By Admin, Feb 8 2018 06:22PM
BY PATRICK MANSEL-LEWIS, PRESIDENT, LLANELLI ART SOCIETY
I did not have a normal childhood. That does not mean that I was miserable. Far from it. I grew up in a large Victorian house filled with paintings and pianos. The pianist would not leave his pianos alone, so I lived with the strains of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart ringing in my ears.
The artist’s palette and brush lay idle, witness to the mutation of the family’s artistic gene from sight to sound. All around me hung oil paintings and watercolours of my great grandfather Charles William Mansel Lewis- not so much a collection (for he had created them) as an enduring retrospective of his art. But even painters collect when they can afford to. I learned about our community of artists: the Anglo-Bavarian social realist Hubert Herkomer, and the Riviere family who had honed my great grandfather’s art in his Oxford days. My great grandfather, it seems, had inherited his artistic strain both from his mother (who has left an attractive picture of the old Stradey house and portraits of a blind harpist and a cockle woman), and of his father’s first cousin, a talented water colourist whose folio we guard jealously, and who is as yet completely unknown outside the family.
We have 2 watercolours by a certain Sam Evans, art master at Eton in the 1850s and 60s who was the definitive guide to my great grandfather in his teenage years. His influence can be discerned in the charming collection of watercolours of Windsor Castle, Eton College Chapel and riverside life of the Thames of that period.
William Riviere was art master at the Ruskin School of Drawing, Oxford in the 1860s. Visitors to Stradey will recollect his copy of the Last Supper which hangs at Magdalen College, Oxford; and his huge and imaginative interpretation of the meeting of Alexander the Great and the Greek philosopher Diogenes outside the walls of Corinth. As he put it: the one representing the man of action and the other the man of thought.
This was brought to Stradey in 1875 to cover the large wall space above the half landing. Together with the leaded screen, the grand entrance and the lantern light above, it provokes a reflection in the minds of visitors as they arrive: where are we, and what is this place?
The house had been built by the artist’s father, David Lewis, a lawyer and man of business. It was a mansion, handsome, with a view of the Gower Peninsula, and suitable for a well to do Victorian household. It was neither a museum nor an art gallery.
Great grandfather had an exceptional eye for beauty and elegance. Outside and within he transformed what he inherited. He added an artist’s studio. He built a painting hut on a circular rail by the woodland. Shafts of light appeared. The artist’s home slowly became his gallery, and the fields and woods and water were his muse, for he was at heart a painter of landscapes. Then something very interesting happened to him in 1873.
On a visit to the King’s Road, Chelsea, he paid a visit to the studio of a young artist called Hubert Herkomer. On the easel was a nearly completed oil painting of more than 20 people resting and chatting in a Bavarian village. He called it “After the Toil of the Day”. Great grandfather was so taken with it that he bought it that week, becoming the young Herkomer’s first substantial patron. It was to be the start of a lifelong friendship between 2 artists who were colleagues but never competitors, for the one was a landscape artist and the other was essentially a painter of portraits. As a young man Hubert Herkomer embraced the principles of social realism (traced by some scholars to the woks of Charles Dickens) and located them in the context of his Bavarian family background. These were the works that my great grandfather collected.
The subtle influence of this friendship was that my great grandfather began to place one figure in his landscapes and gathered together in his paintings a visual legacy of the working community of the Stradey Estate. This was his own interpretation of social realism.
This winter I have learned of the French “Ecole de Barbizon” and their striking similarity to some of my family’s art. So the journey of discovery goes on.
This is the heritage which I preserve and which in its small way represents an interesting perspective on the artistic tradition of Wales.