St Davids, on the far south-western tip of Wales, is a city of contradictions. Being the smallest city in the UK, it is really more of a village with a great big cathedral plonked down at one end. It is a tranquil little place but alongside the tea-and-scones brigade is a growing community of surfers who ride the waves on the beautiful beaches nearby all year round. Beyond the shoppers rummaging through baskets of souvenir tea-towels are legions of walkers and nature-lovers who explore the coast paths, the sea and the cliffs in between in search of puffins, seals and the delicate, beautiful Manx Shearwater birds that migrate past the headland every summer. Even the visitor centre (known as Oriel Y Parc, which means ‘the park gallery’) is an odd mixture, for if you walk through the coffee shop and past the leaflets on local attractions you will find yourself in a world-class gallery.
The gallery, a recent addition to the visitor centre, is itself beautifully harmonious in form and content. The environmentally sustainable building that houses it heralds what we can expect from a gallery in the 21st century. The graceful arc shape of the building catches the sun all day, keeping heating costs to a minimum. The ceilings are insulated with lamb’s wool and a green roof with its swaying grasses also brings warmth and helps to regulate the demand on the drainage system. Rainwater is used for the toilet cisterns and solar energy panels heat water for the kitchen. Recycled and second-hand materials have been used wherever possible – much of the stone for the walls comes from old derelict buildings.
Perhaps it is when you see what is on display inside the gallery that you truly understand the importance of all this low-impact building and energy conservation: to preserve the precious Pembrokeshire landscape that has inspired so many artists including London-born painter Graham Sutherland. Sutherland loved the landscape around St Davids, painting it again and again, and when he died in 1980 he left a great body of work to the people of Pembrokeshire.
Sutherland’s work will form the permanent central focus of the gallery’s exhibitions. For those used to gentle water-colour scenes of the Welsh coast, Sutherland’s paintings are a hand grenade assault on the senses – fierce, energy-filled evocations of the landscape, both challenging and fascinating.
For Oriel Y Parc to be given permission to exhibit the bequest it had to meet a stringent list of standards, including careful regulation of the humidity and temperature in the air and a complex and highly sophisticated security system. Meeting this criteria has meant that the gallery has been awarded ‘Class A’ status, which means that the work by Picasso and Rembrandt that is displayed alongside Sutherland’s paintings in the current exhibition will be the first in a long line of world-class international art to be shown at the centre.
Prompted by Sutherland’s extraordinary visions of the surrounding countryside, the gallery plans to use future exhibitions to investigate art’s relationship with the landscape and with nature. Brendan Burns a Cardiff-based painter has been making paintings of the Pembrokeshire coastline for about fifteen years. Being the first artist-in-residence at Oriel Y Parc is, he says, ‘so exciting because everything is new. It feels important, like you’re part of something major.’ He is thrilled by his proximity to his subject, as until now he has had to make the 100-mile journey home before he began to paint. He is also pleased to have Sutherland’s work in the next room, where he can pop in and refer to it whenever he pleases, and says he particularly draws inspiration from the photographs, drawings and writing in the bequest.
He can’t predict how the residency will affect his work, but says he is starting out by ‘taking walks on new beaches’.
• The work produced by Brendan Burns during his residency at Oriel Y Parc will be shown at Oriel Y Parc or the National Museum in Cardiff, towards the end of 2009.