‘I chose that particular tinplate works because I was a bit familiar with it – father worked there, and it was one of the oldest in the country. I think what I was much aware of was the gloom … when you went in there from the outside you couldn’t see very much, and they worked in a perpetual gloom … and this is what I got as well – the heat. It was very, very hot…’
– Ceri Richards
The sketchbook drawings of tin plate workers were made from direct observation at Fairwood Tin Plate Works at Gowerton, close to Dunvant, the Gower village where Ceri Richards was born in 1903. They were a preparation for larger, more monumental studies of the theme, commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1942 as part of a programme to use artists to celebrate the workers on the Home Front during the War. For all his bravura virtuosity, and his febrile visual energy, Richards was wonderfully capable of re-tuning his vision and gift to the representation of the everyday realities of work and domestic life. These wartime studies match in their toughness and empathy the similarly commissioned works by Henry Moore (of miners in Yorkshire) and of Graham Sutherland (of tin miners in Cornwall, bombed Coventry streets, etc.), but they have a more dynamic lyricism than the former, and lack the neo-romantic theatricality of the latter.
Brought up in the rich and concentrated working-class culture of a Welsh mining village in the early years of the last century, Richards was close to the reality he depicted. The unsentimental empathy of his observation of these foundry-men, of their physical attitudes at moments of effort, pause or rest, derives from a keen awareness of the extreme conditions in which they worked: the artist’s father had himself been a tinplate worker at Fairwood. He was also a poet (in Welsh), and a man of many parts. From childhood Richards had seen this dignified and cultured man arrive home at nightfall, exhausted by his shift at the works. Supper was often the prelude to an evening conducting the Dunvant male voice choir, directing the season’s play at Ebenezer, the village chapel, or writing and reading.
Richards possessed to a high degree the imaginative faculty of artistic apperception: the ability to reflect, intuitively and creatively, on what presents itself to the eye. Inner memory and past experience are assimilated to present actuality. Sight and insight alike were sharpened for the artist by constant practice; he drew compulsively, day by day: ‘Ceri rarely went about without a sketchbook’ wrote his wife, Frances, after his death. ‘He would bring one downstairs with him when he had his breakfast and he often took one to bed with him at night and picked it up again to look at when he awoke.’ This was the essential basis for these brilliant extempore observations of the ordinary.
‘I always remember the impression of her coming down the stairs with this terrific floral extension of herself: this enormous hat of feathers. The woman costermonger in her costume became a sort of flower symbol… The proliferation of her hat and costume had a kind of sensuality. I mean, I soon became aware that this was not the woman in a costume but a costume worn by a person; who wasn’t a person really, but had become like a marvellous bouquet of flowers…’
– Ceri Richards
In the late 1930s the London street-scene on high-days and holidays was often enlivened by the spectacle of the ‘pearly kings and queens’. These working-class Londoners, usually costermongers (street market traders) spangled their ordinary clothes and caps with extravagant patterns of pearl buttons, and danced at fairs and street parties with their wives, whose brilliant costumes were topped by exuberant feathered hats. Richards was greatly excited by the splendour and style of these apparitions. The pearly costers – kings and queens for a day – appealed to his love of the marvellous-surreal in the everyday. The London street markets, pubs and bank holiday fairgrounds held for him, as did the Paris streets and squares for André Breton, ‘a thousand enchantments’.
Naturalistic representation, or a heightened realism, or a fantastic and expressive graphic exuberance can all in their different ways lead to an intensified awareness of the beauty and strangeness of the world. As an artist Richards was characteristically drawn to the poetic and metaphoric transformation of things observed. He was much impressed by Breton’s enigmatic imperatives: ‘Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial, or it will not be.’ And: ‘The Marvellous is always beautiful, everything marvellous is beautiful. Nothing but the Marvellous is beautiful.’
For Richards, Surrealism was not a prescriptive doctrine, or a style to be adopted, but – as it was for Picasso – a trigger to the imagination, a mental and technical key to the fantastic, to figurative exaggeration and metaphoric transformations. It encouraged deeply imaginative associations and the pictorial exploitation of deep correspondences. A feather plume might resemble a great flower or a fountain’s spume: a costerwoman might transmute into a phantasmagoric personnage.