Salem – A Symbol of Welsh Identity
Collections - Posted 23-07-2020
Safeguarding the second version of ‘Salem’
Last October the National Library was tremendously proud to have safeguarded the iconic work ‘Salem’ from 1909 by Sidney Curnow Vosper (1866-1942) for the nation. This work in watercolour depicts a congregation in Salem Chapel, Cefncymerau, Llanbedr near Harlech, with the character of Siân Owen dressed in a traditional Welsh costume holding a hymn book central to the scene. Across the decades, ‘Salem’ became an iconic symbol of Welsh identity and of the Nonconformist tradition in Wales.
Welsh homes and folk memory
Two versions of ‘Salem’ were created by Vosper during his lifetime. The first was created in 1908 and was exhibited in London where it was bought by the industrialist William Hesketh Lever who used the image to advertise his product ‘Sunlight Soap’. As a result, ‘Salem’ evolved into an iconic image across Britain. As Peter Lord stated in his book ‘The Tradition’ in 2016: ‘In the wake of a nationwide religious revival in 1904, the picture itself and its associated mythology entered Welsh homes and folk memory’. Among the other reasons for the painting’s popularity was that not many other Welsh images were to be had as attractive and cheap colour prints in the period before the First World War. In 1937 Ifan ab Owen Edwards sold prints of the work to raise money for the Urdd. The image was also reproduced for the ‘Cymru Rydd’ calendar in 1950, 1956 and 1957 and many Welsh people took advantage of this by cutting out the image and displaying it in their homes. The second version which differs slightly from the original and which was bought by the National Library was created in 1909 for Frank Treharne James, a solicitor from Merthyr and the artist’s brother-in-law.
As Peter Lord argued there is a strong contrast within the work between the simplicity of the chapel, the humility of the worshipers and the richness of Siân Owen’s shawl. Many believed that they could see an image of the devil in the fold of Siân Owen’s shawl, which did much to add to the work’s intrigue. Some believed that the image of the devil was a warning to others against the sin of vanity, something Siân Owen was displaying by dressing extravagantly to attend chapel. It could also be said that Siân Owen represented the figure of the ‘Mam’ in 19th century Wales. Siân Owen was known locally as Siân Owen, Tŷ’n y Fawnog. She was over 70 years old when the painting was created and went on to tragically lose two of her grandsons in the First World War. This gives an even heavier poignancy to the painting, when thinking of her symbolism as the Welsh mother and of the thousands of other Welsh mothers whose children were tragically killed during the two World Wars.
Local characters are portrayed within the work, and they modelled for the artist in the chapel. One exception being the tailor’s dummy which he named Leusa Jones and which he placed in the front pew. It is interesting to note that the artist used Siân Owen’s features and expression for Leusa Jones’ face. It is unlikely that the black Welsh hat would have been worn in 1908, and as Tal Williams stated in his book Salem from 2010 not one of the women portrayed within the work owned their own hat. The same Welsh hat worn by Siân Owen, Laura Williams, Mary Rowlands and the tailor’s dummy was borrowed from Elin Edwards, of Chapel House, grandmother of Rev. Evan Rowlands. The paisley shawl was loaned by Mrs. Williams, wife of the Vicar of nearby Harlech. For the sitting the artist gave Evan Lloyd, the young 6 year old boy who sits with his aunt, Mary Rowlands a box of Quaker Oats to hold instead of a hymn book, for the artist was afraid that the boy would become easily distracted and start playing with the book’s pages. Wiliam Siôn and Rhobet Williams, Cae’r Meddyg are the names of the two local men within the scene.
‘An expression of allegiance to Wales’
During his lifetime, the artist Vosper was inspired to create works based on the Welsh and Breton culture, but without doubt this is by far his most famous work today. As Peter Lord stated: ‘Ultimately Salem’s success comes down to an expression of allegiance to Wales’.
Art Curator at The National Library of Wales
*Edited on 22 September 2022 to correct ‘Frank Treharne Jones’ to ‘Frank Treharne James’.
This post is also available in: Welsh