When I first wrote about Sidney Curnow Vosper’s painting Salem in the magazine Planet in 1988, I could take it for granted that almost all of my readers would know something about the story of the picture, or at least be familiar with the look of it. The big coloured print still hung on the wall in many a grandparent’s house. That’s why I felt confident about coining the term ‘National Icon’ to describe it. But, about five years ago, teaching art history to a first year undergraduate class at Swansea University I got a shock. None of the class recognised the picture when I showed it, and none of the students had heard of it. The national icon had disappeared from the consciousness of this rising generation.
It was, perhaps, not the disappearance itself but the speed of the disappearance of Salem that was most surprising. After all, the living presence of the picture in the culture had been reinforced in every generation between its creation in 1909 and 1997, when the magazine Golwg reinvented it as a cover image during the devolution referendum campaign of that year. The magazine doctored the picture to show Sian Owen leaving the chapel with her fingers crossed – presumably on her way round to the vestry to vote ‘Yes’.
Created as an image of picturesque religiosity among the Welsh people, Salem originally presented a reassuring message of national docility intended for sale in the English art market. If all had gone according to plan, it is unlikely that more than a few Welsh people would ever have seen it. However, the purchase of the picture by William Hesketh Lever, MP, and its banal use by him in the form of a poster to promote the sale of his company’s Sunlight Soap, put the picture in the public domain and created the potential for the subsequent transformation of its meaning. Although the initial mechanics of the transformation remain obscure, by the 1920s the picture had acquired a new narrative among a different audience. The ‘discovery’ of the face of the devil in Sian Owen’s Paisley shawl stimulated the reinvention of Salem as a parable of the sin of pride. That said, I don’t suppose any but the most puritanical of Christian believers took that morality tale seriously – surely, it was the magical nature of the revelation of the face in the shawl that appealed. It was a story that had more in common with the Mabinogi than with Nonconformity, notwithstanding its promotion in a poem by T. Rowland Hughes, written during the dark days of the Second World War, as a work of Christian devotion. It was revamped again in a meditative mood, with a heavy dose of ruralist hiraeth, for the cover of an Endaf Emlyn LP in 1974. Going up-market, the painter Hywel Harries modernised it in a sort of Cubist-cum-patchwork quilt oil painting.
The failure of the 1979 devolution referendum changed the atmosphere, but in the period of political activism that followed, Salem was again powerfully reinvented. ‘Deffrwch y bastads. Mae Cymru’n marw’ – ‘Wake the bastards up. Wales is dying’ – was the slogan surrounding the image on a pamphlet produced in 1989 by Cymdeithas Cyfamod y Cymry Rhydd. The context was now the reaction against inward migration and the arson campaign against holiday homes. Subsequently, Sian Owen was deployed by environmentalists against the chemical multi-national Montsanto, based at Wrexham, this time making grotesque use of the myth of the devil lurking in Sian Owen’s shawl.
But that may well have been the end of the road for Salem as an active force in the culture. If the Swansea students are typical, perhaps the decline of the Nonconformist Christianity that was the picture’s original context, and the unfamiliarity of a social world based on chapel life, have eventually undermined its potential for redeployment. The National Library’s recent acquisition of the copy version of the picture has certainly reawakened interest in its history. This second version was painted for Frank Treharne James, a Merthyr solicitor and brother-in-law of the artist, who had been frustrated in his desire to acquire the original when the future Lord Leverhulme snapped it up for 100 guineas at a Royal Watercolour Society in London. But I suspect that the original Salem has now passed from the living place in the culture that enabled it to be reinvented unselfconsciously to meet the changing needs of the twentieth century, into a fascinating fossil. Sad as it may be, Salem exists now primarily as material evidence of a bye-gone age, an object of study by historians.
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