The Story of Welsh Art episode 1: Huw Stephens explores what has long been a missing piece in the cultural story of Britain and indeed Wales itself – the story of Welsh art. Huw starts his journey on the island of Anglesey where he steps inside a prehistoric burial chamber to witness Welsh art in its earliest form. He sees an exquisite example of Bronze Age artistry in the form of a gold cape, found by chance in a field in North Wales and now one of the prize exhibits in the British Museum.
Religious art delivers some of the most powerful and physically impressive pieces, from towering Celtic crosses standing sentinel in churchyards, to the sleeping figure of Jesse, hewn out of a single piece of oak but also delicately depicted in a rare surviving example of Welsh medieval stained glass.
As artists moved their gaze beyond religion, the rise of portraiture began, with Hans Memling delivering the first known oil painting of a named Welsh person, John Donne, in the 15th century. Broadcaster Huw Stephens discovers the many treasures of Welsh art, following the story from prehistoric times up to the present day.
The Story of Welsh Art episode 1
Welsh art refers to the traditions in the visual arts associated with Wales and its people. Most art found in, or connected with, Wales is essentially a regional variant of the forms and styles of the rest of the British Isles, a very different situation from that of Welsh literature. The term Art in Wales is often used in the absence of a clear sense of what “Welsh art” is, and to include the very large body of work, especially in landscape art, produced by non-Welsh artists in Wales (or with a Welsh subject) since the later 18th century.
Prehistoric Wales has left a number of significant finds: Kendrick’s Cave, Llandudno contained the Kendrick’s Cave Decorated Horse Jaw, “a decorated horse jaw which is not only the oldest known work of art from Wales but also unique among finds of Ice Age art from Europe”, and is now in the British Museum. In 2011 “faint scratchings of a speared reindeer” were found on a cave wall on the Gower peninsula which probably date to 12,000–14,000 BC, placing them among the earliest art found in Britain. The Mold Gold Cape, also in the British Museum, and Banc Ty’nddôl sun-disc in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff are likewise some of the most important British works of art from the Bronze Age.
Many works of Iron Age Celtic art have been found in Wales. and the finds from the period shortly before and after the Roman conquest, which reached Wales in AD 74-8, are especially significant. Pieces of metalwork from Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey and other sites exemplify the final stages of La Tène style in the British Isles, and the Capel Garmon Firedog is a spectacular luxury piece of ironwork, among the finest in Europe from the period. The Abergavenny Leopard Cup, from the decades after the conquest, was found in 2003, and shows the presence of imported Roman luxury products in Wales, perhaps belonging to a soldier.