11 March – 3 May 2013
Ronald Lawrence is the feature artist at Oriel y Bont, for the year 2013.
He has been selected because this year is special to both the institution and to him. For it marks the centenary of the university and Lawrence’s own milestone of sixty years of exhibiting professionally since 1953.
2013 is also a year of change due to the merger of the university with the University of Newport to create the new University of South Wales.
During Oriel y Bont’s thirty years of existence, many artists with connections to south Wales have been given exhibitions at Treforest, Pontypridd. More recently, a number of senior artists have been the subject of pioneering retrospectives researched and curated by the university, thereby adding to the university’s art research activity and informing its museum collection which focuses upon the visual culture of south Wales since 1939.
Ernest Zobole: a retrospective toured Wales in 2004-05. In 2009, Joan Baker: a retrospective moved from Oriel y Bont south to the National Assembly of Wales in Cardiff Bay and west to the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. Last year, Bryn Richards: a retrospective was shown in the university’s gallery. These artists are from slightly further afield than Ronald Lawrence, namely the hinterlands of Rhondda and Cardiff, whereas he is from the immediate locality.
Given that in 2013 there is a special focus on the University of Glamorgan, whose main campus is based at what, from 1913 to 1940, was the South Wales and Monmouthshire School of Mines, it seems timely to celebrate a senior artist who is from the University’s home patch.
Ronald Lawrence was born in the Hopkinstown district of Pontypridd in August 1929 and now lives in the Graigwen area. His father worked in the locality’s Maritime Colliery and so did his maternal grandfather, as a fireman. Lawrence remembers being aware of the School of Mines from about the age of ten, by which time he was living in nearby Rhydyfelin. He attended Pontypridd Boys’ Grammar School and although he came to hear about the Pontypridd Settlement and the Pontypridd-born artist Esther Grainger (1912-90) he did not visit it and never met her. Similarly, he did not meet other artists who hailed from, or had close connections with the town, such as Charles Byrd (b 1916), Myrtle Greenaway (1919-2002), Bert Isaac (1923-2006) and Glyn Morgan (b 1926).
All these moved away because Pontypridd was primarily an industrial area rather than a place which offered opportunities to artists and, except for Byrd, they trained formally at Cardiff Art School. Nevertheless, following his national service as an RAF wireless mechanic, and a few years of training as an art and design teacher in England, Ronald Lawrence returned to the area and taught craft, design and technology at Caerphilly for thirty years, retiring early in 1985.
Throughout those teaching years, and in the almost thirty since then, he has produced art and exhibited widely in England and Wales and, at eighty-three, he continues to be a compulsive maker. As he has put it:
“My father and my maternal grandfather were always making things (crystal sets, wireless sets, toys, puzzles, three-masted ships with all the rigging, musical instruments, furniture, ointments, herbal remedies, splints to mend birds’ broken legs and wings). I grew up in an environment of making things, mainly out of scrap materials, and ‘objet trouve’. From an early age I made things along with drawing and painting. This has continued to the present.”
Like Joan Baker, Bryn Richards and Ernest Zobole, Ronald Lawrence has a resourceful, no nonsense approach to art and life. All four were born in the Twenties and raised in the Thirties and this may have something to do with their ‘get on with it’ and make-do-and-mend attitude. Unlike Baker, Richards and Zobole who are all painters, Lawrence is (perhaps not surprisingly) a painter, sculptor, musical instrument maker and photographer.
In the Fifties he produced figurative paintings made with home-made oil paint such as Zion Street (1953), Girl with a Doll (c.1956), Portrait of a Boy (1957) and The Red Gate, Martin’s Farm (late 1950s). In the Sixties he made abstract, metal sculptures. In the following decade or so, some of his paintings assumed a new, photorealist or naive realist style and they were shown at the Portal Gallery, London. The Eighties brought sculptures that employed a surrealist or abstract approach to their representational content. He also began producing and exhibiting photography. Since the late Nineties, he has made (and played) numerous jazz guitars and he has switched to acrylic paint to make new abstract paintings inspired by either his jazz music or the natural world around him – and there have been more sculptures in a variety of materials including stone and metal. Even his computer-manipulated photography is now starting to influence his paintings.
Ronald Lawrence is a restless, many-faceted artist whose versatility is a result of the creative home environment in which he grew up and his years teaching craft, design and technology. What characterises his widely varying work is a sense of organic flow and a rhythmic quality. What unifies it is his love of materials and their tactility.
His list of exhibitions is too numerous to give in full. However, here are some of the highlights. He has exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in the Fifties and Eighties and his paintings and sculptures were included in the Welsh Arts Council’s annual open exhibitions which toured Wales in the Fifties and Sixties. Between 1976 and 1989, he won prizes at the National Eisteddfod for his painting, sculpture and photography. In the Sixties he exhibited with the painters Ronald Lowe (1932-85) and Leslie Moore (1913-76) in Cardiff. In the last ten years, he has participated in several small group shows at the Muni Arts Centre, Pontypridd.
In the Sixties, he won the Brynmawr Dunlop Semtex mural competition and one of his metal sculptures was bought by Leslie Moore on behalf of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales. In the Eighties, the National Library of Wales bought one of his paintings following its exhibition at the Rhyl National Eisteddfod. This is The Rugby Match (1984), a fairly large oil on canvas which shows a busy Sardis Road rugby ground, as viewed from the rear of his high-perched Pontypridd home.
Ronald Lawrence: a retrospective is the artist’s first exhibition at the University of Glamorgan and it is the first time anywhere that a comprehensive range of his ever-changing work produced from all periods of his life has been brought together in a public place. This telling display reveals a long career and an inventiveness which echo the longevity and resourcefulness of the university on his door step. Indeed, artist and university reflect that mix of continuity and change, and an ability to re-invent oneself, which are defining characteristics of the culture of south Wales over the last sixty to one hundred years.
Dr Ceri Thomas
Curator, University of Glamorgan, February 2013