Salem

Salem is a 1908 painting by the English painter Sydney Curnow Vosper, depicting a scene within Capel Salem, a Baptist Chapel in Pentre Gwynfryn, North Wales.

When I first heard about the painting, last year, I was living in the Liverpool region at the time and I decided to research it further. I couldn’t get the name “Salem” out of my mind. I had only ever heard of this word in connection with the Salem witch trials in America, so I was surprised to hear that this American town was in fact named after a place in North Wales– where I was born and raised.

As someone who is interested in the Witch-craze from a feminist perspective, I felt compelled to see this painting.

I looked it up on the internet– and found that the painting was actually displayed in a gallery within walking distance from my house. The coincidence was mind-blowing. I had never expected such a thing! This was an opportunity too good to miss. I bundled up the children and I  went to take a look.

I wandered around the gallery for quite some time, but couldn’t find it and eventually had to ask a curator. He gave me a sort of knowing smile, when I asked for this particular painting. He said the painting was not on display. He took me to a locked door. After some fumbling with his keys, it opened up into a dark corridor which lead to some stairs. Finally, he showed me a curtain, where the painting was being hidden behind.

What a mystery! What was it about this painting that was so dangerous that it had to be kept behind a locked door, in a dark place, and then behind a velvet curtain?

He said it was to protect the painting because of its age. Hmm. Maybe, maybe not.

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The painting depicts an old Welsh woman in traditional Welsh dress. She is the epitome of wisdom and grace. It is her grace that must be hidden by the patriarchy, I believe. A powerful Welsh woman caught in time. It made me think more deeply about my Welsh roots and how because the Welsh are an oppressed people, I myself have devalued our language, culture and history. I barely think it relevant to let people know that Welsh– not English– is my first language. Ridicule of the Welsh in recent years (especially by our neighbours the Liverpudlians) has been an effective tool of oppression. Welsh people have no faith that our culture is precious and ancient. We forget that our language existed long before English, French or German. That it harks from another world, and possibly a pre-patriarchal time. As a linguist, I have come to believe that language and culture are intertwined and if you want to know a culture or people, you must first learn their language. What ancient wisdom does the Welsh language hold?

And take a look at the Welsh traditional dress for women. A veritable witches hat? Are these women the original witches, in the real sense of the word– the hat is too similar to the quintessential witches hat to ignore. I chatted to a friend about this and she said, that if you took the traditional Welsh hat and battered it about, it would certainly look similar to what we imagine a witches hat to look like today. So a nod to the witch-craze, then?

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Top hats were later to be “men’s dress” but long before the top hat was invented, the women of Wales were walking about the hillsides and mountains in the original black bonnet. There is something about the hat that suggests women had a certain amount of resources. That they were each able to afford what would essentially be regarded as a luxury is perhaps a sign of their status in Welsh society.

I love the expression on the woman’s face below. A strong, sturdy woman who takes shit from no-one.

 

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P.S. The young boy seated is thought to be Darwin’s grandson.

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