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‘Notorious’ at Oriel Myrddin

January 12, 2016

There is a rogue’s gallery of victorian villains on show at Oriel Myrddin. This exhibition bills itself as ‘the dark side of victorian Carmarthen’ and presents tens of ‘portraits’ of felons painted in oil on paper by the artist, Anthony Rhys.

This exhibition works exactly as one would have hoped from reading the documentation. The walls present a series of delights, some of them quite horrifying and others quite endearing. Of particular note is the priest, who it appears ‘hit the prosecutor on the head with a stick until the place where the blow fell swelled badly’. The little stories that accompany each painting are part of the meat of this exhibition, and close inspection pays remarkable dividends.

Some of these stories are extremelys sad, hinting at squalid victorian poverty and desparation. Sometimes wit and humour would be out of place, especially those portraits of family disputes and domestic violence. Some of the accompanying text however is extremely funny- one thinks of the man who put two shillings in his mouth and dared the officers to take it from him!

There is a lot of painting at this exhibition. The small formats distract one to an extent from a fact that a lot of surface has been covered in total. I find the portraits of people yelling, their mouths wide open, a touch gauche, but they do help transmit the real horror of the situation these people were in. On the whole, the painting is well-observed and right on the money. The fact that they are in monochrome helps the whole thing along, as one gets a sense of the dehumanising treatment meted out by officialdom. The obtuse nature of the authorities is revealed in a charming little painting of a girl who it appears had ‘a fondness for cream’. The repetition of the trope of the mugshot, whose very limited resources proves a strength here, provides a window into the dickensian world of 19th century Carmarthen. Expressions have to be pieced together from the really very small surface area of each painting, and it’s touching how much one can divine from such a treatment.

It’s unclear how much of this is invention on the part of the artist, but in a way this works to the exhibition’s credit. So much gritty, dark realism is counterbalaned by a certain playful uncertainty, although I expect that a lot of it relies on what the documentation calls ‘re-invention’ rather than imagination: there is an authentic air to the exhibition, bolstered by the presence on the far wall of the gallery of ‘prisoner’s badges’, with the artist’s usual candid, terse oil paintings.

Another object on show here is the pricless relic of the felon’s register, a dry document one would think, but one which gives an unexpectedly powerful insight into the criminal life of the time. I noticed, in fact, a felon born in my own village of Llanfihangel Ar Arth. His crime? Stealing a hat! I held my own hat a little closer to my body!

Of course it would be impractical to allow visitors to rummage through this important historical document, a problem which the gallery solves by showing one page a day. There is also a searchable digital display, whih I regret to say wasn’t working when I visited. The gallery has also arranged talks and free events to accompany the exhibition, such as a talk by the artist on Tuesday 16th February at 1PM and a sketchbook walk with him on Satrurday 5th March from 11AM to one. I won’t be able to go, as I have no transport and have other commitments, but I’m genuinely sorry not to be able to attend- they sound great.

‘Notorious’ is on show at Oriel Myrddin, Carmarthen, until the 12th of March.


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