Brenda Chamberlain

Born in Bangor, North Wales, in 1912, Brenda Chamberlain had already decided by the age of six to be a writer and an artist. Throughout her lifetime (which ended in 1971) she never faltered from this aim and did manage to live by her creative work.

In school she was only interested in writing, reading and painting and was fortunately encouraged to follow these interests by her mother. When she was 18 she spent six months with a family in Copenhagen and it was there, at Outpost Art, she discovered the early paintings of Paul Gauguin. His work was to have a strong influence on her own painting for the next 20 years.

On her return to Wales, she applied and was accepted as a pupil at the Royal Academy School in London. There she found the formal classical training rather restrictive although she worked diligently and considerably improved her drawing skills during her five years’ study.

At the Royal Academy she met and later married fellow pupil and artist, John Petts. They bought a cottage in Snowdonia and vowed to live by their art. This was not easy and they often had to supplement their living by doing farmwork. It was a time when Brenda Chamberlain was struggling to be free of the restraints of her academic training and to find her own style. Her Self Portrait on Garnedd Dafydd (1938) reveals that struggle. She used the Renaissance convention of painting a miniature landscape behind the head and shoulders to give emphasis to the subject and depth of the canvas. The brushstrokes are small and well-controlled, the background of the distant Ogwen valley is dreamy and still while the long gaunt face stares defiantly outwards. It shows a purposeful and strong-minded woman who knew what she wanted to do with her life and was just beginning to assert herself.

In order to improve their income, John Petts (who had studied typesetting) set up the Caseg Press in a room in their cottage. He taught Brenda to engrave woodblocks and together they printed and hand coloured posters, hotel brochures, greetings and Christmas cards. Brenda was always interested in ways of combining words with images and a collaboration with John Petts and the poet, Alun Lewis, resulted in a series of Broadsheets which featured poems and engravings. These Caseg Broadsheets, distributed widely at 3d. a copy are now collectors’ pieces.

Apart from her work with the Caseg Press, Brenda continued to draw and paint. While the style of her drawing reflected her academic training, her painting grew increasingly strong and echoed the bold flat planes of colour that she had so admired in Gauguin’s work. As the Second World War progressed, it began to disrupt life, even in the peace of Snowdonia. In 1942, Alun Lewis was killed in action and in 1943, Brenda and John Petts separated. It was the end of an era. Brenda felt unable to paint and turned to her writing.

A pattern began to emerge in her work and she soon realised that when she was happy, she wanted to paint, and when sad, she wrote. Although she admits a stronger attraction to painting, in her lifetime she published three novels, a book of poetry, a book of poems and drawings and an account of the making of the Caseg Broadsheets as well as having a large number of poems and articles published in magazines.

Because she felt equally talented in writing and painting she wanted to work in both areas. This often presented problems as she vacillated between the two arts. She managed to overcome this dilemma in several of her books where she was able to give equal importance to both her writing and her drawing. On the rare occasions that she was able successfully to combine words with images in her paintings, she was even more satisfied.

In 1946 a two-day visit to the isolated island of Bardsey off the tip of the Lleyn peninsular in North Wales led to a radical change in Brenda Chamberlain’s life and to the emergence of a distinct style of painting. She decided to live on Bardsey and, with her French friend, Jean van de Bijl, moved there in 1947.

Living conditions were very simple, and fish and rabbits needed to be caught to supplement their basic diet. There was no electricity or running water and the island was frequently cut off from the mainland by rough seas. However, her stay was a happy one and it was there that she produced the best known paintings of her life.

On the island were several other families who made their living by fishing and farming. Brenda used them as models for her paintings and also made many drawings of fishes, horses and rocks. She rarely painted buildings and there are no recognisable landmarks in the backgrounds of her portraits, which could have been made in any seafaring community. Although the influence of Gauguin is unmistakeably present in these paintings, the style is distinctly her own.

