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ID number:  BIRRC-A0877
Institution:  Research and Cultural Collections
Named collection:  Campus Collection of Fine and Decorative Art
Artist / Maker:  Edwards, John Uzzell (1937-2014)
Title / Object name:  'When I was born...'
Object type:  Painting
Date made:  1995
Materials:  Oil on canvas
Measurements:  129.5 x 119.4 cm
BIRRC-A0877.jpg

John Uzzell Edwards was commissioned by the University of Birmingham on behalf of the Shakespeare Institute to paint a Shakespearean character. Typically his heritage influenced him; he chose the Welsh hero Owain Glyndŵr (Owen Glendower) from Henry IV Part I. The title of the piece itself refers to a dialogue Glyndŵr has with other rebels during the course of the play:

‘With your permission, I’ll say one more time that when I was born, the heavens were full of shooting stars. The goats ran down from the mountains, and herds of animals stampeded strangely through the fields. These signs marked me as an extraordinary person…’ (Henry IV Part I, Act three scene 1)

Shakespeare portrayed Glyndŵr as a well-educated man and an accomplished warrior. In the play he is the embodiment of Welsh folklore and he believes himself to be magic. The other characters are contemptuous of this and Glyndŵr is often mocked for his beliefs. Nonetheless, he remains adamant about his powers throughout; a literary demonstration of the character’s self-applauding nature. In reality the Welsh revolt was initially successful. Glyndŵr and his men gained control over substantial areas of Wales. The Welsh Rebels did not have the resources to win and eventually lost to the English. Glyndŵr avoided capture and ignored pardons from Henry IV, preferring to remain in hiding. His fate after 1412 is uncertain.

Uzzell Edwards has captured Glyndŵr’s characteristics in this painting. Its striking nature embodies his formidable strength as a warrior. The artist further emphasised this through the use of traditional symbols of battle. The woven style evokes Celtic symbolism, suggesting that Glyndŵr is intrinsically linked to Welsh heritage. Such a representation compliments Glyndŵr’s revival in the late nineteenth century by the Young Wales group as the father of Welsh nationalism. This depiction has been sustained throughout the years: Welsh Prime Minister David Lloyd George unveiled a statue of him at Cardiff City Hall in 1916 and Wrexham School of Science and Art was renamed Glyndŵr University in 2008. When I was born… continues in this vein and is a fitting depiction of this Welsh hero.

Uzzell Edwards was born in Deri in the Rhymney Valley, South Wales. His father, a miner but also a keen painter, noted Edwards’ ability and nurtured his talent. He initially failed to gain a junior scholarship at art school in Cardiff and instead became a qualified engineering illustrator. In 1957 he decided to pursue art and went to Paris where he drew endlessly. His efforts were rewarded when he was the recipient of the Granada Arts Fellowship in 1966 and the Priz de Rome at the British School in Rome in 1968. He found it impossible to concentrate on painting his newly found surroundings and instead instructed his family to send him photographs so that he could continue to focus on Welsh themes.

His patriotism was recognised by many. He was granted an Arts Council of Wales Travel scholarship to study Celtic art in Europe in 1988, and was twice awarded the main painting prize at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. His passion led him to found Ysbryd/Spirit Wales in 1998 with the aim of collaborating with other Welsh artists to raise awareness of contemporary Welsh art.

Notes:  Blog post published on this painting for St David's Day 2015.

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