'Salem' (1908)

Sidney Curnow Vosper (1866 - 1942)

Watercolour on paper 

Sidney Curnow Vosper, ‘Salem’

'Salem' is a painting of a small Baptist chapel in Cefncymerau, Llanbedr, near Harlech, North Wales. The chapel was built in 1850. Vosper often visited the chapel when he holidayed in the area. Because of this painting, Salem is perhaps the most famous place of worship in Wales. The painting has become a Welsh icon, much like Constable's 'Haywain' or Yeames' 'And when did you last see your father|' have become English ones.

In 'Salem', the central character is modelled by Siân Owen of Ty'n-y-fawnog. She is shown walking down the aisle towards her family pew. The time on the clock, a few minutes before ten, indicates she has arrived late, during the customary silence just before the morning service begins. Her bright shawl is in stark contrast to the sombre dress of the other people present. It has been suggested that the painting is making a comment on the sin of vanity. She may have arrived late on purpose to ensure the maximum audience for her entrance. In the folds of the shawl on Siân's left arm, many people believe they can see a devil's face. The paisley pattern forms a horn, the folds his eye and nose and the shawl's trim his beard. Such a cunningly hidden detail might confirm this interpretation.

Nearly all the characters in 'Salem' were modelled from life. Siân Owen (1837 - 1927) was born in Maesygarnedd, an isolated farmstead and later moved to Fford Groes, Llanfair, where she died at he age of 90. Beneath the clock is Robert Williams, Deacon of Salem. Besides him, but not in full view is Laura Williams of Ty'n-y-Buarth, Llanfair. With his back against the wall is Owen Jones, commonly called Owen Siôn, of Carleg Coch. The figure to his right was not modelled from life. The small boy is Evan Edward Lloyd and by his side is Mary Rowland. On the extreme right with his head bowed, is William Jones (Siôn), brother of Owen Siôn. Vosper paid them each sixpence (2.5p) an hour for sitting.

Siân Owen's shawl was borrowed from a Mrs Williams, who lived in Harlech Vicarage. Vosper had some difficulty in painting the shawl, as Siân had a habit of twitching suddenly and often. In the end he pinned it to a lay figure (an artist's dummy) nicknamed 'Leisa Jones'. The chapel elders insisted the figure was removed on Saturday nights before the 'seiat', or weekly church meeting.

Although Vosper appears to be capturing the pious atmosphere of a tranquil Welsh chapel, details such as the clock and the 'face' in the shawl have given this piece another layer of meaning. This has added to the painting's fame and reputation, lifting it above a simple representation of 'quaint' Welsh national dress and the dominant mother figure considered so important to 19th century Welsh family life.

Sidney Curnow Vosper was born on 29 October 1866 in Stonehouse, Devon, Although he originally began training to be an architect, he later studied art at the Colarossi Academy in Paris. He was elected to the Royal west of England Academy in 1915 and exhibited at London's Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. He was married to Constance James of Merthyr Tydfil. This was the source of the Welsh themes in many of his paintings.

'Salem' was bought by Lord Leverhulme in 1909 for one hundred guineas (£105). It first became popular when it was used to market Lever Brothers' Sunlight Soap. People could collect vouchers from the packets and send them in to claim a colour print of the work. In 1988, the S4C programme 'Hel Staeon' revealed the existence of another version of 'Salem', slightly different from the Lady Lever Art Gallery picture. It was owned by a descendant of Frank James, the Merthyr Tydfil solicitor who was the artist's brother-in-law. It was smaller than the version seen here, but was verified as the work of Vosper by Peter Lord, an authority on Welsh painting.

Both the painting and Salem Chapel are described in detail in the book 'Salem - Painting and Chapel (Y Llun a'r Llan)' by Tal Williams, published in 1991 and now in its eighth edition. The subject continues to touch the hearts of Welsh people as a symbol of Welshness and to fascinate everyone with its view of a way of life from a more simple time.