The iconic Salem painting.
The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth held a special lecture during the Hay Festival focused on the famous Salem painting by Sydney Curnow Vosper today (Tuesday).
Art historian Peter Lord discussed the painting, purchased by the library in 2019, on the Festival Friends Stage.
During the event, the original painting was on display, offering a special opportunity to view one of Wales’ most iconic artworks.
A symbol of Welsh life and the nonconformist tradition in Wales, Salem became better known due to the fact that some people were able to see an image of the devil in the folds of the shawl worn by the painting’s central character.
In ‘Vosper’s Salem’, Mr Lord reviewed how the simple image became the focus of complex political identities and the wider question of iconic representations of nationhood in Wales.
Pedr ap Llwyd, national library chief executive and librarian, said: “The library is delighted that this iconic painting of the chapel service at Cefn Cymerau and Siân Owen and the devil in her shawl are part of our collections.
“This enigmatic work by Sydney Curnow Vosper is one of the nation’s treasures and we enjoyed the opportunity to share it with the Hay Festival audience.”
Painted by Vosper in 1908, it portrays a scene in Salem Chapel, Cefncymerau, Llanbedr, near Harlech and central to the painting is Siân Owen, an old woman dressed in traditional Welsh costume.
This painting is one of two versions painted by Vosper. The first version was originally purchased by the industrialist William Hesketh Lever and used as an image in a promotional campaign by Sunlight Soap, the Lever Brothers’ company.
As a result, reproductions of the image were circulated across Britain and displayed in homes across Wales. The image is famous because it came to symbolise the piety of the common people and acquired a moralising mythic back story.
This second version – belonging to the National Library – was painted for the artist’s brother in law, Frank James. During the 20th century, against a background of bombings, the burning of holiday cottages and the language movement, it underwent a transformation, redeployed by activists as a token of political docility and colonial subservience.
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