Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Glorious Secret

People thought it odd that Norman Barnes, a 90-year-old ex-teacher and a brilliant painter, had never exhibited his work. Mr Barnes, in his remote cottage in the mountains above Betws-y-Coed, North Wales, surrounded by those of his 20,000 stunning paintings he had not given away, thought the oddity was thinking it odd.

“I paint for pleasure,” he explained to me with diffident courtesy. “I have never felt it necessary to exhibit. I am a quietist and I was very happy working on my own.”

Thanks to two formidable women, he was persuaded at last to have an exhibition at a tiny gallery on Anglesey. But he wasn't happy about it. He told me at the time: “I am not sure I am doing the right thing.”

His wife Kay, another teacher who would have walked away with the role of Miss Chips if anyone wrote it, was quite sure he was. I remember her telling me: “I want his work to be recognised. I think it absurd it should not be. He is a marvellous painter. He is not so pleased because he is a very retiring man.”

Mr Barnes would have continued his retiring if a remarkable lady called Joan Smith of Llangaffo, Anglesey, had not gone to his cottage to repair a grandfather clock. She should have been more famous in her own right. When they were buildng the 50-mile motorway which now links Chester with Holyhead, they ran into a snag. There is only a narow strip of land between the sea and the mountains in North Wales. The new motorway had to share the limited space at the crossing of the river Conwy with two earlier bridges, both listed architectural gems. The townspeople of Conwy to a man blocked the notion of a third. There was deadlock. Then Miss Smith wrote to the North Wales Weeekly News.

“Why not build a tunnel under the river?” she asked.

Unbelievably, the engineers had not thought of that. I always think it churlish that they did not name the fine tunnel they built after Miss Smith of Llangaffo on Anglesey.

She deserved even greater recognition for her discovery of Mr Barnes's genius. She said afterwards: “I couldn’t believe my eyes.The walls were covered with the most marvellous paintings which had never been seen by outsiders. I thought, this is nonsense, and I took an armful round the galleries. I heard a couple of young artists had opened a small gallery. They took one look and booked an exhibition on the spot.”

The young couple were Marc Heaton and Madeleine O’Brien.

Mark said: “We couldnt believe it when Miss Smith brought the paintings in. It is inconceivable that Mr Barnes has been turning out such accomplished paintings for so long and remained unknown.”

Madeleine said: “He clearly hasn’t been influenced by anyone. The quickness and the quality of the line, the freshness of his vision are simply staggering. He captures a moment and through it shows his enjoyment of the landscape.”

Veteran artist David Chambers, then exhibiting in Theatr Gwynedd, Bangor, was in the gallery when Miss Smith brought the paintingns in. “They moved me to tears,” he confessed. “I think he is a fine draughtsman. His cats rival Tunnicliffe's. Unbelievablethat a chap who has painted about 20,000 pictures should remain unrecognised.”

Until 1969 when he retired to a mountain cottage in North Wales with his wife Kay, Mr Barnes was a senior lecturer in Modern Languages at Salford Royal Technical College. Because of his teaching commitments, he could only attend Salford Art School at nights. When he was a child, money was short in his family and an art career seemed perilous. So he became a teacher. During the war he served with the Intelligence Corps all over Europe, painting all the time. He became a code breaker at Bletchley Park.

Mr Barnes served a term of evening classes at the Manchester College of Art but he wasn’t impressed by the teacher so he gave them up and learned from books, from copying the great painters and from nature.

Not even a stroke at the age of eighty fazed him. The stroke paralysed the left side of his body. Happily there were windows on three sides of his studio l, each one framing ever changing mountain views. So he just moved round the room, painting the view outside. Alas, he died four years after our meeting. But I have always remembered his house where happiness was so palpable, its inhabitants so obviously devoted and their conversation so stimulating.

We talked about the bad behaviour of pupils - in the 1920s, would you believe? About the reason there are no shadows in Renaissance paintings, why Bletchley Park, the centre of our intelligence war, had no Air Raid wardens and how a film about Mr Barnes's colleague Alan Turing, who invented the computer, was wrong because it showed windows protected against bomb blast.


I spend a lot of time remembering those happy days in North Wales, a place populated by the most remarkable people. There used to be a column in the Reader's Digest, “The Most Remarkable People I Have Met”. I could have filled it every month.

A paragraph in the Sunday Times sent me spinning down the years. It was about my neighbour in Llanfairpwyllgwyngyll, Medwyn Williams, who was then a group engineer in Gwynedd County Council's Maintenance Department. Med is famous now for his giant vegetables - six foot parsnips, would you believe, he grew at the back of his bungalow ? He has won every conceivable prize and is chairman of the National Vegetable Society.

He is still growing giant veg. At the moment it is a 1,600lb pumpkin. When it is fully grown he will fit it with a seat and an outboard motor and - at the age of 67 - sail it to the Isle of Man. He is doing it to raise money for the Help the Heroes charity. He has already qualified for the Owl and the Pussy Cat Club because he has done test runs with smaller pumpkins.

“I am totally confident this can be done. We shall call her HMV (Her Majesty's vegetable) Cinderella.”

There has always been a fairytale quality to Med's life. My wife interviewed him when he was heading a £100,000 campaign against Japanese Knotweed, a weed whose accelerated growth rivals the beanstalk.

He told her: “It will grow through tarmacadam and it has taken over roadside verges and railway embankments, parks, gardens and farmlands. It coud rip up highways, destroy footpaths. Even bring apartment blocks crashing to the ground.”

Goodness knows what the Brothers Grimm would have made of it.


This frail bark of blog sails in many seas. Its readers include editors, columnists, teachers, publishers, special service toughs, even a small clutch of multi-millionaires. It goes to Trinidad. To the States and to Australia - and Pentrefoelas. I am especially pleased about that. I wrote recently about Alan Hughes, a driving instructor who has opened the secrets of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Alan reads the blog and has sent me a book he has just published.

It is called “Chaucer's Signs and Circumstances”, and as well as being a fascinating piece of literary detection, it is very impressive scholarship, though Alan confesses it is meeting academic opposition.

“Many of the academic comments have been hostile to my way of reading Chaucer's work: eg., 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread'; 'How come a driving instructor from Pentrefoelas when the best minds of Oxford and Cambridge have failed to find any allegories?' Ann Dobyns, writing in the Medieval Review considers that my work 'represents the kind of over-arguing often found in undergraduate papers'.

He refuses to be put off

“I have now gathered enough material to put together three books: the one posted to you, one on Chaucer's remaining larger works and his lyrics; another on the allegories detected in works written around that time. For example, I understand the complex allegory of the Testament of Love and, without any doubt, I can prove that William Thynne was correct in presenting it to King Henry VIII as being Chaucer's work.
I believe that this same crowd will never accept my allegorical theories.”

I know how he feels. Like most people who are self taught Iwas no stranger to bitter critics so I put together a Writer's Mantra

Our friends the reviewers
Those chippers and hewers
Are judges of mortal stone,sir
But of meet and unmeet
In a fabric complete
I''ll boldly proclaim they are none,sir

Cannot remember who said that but it was the 18th century Angelesy antiquarian Rev Henry Rowlands who wrote;
“Criticism is an undefined thing under no settled rule, often governed by prejudice and passion,humour or fancy which makes it very frequently that what is agreeable to one is displeasing to another. To please all is impossible, to have faults is unavoidable”

Plini the Second wrote “ Every man's witty labour takes not-except the matter,subject, occasion and some commending favourite happen to it”

Judge for yourself. The book is available from Aslan at £9.95 plus postage from Alania, Tan y Gaer, Pentrefoelas, LL24 OLE (emaill