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NWR Issue 97

New Critical Approach to Brenda Chamberlain Unveiled at Centenary Event

Last Thursday, despite torrential rain, a landmark event at Llyfrgell Ceredigion Library, Aberystwyth, combined into a dual celebration: the centenary of artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain’s birth, and the culmination of the library’s week of activities marking Mental Health Week.

Among Parthian’s centenary titles on the artist are Chamberlain’s only novel, the German-set The Water-castle, published next month in the Library of Wales imprint (and reviewed in NWR 97) alongside her only completed play of 1967, The Protagonists, and the first book-length biography of Chamberlain, Brenda Chamberlain, Artist and Writer by Jill Piercy (to appear next spring). This first edition of The Protagonists, also out next spring, is presented as an actors’ script. It includes a long introduction by editor Professor Damian Walford Davies. This, in its interpretation of Chamberlain’s ‘Greek years’ (her stay on Hydra, 1963-5) serves as a new introduction to the existing edition of her journal A Rope of Vines. It also develops the new critical approach to the artist that is outlined in Prof Davies’ edition of The Water-castle, offering a wider readership to those ideas introduced in Professor Davies’ two essays in his new critical volume, Cartographies of Culture, New Geographies of Welsh Writing in English, ‘Mapping Islandness: Brenda Chamberlain’s Celtic Archipelagos’ and ‘Mapping Moatedness: Brenda Chamberlain’s European Archipelagos’. This critical approach, in identifying the artist’s early obsession with borders, islands, incarceration and mapping, systematically challenges for the first time the notion pronounced in a 1973 (posthumous) exhibition catalogue (WAC/National Museum of Wales) that Chamberlain’s art was ‘essentially personal’.

This thesis of Chamberlain as a political artist throughout the duration of her career was first popularized by Prof Davies in NWR’s current edition, ‘Brenda Chamberlain’s The Protagonists’. Fittingly, then, an exploration of how, when and why she was political, was the main subject of Prof Davies’ talk on 11 October, chaired by NWR editor Gwen Davies at the library’s centenary event. Among the audience were biographer Jill Piercy; Lucy Gough, who is working on a play on the artist’s later life for National Theatre Wales, theatre producer Rebecca Gould, and Eurwen Booth, a MIND volunteer interested in a possible diagnosis for the artist of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder following Chamberlain's wartime effort involving pulling bodies from recovered aircraft.

Postwar Welsh artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain experimented with form, combining narrative forms of fiction, memoir, vox pop, dance notation and illustrated travelogue together with her artwork which included woodcuts for the celebrated wartime Caseg Broadsheets, together with husband John Petts and writer Alun Lewis. She was born in Bangor (where she also spent her last years) and lived on Bardsey Island, 1947-62, and the Greek island, Hydra, from 1963-5 (including visits). She spent a month in Denbigh psychiatric hospital in 1969 following a nervous breakdown and died in 1971 following an overdose of sleeping pills. Damian Walford Davies is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and the first bilingual Chair of Literature Wales; among his most recent titles are a poetry collection, Witch and Cartographies of Culture, New Geographies of Welsh Writing in English.

Catch biographer Jill Piercy in conversation with NWR editor Gwen Davies later this month at Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre, Wednesday 31 October, plus a Fluellen staged reading of extracts from The Protagonists

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