University of Wales Press, 2009, pp. 224, £50.
The title of Peter Lord’s most recent collection of essays contains a bold promise, and it does not mislead in priming the reader to expect something more challenging and tendentious than a comfortable stroll through a gallery of images. Readers of Lord’s previous books will feel themselves on familiar ground, for the motivation and method of his argument do not differ markedly from those advanced in The Aesthetics of Relevance (1992), Gwenllian (1994) or the three-volume Visual Culture of Wales (2000-2004). Not that the author has spent the last decade standing still: here are presented six essays (four of them previously unpublished) that demonstrate individually and collectively Lord’s undiminished commitment to the unearthing and reinterpretation of Wales’s rich inheritance of visual art.
Three of the new essays establish themselves on the basis of a discussion of the lives and art practice of painters who have contributed significantly to the corpus of Welsh visual culture. These artists (John Lewis, Hugh Hughes and Archie Rees Griffiths) have all been the subject of unmerited neglect by academic art historians, but Peter Lord’s intention, rather than to promote their admission to the ‘high-art’ canon (which would be to adopt the thinking of the despised ‘connoisseur’), is rather to re-evaluate them according to what they reveal about the development of a Welsh visual tradition that, though rich in its borrowings, is fundamentally distinct from that of the rootless academic mainstream that elides cultural particularity by its assertion of art’s supposed universal, intrinsic and transcendental qualities.
Consonant with his belief that a picture’s primary importance lies in how it “expands our understanding of the process by which we create our narratives of identity”, Lord interprets the artists and works that he examines within a socio-historical frame, and it is in the establishment of this contextual groundwork that he is at his most assured and impressive. He is scrupulous in his research and judicious in the weight he accords to source material. His great knowledge of Welsh cultural history is his passport across disciplinary boundaries, enabling him to identify connections and establish relationships that would have remained unmarked by someone of more narrow vision. This commitment to providing the contexts of the artists and works under discussion results in narratives that divagate pleasantly but never gratuitously from their main subject so that, by the end of each essay, the reader feels broadened by an enhanced understanding of a whole period.
Crucially, Lord’s considerable abilities as an art historian are at all times placed in the service of his conviction that the present and future flourishing of Wales will be best served by the fostering of a post-colonial consciousness that recognises its own distinctiveness and worth within the wider membership of British, European and world culture. The interpretative methodology that follows from this assumption enables Lord to provide explanations for (rather than simply noting) the vicissitudes of an artist’s or picture’s reception, but it also imparts a refreshing urgency to his writing. In general the style of these essays is uncluttered and direct, the no-nonsense tone complementing the robust and sometimes polemical argument in such a way as to bring the reader close to what s/he might imagine to be the author’s speaking voice.
The unabashed centrality of Lord’s post-colonial outlook may grate on those whose politics are differently disposed or who consider that the appreciation of art is an act of private contemplation that properly takes place away from noise and fisticuffs. It is not the place of a reviewer to take up cudgels, but even those who would dispute the validity of Lord’s approach will be obliged to admit that The Meaning of Pictures presents its arguments articulately and in a manner that is forceful without being hectoring. The advocacy and adoption of a strongly social and political methodology is always attended by certain intrinsic perils, and these are not entirely avoided here. One problem with stressing the ‘construction’ of Archie Rees Griffiths’s ascent to celebrity and subsequent slow disintegration is that it cannot help but diminish by implication his own responsibility for his alcoholism and desertion of his wife and child. More generally, the personal enjoyment that art affords, and its value precisely as a way of releasing the onlooker, however briefly, from their quotidian, socio-historical situation must, if it is acknowledged at all by a political worldview, surely be regarded with a mixture of pity and impatience, if not scorn. There is no room for daydreamers when the future of a nation is at stake. Nevertheless, it bears repetition that such limitations are not Lord’s as such, but are rather inherent in his methodology. He is aware of them and does not permit himself to be compromised by them any more than is unavoidable. Former accusations (a few of which are reprinted here in polemical context) that Lord is some kind of rabid ideologue, so intent on imposing his political vision as to be insensible to aesthetic pleasure, are refuted throughout The Meaning of Pictures by the author’s evident delight in art, and the brief discussion of Winifred Coombe Tennant suggests no prejudice against that remarkable patron’s highly individual and mystical apprehension of artistic ‘genius’.
To those who already share Peter Lord’s opinions about the nature of the importance of national art The Meaning of Pictures will be welcomed as a strong reaffirmation in the face of refractory opposition from a conservative establishment, while its strength and lucidity of argument will also certainly win converts to his cause. The book has much to recommend it, however, even to those professing disinterest in cultural politics, and it deserves to be celebrated as an important and handsomely produced contribution to the knowledge of Welsh artistic and cultural history.
Steven Lovatt is an independent scholar based in Bristol. His research interests include the writings of Dorothy Edwards, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard.