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Drawing ‘Upset Victorians’: An Interview with Artist Anthony Rhys

2013 November 6
by lucinda matthews-jones

Over a series of emails in October our editor Lucinda Matthews-Jones (LMJ) interviewed the artist Anthony Rhys (AR) on his striking, harrowing and mesmerising artworks of ‘Upset Victorians’.

As his website declares, these ‘people want to tell you something about their lives and for one fleeting moment their feelings become explicit. They are the downtrodden, poor, hapless, disenfranchised and sometimes cruel residents of farms, towns and valleys. Places blackened by smoke, sin, hypocrisy and despair’. In this interview Anthony tells us more about…

(LMJ): Firstly, let me thank you for kindly agreeing to be interviewed for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. Could you start by telling us more about the man behind ‘Upset Victorians’ and what attracted you to this particular genre of representation?

(AR) It’s my pleasure, and it’s my first interview too! First and foremost if anyone is kind enough to ask I always describe myself as a special needs teacher rather than an artist. I teach pupils with severe learning difficulties and I’m in that strange position of completely loving my job. I also love painting and although they are quite separate spheres of my life, my job and my art, in my day to day existence they complement each other well.

As for the paintings there are three main elements that have merged and influenced me in painting these portraits. The first was a series of family history interviews made with my Nan, who was born in 1912 and only died last year. In the interviews what struck me most was the personal ‘secret’ histories that came out. Her life wasn’t marked by the great events of history but the personal tragedies and incidents that we all face in life. The second influence was a love of Victorian history and the images of that era- the terraced streets, the miners, the factories and suchlike. The third was reading ‘My People’ which was published in 1915 by a Welsh writer called Caradoc Evans. He wrote quite brutal short stories about hypocrisy, greed and religion in rural Cardiganshire. The writing style is very unique and his characters literally screamed out at me from the pages. I hadn’t painted for over a decade and then these things just came together in my head and I started to paint in this style.

(LMJ) It’s great to hear how the personal and the local interweave. What personal stories do you create for your subjects and why?

(AR) The personal stories are quite integral to the works. The stories come to me slowly as I paint my people and they are a merger of fiction, empathy and something I’ve read in a history book or article. I’m drawn to the social history of the disenfranchised in the workplace, the chapel and the private family sphere. Given my day job, I’m also naturally drawn to the history of institutions like the asylum and the workhouse where a lot of my pupils would have ended up 150 years ago. The stories are mainly of personal tragedy like women being forced by circumstance into prostitution and the double standards by which society deals with that. There is also a strong element of the individual rebelling against authority and society, like Letitia who is not ashamed of her disabled son despite the neighbourly gossip or Jeremiah who awaits death to avenge the meaningless deaths of his sons on the angels who he believes will come to fetch him from this life. One of my favourite images is Mary Ann, a workhouse girl found abandoned in a quarry. I pictured a meeting between her and the workhouse official. His priority is not primarily the girl’s welfare but finding out which Parish she is from so they know where to send the bill but it ends quite unfortunately for the master of course! They all have fact at their source but I try to write them like poetry- short, succinct and leaving a lot unsaid.

(LMJ) Your images are incredibly detailed. They remind me a lot of photographs. How and why do you strive to achieve such textual details?

(AR) The more they look like a real photograph the happier I am with the work. I use a very, very small brush to get the fine detail and it’s very satisfying when the facial details and the clothing folds emerge from the thousands of tiny brush strokes. It’s a strange process and I don’t really understand fully how it happens, but thankfully it does.

(LMJ) I love how your images are made to look even more like photographs by how they are mounted and framed. What led you to mount your work this way?

(AR) As soon as I’d painted the first work I knew I wanted them backed on card with a gold gilt edge like the CDV’s and cabinet cards they were sourced from. I cut the backing boards out myself by hand with a scalpel. The idea to frame them on a velvet background came from the velvet lined case frames of Ambrotypes and Daguerrotypes. A work isn’t really finished until it comes back from my local framer, who does a great job. It makes each work more of an complete object rather than just an image, which is what the photographs were too I suppose, objects that people touched and carried around with them or put them on their mantelpieces.

(LMJ) Could you tell us a little about the journey of an individual image? How long does it take you to draw it, etc?

(AR) A painting starts either with a very good Victorian photograph or an interesting face. There’s a gap of over a century between the two sources I use, namely Victorian photographs and Google images! Then it’s a question of merging the two sources- I only do a very rough outline drawing to get the dimensions right and then start by painting the face, as that’s the most difficult part to get right. That usually takes a few hours and then I work on the clothing. I always paint wet on wet and complete each part fully before moving onto the next one. I only usually have a few hours in the evening to paint so it takes about a week on average to complete a work if I work on it most nights. While I paint I think about the person that’s emerging and that’s usually when their story starts coming out to me as well.

(LMJ) Faces in your images are really interesting. What made you decide to concentrate on the face and especially the mouth?

(AR) As the emotion is key in the paintings the important part is the face. The mouth plays a crucial part in displays of extreme emotion, it is open if we are laughing hysterically or screaming and shouting and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the two in a photograph. I condense a lot of emotion into my work as I felt the original photographs of these people, with their plain emotionless faces starting into the distance, were lying to us. These people went through some very, very dark times.

(LMJ) What do you hope your audience takes from your work?

(AR) A reaction! I hope they react emotionally to them. I don’t mind what form that reaction takes really. To me there’s nothing worse than going to an art gallery and seeing paintings that are neutral and passive. If people say they don’t like them, if they find them creepy or disturbing then that’s fine, they’re not meant to be pretty, these people are showing you how they are feeling and in real life we find extremes of emotion uncomfortable as well don’t we?

(LMJ) Finally, can people buy your images? If so, where from and for how much?

(AR) It’s odd because at the moment I’m trying to get enough paintings together for my first solo exhibition in April, and as I only complete about one work a fortnight I need to keep hold of all the ones I’ve got to try to fill the gallery space! They will be available through the website though very soon!

(LMJ) Good luck with your exhibition. Let us know how it goes and thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!

You can see more of Anthony’s images here. Do take a peek but make sure to keep all your wits about you!

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