Emma Geliot's picture

Roger Cecil in his studio

The death of artist Roger Cecil has prompted many tributes. Kathryn Campbell Dodd of Oriel Myrddin gallery adds her own personal reflection of an artist she knew well

Abertillery is a typical former coal-mining town in the south Wales Valleys, stereotypical, even, with its rows of terraced housing climbing steeply to the moorland behind.

Artist, Roger Cecil was born in one of those Abertillery terraces in 1942 and lived there until his death in February. Born in to a mining family, he spent his lifetime embedded in and enraptured by the landscape of the valley and the town.

Roger pronounced his surnameSeisyll (phoneticallyCeecil ) and, with customary lightness and humour, claimed heritage to the ancient Welsh princes of that name. There was more to the assertion however than his modesty revealed, in that declaration was an inkling of the deep relationship he had with Wales, the valley, and the surrounding mountains and moorland. He spent his life walking the hills and understanding their intimate topography. His museAngharad (Beloved) was the embodiment of that landscape and the vehicle for the sensuality that was integral to his work.

Profoundly connected to his artistic life, Roger lived to make art and the decisions he made from the earliest age were single-mindedly set to that goal. The BBC documentary that was made about Roger when he was just 21 years old, Quiet Rebel, revealed that his determination to carve out a life as an artist was oftentimes tough. It was not a well-travelled road for some one from his background and he had to hold to that line with a steely determination. Having graduated from Newport College of Art; in 1964 he won the David Murray Landscape Award from the Royal Academy and a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. It was an act of true self-conviction to purposefully decide to then give up on that course and return home to the Valleys to pursue his work on his own terms.

He took casual work in the building trade to support a life entirely centred on a studio practice that spanned his adult life. He did, however, return to undertake an MA at London s Central St Martin s in the mid 1990 s, and the work he produced at that time was arguably some of his finest.

Roger s home was his studio; the two functions were wholly inextricable. The house encompassed him, each room full of carefully placed artworks, reference material and beautiful objects, many expertly made by Roger often from scavenged or rescued materials. He was intrinsically inventive and resourceful and always mindful against waste or extravagance, making many of his own tools and diligently caring for his brushes and materials. Even in later years when he may have been able to spend a little more on himself; he reused, repaired and re-cycled it was a way of life.

He brought this pragmatic approach to all his work, he used everyday things to make his paintings; Pollyfilla, house paint, grate blacking, red oxide. Occasionally he did treat himself to more conventional art materials. He had a fine appreciation of quality, carefully selecting well-made products for their sumptuous colours and textures.

This enjoyment of materials was the key to Roger s attitude to his work; art was his playground, his joy and his freedom. He simply did not entertain the chiding inner critic that dogs so many artists into painful procrastination he believed in action and experimentation. He managed the enviable balancing act espoused by Joan Mir you must plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump high in the air he simplified his life, he was efficient and pragmatic and it left him free to sing.

The work Roger made was essentially abstract, compositionally sophisticated, and materially exquisite. The use of plaster to build to a slight relief, the surface treatment of marks and scratches, polishing and burnishing juxtaposed with untreated surfaces left the work sitting somewhere between painting and sculpture. The subtle colour palette of greys, whites, blacks, olive greens, red oxide brought to life with touches of pinks, yellows, oranges, reds marked him out also as a master colourist. The work has an intuitive, inner intelligence and rare sense of presence.

Within the vast collection of paintings and works on paper are also small sculptures, crafted metal compositions, jewellery and book works of exceptional quality.

Roger was less well known to the established art scene and it was largely his own decision to keep himself at a remove from it. He was mostly uninterested in selling his work and uncompromisingly protective of his artistic practice. He was neither interested in the money nor the notoriety he could quite easily have garnered. This stance has often earned him the tag ofoutsider artist , and in as much as he rigorously policed the borders of his own artistic landscape there is a veneer of truth to this position. It would be a gravely reductive label however, and goes nowhere near to defining the complexities and strategies Roger brought to his career. He was an educated man, both through his art training and his personal research, he keenly understood himself as an artist and as an individual.

Despite his disinterest in sales, he did show work with dealer Gordon Hepworth for a while, which saw him exhibiting and selling in London s Cork Street. The work has always been highly sought-after by private collectors. Various other champions in Wales have promoted his work and the National Library of Wales has a small series in its collection. In 2010, Roger received a fitting accolade when his work was featured in the special exhibition at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Ebbw Vale.

Oriel Myrddin Gallery, in Carmarthen, gave Roger his only solo shows in a publicly funded gallery with Cariad in 2006 and Homage in 2011.

The body of work that Roger amassed over his highly productive lifetime is extraordinary in its quality and cohesion. Because of his reluctance to enter the commercial market place, much of that work remains together and serves as a testament to his remarkable clarity of purpose. There has been a suggestion that a memorial may be developed in his memory in his hometown and it would be a wonderful gesture. It would be lovely to think that a resource of some kind might be established to house some of his work to enable the next generation of artists to understand his legacy and take inspiration from his life. Wales has lost one of the best artists of a generation and it is my profound wish that we regard his work with the admiration and esteem it deserves.

 

Image Kathryn Campbell Dodd, 2011, courtesy of the estate of Roger Cecil