02 October 2016

Cardiff art: A celebration of mining

Wales and coal mining go together like bread and butter. In fact, coal mining was the bread and butter of many Welsh men for many a year, and none more so than in the Valleys north of Cardiff. From valleys and men stained black with its soot and dust, the black gold of coal flowed down the innumerable railway lines to the port of Cardiff and thence by ship to power industries in Britain and around the world.

It’s no surprise, then, to find that many of Cardiff’s public artworks pay tribute to the industry that put Cardiff on the world map and to the 250,000 men who slaved and sometimes died underground to extract the coal that powered that industry. Over time, though, the styles of the artworks have changed rather dramatically.

This first grouping sits outside the Edwardian-era Glamorgan Building, formerly Cardiff’s County Hall but now home to the Schools of Social Sciences, Planning and Geography within Cardiff University. Two groups of statues sit adjacent to the building’s main entrance, one group representing navigation and the other, shown here, coal mining. The statues were sculpted between 1908 and 1912 by Albert Hemstock Hodge (1875-1917), a Scottish artist who specialised in architectural sculptures like these, and were originally intended to go on the roof of the building. Maybe the Portland stone proved too heavy for that lofty perch!

Hodge’s style is reminiscent of Classical Greek sculpture though, to my eye, his work shows none of the grace and elegance of the Greeks. The work is allegorical: from the helmet she wears and the shield on her right arm, one of the two seated female figures can be identified as Minerva, Roman goddess of trade and industry. She appears to be receiving a gift of a basket of coal from the front male figure. To see the real miners in this group, though, you need to climb the entrance stairs and take a look at the back of the statue. Here, one man is straining to push a tram full of coal, while another uses his pick to help pull the heavy load.

Though rugged and well-muscled workers, these two don’t resemble any Welsh men I’ve ever seen! But then neither does the collier in this more recent artwork. 

As one critic commented ‘The statue looks more like a pumped-up male model than a raw-boned Welsh miner’.

Titled ‘From Pit to Port’, this bronze and wrought iron work was designed and partly constructed by John Clinch (1934-2001) but completed by Jon Buck after Clinch died. 

Unveiled in 2005, it stands alongside Roath Dock in Cardiff Bay, celebrating the connection between mining and the port from where the coal was shipped far and wide.

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