I’m Anthony Rhys and I paint upset Victorians.
I put together a cross-section of my paintings for the Creative Histories Conference. It’s made me think about the links between my art and history and definitions of creative history. I must confess I have an A-level in history (I think I got a B), a degree in Archaeology and two post-graduate qualifications in special needs education (my day job) so I’m no expert but also no stranger to academic methodology.
Personally I think that creative history is a way to make history more accessible to a wider audience. Horrible Histories is creative history on one end of the spectrum (video, songs, humour, researched), The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is creative history on the other end (book, researched, referenced). What I think is the key to making good creative history is that the history part is true. It’s not being creative with history, that’s more sinister, but presenting history creatively.
There is an obvious link with my paintings and creative history- the paintings are creative and they are based on real-life people from the Victorian era. They are a creative response to historical sources. However they are creative responses that are as close as possible to their sources- I manipulate existing Victorian photography to create, in a way, an ‘artistic fake-historical source’. I use my art to portray the aspects of history that I am most interested in and would like other people to know more about. When I exhibit the paintings and the history co-exist, they both aim to tell the same story.
My show ‘Notorious’ in Carmarthen at the start of last year took thirty random events from the town’s history and turned them into portraits. The paintings were hung in the gallery with the historical quote beneath, all from newspaper reports. (I wanted to use more primary sources but the entire local archive had a mold problem and got shipped to Cardiff for cleaning.) The exhibition also contained a group of ‘prisoner badge’ paintings that were based upon prisoner photographs in the ‘Felon’s Register’ from Carmarthen Gaol, which is housed in the local county archives. Luckily the Felon’s Register had been cleaned first so the archives brought over the original every day and set it up in a temperature and light controlled display case for the duration of the show.
It was half art, half history. What I liked about this show was that it was in a community centered gallery where passers-by would be as likely to enter as committed art fans. With the exhibition I wanted to present an interpretation of the town’s history to its inhabitants. Art as history, and history as art. I had a thousand beermats printed with the information about the show and went around the local pubs to drop them off. I wanted locals to attend and over 4,500 of them did (roughly a quarter of the population of Carmarthen).
Of course, I was in total control of what I presented, being the de-facto creator of the exhibition, so I could tell whatever history I desired. Given that most local history is about the history of buildings, civic institutions, notable locals and suchlike I decided to focus on the down and outs, marginalized, excluded and the institutionalized.
In the ‘Notorious’ show what I liked most was the extra-curricular events that surrounded it. Students from the Carmarthen School of Art put on a ‘Victorian photo-booth’, and the local youth arts group did a workshop based on the exhibition. A local tour-guide did a linked ‘murderers tour of Carmarthen’. Richard Ireland, a Welsh legal historian from Aberystwyth University, spoke about prison photography in Carmarthen and its national context. Dr. Russell Roberts, reader in photography at the University of South Wales, gave a talk about how my art linked in with Welsh art and Victorian photography. The show also led to Dr. Marie-Luise Kohlke from Swansea University writing an academic article about my work in Neo-Victorian Studies Journal.
This also led to me showing my work at the British Association of Victorian Studies Annual Conference in Cardiff in 2017 where Dr. Kohlke also delivered a paper on my art. I sat in on it and it was all very surreal.
I can’t picture many people going to a venue just to read sentences about people who once lived in Carmarthen, though I admit some may have gone just to see the Felon’s Register ‘in the flesh’. What the creative part of the exhibition did was amalgamate the history into a whole experience. The art was the product of my head and hands but the history was real, the documents were real, the people depicted were real.
I have enjoyed all my experiences of linking with academia. I have found them receptive to my work and also critical of it too. What I think is key with any creative history is that the history remains as close to the truth as history can get and the creative part augments the history rather than consuming and distorting it.
I have recently been consumed myself by the history part of my work and have written a 90,000 word ‘diary format micro-history’ of the lives of thirty people living in two Cardiff streets over a thirty year period. All I’ve got to do now is do the paintings to go with it!
 A good overall review of the show from Wales Arts Review is found here: