Glenys Cour

The Blue Room

Peter Wakelin celebrates the life-affirming art of Glenys Cour

Visual artists have varying concerns. It is as if each of them opens a door onto a different room. In one is violence or anxiety; in another everything is pure aesthetic balance; sometimes the room opens onwards to a known topography. The door that Glenys Cour presents swings open to a room of colour: azure, red and gold. It is warm and stacked with riches. In her allusive and abstracted paintings she captures the sheer pleasure of the visual. Whether she is meditating on food upon a table, a shining Greek Island sea, or a butterfly that has drifted to her windowsill, she shows us a profound delight in the form and colour of things.

Yet however much Glenys Cour’s approach is based in the world around her, her saturated hues are other-worldly, and her compositions are mystical and hieratic. The magical and spiritual pervade not just her mythic pictures, such as those based on the story of Blodeuwedd, but those inspired by the everyday. Her still lifes seem like feasts as grace is said, or gifts upon an altar. Looking at her flower-pieces, I do not see posies and arrangements, but hear the lines of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Bavarian Gentians’, and see the curtain of petals through which he withdrew from the white sheets of his sanatorium:
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark darkening the day-time torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom, ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue

The retrospective of Glenys Cour’s work at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea was a much needed opportunity to see her power as an artist. The truth is that, though she counts now among the senior artists of Wales, she is not yet as well-known as one day she will become. She is represented in most of the leading Welsh collections, shows with the Attic Gallery, the Martin Tinney Gallery and the Welsh Group, and is admired by fellow artists, but many of those well-versed in contemporary Welsh art have still not heard of her. Perhaps this is partially at least because she has been based in Swansea almost all her adult life, a place that sometime seems sealed from the outside world. There, at least, she is a well-loved local treasure, her work readily familiar through her memorable posters for the Swansea Festival, her teaching, and her successive exhibitions at the Attic Gallery since the 1960s. However, she has dedicated herself to painting at the expense of what is nowadays the higher art-form, self-promotion. As long ago as 1982, John Dalton wrote in The Guardian, reviewing her exhibition in Exeter, ‘This is one of the best shows I’ve seen for some time – exhilarating as great gulps of salty, fresh air. A pity she is hardly known outside Wales.’

Thirty years on one might add, it is a pity she remains neglected by her country too. As Glenys Carthew, she was brought up amidst the South Wales coalfield during the strife of the Depression. She was born in 1924 at Fishguard, her mothers’ family home, but work was in the Valleys. Her father was a mining engineer by training, employed as general manager of collieries around the Ebbw and the Bargoed. She was an only child, and it was a solitary up-bringing of constant dislocation: the family moved seven times, usually to manager’s houses set apart from the rest. It cannot have been a comfortable period, with strikes and unemployment rending the strata of industrial communities. She compensated for her lack of company by telling herself stories, then gradually illustrating them in books.

Her desire to be an artist emerged from this solitary impulse to create. There was no encouragement in art at Hengoed Girl’s School in the 1930s, but she fixed on her wish to go to college. As war began, she found herself in Cardiff College of Art in what was, paradoxically, a golden era with first-rate tutors. Ceri Richards had returned to Wales for the duration of the war and was entering the frenzied period of development that produced his masterpieces. Evan Charlton was a sober foil to Richards, but also perceptibly a ‘real’ artist, and encouraging of talent.

The inspirational influence of Ceri Richards opened up the creativity of many students. Although Glenys wanted to be a painter following her first year, she was thrilled when he chose her to join his course in illustration. After the arcane strictures of the drawing exams, working from casts, learning perspective and studying the history of architecture, it was a huge release. She joined a tiny group, only half a dozen students. They were set imaginative assignments (one was to spend evenings drawing in a hotel kitchen), and Richards shared with them his unparalleled collection of European art publications. He encouraged unconventional materials, showing them Max Ernst’s use of frottage, getting them to mix soap with paint, and encouraging the exploration of serendipity in mark making. On one occasion, Glenys was painting a head in class, and Richards reached over and pressed his thumb into the side of the face, making a mark which worked perfectly. He said, ‘Don’t tell anyone how you did that. It’s magic.’

