Peter Prendergast

Bethesda Quarry


Not on display

Peter Prendergast 1946–2007
Oil paint on hardboard
Support: 1671 x 1928 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1984

Display caption

Prendergast was brought up near Caerphilly in South Wales where his father was a miner. Following his studies at Cardiff College of Art and the Slade School he moved to Bethesda in Gwynedd and there became fascinated by the nearby slate quarry and, in particular, the view into its pit from the edge of the man-made cliff. The artist wrote of this painting: ‘I first saw the quarry seventeen years ago in 1970. It impressed me because of its scale, ... from the bottom of the pit [it] looked like Breughel's Tower of Babel in reverse.’

Gallery label, July 2007

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Catalogue entry

Peter Prendergast born 1946

T03898 Bethesda Quarry 1980-81

Oil on hardboard 1671 x 1928 (65 1/2 x 75 7/8)
Inscribed ‘Quarry Picture [...] Jan 81' on support at back
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1984
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Contemporary Art Society 1982
Exh: Y Bryniau Tywyll y Cymylau Trymion, The Dark Hills the Heavy Clouds, Welsh Arts Council, Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Oct.-Nov. 1981, Wrexham Library Arts Centre, Nov.1981-Jan. 1982, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, Swansea, Jan.-Feb. 1982; National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Feb.-March 1982, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, March-May 1982 (47, repr. in col.); Stone Sculpture & Landscape Drawing, Moira Kelly Fine Art, July-Sept. 1982 (14); Y Ffordd i Fethesda, The Road to Bethesda, Paintings and Drawings 1960-82 by Peter Prendergast, Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Jan.-Feb. 1983, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, Swansea, March-April 1983, DLI Museum & Arts Centre, Durham, May-June 1983, Camden Arts Centre, Aug.-Sept. 1983, (83, repr. in col.); The Hard-Won Image, Tate Gallery, July-Sept. 1984 (118, repr. p.69)
Lit: Jeremy Yates, ‘Peter Prendergast's Bethseda Paintings', Link, 15, 1979, p.9.; A.D. Fraser Jenkins, Peter Prendergast, Y Bryniau Tywyll y Cymylau Trynion, The Dark Hills the Heavy Clouds, Welsh Arts Council, exh. cat. 1981, p.59; Merete Bates, ‘The Road to Bethesda', Y Ffordd i Fethesda, The Road to Bethesda, Paintings & Drawings 1960-82 by Peter Prendergast, exh. cat. 1983; Bryan Aspden, ‘Poems from an Exhibition, 1, Chwarel Bethesda-Peter Prendergast', News of the Changes, 1984, p.7.

The artist wrote about this painting (letter to the Tate Gallery, 29 Sept. 1987):

I first saw the quarry seventeen years ago in 1970. It impressed me because of its scale, it from the bottom of the pit looked like Breughel's ‘Tower of Babel' in reverse. I tried drawing it in 1970, but couldn't.

In 1976 I moved to a house nearer the quarry and realised that now I couldn't avoid the problem of the quarry. What impressed me was the space, and it was years before I worked out a device to make the whole work. My first successful drawing was the one Patrick Dolan bought for the Welsh Arts Council exhibition ‘Probity of Art'.

Two months earlier he refused to buy anything from my studio and said that he would wait until I did a good quarry drawing. I started one and couldn't complete it. I got a telephone call from the W.A.C. telling me that Patrick wouldn't last much longer (he was dying from cancer). I immediately went to the quarry, and with him in mind (I admired him for his courage and also for the fact that when he previously came to my studio though he was in pain he did not soften and purchase something he didn't think was good enough, though eventually he bought four drawings) I worked with enormous gusto and commitment, determined to do something special. That drawing, with two others, is now in the W.A.C. collection ... After producing the drawing for Patrick Dolan, I set out to make a bigger and better drawing in order to make a painting to explain the colour & scale ...

The painting started out at 4ft x 3ft. I worked on it for 6 months and got nowhere. I then decided to build it in proportion and shape to the drawing, building in panels in the way I constructed the paper drawing. I tried painting it with local colour, but it wouldn't work. In the end I used whatever colour that would do, though I definitely thought of the sun when using the golden oranges.

Well, I painted the picture because the quarry was visually exciting ... It was also the life source of the village, its history, etc., but really in the final analysis it was exciting visually, full of drama.

The Penrhyn slate quarry at Bethesda in Gwynedd was being worked while Prendergast was making this painting, as it is still. The selection for the exhibition ‘The Probity of Art', which inspired what the artist regarded as his first successful drawing of the quarry, was made in the autumn of 1979. Patrick Dolan, senior lecturer in the history of art at Cardiff College of Art (then recently retitled the Faculty of Art and Design, South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education), was invited to purchase drawings for the Welsh Arts Council's collection in July of that year, but died in the following January, shortly before the opening of the exhibition of his purchases. Four drawings by Prendergast were included, two of them of the quarry and from the same view as the Tate Gallery's painting.

A comparison between these two drawings (titled ‘Bethesda Quarry I and II' 1979, Welsh Arts Council, repr. Welsh Arts Council, Gonestrwydd Celfyddyd, The Probity of Art, exh. cat., 1980, pp.32 and 33) and a further larger drawing (‘Study for Quarry Painting', 1980, 978 x 1155, 38 1/2 x 45 1/5, private collection, repr. Rocks and Flesh, an argument for British Drawing, exh. cat. 1985, p.69) shows a progressively larger scale view, with more of the quarry included. Each was also more heavily drawn than the last and the detail simplified, with more emphasis on the contrast between the two cliffs at the centre. The two later drawings were both enlarged while being made, with the original sheet glued into the middle of a larger one. The third drawing was enlarged in this way several times, giving the appearance of a composition expanding outwards from the centre. The artist explains above how this drawing became a model for the painting.

This process of enlargement was also used in the painting, which was begun on a piece of hardboard about 1140 x 1200 (45 x 47 1/4). This was enlarged twice, at first with pieces attached to both sides and top, and then with pieces on all four sides. Since some of these were made up, the painting consists of a total of twelve pieces.

The three drawings listed above were the most direct studies for the painting, but Prendergast made many others, both drawn and painted. All of these, with the exception of the Tate Gallery's, which is considerably the largest, were made at the quarry, where Prendergast made a seat and table of slate. The Tate Gallery's painting was made at his studio in Bethesda, about half a mile from the entrance to the quarry.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.252-3

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