Roderic Dunnett

Enlightened philanthropy

Behind this exhibition is a story of fairytale success: of the 120 Welsh shipping firms that flourished early in the last century, two of which became Wales’s largest maritime company; of the merged wealth that flowed therefrom; and of the enlightened philanthropy of one man, John Morel Gibbs (1912–96), scion of both families, who saw wealth as an obligation and drew on his Methodist beliefs to become the most significant patron of art and art education in Wales, and — with Walter Hussey — of Church-art collecting in the 20th century.

The death this year of Gibbs’s like-minded wife, Sheila Newton, supplied the impetus for this public exhibition. In the late 1930s, the two commissioned a Modernist home from the architect Gordon Griffiths; and, from the 1940s on, they jointly collected paintings, mostly avant-garde and sympathetic to the new building. Early acquisitions included pieces by John Piper, Paul Nash and Christopher Wood. Having lost his father at the age of five in the first world war, Gibbs encouraged his young sons from the outset to reflect on art and start collecting themselves. Reluctant to keep such fruits to himself, and believing that art should be whisked out of the galleries to inspire people in their everyday surroundings, Gibbs began to buy religious paintings, which ultimately formed part of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art, for whose setting-up he was largely responsible.

Not all the art the Gibbses acquired rank as masterpieces; but the Welsh painters they encouraged — Alan Lowndes, Bert Isaac, Sir Frank Brangwyn, Shani Rhys James, Ceri Richards — were significant figures in their own right. Gibbs favoured, as the catalogue by the exhibition’s considerate curator Peter Wakelin points out, ‘art rich in expressive imagery, psychological depth and qualities of abstraction or naive directness’.

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