18 OCTOBER 1997, Page 70

Hidden treasure

Felicity Owen on the outstanding National Museum and Gallery of Wales When Cardiff forswore the chance of building a world-class opera house as a key feature of the new Cardiff Bay develop- ment, it missed joining the league of cities that are distinguished by a modern archi- tectural masterpiece. The taffia who domi- nate the Welsh media are no doubt happier with the rebuilding of the Arms Park where rugby songs will soon echo once again; but there is little to attract the more sophisti- cated visitor except for Burges's Cardiff Castle and the fine spread of government buildings, including the National Museum and Gallery of Wales (NMGW). This neo- classical building in white Portland stone set in peaceful Cathay Park looks splendid in photographs but, sadly, the message that it is now one of the outstanding establish- ments of its kind in Europe is little known beyond the natural catchment area which is the M4 corridor west of Bristol.

Cardiff is a comparatively new capital, its wealth originally based on its docks and the mines of South Wales. The city fathers opened a Free Library and Museum in 1882 and, after parliamentary pressure in Lon- don for a national institution, this was secured for Cardiff some 20 years later. The gestation period was then a record: this typ- ical Victorian multi-disciplined museum, incorporating an existing art collection, finally opening in 1927. It soon proved too small for its diverse collections, and a five- year programme of extension and updating funded by the Welsh Office, to the tune of £26 million, was completed in 1993.

As a country, Wales is handicapped by its geography — mountains dividing it so that north and south seldom meet, the native language being spoken by a majority in the lowly populated middle and north-west, but by less that ten per cent in cosmopolitan Cardiff. On the north-east borders the rail- way and improved roads entice a flow of Liverpudlians who complete the divided family of Welsh voters. Welsh speakers, having assumed the moral high ground, fol- low the Irish in preserving the native tongue by insistence on its inclusion in the school syllabus and as a qualification for institu- tional posts. In a poor country of only 3.5 million people, such a narrow approach hardly helps to attract the best talent.

The NMGW is constantly under local attack for not being Welsh enough in its policy, and the director, Colin Ford, who built up the highly successful Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Brad- ford, has to be admired for his cool, low- profile response. The prime objective is 'to Show more museum treasures to more peo- ple' and, at headquarters, a gallery is now assigned to the presentation of art in Wales, the displays changing frequently so that the present-day shock and installation art encouraged by the Welsh Arts Council will have to take its turn. The definition of Welsh will continue to be as elastic as is English for our national cricket team; and the academic who, having learnt the lan- guage, considers himself the guardian of Welshness in the visual arts; can hardly Complain, being Devon-born. The £200,000 reserved for art out of a total acquisition budget of £1 million will enable the NMGW to strengthen the collection but there remains a shortage of funds for tem- porary exhibitions. Museums today are hard pressed to satis- fy the dual requirement of preserving their Objects (in this case, over 7 million of them) and educating and entertaining an elusive public, especially the young. In Cardiff, where the private enterprise Tech- Inquest claims to be Britain's leading sci- ence discovery centre, the NMGW has responded with The Evolution of Wales, an extraordinary audio-visual experience mixed with an imaginative selection of arte- facts from the geology collections. School Parties prepared in advance for the story, Which begins with a simulated Big Bang, no doubt find the cacophony enjoy- able; but for those of tender ears, the amount of information to be absorbed is alarming.

Apart from this ground-floor diversion, the NMGW presents a quiet and dignified face, the high domed hall providing a splendid setting for social functions. Notices are in two languages, political cor- rectness also requiring a reminder outside the ladies and the gents that baby-feeding facilities are available in the restaurant. ,The cost of the bilingual requirement becomes apparent in the shop, doubling the Pages of the annual report and Calndr When there is a lack of short catalogues of the collections.

It is these collections, displayed in the elegantly modernised upstairs galleries, that really impress. After the Old Masters, the first of that rare species, a Welsh col- lector, serves to show Anglo-Welsh taste in the 18th century. Sir Watkin Williams ,WYmt (1749-1789), rich from inherited 'arid and mines, trained his eye on the _Grand Tour and returned with the finest of Idarelli group portraits now displayed above a magnificent sideboard and decorative urns designed by Robert Adam — who was also responsible for the handsome organ recently acquired. Sir Watkin was a patron cif Richard Wilson, RA, the first Welsh- °r11 Painter with a European reputation. ?..Tleral fine Italian and Welsh views by ,w,llson and a range of works by his pupil, uornas Jones, are exhibited. There is sil- ver and porcelain from the baronet's exten- sive services, and the adjacent gallery pre- sents another important collection of continental ceramics with some interesting early pieces from Swansea.

The NMGW is blessed also with the bequest from Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, who up to the 1920s were the lead- ing British collectors of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, the superb 'Midday L'Estaque' by Cezanne convincing Samuel Courtauld of that artist's impor- tance. This distinguished group of French paintings helps to raise the whole show above the ordinary, making the journey to Cardiff worthwhile. Fine works by Daumier and Millet were among early acquisitions and Renoir's 'La Parisienne' and van Gogh's 'Rain, Auvers' are outstanding. Welsh painting comes into its own again with J.D. Innes and the two Johns; Gwen's friend Rodin and Degas were the chosen sculptors.

The recent exhibition of Gwen John drawings from the NMGW's own holdings deserves a second venue, and in the print room there are some 25,000 works on paper. Children make for the natural histo- ry department whose galleries display wildlife in a commendably true setting. The herbarium is of international stature, and marine life conservation is another speciali- ty. The archaeology gallery with its unique material from the prehistoric onwards is constantly in receipt of new discoveries — recently, a mediaeval boat raised from the Severn — and there is an active pro- gramme of excavation.

Currently there are eight outside venues. The Museum of Welsh Life at nearby St Fagan's, where Welsh cottage life of all periods is recreated in parkland, is the most successful, drawing some 400,000 visi- tors annually — double Cathay Park's numbers. The Welsh Industrial and Mar- itime Museum, due to be rehoused as part of the Cardiff Bay development, and the Roman Legionary Museum at Caerleon, are also big attractions. At Llanberris the Welsh Slate Museum, awarded £1.6 million by the National Lottery to return the quar- ry face to working order, will be the pride of North Wales, where exhibitions at Con- way (the Royal Cambrian Academy) and Penrhyn Castle (the National Trust) are supported. In the far west a new gallery at St David's for the Graham Sutherland and Ray Howard Jones bequests is planned.

Hard pressed to fund all these activities from a total budget of some £15 million (£11.6 million comes from the Welsh Office) the management, which has already introduced admission charges, looks for more support — from Welsh people with a growing pride in their national institution.

The NMGW's ambitions are unlikely to be helped, however, by the closeness of the devolution vote, which reaffirms Welsh perplexity about its natural identity. It is only to be hoped that the new Assembly will, after all, prove a unifying force.