Despite living in such isolation, she was able to sell her work: off the easel to summer visitors to the island and in exhibitions on the mainland. In 1950 she was offered a show in London at Gimpel Fils Gallery. Her work sold and her reputation as an artist began to grow. Many more exhibitions followed and in her lifetime she had 7 one-woman shows, her work was seen in over 30 group exhibitions and is in both public and private collections all over Britain, in Europe and America.

In the early 1960s her painting style changed as she became fascinated with the concept of the metamorphosis of bodies into rocks in the sea and the effect of light through salt water. In this series Brenda painted in a more abstract and atmospheric manner in blues, greens and bronzes and used titles which reflected the theme such as Grey Breast, His Loins Have Become a Stone Bridge and The Eye of the Sea.

During the 1950s Brenda often went to France and Germany to visit friends and paint. Drawings made on site in France were developed into richly-coloured paintings on her return to Wales. Her portrait of Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, in Interieur Provencal and Carnival de Nice are two of this French series.

In Germany she stayed in a Schloss she called ‘The Water Castle’. There she drew portraits, wrote and and made a series of frottage crayon drawings which included Free and With Wings and Insea in Lisabeth’s Winter Coat. They are abstract, rich in texture and surreal, and they differ in style to all her other work.

In 1962, Brenda Chamberlain’s environment changed once again. A driving holiday from Switzerland took her to Athens. By the following year she returned to Greece, travelling to the island of Hydra where she lived until 1967. Once more the change of location affected the style of her work. She wrote prolific entries in her journals, filled her sketch books with drawings and began working with a Greek dancer, Robertos Saragas. Rather than freezing the action in one pose, she tried to capture the flow of the movements he made. Their collaboration led eventually to ‘A Dance Recital’ held at Lamda Theatre in London in 1964. Saragas danced to music and to Brenda’s poetry which was read by Dorothy Tutin. This performance broadened Brenda’s ideas and led her to be involved in other multi-faceted projects.

Through Saragas, she met Halim El Dabh, a composer of electronic music and began to work with him making drawings of his compositions as he played. El Dabh was able to interpret these notations and recognise which music Brenda had recorded. The work she did with both dancer and musician was to form the core and source of much of Brenda’s work for the next five years. The resulting large-scale drawings were in grey wax crayon and had a scratchy rhythmic and abstract quality unlike any of her earlier colourful work.

Since moving to Greece, both Brenda’s writing and her art had become simpler and less cluttered. Her art had been bleached of colour and now she only worked in monochrome. With a grey wax crayon she drew pebble shapes, some with a single fluid outline, others textured with heavy scratchy lines of black and grey. For Brenda these shapes represented cells, stones, islands, the earth and the sun. Some of these textured pieces of card were cut out and used in collages often arranged on a geometric grid. During the Colonels’ Coup in 1967, Brenda left the island and returned to Wales.

When she exhibited her Greek work in Wales it was not well received. Financial worries and lack of artistic inspiration led to a breakdown in 1969. In 1970, Brenda’s work grew increasingly stark. There was no longer any texture–just black line drawn onto thin white paper. The drawings are surreal and cry out in sadness and lament. Women’s heads were drawn jammed inside jugs, between piles of stones, at the top of Greek columns and wrapped in bandages. Some have whimsical humour but most show despair and frustration. They were exhibited in 1971 and in July of that same year, Brenda died.

Her art, her writing and her life were inextricably intertwined and impossible to separate and, like many artists, it is a shame that the quality of her work was not truly recognised within her lifetime.

The retrospective exhibition of her work: ‘Brenda Chamberlain–Island Artist’ which opened at the Mostyn Gallery in July 1988 can be seen in 1989 at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, 21 Jan-4 March; National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 17 March-6 May and National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 20 May-25 June, 1989. Tide-race is by Brenda Chamberlain (Seren Books, 3.95 [pounds sterling]) and soon to be published is Brenda Chamberlain–Artist and Writer by Jill Piercy (Seren Books, 12.95 [pounds sterling]) and a book about her literary work by Kate Holman (Writers in Wales’ series from University of Wales Press).