In a previous post, Saturday Photohunt, I quoted a popular ditty to the effect that us Welsh are born with music in our hearts and poetry in our souls. Notice it doesn't mention a paintbrush in our hands.
While England has its Constables and France its Renoirs, Wales has neither an artist nor a style of painting that defines it. The closest we come is in this painting by Sydney Curnow Vosper (1866 - 1942) Salem, painted in 1908, gives us a glimpse of Welsh life as it was - or as we imagine it was: the tall black hats, for example, have little historical credibility. It was certainly popular when it was painted and and a print of this painting is still to be found in many Welsh homes today.
The painting captures the characters in a small north Wales village chapel in their Sunday morning best and the main character, Sian Owen, is representative of Mam, the matriarchal figure that has always played such a dominant role in Welsh society.
The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1909 and soon the question was being asked: can you see the face of the devil in the folds of her shawl?
The artist always denied that he had included the devil in his painting but many people took it to be a reflection that all was not as it seemed in this pious chapel scene. It was regarded by many as a comment by the artist about the hypocrisy that existed just below the superficial religiosity.
The scene was painted just four years after the great Welsh revival and chapel-goers were expected to dress in a sombre fashion. Sian Owen's decision to wear a bright and probably expensive paisley shawl was seen by those who argued for the devil as a sign of vanity, for which she was punished.
Others said evil only existed in the eyes of the beholder.
According to everyone who knew her, though, Sian Owen herself was an upright, God-fearing and good woman. And the shawl wasn't even hers: the artist borrowed it for the painting.
So can you see the face of the devil?