George Chapman

From “Time Gentlemen Please”

In 1953 George Chapman made a journey through the coal-mining valleys of South Wales and discovered the Rhondda Valley where, he said, ‘I realised that here I could find the material that would perhaps make me a painter at last.’ He returned to the south Wales valleys over the next ten years and produced a large number of drawings, etchings and paintings, in particular of the villages that comprise the Rhondda Fawr and Rhondda Fach Valleys. There followed a period of considerable success – highly praised one-man exhibitions of paintings and prints in London and Cambridge, extensive press and media coverage including The Studio, Apollo, Art News and Review, The Times, The Guardian and television programmes for Anglia, BBC Wales and Huw Weldon’s Monitor which was screened twice on the BBC in 1961 and later in the year at the Venice International Film Biennale. Forty years on he continues to paint the Rhondda, reflecting the changes that have occurred there since that first dark, wet day in 1953 which ‘transformed his purpose’.

George Chapman made his first etchings in Michael Rothenstein’s studio at Great Bardfield. The earliest plates are of Pennant in Cardiganshire, of his wife Kate pregnant, and from 1953 the Rhondda and other coal mining communities in south Wales. The Rhondda Suite was commissioned in 1960 by the Hon. Robert Erskine for St. George’s Gallery Prints in Cork St., London. They are undoubtedly among the most important prints ever made depicting Wales and its industrial landscape.

The early prints are inventive and experimental in their varied combination of etching processes; pattern, line and texture are more important than the representation of three-dimensional space. A growing confidence in the medium allowed him to develop on a very large scale drawing directly onto the sheets of copper and zinc in front of the subject. Back in the studio he worked further into the plates with aquatint and then scored, scarped and burnished the metal to build up texture.

Chapman’s strong sense of graphic design is evident in his work as a printmaker, the deceptively simple freehand drawing does not disguise an ordered compositional structure. He revels in the patterns made by the telegraph poles and wires, the television aerials, the pithead winding gear and chimney stacks, the railway signals and the herring-bone roofs of the steep terraced miners houses. Compositions become more dynamic in the later etchings as he exaggerates the great sweeping curves of the terraces perched upon the hilltops. Precipitous rows of houses tear away in sharp perspective to draw the spectator quickly into his world. The dark foreboding mountains topped with slag-heaps, the heavy stationary clouds, the rain and the intense light over the horizon reflecting on the wet roads and slate roofs create a stark visual drama.

The people who inhabit this harsh environment are depicted with genuine affection, they are an integral part of its makeup. Observed as they go about their daily routine the women hang out the washing or totter with a heavy shopping bag, the children play with scooters and hoops in the street, the old men gossip on a bench, feed the pigeons and, on occasion, are caught popping into the ‘gents’.

Chapman’s pictures of the Rhondda Valley are a record of a particular place and time – not a topographical record but a mood inspired by the character of that place – a record of the people of the mining communities and their homes. They convey the spirit of an industrial community that has long since changed and as such are important historical records of the industrial face of Wales.

Any contributions to this section of the website, particularly photographs of George Chapman’s original work, would be greatly appreciated by the family. Please contact [email protected]

Postcards of the images are now available. Please see the Postcards page for details