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As Wales celebrates the 2014 centenary of the birth of the poet Dylan Thomas, an exhibition at the National Museum Wales in Cardiff creates the perfect celebratory juxtaposition of word and image. A beautiful new book completes the tribute. The words are those of Thomas’ 1953 ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood, the images those of Sir Peter Blake, the summation of a project – or ‘hobby’ – of his that has in fact been under way for some 28 years, and is now being shown to the public for the first time. Blake states that he has always been both a painter and an illustrator, and this exhibition brings together many aspects of the illustrator’s craft – watercolour painting, collage, and pencil drawing – in a visually rich mix that is already attracting a large number of enthusiastic visitors.
‘To begin at the beginning’, the genesis of the series came from a suggestion in 1985 from Michael Mitchell, of the Libanus Press, for Blake to produce a number of wood engravings as illustrations to an edition of Under Milk Wood that Mitchell planned to produce. As part of this project, which in fact was never carried out, Mitchell and Blake made an exploratory trip to Laugharne, where, quite by coincidence, Thomas’ widow Caitlin had returned for the first time in decades for a book signing. A display in the ‘ephemera’ part of the Cardiff exhibition testifies to this, and more generally to Blake’s ever-productive archiving activities, including a train ticket he used that day, newspaper cuttings about Caitlin’s memoirs, and contact sheets of photographs taken that day, some of which have found their way into the collage works now on show . Some of those original exploratory wood blocks, also on display, suggest that one or two images have remained constant, such as the portrait of Mr Waldo.
The works in the exhibition are arranged into three sections, and this order is also followed in a book which has now been produced by Enitharmon Editions and which accompanies the exhibition: ‘The Dreams’, ‘The Play’, and ‘Portraits of the Voices’. Blake notes how, reading Under Milk Wood on a long plane journey, he had a ‘moment of revelation’ of the structure and sequence of the play. He could see how he might depict it, how it starts at night (in Thomas’ words, ‘starless and bible-black’) in observing the dreams of the residents of Llareggub, then moves to the daytime voices and activities of the town and its inhabitants.
‘From where you are, you can hear their dreams’. ‘The Dreams’ are a series of watercolours based on all the dreams in the play, often erotic or nostalgic and demonstrating aspects of personality not always apparent in the daytime persona of the dreamer. So in Blake’s evocation of the dream of Organ Morgan, the organist, we see ‘the women’s welfare hoofing, bloomered, in the moon’ (Dream 1), whilst Evans the Death, undertaker, dreams of his mother ‘making Welsh-cakes in the snow’. Blake’s handling of watercolour here lends itself perfectly to the dreams of the inhabitants of Llareggub, and sets the scene for the collages and drawings of the next two sections.
‘Now, woken at last by the out-of-bed-sleepy-head-Polly-put-the-kettle-on townhall bell’. Blake is justly proud that in his collages, which form the section of both exhibition and book that provides a ‘topography’ of the town and its inhabitants living under Milk Wood, he has managed to find an image for everything mentioned in Thomas’ densely worded descriptions, such as the contents of Mrs Organ Morgan’s general shop window or even the ‘dandruff’ mentioned along with the ‘titbits and topsyturvies, bobs and buttontops’ behind the eyes of the dreamers (Dream 2). The book includes the complete text of the play, and a particular pleasure of this is the way in which the image and word complement each other throughout one’s reading. The use of an eclectic range of visual sources from the archive Blake has amassed for this project simultaneously lend these images a timeless quality, and a period feeling for the life of a small Welsh town in the mid-20th century which Thomas’ words also evoke so well.
‘Its natives who possess, to this day, a salty individuality of their own’. There is something of this play between the timeless and the specific in the final section, too, where portraits of every character with a voice in the play draw on Blake’s preparatory collection of possible images for each one. Are these famous faces, or ones half-recalled from a visit to a Welsh seaside village? Some of them are clearly identifiable, though nearly all are modified in some way: Elizabeth Taylor is Rosie Probert, the part she played in a film of Under Milk Wood, while Mrs Utah Watkins is clearly based on the writer Beryl Bainbridge. Others may not be so familiar: the First Voice, for whom the choice could have been Richard Burton, is in fact Michael Mitchell of the Libanus Press, who also appears as a bystander in some of the collages, such as Run from the Trees and the Windows of the Street, which draw on those early photographs from Laugharne.
A return visit to the exhibition a week or so after the press view suggests that trying to spot Blake’s sources seems to be becoming something of a local parlour game for visitors, and one which can be continued with the aid of the book, too. The drawings are done with hard, sharp pencils on paper with a range of greyish tones, and form a striking contrast with the watercolour medium of the dreams in the first part of the exhibition.
This captivating exhibition will be travelling to other parts of Wales during the Dylan Thomas centenary year. And, after 28 years, is this work complete? For the time being, maybe. But looking closely, visitors may well notice that Blake had done further work on some of the watercolours between delivering the images for the book and those for the exhibition (compare, for example, the versions of PC Atilla Rees’ dream); and a number of the collages are certainly inscribed ‘Work in progress’…
'Llareggub: Peter Blake illustrates Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas' is at the National Museum Cardiff until 16 March 2014
Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood with images by Peter Blake is published by Enitharmon Editions & Queen Anne Press 2013. £30.00. ISBN 978-1-907587-61-0 (Various collectors’ editions also available at higher cost – see editor's notes.)