On 23 October 2017, the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University received a substantial gift of some 174 artworks by the Welsh painter-printmaker Bert Isaac, who died in 2006. As Professor Robert Meyrick discovered on visiting his home in Abergavenny, his studio was a veritable treasure trove of prints, drawings and paintings, as well as sketchbooks and beautifully designed, hand-bound books that Isaac had produced in the course of a long artistic career dating back to the early 1940s.
What a delight it must have been to be offered this collection by Isaac’s widow Joan and his daughter Susan Pochron! His work fits particularly well with the Museum’s already substantial and nationally important collections, not only because of Isaac’s Welsh origins and the predominance of Welsh landscape themes in his work, but also because of his strong affinities with the Neo-Romantic artists of the 1940s to 1960s, such as Ceri Richards, David Jones, John Elwyn and Graham Sutherland, whose works already feature prominently in the Collection.
Moreover, Isaac was a dedicated teacher of art, and trainer of future art teachers in Cardiff, Swansea and London, where he continued to work in the Art and Design Department of the Institute of Education until the 1980s. In 1999, he was awarded the MBE for services to art education. In his final years, he was especially content in the knowledge that so much of his life’s work would find its ultimate destination in the School of Art Museum and Galleries, whose explicit mission is to make fine works of art readily available for study by future generations of artists and art historians enrolled at Aberystwyth.
I first become aware of Bert Isaac’s work only recently, in two exhibitions in 2016 at MOMA Machynlleth (Romancing Wales: Romanticism in the Welsh landscape since 1770, and Ffiniau: Four Painters in Raymond Wlliams’ Border Country, both curated by Dr Peter Wakelin). Three of his striking semi-abstract landscapes were highlights for me in the School of Art Gallery’s recent exhibition Outside In: Abstracting the Landscape. So I jumped at the opportunity Robert offered me to start work on the cataloguing of these new acquisitions from Isaac’s own studio. Each week, I am spending a few hours happily installed in Robert’s office, examining, measuring and describing the newly-acquired works.
I thought I should share a few favourites with readers of the blog as I proceed, and here is my first instalment of firm favourites: three multi-media drawings in ink, watercolour, gouache, pastel and pencil, all done in 1979 probably within a very short time of each other. They bear striking similarities, not only in their theme of rugged mountainous landscape including decaying quarry workings – one of Isaac’s favourite themes – but in their brilliant, vibrant colour. What might to some seem a rather grim subject – the relics of a vanished industry over-run by the scrubby vegetation of blasted upland heath – is here transformed. And as he grew older, Isaac’s colours were to become ever bolder, fresher and more striking, as I hope to show in a later post.
(MA Fine Art student)