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A new television series on art in Wales began its journey through the centuries on 1 March 2021. The three-part series is the first to look at the long history of art in Wales since Peter Lord’s wonderful series The Big Picture, broadcast more than twenty years ago, and will also make its way to television screens in Yorkshire, Argyll, Antrim and Kent as the first series on Welsh art to air across the UK (on BBC4, which wasn’t an option in 1999).
The Story of Welsh Art doesn’t hang about, and having walked the viewer into Barclodiad y Gawres on Anglesey to see Neolithic markings at the beginning of the programme, the presenter, Huw Stephens, is discussing eighteenth-century portraiture with Peter Lord within an hour.
With so few stops along the way it was good to contribute to the programme and help to bring stained glass into the story in an interview with Huw that was held in front of the big window depicting ‘Tree of Jesse‘ at the Church of St Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch. Although there is a good deal of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century stained glass in north-east Wales, there isn’t time in the programme to cover any more of it. The Llanrhaeadr Jesse is a really significant work – near complete and with a characterisation in the faces (below left) that is more sophisticated than in the slightly earlier stained glass at Gresford and Llandyrnog – pointing to new directions in the medium that were cut short by the Reformation.
There are two other near-complete windows in the area, one of which is another window of the same subject at Dyserth, which was, remarkably, made within a year of the Llanrhaeadr window, and the other is the window with scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary at Gresford. Both of these windows are about eighty percent complete, but neither have as much colour as the Llanrhaedr Jesse. The loss of the Jesse figure at the foot of the window at Dyserth leaves his tree rootless, and although some of the kings (below right) are impressive close-up, they lack the definition from a distance compared to those at Llanrhaeadr.
The next two episodes in The Story of Welsh Art focus on the period from the later eighteenth century up to the present, but I don’t expect that we will see any more stained glass in either of them. Although stained glass emerged so strongly from the mid-nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, it has often been neglected by art historians and drowned out by the painting that remains central to the popular perception of art.
The piece that we recorded at Llanrhaeadr was coupled with another section in the programme on the medieval carving of the figure of Jesse at Abergavenny, but I doubt that there will be a return to the church to discuss Helen Whittaker’s ‘Tree of Jesse‘, installed in 2016 behind the medieval sculpture, in the final episode. I’m sure Huw Stephens and the production team at Wildflame will be among the first to concede that there is plenty more Welsh art waiting to be broadcast on our television screens.