BLOG Michael Tomlinson

NWR Issue 102

Llareggub: Peter Blake Illustrates Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, National Museum Cardiff

Although Peter Blake first heard Under Milk Wood on the radio in 1954 it was to be a few years before he thought to try illustrating it. Once he had, he ‘researched it, read it and listened to it again and again.’ Even now he still listens to it a couple of times a week and reads it once a month. ‘I've always treated it as a separate piece of work. I work on Under Milk Wood at home in the evening. It’s almost like a “separate me” doing it.’

Under Milk Wood recounts a day in the life of the characters of an imaginary Welsh fishing village, Llareggub (Buggerall backwards, as we know). It is a comic, surreal soundscape inspired primarily by the people of Laugharne, where Thomas had lived off and on during the Thirties and the topography of New Quay where Thomas wrote the short story, ‘Quite Early One Morning’, the play’s precursor.

Initially Blake conceived his illustrations as a series of woodblock engravings, but quickly abandoned the idea. Then came a jet-lagged moment of revelation when he was flying back from Japan. It concerned the first part of the play, the dream sequences, and it freed him from any attempt at too literal interpretation of the text and led him over the last twenty-eight years to produce the work exhibited here at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and subsequently touring to Pembrokeshire.

The works are split into three broad themes: Dreams; Scenes and Locations, and Portraits. The most interesting and successful part of the exhibition is Dreams and Scenes. These are filled with all the familiar Peter Blakean tropes: the dancing girls, the pin ups, the fandom, the pop art-colouring and collaging. These fuse into a remarkably vibrant and coherent whole; a witty alternative Llareggub that reinvigorates the text.

Blake is a wonderful watercolourist. He understands how the medium works, using the flow and natural movement of the pigments to build up layers of complex interest, juxtaposing them with bold washes of pure colour. It is a perfect match for the fluidity, transience and insubstantiality of Llareggub’s dreaming: Mae Rose-Cottage cavorting naked with some goats in a field, two wife-faced sheep pass by knitting for Mr Utah Watkins to count whilst Cherry Owen drinks a fish and the chorus line of women’s welfare go hoofing by, bloomered beneath the moon. Some painted quadrants perhaps give a nod to the dreamscapes of Magritte. A number of the works are noted as unfinished but this only seems to add to their dream-like quality. One image, a painting of Dai Bread sandwiched between Mrs Dai Bread One and Mrs Dai Bread Two, positively glows with Vermeer-like intensity.

Blake has a wonderful eye so that even the pieces which are simply found watercolours by unknown artists, that have been curated by him, fit seamlessly into the narrative flow. His own photographs work similarly well and his collaging is of course as inventive as ever.

The sixty pencil portraits use photographic source material. The black and white works well as a distancing and unifying device, creating a vast cast list that on radio of course was played by far fewer actors. These are the characters that people Blake’s Llareggub and are unlikely to dislodge the faces conjured by the voices of the past. There’s fun to be had trying to recognise the famous people, though: Humphrey Bogart, Beryl Bainbridge, Margaret Atwood, Liz Taylor; even Terry Wogan as a woman.

For me the only false notes are to do with time. There are slight inconsistencies that occasionally jar. Most of the faces are fine, even the famous, and would fit happily into a fictional, mid-twentieth century, Welsh village but a couple look too modern just as perhaps some of the naked flesh looks that little bit too tanned and toned. But these are minor quibbles.

There is an unobtrusive image of a rowing boat on a calm sea, dark with intense cross-hatching. Here, the technique as much as the finished image is Blake’s response to Thomas’ words, ‘the darkest-before-dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea.’ It is what makes Peter Blake the perfect foil for Dylan Thomas: a magpie collector and assembler of images for a magpie collector and assembler of words. An artist more concerned with aesthetic resonance than literal translation and a poet for whom words were, before they were meanings, the sounds of atmospheric intent.

In another gallery there is a small number of other works by Peter Blake from the museum’s collection which shouldn’t be missed if like me you are a fan.

This exhibition runs until 16 March 2014 at National Museum Cardiff, then from 17 May to 23 September 2014 at Oriel y Parc, St Davids, Pemrokeshire

Michael Tomlinson is a contributor to NWR.


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