Word and Image: The Art of Brenda Chamberlain

On 23rd October Bangor University hosted the annual T. Rowland Hughes lecture. This year’s lecture was given by Dr. Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Welsh, University of Cardiff and was entitled ‘Word and Image: The Art of Brenda Chamberlain’.

Brenda Chamberlain was a visual artist and writer born in Bangor in 1912. She wrote books such as The Green Heart, Tide Race, The Water-castle, A Rope of Vines and Poems with Drawings. With her husband, John Petts, also an artist, she set up Caseg Press. The couple, joined by Alun Lewis, produced Caseg Broadsheets, a series of hand-printed broadsheets of sketches and poems also featuring poetry by Dylan Thomas and Lynette Roberts.

Dr. Lloyd-Morgan mentioned that Brenda Chamberlain was an important role model for herself and her friends due to the fact that Chamberlain was a successful female artist who achieved a professional career at a time when few women managed to do so. Dr. Lloyd-Morgan’s lecture focused on two areas: she talked about, firstly, to what extent the places where Chamberlain lived proved formative and, secondly, in what ways word and image, two forms of artistic expression, influenced each other in Chamberlain’s work.

Dr. Lloyd-Morgan argued that Brenda Chamberlain would have rejected the label of a ‘local’ or ‘Welsh artist’, but, despite being an English speaker, not fluent in Welsh, Chamberlain had a strong grasp of Welsh language and culture and her poems are inspired by Welsh rhymes and songs. (Dr. Lloyd-Morgan even sang to us a traditional Welsh song ‘Modryb Elin Ennog’ that inspired one of Chamberlain’s poems.) Moreover, during the 15 years she lived on Bardsey Island, Chemberlain often painted the day-to-day island life. Her birthplace, Bangor, on the other hand, meant a lot to her, but she never wrote about it or painted it. Brenda Chamberlain lived outside Bangor (South Kensington, Greek island of Hydra, Germany, Bardsey Island) for most of her life and therefore not belonging (by virtue of birth and/or language) is an important theme in her poetry.

Secondly, Dr. Lloyd-Morgan argued, Brenda Chamberlain was a visual artist as well as writer and worked in both media because she found just one medium of expression inadequate. However, she would at times feel as if she had to choose between the two and one form of expression would dominate for a while. This resulted in a split-minded state, which mirrored her sense of living in spaces in between and not belonging in the places where she lived.

Attending this lecture made me realise the importance of organising events such as this one. After the lecture a gentlemen from the audience asked a question about a painting by Brenda Chamberlain he owns, ‘A Red Cathedral’, which, it turned out, Dr. Lloyd-Morgan had not heard of it before and which has never been made available for the public to view.  It is great if events like this one bring like-minded people together and lead to sharing knowledge.

If you would like to learn more about Brenda Chamberlain, you may want to have a look at a new biography by Jill Piercy published earlier this year.

Brenda Chamberlain and the Caseg Broadsheets

2012 saw the centenary celebrations of Brenda Chamberlain. Born in 1912, Brenda was brought up in Bangor and like many other Welsh women writers (including Margiad Evans) she initially trained as an artist.

A selection of her art work can be viewed on the Martin Tinney Gallery website.

Chamberlain is known within Welsh Writing in English for her accounts of island living including life on Ynys Ennli in Tide-Race and the Greek island of Ydra in A Rope of Vines.


However, perhaps one her most interesting ventures was a project which allowed her to combine her passion for image and word. During the Second World War Chamberlain set up the Caseg Press in Llanllechid with the help of her partner, artist John Petts.

Alongside war poet Alun Lewis, the trio created the Caseg Broadsheets. Inspired by chapbooks and broadside ballads, the broadsheets featured original woodcut artwork by Petts and poetry from prominent Welsh poets of the time including Dylan Thomas and Lynette Roberts. Alun Lewis wanted to create an affordable piece of literature available to the masses. Unfortunately the broadsheets did not take off as they would have hoped as the team struggled to fund their venture. However, it is still possible to find original copies of these wonderful pieces of artwork that combine poetry and images that highlight Welsh artistic output during the war. Brenda Chamberlain’s own account of the process behind the  project is also documented in her book ‘Alun Lewis and the Making of the Caseg Broadsheets.’

Original copies can be found at Bangor University Archives.

Book of the Week – Tide-Race by Brenda Chamberlain

Channel-hopping one evening and suddenly I see Rolf Harris singing on Bangor pier – were my eyes deceiving me?!  No, this was ‘Rolf on Welsh Art’ and this episode was dedicated to Bangor-born artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain. During the programme Rolf makes his way to Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli). The island is a place of ancient Christian pilgrimage and was home for Brenda between 1947 and 1961 and the subject of her book Tide-Race.

“You Who Are In The Traffic Of The World: Can You Guess The Thoughts Of An Islander?”

Tide-Race, Brenda Chamberlain, Seren.

Tide-Race, Brenda Chamberlain, Seren.

Situated off the Lleyn peninsula in North West Wales, it could be argued that the island itself is the protagonist of Tide-Race. It is more than a back drop as its sheer wilderness shapes and orders the lives of its inhabitants- it is sometimes surprising that the island is habitable at all. Its beauty tempts the mainland dwellers, as Chamberlain explains:

‘The island wore a deceptive summer innocence like a flower garden in which a serpent lay asleep.’

What strikes you is the relationship the islanders have with their surroundings, both on and offshore. Described in dozens of ways, each description of the sea is simultaneously believable and terrifying. It torments and it placates, it gives and it takes away. It is what makes the island at once a secluded sanctuary and a hellish prison. Tide-Race encompasses a breadth of experience from Jack Issacson the Ancient Mariner to the children of the island who could not ask for a more unique playground. With a population of less than fifty there is still plenty for Chamberlain to chronicle including the quarrels of nosey neighbours, the superstitious fisherman and bodies washing up on the island’s shores.

A place to escape, yet full of foreboding Chamberlain conveys the charm that pulls one towards the island and the brutality that fends one away. For an island that is supposedly the resting place of twenty-thousand saints, Tide-Race evokes its unique essence. As Jonah Jones mentions in the afterword, in terms of text and image there is nothing else quite like Tide-Race.  An evocative account of life only islanders can comprehend, intertwined with Brenda’s own line drawings of the islanders themselves- it is an account of Wales and all of its elements.