Writer and curator Peter Wakelin reveals the brilliant work of one of Wale’s best kept secrets, the late Roger Cecil.
ROGER CECIL M.A. (1942-2015)
Roger Cecil has been described as one of the greatest artists Wales has produced, but on the only occasion he ever made headlines it was not for his art.
In February 2015 the police issued an appeal after a 72-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer’s went missing from a hospital in Newport. Searches involved a helicopter and 50 police officers with dogs. It was only two days later, when a body was found in a field near Cwmbran, that Roger Cecil’s standing as an artist came to light.
The subsequent inquest found he had died of hypothermia while trying to walk the 16 miles from Newport to his home in Abertillery through a winter night.
Why wasn’t Roger Cecil better known? Many fellow artists and enthusiastic collectors hugely admired his work, not just in Wales but in London, where he showed quietly in commercial galleries from the late 1980s onwards. The artist Mary Lloyd Jones said in 2008, ‘I would rate him as one of the best painters in Britain, or even anywhere.’ Andrew Green, former National Librarian of Wales, called him a painter of ‘exceptional and uncompromising talent.’
Updated, c. 1990. Pencil on paper, 25x19cm
Part of what made him a ‘secret’ artist was his own attitude to painting. He liked to do it entirely on his own terms, not thinking about exhibitions or galleries or groups. He showed his independence of mind early on, when he was awarded a prestigious scholarship at the Royal College of Art in London but walked out on it because he didn’t want to be influenced.
Roger Cecil was born in 1942 at Abertillery in the valley of the Ebbw Fach. His father was a collier and his mother looked after their four children. He was to live in the same house his whole life. He decided to be an artist when he was just 10.
Like many dyslexics at the time, he failed the 11-plus and was relegated to the secondary modern system. But at the age of 14 he passed the entrance exam to Newport College of Art, where he progressed from O-level to specialise in illustration. In the National Design Diploma exams of 1963 it was said that he scored the highest marks in the country. He then won his scholarship to the Royal College of Art.
It was a shock to everyone when he abandoned his studies in London to come back to Abertillery. Extraordinarily, the BBC made a film about his decision in 1964, in a series about turning points in people’s lives. He was a grave, thoughtful, 21-year-old, who worked as a labourer and open-cast miner to pay his way at home and afford art materials. He said he didn’t want his paintings to be like those of the other students or tutors. He wanted, he said, to ‘do the painting my way, and the way I felt it’.
Pit top I
Updated, c. 1975. Mixed media on paper, 62x51cm
National Library of Wales
Already by 1964 he was producing paintings in his distinctive abstract style. They were so coded and layered with meanings as to be mystical. His starting points were most often his scarred mining valley at Abertillery and the mountains across which he liked to walk, sometimes as far as the Brecon Beacons. Later he became interested in the human figure, often merging bodies with the landscape, and responded to African art and the inhumanity of the slave trade.
Even though their subject matter is so hidden and mysterious, his paintings possess a magnetic quality that draws people in. This comes from his extraordinary sense of colour and form, and especially from the compelling surfaces he created. He would build up layers, rub them back, polish them and buff them to a sheen, often using household materials like boot polish and Zebo grate blacking. He would scratch, cut or punch these surfaces to create moving, evocative effects.
Roger Cecil is a major artist who has been a secret too long. It is time for Wales and the world to discover him.
A thousand butterfly kisses for Angharad
Updated, c. 1985. Oil on canvas, 25x20cm