Roger Cecil, 1942 - 2015

There is something very quiet, insistent and challenging about Roger Cecil’s work. This is not a remarkable observation - it can be found as a regular theme in all the commentaries on his pictures. The elusive nature of his imagery – where colour, texture, form and space rub against each other – seems to be echoed in the quiet but deliberate character of the man.

Cecil is – and has been for many years – one of the several very fine artists working in South Wales. He was born in Abertillery, then a mining town, in the heart of the South Wales Valleys. Anyone who has spent any time in this area will have reflected on the majestic, expansive beauty of the place, cheek by jowl with the shabby remnants of the industrial past. In the immediate post-War years, however, this landscape must have been not only beautiful, but also busy with the grit, dust, noise and energy, as well as the bold, geometric forms, of the mining infrastructure. In so many of Cecil’s pictures, one is struck by the sense that he is peering into darkness and perceiving intricacies of texture, light and colour, set against a sublime background of subtle and sombre shapes. It can be trite to conflate painting and biography: but one cannot escape the fact that Cecil’s contemplative and monumental work – no matter what the scale of the picture – has something of the Valleys about it.

Cecil studied at Newport College of Art from 1959-63. Without doubt, this was a period when the cultural life of South Wales was becoming particularly lively and confident.

‘The 1960s saw a burgeoning local art scene in south Wales, building on the new patronage opportunity of the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and supplemented by the energetic activities of voluntary and artist-led bodies’[1].

Today, our notion of Welsh art is likely to be dominated by the vigorous landscape imagery of Sir Kyffin Williams, which continues to exert much influence. But his attachment was mainly to North Wales. Some of the most challenging and interesting images of South Wales come – we think – from incomers, such as Graham Sutherland, who was first introduced to the area as a War Artist and then explored the mythic history invested in the landscapes of Pembrokeshire, in the 1960s. Also a War Artist, John Piper married Myfanwy in 1937 and, thereafter, regularly visited and painted the towns, villages, chapels and countryside of Wales, focusing, from the 1960s, on Pembrokeshire, which he depicted with a degree of rapt Romanticism. Other new arrivals included Josef Herman, who left Poland in 1938 and, from 1944, spent 11 years painting the mining communities of South Wales; Jack Crabtree, born in Rochdale and trained in London and, from 1966, a lecturer at Newport College of Art; and Valerie Ganz, born in Swansea in 1936 and preoccupied with the mining villages of South Wales. Also important was Arthur Giardelli, who left London for South Wales in the late 1940s. Settled there, he was committed to Modernism, having encountered Mondrian and his pared-down, architectonic abstraction and having frequently met, admired and collected the work of Braque, Picasso and Rouault in France. A dedicated teacher and supporter of younger artists in Wales, Giardelli was another who lent vigour and an international perspective to the development of Welsh art in the post-War years. Thus, although Cecil’s life has always been centred on South Wales, his art is infused with a recognition that this part of the world has been host to some of the most profound and adventurous art of the mid-20th century: he could hardly have avoided being affected by the permeating sense that Wales, in its landscapes and its people, is a place of cultural ambition, monumental grandeur and commitment to learning.

In 1963, Cecil left Newport College, garlanded with awards. Thereafter, apart from a spell in the mid-90s working on an M.A. at St. Martin’s College of Art, he has remained in South Wales.

Cecil often tackles his work by pursuing a theme, in several, related, pieces. For example, his ‘Harbour’ series dates from 1991. These pictures tend to be small in scale and often jewel-like in colour. Even here, however, where he is plainly enthused by the rich light and busy activity of the coast, Cecil’s touch is not fleeting or impressionistic. Rather, it is insistent and repeated and his capture of form is deliberate and determined. In the small, abstract, Harbour pictures, there is a sense in which colour, mark and space are jostling and pushing against each other until they attain a poise: in the end, these pictures deny their small scale and appear invested with a powerful, dynamic energy.

Sarah Bradford, who writes with a clear empathy for the authority of Cecil’s work, notes his, ‘mastery of composition and painterly abstraction’, adding that, his, ‘imagery derives from many sources but landscape (including coastal places) and the female form are paramount’[2].

Cecil works, almost always, with a mixture of materials. Oil pastels are often used, to lend intensity to the colours of small pictures, the insistent layering leaving pentimenti as signs of the creative, searching, human hand. Cecil also employs sandpaper and primer to prepare the hardboard or canvas and then builds up layers with red oxide, plaster, Polyfilla, adhesives and household emulsions. His favoured, rich green is often employed with lustrous blacks, created with traditional lead polish, intended for grates and ranges. The surfaces are then rubbed and burnished, scratched and scored. Thus, the work is textured and nuanced, the colour reverberating as if it had a life of its own. The paintings are abstract, but there are echoes of the monumental shapes and undulations of the female form, or the Valleys - the dark hills embracing the bowls of space and the rich, gritty textures of the industrial and post-industrial landscape, highlighted by intricate, personal marks.

As early as 1964, the BBC produced a programme about Roger Cecil, the Quiet Rebel. In 2004, the artist was revisited, making clear Cecil’s continuing exploration of the materials and themes which allow him to mine and excavate, as it were, the most profound moments and meanings of his life. Cecil has also had numerous exhibitions of his work, including in Gordon Hepworth’s galleries in Cork Street and Exeter. For one such exhibition, Hidden Secrets, in 1999, Cecil wrote some notes of his own.

‘The artist .. is the one who manifests secrets to be decoded or interpreted by the viewer … a canvas ready for the offerings and blessings of its owners is one of the most dramatic means of conveying the presence of a secret …’.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] John R. Wilson, Industrial South Wales: The Poetics of Place, an essay which introduced a temporary exhibition of works in the Newport Museum and Art Gallery Collection, July, 2004, p.4.

[2] See introduction to the catalogue of Roger Cecil, Hidden Secrets, Gordon Hepworth Fine Art, Cork Street, London, November 1999.