After an Art Teachers’ Diploma, Glenys took a post at Fishguard Grammar School. Fishguard, then as now, was at the far end of the railway, distant from more active centres of the art world. When Evan Charlton, by now a schools Inspector, happened on her there, he asked, ‘What are you doing here? You’re at the end of the line! Get on down the line!’ It is odd how years of good advice mean nothing, but one comment can strike home, and Charlton’s remark made her reconsider her career. She moved to a job in Swansea. Half-way down the line, at least, brought her to a large town with a museum and an art school, which she attended in the evenings. She worked with the renowned stained glass designer Howard Martin, and laid hands on the rich materials which continue to inspire her sense of light and colour.

At the art school in Swansea, she met Ronald Cour. Ron was part of the talented generation that came out of Swansea in the 1920s and ‘30s. The ‘Kardomah Boys’ may be something of a literary conceit to describe this lively group, but if it means anything, Ron was one of them. He had been at school with Dylan Thomas, and he was a close friend of Alfred Janes, Daniel Jones and Vernon Watkins. Having studied at the Royal College, he had just returned to Swansea as Head of Sculpture. He was a man of warmth and wisdom, illuminated with a sparkling sense of the ridiculous, and a talented sculptor who eventually became Principal of the Art School. They married in 1949, and Glenys flourished in the social and artistic circles which she entered. Dylan Thomas came for supper just before his fated last trip to America; they saw Ceri Richards on his regular visits home; and they became a fulcrum of artistic initiatives. Both of them showed work regularly at the Dilwyn Gallery in Swansea and the Howard Roberts Gallery in Cardiff. Glenys gave up teaching when their daughter Jane was born in 1953, but when Fred Janes left the Art School for London ten years later, she took over his course. She continued to work part-time there for the next thirty years, teaching ‘visual research’ for stained glass artists.

Her profound interest in saturated colour must have deepened through these years of involvement with what was growing into an internationally respected postgraduate department of architectural glass – helping students to explore the pivotal place of colour in the medium. In her mature work she has become a master of the relationships of colours with one another, her innate understanding of the subject enhanced by studying the theories of the Bauhaus artist Josef Albers, and by encountering the resonant and spiritual colour harmonies of Rothko. Her work up to this point progressed through several phases. In the 1950s and 1960s it extracted abstract forms from nature which recall the pervasive influence of Sutherland’s root and thorn studies in the period. In the early 1970s she began a series of more representational landscapes, continued simultaneously with exercises in hard- edged abstraction. The landscapes were often of the beaches around Gower, with dark seas mounting above winding roads. These led on to a series of cloud studies, made in response to the galleon skies of the Atlantic coast and the changing light effects from sunrise to dusk. The green and gold of Gower, layered with the nature poetry of Watkins and Thomas, has perennially inspired her.

When Ron died, tragically early, in 1978, she was devastated. Even 25 years on, and surrounded by a tight-knit family of loving grandchildren, she feels his absence. But she had the gift of embracing life, and she responded through her work. She entered a period of vital creativity that continues to the present. It was soon afterwards that collage became her favoured medium, prompted by an accident. When a London-based stage designer fell ill, she was asked by the opera producer George Roman to design his production of Aida with Neath Operatic Society. The scenes were to be done by back projection, and Glenys produced abstract collages which evoked caves and desert landscapes. The finished works were tours de force of mood and colour, never falling into Aida’s trap of Egyptological pastiche. As striking pictures in their own right, they engaged her interest in the medium. Soon afterwards she made collage back-projections for the Dylan Thomas Theatre production of Under Milk Wood, creating intense and stylised images of black boats bobbing on an estuary at night. The magical world she made became for many the definitive Llareggub. A series of posters followed, for the Swansea Festival, Brecon Jazz and the Cardiff Festival, all done with spirited and allusive collage. The Swansea posters became an institution, and in 1987 she won the annual award for best arts festival poster in Britain.

