Alfred Janes (1911-1999)
Dad (and Dylan Thomas)
By Hilly Janes

Did Dylan Thomas ever visit Dulwich? It seems he drank at the Half Moon Hotel in Herne Hill after watching games at the London Welsh rugby club, which was based nearby. There is even a story that the wandering Welsh poet lived briefly in nearby Milkwood Road - and immortalised it in the title of his much loved play for voices, Under Milk Wood.  A sparky new version of his most famous work by BBC TV Wales and a touring production by Theatre Clwyd have been two highlights of the poet’s centenary celebration this year - he was born on October 27th 1914

Although Dylan came from Swansea, he spent much of his life in London, where he made more than 200 broadcasts for the BBC as well as writing propaganda films for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. If the Milk Wood story is a myth - and there are plenty of those about a man whose reputation has become legendary, and not always for the right reasons -  he was certainly very much present in spirit, if not in the flesh, at our home in Dulwich Village 50 years ago when my late father, the artist Alfred Janes made a posthumous drawing of his lifelong friend.

It was his third portrait of Dylan, drawn from memory, and a few black and white photographs in a front room that my father had commandeered as a studio, but which my mother Mary called ‘the tramp’s nest’. The table was covered in pots and tubes of paint, rags, old jam jars full of brushes, screws and nails. The ancient lino was spattered with colour and rarely swept, and there were more jars on the mantelpiece above a two-bar electric fire that we later discovered masked  a pretty tiled Edwardian fireplace.

Fred, as he was known to family and friends, perched on a stool in front of his easel to work on the pen and ink drawing, which was to appear in the Spectator magazine in 1964 to illustrate an article about the first full-length biography of the poet. He had died aged only 39 on the fourth of his gruelling, sell-out tours of the USA - this time to perform Under Milk Wood with actors for the first time.

We had moved to the house near Dulwich Park from the Gower peninsula in 1963. Like Dylan, Fred was born in  Swansea, where they met in 1931 while my father was back for the holidays from the Royal Academy Schools, where he was studying portraiture. When 20-year-old Dylan’s first book of poems was published in London in 1934, he joined Fred in his grotty digs in Earl’s Court, which my father described as a “happy shambles” and where the only chair had been adapted as an easel.

‘There must have been a strange contrast between our habits,’ Fred remarked. ‘Whereas I was glued to my easel-cum-chair experimenting away day after day, Dylan would disappear for days – perhaps weeks on end; on one occasion he went out to get a haircut and the next time I saw him was in Swansea.’

By now Fred had left the Academy. Although he was a prize-winning student and awarded the prestigious Academy Prize Medal in 1932,  he was tired of its traditional teaching methods and stuffy atmosphere. He was experimenting with new,  more geometrical styles, inspired partly by Modernist painters like Picasso, Braque and Klee that he he saw in Mayfair's commercial galleries, only a stone’s throw from the Royal Academy, and where his early geometric still lifes were exhibited alongside those of the masters he admired.

One of these works was his first portrait of Dylan, painted in 1934. He was developing a technique of incising lines with a penknife over the finished work, then softening it with turpentine to lend it a brilliant, jewel like quality. It was almost lost because when Fred next returned to Swansea for the holidays, he left it along with four years worth of his Academy work  in his digs, intending to collect it all later. But he never did, and it was only because two leading painters of the day, Augustus John and Cedric Morris, had chosen it for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Wales in Cardiff that it survived. It hangs there to this day.

A second portrait of Dylan was started in 1953 - the year that he died. By now Dylan was living at the Boathouse in Laugharne, a picturesque little seaside spot in Carmarthenshire. The Janes family, meanwhile, had settled in a rambling old farmhouse with four acres of land in Gower, where Fred painted in an old coach house with an earth floor and no heating. It sounds romantic, but trying to earn a living from part time teaching and selling work where commercial galleries were almost non- existent was tough. When the offer of a part time lectureship at Croydon School of Art came up, he jumped at it.

In the summer months the orchard at the farmhouse became a rudimentary campsite, where visitors included the Schurr family, who lived in Dulwich. Peter Schurr was a leading neurosurgeon based at King’s College Hospital, and the family became firm friends. My brother was already studying at university in London and drove Fred around on the back of his motor bike to look for a house to buy. Dulwich, with friends already in situ, its excellent schools and beautiful park on the doorstep, seemed ideal.

London in the Swinging Sixties was a far cry from Swansea, with its emerging experimental arts scene, galleries like the Tate and private views where celebrity spotting was part of the fun. ‘There was Hockney, all green velvet suited and peroxided,’ my mother wrote to her sister back in Swansea, after the preview of a Tate show by William Scott, another close friend and contemporary of my father’s from the Academy.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts’ inaugural exhibition in its Regency building in The Mall caused quite a stir with a waxwork model of a dead hippie, computers, pulsing TV screens and a mosaic floor made of coloured light. In 1968, this was revolutionary. And the commercial opportunities available in London were obvious. Swansea- born artists and close friends of Fred’s such as Ceri Richards and Mervyn Levy had made the move from Wales long before. Ceri was achieving major success with retrospectives at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, renowned for its promotion of contemporary artists, and overseas at the Venice Biennale, where he won the prize for best painting in 1962. He had also been taken on by London’s leading commercial gallery, Marlborough Fine Art.

Mervyn, who had shared those Earls’ Court digs with Fred and Dylan while studying at the Royal College of Art, was now a successful writer, broadcaster and agent. His 1950s TV series Painting for Housewives, was the first to teach viewers to paint and draw and he became a regular BBC broadcaster.

Both Ceri and Mervyn were frequent visitors to our house in Dulwich, the original site of James Allen’s Girls’ School (and my alma mater), but now the setting for many lively parties and dinners where Mary would serve ‘Dulwich peasant stew’ and artists and writers would rub shoulders with the local doctors and academics with whom sociable Fred and Mary rapidly became friends.

Among them was an English master at Alleyn’s, Alasdair Aston, an award winning poet and a leading member of the Dulwich Poetry Group, which held readings  upstairs at the Crown and Greyhound - or “the Dog”, as we all called it. Daytime visitors  would be treated to a ‘wicked Welsh tea’ with egg sandwiches and homemade Welsh cakes, and a tour of the exquisite collection of Old Masters at the Dulwich College Picture Gallery, as it was then called, where my mother served on the Friends’ committee, was not to be missed.

One of Fred and Dylan’s closest Swansea friends, the poet Vernon Watkins, often came to stay when he gave readings and lectures in London, and it was on one of these visits that he and his wife, Gwen, visited Dulwich Picture Gallery with Fred. ‘It was such an experience,” Gwen recalled,  because Fred was an innovative painter but you could see how much he loved some of these pictures, in the way that Vernon and Dylan loved Yeats and Blake – they nourished them.’

Fred was indeed an innovative artist, The desire to experiment that had driven him out of the Academy never left him. The ‘tramp’s nest’ was a hive of activity where he worked both on abstract works in a wide variety of materials such broken windscreen glass, perspex and my precious collection of marbles, many of which were displayed in a 1973 show at the South London Art Gallery in Camberwell.

A later phase necessitated raiding my mother’s gardening catalogues for pictures of roses that were subtly altered and incorporated into collages. These were exhibited - and snapped up - in the first exhibition of work for sale by contemporary artists at the Dulwich College Picture Gallery in 1976.

Colleagues at Croydon College of Art were among the trailblazers of their day and included the young Bridget Riley and performance artist Bruce Mclean, who was fascinated by the meticulous preparations that Fred made for his still life classes. Despite the experiments, his work was always underpinned by a highly academic grasp of his craft.

‘Fred would arrive long before his class was due to meet, bringing some of the elements with him, a mandolin, a piece of velvet, a vase or metal jug, wooden objects etc,’ Mclean said. ‘These objects were then arranged with very specific intentions in mind: to prove the students’ powers of perception in relation to colour, perspective, volume, tonal relations, light and shade, straight line and arabesque, texture etc, Each arrangement had its own complex programme and was set within  a structured teaching strategy that progressed from week to week.”

Fred’s classical training resurfaced with the drawing of Dylan, and while he was reluctant to take what he saw as a retrograde step, his skill as a portrait painter soon led to commissions of  likenesses of the great and the good, who came to sit for him in Dulwich. They included a future Chancellor of the Exchequer, Iain Mcleod MP; the leader of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans - and the first Welsh nationalist MP to sit in Westminster; and Linford Rees, professor of psychiatry at Barts and president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the BMA.

Out of the studio, one of Fred’s greatest pleasures was ‘a constitutional’ around Dulwich Park, always in the same anti-clockwise direction. A friend and neighbour, Alan Road, also from Swansea and a distinguished journalist on The Observer, recalled how Fred never lost the sharp wit that he had  shared with Dylan, even as his health failed in old age. Asked one year where he was going on holiday he replied: ‘Round Dulwich Park in a clockwise direction’. An eccentric local who drove a go-kart led by huskies along the pavement, forcing pedestrians to step aside, was dubbed ‘Ben Cur’.

Fred continued teaching at Croydon, where he became a senior lecturer, and did not retire until his 70th birthday. But he never stopped painting, and only a few days before he was admitted to King’s Hospital with kidney failure in 1999 he sent me on an errand to the Dulwich Art Stationers to buy the finest paintbrush available. When he died soon after, a few months before his 88th birthday, the tramp’s nest had been his studio for almost 40 years - and seen the genesis of many wonderful works of art.

The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas by Hilly Janes is published by The Robson Press

The Dylan Thomas  Fitzrovia Festival, instigated by Griff Rhys Jones takes place in October.

c. Hilly Janes 2014