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The Lady of Llangollen

Prosiect Plas Newydd, Llangollen - adroddiad gan Stephen West

The month of May is designated ‘Museums & Galleries Month’ which has grown out of the old ‘Galleries Week’. This is promoted by Engage, the association for gallery education, as a way of bringing new audiences to galleries and museums. This is the second year that Cywaith Cymru has been involved in managing artists-in-residence at Welsh collections, which has the equally important effect of making some of our great national collections available to artists for extended study and gradual inspiration. Last year Kate Genever, printmaker from Leeds, was based at Plas Newydd and this year new-media artist Mandy McIntosh from Edinburgh has been sampling the Ceramics Collection at the School of Art, Aberystwyth and Aberystwyth Arts Centre, to produce a web-based digital artwork to be presented at the International Potters Festival in July. At the same time Welsh artist, Catrin Williams was appointed to work on the second Plas Newydd, Llangollen residency, funded through the Cywaith Cymru Artist-in-Residence scheme with Denbighshire Council and the Council of Museums in Wales.

Some residencies involve the artist in an extended series of consultations and workshops with schools and communities and many artists in Wales have developed the special skills needed to pass on their enthusiasm and creative ideas to receptive host communities. It is exciting when a residency can also be seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an artist to take in experiences that might have a fundamental effect on the development of their work. The residencies at Bardsey Island and the National Botanical Gardens can be seen like this and Catrin Williams’ residency at Plas Newydd this year has been important both in bringing the collections, house and gardens closer to the town community and in the strong impulse it has given to this already prolific and energetic artist.

Plas Newydd was the home set up by the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler from Kilkenny, who eloped or fled their homes in Ireland where their future would be in a convent or marriage to a local landowner. They searched for a haven to settle in and found it in Llangollen in 1790. Their goal was to live in a Rousseauesque retreat, but they became famous for entertaining Regency celebrities. In an 18th century version of ‘Changing Rooms’ they embellished what was a plain simple cottage with stained glass and an extraordinary collection of carved wood decorations from Wales and around the world whose provenance is still the subject of much research. The unique wild picturesque gardens are soon to be restored by the Denbighshire Heritage Services who now own the site.

The ladies unconventional approach to life and the dramatic way they used art to transform their environment has a resonance with the way that Catrin treats her subject matter – the irreverent but loving involvement with Welsh culture seen in her series of ‘Welsh Teas’, Sheep Ear Tags and unconventional performances in galleries and streets. The involvement of the Llangollen Fringe, an ‘alternative’ to the International Eisteddfod, in lending the Fringe Shed for use as Catrin’s studio has also enhanced this creative abrasion between traditional cultural icons and the artist’s necessary turning over and re-making of these in her own new forms.

By concentrating for one week of the residency on a series of workshops with just two schools groups, the one from Bryn Collen Primary School and the other from Ysgol Castell Dinas Bran, these groups had an in-depth experience working with Catrin Williams and with the poet Twm Morys. His involvement was made possible with a grant from Academi. Twm and Catrin have brought aspects of the ladies’ house to life for this lucky group of children as well as enlivening their own practice. The re-discovery by Catrin of appliqué and stitch on unstretched textile has taken her work in colour and, unusually, in black and white into a new area. Some of the many pieces Catrin completed will pass in to the Denbighshire collection alongside the four large woodcut prints of Kate Genever and begin to form a collection of new artworks inspired by the artists’ close encounter with the Ladies of Llangollen.

Hawlfraint © Catrin Williams
Cynllun - Almon