Collage is sometimes seen as second-best to painting, a view that seems to be a hangover from old-fashioned academicism, but as a medium of Modernism from Picasso onwards, it has been a generator of experiment and dynamism in picture making. For Glenys it opens a direct route to her motivations. She says that in another life she might have been a sculptor, and collage similarly emphasises construction, texture, and the re-interpretation of found components. Among her influences is the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, whose use of scratches, symbols and worn surfaces alludes to age-old enigmas. Collage invokes, too, the power of colour, enabling strong contrasts and sharp juxtapositions – as Matisse discovered in his late, great cut-outs of the 1950s.

No one ever sees inside Glenys Cour’s studio, and one can only surmise what goes on there. She says she is embarrassed by the mess; but maybe Ceri Richards’ advice still rings somewhere in her mind – ‘It’s magic’. She stands working for long hours, from morning until evening, always in a deep blue boiler suit. Sometimes she will be grinding up materials for hand- made paper, mixing it in the bath and straining it on J-Cloths, at others she is laying her dense colours onto paper or cutting and tearing it for collaging. As she gets older she seems to work harder, more driven to create. Most time goes to placing and arranging, trying shapes and combinations to make the image work. This may take hours, days, or weeks of visiting and revisiting a piece. She says, ‘You struggle like mad, and you know there’s something missing. And then all of a sudden it comes together. When you don’t know quite why: that’s usually when it’s good, and you recognise it.’ Even after they are framed and on the wall, she often returns to pictures, adjusting, remaking, or destroying them. (Her friend Wally Jenkins, who has photographed her work for years, regularly finds his records are redundant.)

Her method is to start work with a feeling in her mind and look for a subject to express it. She is entranced by the resonance of names and places: Persia, Isfahan, Byzantium, or closer to home Gower and St David’s. She is drawn to richness and formality: to icons, ceremony, ancient artefacts. Her works trace a pathway of abstraction from their sources, transforming them, cross-fertilising, and refining them. She says, ‘I love ambiguity, things half seen’, ideas that must be felt in order to be understood. The flowering metamorphosis of Blodeuwedd has brought repeated inspiration. Sometimes the most mundane object has been transformed into a mystical motif: one was a stick of Brussels sprouts against the light. The spiral appears regularly: ‘the basis for everything: the way that plants grow, that water goes down a plughole, galaxies form, DNA is made. You can’t get away from it, and it is a motif in every culture’.

Among the most recent pictures is the Moorish Doorways series. She is fascinated by the idea of entrances, but visiting Morocco she found herself wanting to express the feeling of a decorative portal from the tawdriness of the outside to a gorgeous, secret, glimpsed interior. Another theme regularly revisited has been the noble continuance of gold from ancient civilizations. This began one day in Thessaloniki, going from the blasting heat into a museum of cool and marble, and finding cases of the gold of Alexander. She was moved to feel in contact with a head dress, worn three thousand years ago, of golden leaves on tiny stems now trembling at her footfall. Gold resurfaces repeatedly in her collages. She is captivated by the poetic contrast between decaying surfaces and the one metal which will not corrode. She recalls a television programme which followed the uncovering by archaeologists of the burial site of a Celtic princess. ‘The camera was looking into an oblong grave to find a gold diadem, armlet and body jewellery. Nothing was left of the princess, but in the positions of these artefacts you felt that you could still see her there.’

It is fitting that Glenys Cour’s current show appears in parallel at the Glynn Vivian with the magnificent centenary exhibition of her teacher Ceri Richards. Her admiration of him is clear: in the Romantic tradition which she continues, her visual inventiveness, and her fascination with great themes. In one subject, the master and the pupil have come head to head, illustrating the blind play for voices Under Milk Wood. On this one occasion, Richards’ brilliant imagination failed him and his illustrations made the characters mundane. Cour’s feeling for Dylan Thomas and his play produced a flowering of ideas, and her abstracted meditations soar far above that strange, nocturnal place, capturing its spirit as a timeless other-world.

Her work continues to develop. In the last few months she has made the move away from her own hand-made paper toward the smoothness and ease of manufactured surfaces. The result has been a new precision and control, and works which Mel Gooding, as curator of her exhibition, judges are among her very best. She is retracing her steps to the first collages of the late 1970s, but with the wisdom of a further quarter century’s consistent practise, and she is creating images of enormous graphic strength. The joyfulness and pleasure that are central to her personality continue to be made material and visible in these distinctive celebrations, of rich things, of life and colour.