Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in Cardiff

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska has all the right credentials to be a cult artist. He died young - slain in the trenches during WW1; his companion Sophia Brzeska went bonkers and perished in a lunatic asylum; and Ken Russell made a rarely seen film of his life entitled Savage Messiah. He is also known for contributing to the Vorticist magazine Blast and for hobnobbing with the likes of Ezra Pound, Jacob Epstein, and Wyndham Lewis.

For six months, from October 1908 to April 1909, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska lived in Cardiff - 29 Claude Road, Roath, to be exact. His landlord was a Mr George Brace. It's classic bedsit land around there: three storey houses converted into flats, absentee landlords, rubbish put out on the wrong day, bits of furniture abandoned in alleyways. At a stretch one might call it Bohemian.

During his Cardiff stay he was employed by Fifoot & Ching, a coal exporting firm based at Mountstuart Square. Mr Ching encouraged the teenager's talent: "Whilst he excellently fulfilled the duties allotted to him, one could easily notice that his mind was not altogether in his work. Art undoubtedly occupied the greater part of it, and in his spare moments he was everlastingly, pencil or pen in hand, sketching some little incident that appealed to him. During his lunch hours he periodically walked across to the docks and brought back with him a small sketch of, perhaps the bow of a boat, or the elevation of a crane or tip, all of which showed genius. I encouraged him in his work because I felt that commerce was not his forte, and that he would be bound to leave it at the first possible chance. In character he was Bohemian, and just a little casual, which was natural, but he was the kind of boy that one would have expected to have lived, if necessary, in a garret while he got on with his life's work as he felt it to be."

The young artist also spent time sketching at Victoria Park and the National Museum of Wales. He had a particular fondness for drawing birds. I checked out the Gaudier-Brzeska biographies. Frustratingly, little artistic evidence remains of his days in Cardiff. All that I could dig up were a couple of studies of a golden eagle which he had drawn at the museum. They were completed around Christmas, 1908. It occurred to me that the actual golden eagle that he sketched might still be on display there. I phoned them up. Turns out the National Museum of Wales has no less than three stuffed golden eagles (what would the RSPB make of that?), the oldest of which is probably Gaudier-Brzeska's bird. Unfortunately, at present, this ornithological relic is in storage at Nantgarw.

Since 2009 is the hundredth anniversary of Gaudier-Brzeska's sojourn in Wales the time is right, I think, for a retrospective exhibition of his work. And how about liberating that culturally significant golden eagle from the vault, too?