Seren Bell's rural treasures

  • Seren Bell - Above Hafod y Garreg
  • Seren Bell - Cockerels
  • Seren Bell - Geese Radnor Valley
  • Seren Bell - High Summer Radnorshire
  • Seren Bell - Hound Twyn Y Garth
  • Seren Bell - Pigs and Moon
  • Seren Bell

Dedicated to celebrating both rustic livestock and the natural beauty of the Welsh valleys, artist Seren Bell counts Prince Charles amongst her collectors. Ahead of her showing at the Fosse Gallery in Stow on the Wold, Seren reveals the inspirational powers of heritage breeds and her local landscape.

Every Seren Bell picture is a showcase. Old livestock breeds are placed front and centre, presented for your inspection. Yet there is none of the urgency of the auction: sheep, geese, cockerels and pigs return your gaze, restive. Even a pack of hounds has a still and sculptural quality. They are animals as art, to be appreciated for the elegance of their form just as much as their utility.

Meanwhile, the dramatic landscapes that surround them refuse to cede the spotlight: skeletal trees reach for shepherd-delighting skies, as hoarfrost creeps across the land. Resplendent with detail, what might be considered ‘background’ instead speaks of a deep and spiritual love for the rural.

That love is sourced in the Wye Valley in Radnorshire, where Seren lives. From the heights above the valley, one can see the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons. These hills and mountains, Seren says, ‘have formed a backdrop to my life.’

Like the Cotswolds, the Wye Valley is an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, known for both its natural bounties (limestone gorges, marshes, mysterious forests) and its historical and industrial relics (hill forts and copper/iron/tinplate works). This is where Seren’s ancestral tree is rooted. It’s not hard to see why, after studying English and Fine Art at Exeter University in the mid-eighties, she could not resist returning.

‘It’s magic here,’ Seren enthuses. ‘We live in the Upper Wye area, between Builth Wells and Hay on Wye. We moved to the area because my husband’s a big salmon fisherman. I like being out as much as possible - walking the woodland tracks and outdoor areas. It’s just the sort of landscape I like - an ancient, farmed, working landscape.

‘I love the winter. I really like a bit of snow and hoarfrost. That’s when you see the bare bones of the landscape.’

And what of the animals she portrays? What draws her to them?

‘I particularly love the old breeds. It’s really important to preserve the old stocks. I love the ways that the different breeds of sheep, in particular, have adapted to their environments. Right down to the pigs and poultry, the old breeds are magnificent. I really like to look at them.

‘But with more modern breeds like the Texel [sheep]…I don’t like them, they’re so short-necked. They’re like carcasses on legs - somehow indicative of the modern age. But the older varieties are so handsome. When you see the rare breeds at the Malvern Show - you see there’s a lot of heritage there. They’re like old buildings, in a way. They have to be preserved and looked after.

‘The breeders themselves work so hard. They’re always very flattered when you take an interest, and they’re invested in the aesthetic look of the animal - it’s not all about business.’

It’s not surprising that Seren’s passion has caught the eye of perhaps the ultimate rare breed fancier - the Prince of Wales, Patron of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, whose Highgrove estate is a bastion of all things heritage. And so, two years ago, Seren was commissioned to immortalise the Highgrove stocks - including Tamworth pigs, Shropshire sheep, West of England geese.

‘I went to Highgrove two or three times to look at the animals and photograph them. It was quite a terrifying experience. I’m not so good with commissions,’ she laughs, ‘because I’m such a terrible people-pleaser. But it was fascinating. It’s a beautiful place - a lovely farm run on organic lines.’

Stark and atmospheric, yet inviting to the beholder, Seren’s recent works hearken to the more ‘visionary’ figures in 19th and 20th century British landscape painting: it’s not surprising when she counts Samuel Palmer and John and Paul Nash amongst the artists she loves. Yet Seren is not foremost a painter: her pictures are instead painstakingly rendered in crayon, pen and ink. (In 2009, she received the St Cuthberts Mill Award for best work on paper).

The spirit of Seren’s style also recalls the best of British folk art - work produced by self-trained artists over the centuries, typically honouring animals, traditions, occupations and pastimes. Such pictures, often made simply to fulfil a creative urge, now stand as records. Testaments to vanished lifestyles, and things muscled from the path of progress.

Gloucester cattle, originally bred as a compromise between dairy and beef, stand as an example of a breed at the risk of disappearing altogether, were it not for the conservation work of farmers like Joe Henson, and those others who fight to keep them alive despite economic adversity.

One hopes that, in one hundred years, we’ll still have Gloucester cattle and Old Spot pigs, and the untarnished beauty of the Wye Valley. Better admire them while we can - fortunately, it’s a short trip to Stow on the Wold, where you can see Seren’s work this November.

View 'Seren Bell - New Paintings - In the Shadow of the Black Mountains' at the Fosse Gallery in Stow on the Wold from Sunday 5th November 2017 to Wednesday 22nd November 2017. Find out more about Seren and her work at www.serenbell.co.uk