14 April 2016

Cardiff art: Cargoes

If you liked the Beastie Benches, you’ll love Cargoes. This is another of Cardiff Bay’s superb public artworks, though you can’t sit on these ones and, unfortunately, their positioning on building walls in Bute and Stuart Streets, amidst the distractions of restaurant and shop signage, means they are not easily appreciated and frequently overlooked.

Just like the Beastie Benches, the 21 panels of this artwork were inspired by poetry, in this case John Masefield’s poem Cargoes. This is a poem I actually learnt in high school, though it seems an odd choice for the New Zealand school syllabus. And, though John Masefield’s only connection with Cardiff appears to have been a passing one – he caught a ship from here to Chile in 1874, the subject matter is certainly relevant. Cardiff was once one of the largest docks in the world, handling the export of huge quantities of iron and millions of tonnes of coal from the south Wales coalfields, and all manner of cargo passed through its basins and warehouses.

The sculptor of Cargoes, Brian Fell, is one of Britain’s leading artists in steel, and his public artworks can be seen throughout the UK. Cardiff has two more of his major pieces, one of which is a particular favourite of mine – but more on that in a future blog.

As you will see below, Fell’s panels illustrate the various items named (in bold type) in Masefield’s poem (from Salt-Water Poems and Ballads, edited by John Masefield, MacmillanNew York, 1944, p. 124).


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

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