Curating Nature

by The Curious Scribbler

The School of Art has selected gardens and gardening as the theme of this year’s long running summer exhibition.  The exhibition forms a part of the undergraduate course in which students act as curators – selecting the works, mounting, framing and displaying them in the gallery.  For this they sifted through the substantial collections belonging to the School of Art, bringing various long-unseen artworks into the light. The result is an intriguing collection on the general theme, including paintings, etchings, prints,photographs, decoupage and even ceramics spanning a time frame of 150 years. There is also a cabinet to explore.

Each drawer in this cabinet was compiled by an individual student. Here the page is open at Phallus impudicus,  the Stinkhorn fungus.

My eye was first caught by two exquisite botanical illustrations by Mildred Eldridge, wife of the poet R.S.Thomas.  The first is of Sanguisorba canadensis growing in 1959 at Eglwysfach, possibly in their garden, or in the collections of Mr Mappin at Ynyshir Hall.

Sanguinaria canadensis by Mildred Eldridge

A second painting dated 1960 shows the delicate pastel shades of a bicoloured Camellia japonica.  Mildred’s illustrations appeared in several books in the 1940s and others were published as art cards by Medici Society.

Camellia japonica by Mildred Eldridge


I was also arrested by a powerful winter scene by Belgian artist Maurice Langaskens, showing a man with secateurs mounting a ladder to prune a tree, dark birds whirling overhead.  He spent much of the first world war in captivity in Germany.  How did this picture find its way to Aberystwyth?  Was he perhaps a friend of our better-known Belgian refugee Valerius de Sadeleer, who spent those years living at Tyn Lon, Rhydyfein, painting local landscape scenes?

An etching by Maurice Langaskens

This rummage through the archive makes serendipitous connections.  Who knew that George Cruikshank had a cartoonist great nephew whose wood engraving in the magazine The Leisure Hour pokes fun at the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century?  The tiny print shows the industrial production of serried rows of sunflowers, along with people, bees, gnats and savoy cabbages.

Woodcut by Cruikshank’s great nephew Cruikshank Jnr

Sunflowers get a grittier treatment in a lithograph by kitchen sink realist John Bratby from the 1960s.

Sunflowers II by John Bratby

Several more recent artists in the collection have close ties with Aberystwyth and I was pleased to see two of Jenny Fell’s calendar linocuts from 1989 on the walls.  I am an early investor in Jenny’s work, four other months have adorned my kitchen walls since 1991.  Hung here is October ( a bonfire) and April ( Violets and Primroses).  The captioning has a very modern slant:  burning autumn leaves now brings a homily about carbon dioxide and global warming.


October by Jenny Fell

Works by Art School staff are also to be found.  Prof John Harvey’s small spikey drawing evokes the steep hill and neat gardens  of Elysian Grove while Prof Catrin Webster’s huge colourful canvas dominates the room.

Elysian Grove by John Harvey

The very same evening I was at the Arts Centre for the launch of John Hedley’s exhibition in the upstairs gallery.  John paints and burnishes slices of tree trunk, many of them from Bodnant or from Anthony Tavernor’s amazing garden at Plas Cadnant on Anglesey.  When at his alternative home in Crete ancient olive boles provide his canvasses. The designs develop in the studio, suggested to him by the grain and form of the pieces of timber.  The combined rich colours and metallic finishes of copper and gold leaf are bright and vibrant.  We read a lot about mental health and well-being in relation to nature these days.  This exhibition though has no subtext, it is just unapologetically cheerful.

Trees trunks felled by Storm Arwen are canvasses for John Hedley


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Kidney Vetch on Constitution Hill

by The Curious Scribbler,

Blue sky, blue sea and green Alexandra hall encased in scaffolding.

Today’s  brilliant May sunshine is so welcome after the humid mist of the last few days and the months of rain which preceded it.   Dare we hope that we are to be rewarded with a lovely summer?  My excursion along the Prom took me to the foot of Constitution HIll, where a small path zig zags up towards the bridge over the funicular railway.  The winter storms have removed quite a bit of this path above the shore and a new footway is beginning to be eroded on the slope above the missing bits.  Just now though, it passes a sea of pale yellow. The dominant plant here is the Kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria. 

Footpath up the hill

Perhaps the grey days have diminished my recall but I don’t remember ever seeing it look so lovely.  Later in the season the slope will be bright with pink and white valerian, which I remember well, but just now it is the Kidney Vetch and bright patches of clear white Sea Campion Silene uniflora which catch the attention.   I looked both flowers up Arthur Chater’s magnificent Flora of Cardiganshire, and was interested to note that he comments that flowering of Kidney Vetch varies greatly from year to year.  Surely this horrid winter must have been just the tonic it required.

Kidey Vetch and Sea Campion


The distribution map for the occurrence  of Kidney Vetch forms an almost uninterrupted  black line along the coast of Ceredigon, and indeed he comments that it is almost always found within 100 yards of the sea.  What a contrast with its bed fellow the Sea Campion,which ventures far inland, flowering blithely on the toxic spoil heaps of the old lead and silver mines,and on the shingle of the Rheidol  and Ystwyth rivers.  Plants which flourish where others fail to thrive sometimes attract superstition, and it has some odd alternative names.  Dead Man’s Bells or Witches Thimbles.  There is a folk tradition that if picked it brings death.  As a child I enjoyed popping the bladder-like calyces as if they were tine balloons and I’m still living!

Kidney Vetch by contrast has the folk seal of approval, used by medieval herbalists to relieve swelling and heal wounds, and to treat problems of the stomach and the kidney. One can also eat it apparently, both the young leaves and the small pea like pods,  but I hope it will be left for everyone to enjoy.

The double-headed flowers of Kidney Vetch


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