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Aberaeron Artist: George Chapman

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

CAS members recently spent a fascinating evening in Aberaeron's own contemporary art gallery. The subject was one of Aberaeron’s most famous 20th century residents, George Chapman. A so called ‘kitchen sink’ artist, he is best known for his atmospheric etchings, drawings and paintings of the Rhondda Valley. Portraying the mining communities and the people who lived in them, they are important historical records of the changing industrial face of Wales.

George moved with his family to Aberaeron in 1964 becoming a well-known character in the town. He lived here for the rest of his life, dying in Aberaeron in October 1993.

Thirty years on, his granddaughter, Natalie, an increasingly well-regarded artist in her own right, secured Arts Council funding to commemorate this event. On 17th October 2023 members viewed the exhibition and heard George's story from his daughter, Harriet. Natalie provided a personal view of her grandfather and from her, we learned about the project, also viewing the film where she revisits some of the valley landmarks captured in George’s work.

Natalie provided the following details of his life in the form of a handout:

George Chapman (1908-1993)

Born in East Ham to parents William and Jane Chapman, George attended Shebbears College in Devon where his deafness hindered his education. He joined Crawfords in 1928 to train as a commercial designer. In the 1930s he worked alongside Nash, Piper, and Freedman on advertising campaigns for Shell-Mex and London Transport. Exempt from war service due to his deafness, he taught at Worchester School of Art. He trained at Gravesend School of Art and then the Royal College of Art. Pre-Royal College, he worked in advertising and formed his own successful design agency in 1945. Disillusioned with advertising, he gave up a successful career to satisfy his burning desire to become a painter. He attended the Slade for a year and then transferred to the Royal College.

Based in Norwich from 1945, he met Kate Ablett on a trip to Norwich School of Art and the pair married in 1947. In 1951 they left London and bought 3 thatched cottages outside Great Bardfield; they lived in one - Vine cottage, while another became his studio. They became part of the great Bardfield circle, participating in ‘open house exhibitions’ with fellow group members Edward and Charlotte Bawden, Michael and Duffee Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree, and Marienne Straub. In 1952 George made his first etchings in Michael Rothenstein's studio.

The first etchings were images of Pennant, drawn whilst visiting their friends the Potters, and of his pregnant wife, Kate.

It was not until 1953, at the age of 45, a visit to the Rhondda Valleys ‘transformed [his} purpose’. He drove to Cardiff to deliver some paintings and after some time wandering around the city, he was forced to take a shortcut through the valleys to home. ‘‘I’d been searching for something for so long and I couldn’t find it. It's as if you’ve lost your glasses, and then you find them, suddenly the excitement of finding the place was tremendous. I had found something that could direct me at last’, he commented.

He had found his subject, the simplicity of ordinary streets set against a dramatic backdrop and the dark broody weather. ‘Being involved in the Rhondda gives me some purpose you see. There is something in me that wants to take life seriously.’

He was attracted by the spirit of the community both visually and personally. At the time, a picturesque Britain was often depicted by artists, perhaps to soften the blow of the reality of the disfigurement of the industrial landscape. George’s work was a record of the lives of the mining communities; washerwomen, shopping bags, freshly hung laundry, and the pallet of a moody Wales. It was an honest observation of a time and place with a deep sympathy for the working class.

George rented a studio in the Rhondda in 1953 and he found there what was to become his life's work. The following years were filled with exhibitions at Piccadilly Gallery, London; Zwemmer Gallery London; St. Georges Gallery, London and Howard Roberts Gallery, Cardiff. He was now regarded as an established and successful British painter.

‘My job as an artist is to make things as they are. Providing I do my job properly, the social comment, if such thing is needed, will come over itself’, he stated. The industrial landscape had been of little interest to artists between the wars and in 1957 George was awarded the gold medal for Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.

In 1964, George and his family finally settled in Wales at Pier Cottage, Aberaeron. The move to Ceredigion coincided with the shift in the art market. Attention had landed upon Abstract painting and Pop Art. This affected George’s confidence; he lost contact with the gallery scene and withdrew from painting altogether for some time. He didn’t return to his beloved Rhondda until 1980 for a commissioned painting which was to re-ignite the love affair. With newfound confidence, a solo show was arranged at the Reynolds Gallery in Plymouth in 1981 where George was painting the ‘New Rhondda’.

He was now painting hardwood doors, colourful paintwork on the houses and no more chalk drawings of hopscotch on the streets; even the pigeons had gone. One thing remained the same and that was the weather!

George Chapman's contribution to post-war British painting is a vital part of the history of Welsh art. The 1980s saw the disappearance of the mining communities; change was upon us and a new way of life was to evolve. The paintings and prints that were left behind are a record of a time and place that hold a historical significance that could have never been envisaged at the time, important works of art that will inform for years to come.

Natalie Chapman. Oct 2023


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