BLOG Michael Tomlinson

NWR Issue 113

Fay Godwin: The Drovers’ Roads of Wales and Other Photographs

This exhibition runs until 1 April at MOMA Machynlleth, 10.00am to 16.00pm, Mon to Sat in the Ruralist & Pulpit Rooms

Image, R, 'Marker Stone, London to Harlech Road' 1976/77 by Fay Godwin, from The Drovers Roads of Wales, courtesy of the British Library & the National Library of Wales.

In 1981 I was living on the shores of Derwentwater. A regular training run at the time was a circuit of the lake on a mixture of road and trails. Each time I would pass a peculiar collection of spindly trees that seemed to be wading out into the water. Their roots had been partly exposed by repeated flooding, leaving their trunks suspended above the surface of the lake by roots that seemed more like prehensile limbs. Fay Godwin has turned one of those into a photographic icon, one that I was once very familiar with perhaps from London or Kendal and one that I had completely forgotten at least consciously until I saw it again at Y Tabernacl (the chapel that is home to MOMA Machynlleth. It occurred to me then, seeing the 1980s date of the photograph, that I could have unknowingly run past Fay Godwin in the process of taking it.

'Flooded Tree, Derwentwater' 1981 by Fay Godwin, courtesy British Library

As I walked round this exhibition I became aware of a feeling of familiarity even in connection with photographs I couldn’t remember seeing before. We each take and keep photographs as visual reminders of people and places. Other peoples’ photographs also become part of these memory banks. What a great photograph does, though, is to become a part of our aesthetic sensibility. It is the same with great paintings. We absorb the lessons of colour, texture, light and shade but above all composition and it informs all our subsequent choices when we release the shutter or take up a pencil. Fay Godwin too would have looked at the photographers she admired. So as I walked round and looked at the photographs I recognised and those that I did not, I was struck by the similarities between them and other photographs that I had taken in as part of an unknowing homage. As an example, take Godwin’s photograph of a screen of bare copper beach branches almost fingering the surface of the lake at Stourhead, their reflections perfect on a still winter’s day. I took a similar photo of branches reflected in the skating pond at Bodnant Gardens last autumn. As I remembered that moment I was struck by the thought not only of Fay Godwin’s photograph but the fronds of willows that Monet painted hanging down over the lake in his garden at Giverny.

'Pen-y-Garreg Reservoir' 1976/77 by Fay Godwin, from The Drovers Roads of Wales, courtesy the British Library & the National Library of Wales

This exhibition celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the publication of The Drovers Roads of Wales by Shirley Toulson and for which Fay Godwin took the photographs. A selection of these original prints from the National Library of Wales collection are displayed upstairs in the pulpit room. Downstairs is a selection of various sparkling new prints made specially for this exhibition from the original negatives.

The defining characteristic of Fay Godwin’s Drovers Roads is a stillness, a silence. These vistas may be unpeopled but the quiet evidence of man is everywhere, in the roads and tracks, the walls and fences; even the bare hillsides are testament to human management of the landscape. Look at the telegraph pole standing stark against the sky like an empty cross as the mist boils over the skyline ridge behind. This evidence of manufacture, however, goes much further back in time than the marks made along the drovers roads: these overlay ancient routes marked by the menhirs and tombs of pre-Roman Celtic Britain.

Fay Godwin sought out the patterns and echoes of line and form that give a wonderfully calm compositional satisfaction to her images. The positioning of the marker stone on the London to Harlech road and the dry stone wall angling up the hill behind, the subtle glint of foreground rocks; all echo the island in the Pen-y-Garreg reservoir.

This is an all too rare opportunity to see these beautiful photographs: do not miss it.

Fay Godwin’s influence on other landscape photographers, including Pete Davies, Pete Cattrell, John Blakemore and John Davies is explored and celebrated in an excellent companion exhibition at Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop a few doors up the road. Do check opening times to catch both!

Michael Tomlinson is a writer about art who lives in Machynlleth.
Photos by Fay Godwin


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