped with a black cloth.  By a strange coincidence the craftsman who made the chair was a Belgian refugee who came from a place not far from Ypres.  The chair has pride of place in what was the old parlour at Yr Ysgwrn.

The film Hedd Wyn (1992 Welsh, with English subtitles), based on the poet's life, won several awards and was the first Welsh film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in the US.

On Sunday I went to the latest exhibition at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw at Llanbedrog.  I was fascinated by the work of James Laughton who is showing a series of oil paintings entitled Copper, Slate and Stone.  

These are pictures of old quarries and mines at Nefyn, Trefor, Nant Gwrtheyrn, Dinorwig and Parys.  The old workings are enormous, and although man-made seem to be the work of giants.  A tiny lime-washed farmhouse is perched above the great space of the open cast copper mine.  A pair of ravens tumble above the vertiginous depths of the mine.   He has captured the eerie silence of such abandoned chasms where the only sound is the plink of a drop of condensation hitting a pool or the occasional clatter of a stone rearranging itself in a quarry.

What James Laughton does best is light - this is what makes his pictures so outstanding.  I was not surprised to learn that he admires the work of Turner.  In 'Corridor, Dinorwig' shafts of light are reflected in the greenish-blue water that has collected in the mine.  Another picture shows the blinding light at the end of a railway tunnel in the same mine.  He catches the way sunlight breaks through storm clouds to illuminate so briefly the rock face of an old quarry.  It is as if the light has a texture like gauze, that could be dispelled at a touch.

I read in the Guardian this week that this shattered landscape is to be nominated for Unesco world heritage status.  Michael Ellis is quoted as saying: 'Gwynedd's slate landscape is hugely important.  Its vast quarries and mines have not only shaped the countryside of the region but also countless buildings across the UK and the world.'

There's a ghostly enchantment about James Naughton's paintings of the old workings, a strangely beautiful devastation.

Hedd Wyn's home                   www.yrysgwrn.com
Plas Glyn y Weddw gallery    www.oriel.org.uk
James Naughton                     www.jamesnaughton.com



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