“History is an essential part of the present, and I immediately wanted the opportunity to
respond to such an inspiring place through my artwork,” says Cardiff-based artist John Abell, who has chosen for his exhibition “Becca and her Children” (being held at National Trust, Newton House, Dinefwr, Carmarthenshire from 17 January to 26 April, 2020) an important event from the past known as “Rebecca Riots”.
Taking place in Mid and West Wales between 1839-43, the Rebecca Riots were a series of protests undertaken by local farmers and agricultural workers against what was understood to be unfair taxation. Through paintings, linocuts and etchings, John Abell examines the daily life, beliefs and camaraderie of the rioters as they rose up in rebellion against the Turnpike Trusts (bodies set up in Britain in the 17th century for the maintenance of roads) and the introduction of road tolls in rural Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire in southwest Wales.
Underlying the protests, writes Neil Evans of Cardiff University on the BBC, were the economic conditions of the time and the relationship between farmers and landlords, and the church. He continues:
The population of the rural areas of Wales had doubled in the century before the riots, despite the large numbers of people who left the countryside for the industrial areas of Wales and emigrated to America. It was hard for them all to gain a livelihood. Most farmers did not own their own land (as they generally do now) but paid rent to wealthy landlords (known as gentry) for the use of their farms. Rents were quite high – and out of proportion to what farmers could earn from their produce. The prices they received for cattle and sheep were falling. The common lands which were once available for the use of all the people in a village were now enclosed – that is they had become the property of the landlords and were leased out to farmers. Labourers (who worked for the farmers) had used the common to graze animals or for gathering firewood, suffered as a result. The farmers also had to pay tithes (a tenth of all their produce each year) to the church, to support the local vicar.
During the Riots of 1839-43, men disguised themselves as women to attack the tolls. They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, most likely inspired by a passage in the Bible (Genesis XXIV, verse 60) which goes as: “And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.”
John Abell creates an inclusive visual narrative, telling the story of the marginalised “Other” in the tradition of the novelist and businesswoman Amy Dillwyn (1845-1935) who wrote the “The Rebecca Rioter”. His works go further by highlighting the psychological implications of the uprising and the sense of community that the events engendered. Vivid and intricate, the works look like religious epiphanies and psychedelic visions, containing references to the stacks of wheat that had been burnt by the rioters. One of the linocuts sees the biblical Tree of Jesse transported into rural Wales, rich with symbolism it further merges past and present, tale and history with its moving imagery.
Born in 1986, John Abell studied at Camberwell College of Art. He is particularly known for his large-scale wood block prints and highly coloured watercolour paintings which explore life, love, lust, the embodied experience. The work is charged with a sense of fear and death, pessimism or even nihilism along with a large pinch of gallows humour. His aim is to represent human feeling, the world and himself as honestly as he can with no intellectual mediation. John’s prints and publications are held in private and public collections worldwide, including the V&A; the National Museum of Wales; the British Museum, the National Library of Australia, Canberra; the National Library of Canada, Ottawa and Columbia University Library, New York. He is represented by Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh.