South Wales Argus | 31 May 2007
Gilt behind the scenes
By Mike Buckingham
[WEB WIZARDS: Roger Cucksey and John Wilson, the men behind Newport's arts coup]
Newport has an optimistic picture of itself and guess what? The city's art collection is bigger and better than Cardiff's. MIKE BUCKINGHAM reports on the latest example of cultural one-upmanship.
IMAGINE you are a late 18th century traveller happening upon a sleepy Newport which is nothing more than a few houses huddled in the shadow of the castle.
"You would be struck by its tranquility and beauty. Even painters like Turner were impressed," Roger Cucksey says passionately.
"Being attractive to painters of his calibre is a superb start towards building up what is for Newport's size and wealth a formidable art collection."
Ruefully, Newport's keeper of art admits that we do not have the original Turner which is worth Newport's entire arts budget for the next 10 years.
"But we do have an excellent copy of his painting of Newport castle that was for a long time taken as an orginal.
"Pictures are historical documents as well as things of great beauty and this particular picture helps build up the mosaic of how Newport has developed over the last 200 years."
Painstakingly, scouring not only Newport Museum and Art Gallery's own collection but also council offices, committee rooms and annexes, Roger Cucksey and friend and colleague John Wilson have amassed an actual and virtual art collection telling Newport's story from its rustic beginnings, through its flowering as an industrial Hercules in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the re-invention of itself as a city for the 21st century.
[SCENE: Death of Blaenavon by Terry Jones]
"To say we have a splendid collection of paintings is true but tends to describe a static picture," Roger Cucksey enthuses.
"In fact we have not only captured the attention of serious artists but have a thriving arts scene.
"We have been hiding our light under a bushel for far too long."
An exhibition entitled Documenting the City running at Newport's art gallery in John Frost Square until July 7 is only part of the story.
"The number of pictures on show are dwarfed by the 500 images split up into the city's most important cultural and historical phases we have put online," he adds.
"We start with the early period typical of which is Anthony Devis's arcadian view of Newport approaching from Christchurch dated around 1780.
"We then trace the growth of modern Newport treating industry and the River Usk as separate themes.
"Monmouthshire from which the thriving young Newport drew its sustenance is obviously of great importance and we look at the way various painters have characterised the Valleys from the 19th century almost up to the present with Terry Jones colourful Death of the Town of Blaenavon.
"Modern artists represented are Phil Muirden and Jack Crabtree associated with Newport Art College, Falcon Hildred with his wonderful drawings and of course the late Tom Rathmell."
A parallel and permanent internet show of the gallery's collection is now online. "The city's pictures are there at the click of a mouse.
"We have even designed an interactive display with Google Earth in which you can take a virtual tour.
"If we put all this in a book it would be out of date almost before it was printed.
"By putting it on line people can see acquisitions even before they are put up. "It's all part of a continuous process."
And even if you are of the 'I-don't-know-much-about-art-but I know-what-I-like' school of art, there is something delicious to savour.
"We probably have a public collection which is even bigger than Cardiff's," Cucksey proudly proclaims.
"Cardiff happens to house the national collection but I doubt their own collection is as comprehensive as Newport's."
* Access the exhibition and art gallery via the links below. Also via Newport City Council web pages.
Collection has a proud history
TRUE to the ethos of the times not a lot these days gets done for love. Money is the main motivator.
"It's the same in art," Roger Cucksey says.
"We started with nothing but as various benefactors wanted to show off their contribution to society some pictures were bequeathed.
"Before the war there was a pot of money which which a couple of people would take to the Royal Academy and spend on purely aesthetic grounds.
"That's how we got the pictures by Dame Laura Knight who was one of he most important painters of the pre-war and wartime period.
"Things haven't been quite the same since the war when an increase in wealth has been accompanied by an enormous increase in the price of paintings.
"More and more the artistic treasures of a city are seen to be intimately bound up with its development.
"By whatever route pictures have come to us we have managed to amass something of which we can be very proud and which enhances the city's reputation."