Ron Jones tells Terry Grimley how his politically-charged paintings reflect his childhood in Wales.
One of Ron Jones’s earliest memories of growing up in a mining village in South Wales in the 1930s is watching Spanish Civil War volunteers come marching down the valley from Merthyr.
“We were very politically alert in the valleys,” he remembers. “When the civil war began there was naturally a very strong feeling of support for the Republicans and they formed units to fight in the war. They came down the valley waving the red flag, on their way to Cardiff to take ships to Barcelona.”
Recently he has made it the subject of a painting – one of an ambitious series in which he is documenting his childhood. The series will consist of 50 small canvases and seven – or possibly nine – large ones, all drawing on his childhood memories. He is working on them at Swanshurst School in Kings Heath, where he is artist-in-residence.
As you might expect, trains appear many times in these paintings.
“The school train used to go down the valley and across the viaduct, and by doing this project I found out the viaduct was designed by Brunel when I made contact with the librarian in Merthyr Tydfil,” he says.
There’s another train, too, in one of the paintings – with broken windows. It is carrying “scabs” or blackleg workers to the mines.
Ron, who turns 83 later this week, taught at the former Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) School of Art Education. He first had the idea for this series of autobiographical paintings when, on a trip to Madrid with his son a few years ago, he found himself face-to-face with Picasso’s famous painting Guernica.
“I was listening to the commentary and it said if Picasso liked something in the work of another artist he would just take it. I thought ‘Two buggers can play that game...’, and when I got back I ordered seven 8ft x 4ft canvases.”
The project received an unexpected boost when he was offered the residency at Swanshurst by the head of art, Chris Tinkler.
“He had seen my 80th birthday exhibition at the RBSA and because he passes my house every day he started dropping in. The condition of the residency is to answer any questions the girls have about the paintings, and the school has been extremely supportive.”
Ron’s childhood memories are matched by an impressively spontaneous figurative style which seems to suit them perfectly. The paintings evoke a world which seems more than a lifetime away.
“My father never worked the whole time I was in school,” he recalls. “He was a miner, he was a haulier underground. Then the First World War came along and he went to France, Egypt and Salonika and when he came back the difficult times had begun.
“But this one here,” he continues, turning to another of his paintings, “was my father’s big moment of the year, because he was the only bugler in the village and he was needed to play the last post on Armistice Day.”
The village was typical of many mining communities in the valleys, but it has a name which marks it out because of a tragedy which happened there long after Ron Jones had grown up and moved away – Aberfan.
In October 1966 this previously obscure community became internationally famous when a gigantic slagtip which towered above the village slipped, burying 20 houses and the village school, and killing 144 people, including 116 children.
“I was teaching at Billesley School at the time, and having a studio built at my house,” he recalls. “My cousins lost their children, and going down there over the years it was very difficult to talk about your own children.”
Thirty years earlier Ron was himself a pupil at the doomed Pantglas Junior School, and one of the paintings records him falling foul of a teacher he remembers wielding a cane with an Errol Flynn-like relish.
His own childhood brush with death came when he and his sister both succumbed to a nationwide outbreak of diptheria just after the Second World War started. One night in the hospital seven children died, and he ended up missing three months from school.
When he was 16 a means test was introduced which lopped two shillings off the family’s weekly budget.
“My mother was crying and I told her I would leave school and find a job. It was a stupid thing to do because there were no jobs.”
But his headmaster managed to find him one as a junior clerk at the Admiralty depot at the Dowlais Iron Works, in a unit working on degaussing mines.
“Then we moved to Gloucestershire, where we were based in the Bishop of Gloucester’s house, which had been taken over, and I met the English middle class for the first time. From there I never went back to South Wales.”
At 18 he was called up to the army and sent to West Africa. On arrival he was told the lowest rank in the unit he was joining was sergeant, and was promptly promoted.
“I came home to Birmingham because my father had found a job. An uncle lived in Acocks Green. So I was living there when I met my wife, Doria, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had left school without any certificates. I was in Birmingham doing various jobs and getting bored with them, and my wife said they were looking for teachers. I told her I didn’t have any qualifications and she said ‘Get them!’. So I went to night school and ended up at St Peter’s College in Saltley.”
Doria, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died five years ago, but it’s evident Ron still takes great pride in her, as he does in their two children and four grandchildren. His Welsh paintings are nearing completion and he says he would like them to find a permanent home in a gallery in South Wales. But his autobiographical project doesn’t end there.
Next up will be a smaller group of paintings of his wartime experiences in West Africa, and beyond that he plans a series of paintings about Birmingham.
“Birmingham is a great city for me, even though I hated it when I first came,” he says. “I met my wife and made a lot of friends here, and there have been lots of things I could do – theatres, Symphony Hall – things I wouldn’t have got in Aberfan.”