Photographer Jon Pountney, based near Cardiff, was selected for our Horsebox Studio Commission at the 2017 Abergavenny Food Festival. Using archive photography as a starting point Jon discovered more about the smallholdings and farms, past and present, of rural Monmouthshire.
With a particular focus on the Llanthony Valley, Jon created an exhibition of new photographic work alongside archive images from the personal collection of Edith James of Treveddw Farm and from the Llanthony History Society.
The exhibition was displayed in the Horsebox Studio, situated in the grounds of Abergavenny Castle during the festival weekend on Saturday 16th & Sunday 17th September 2017. Writer Emma Beynon and poet Jonathan Edwards, delivered creative writing workshops for all ages, inspired by the The Living Valley.
‘My discovery of the Llanthony Valley began as an exploration in the imagination, as well as in reality. An area illuminated by many artists and writers, the valley is very much a working space, crisscrossed by busy lanes and farms. It has been hard not to be seduced on these late summer evenings by the whirling swallows and dramatic cloudscapes around the Skirrid mountain; whilst trying to remember that in winter it can be a difficult and isolated place.
Treveddw farm has been in the James family since 1860. The first James to farm there was Edward, who was Edith’s great grandfather, followed by Alan James and then Cecil James, Edith’s father. Today it is looked after by Mark and Liz; Liz is Edith’s niece. The farmhouse itself and the barns and farm buildings are beautiful in that way that practical buildings are; patched and repaired over hundreds of years, building up a tapestry that has shaped the look of the place as much as any architect.
Edith has provided graceful, bucolic photographs of her family’s life. Photographing the same farm and lanes, I have sought to reflect the contemporary atmosphere of the area, whilst also acknowledging my own early life growing up in rural north Yorkshire and Warwickshire.
For me it is the smells of the buildings that are powerfully evocative, not just the farmyard smells but the shed where all the chopped wood is stored. When I was very small my Nan lived in a village in north Yorkshire and it is the humble garden buildings of her neighbours, Norah and Arthur, that the Treveddw wood shed recalls to me. Cool and dusty, with shafts of sun picking out the cobbled floor, it smelled of chopped wood, damp and bitumen. A totally timeless space, where imaginations were formed. I hope that places like this last forever.’
– Jon Pountney
Jonathon Edwards wrote an article responding to The Living Valley
The Abergavenny Food Festival. Stall after stall of salt and chilli squid, oysters and Bollinger, falafel and pitta, where burgers are made of venison or boar or water buffalo but never ham, where lattes are made of coconut milk or the tears of angels, where scallops in their shells sit in display cases or treasure chests surrounded by jewels of ice. There is organic food and hand-reared food, slow food, fast food and, quite probably, food at a moderate pace. Carwyn Jones stands queuing for tickets. Matt Tebbutt strolls in the sunshine, looking a bit like Matt Tebbutt. A twentysomething fashionista in the crowd points at a stall across the way and yells ‘Soft shell crab! Boom!’ In the afternoon sun, a helium-filled Tyrannosaurus rex floats up through the sky. Follow that balloon straight down and you’ll find a crying child, holding a dinosaur-shaped hole where his heart used to be.
In the middle of all this, in an idyllic spot behind the castle – the Blorenge flicks cloud from its shoulders in the distance – stands the Peak Horsebox Studio, a haven of culture, thoughtfulness, opportunity, education, fun. Jon Pountney, the commissioned artist, has produced a new photography collection called ‘The Living Valley’ inspired by the food producers of the Llanthony Valley. He has sourced photos of Treveddw Farm from Edith James, whose family has lived on the farm since the late 1920s. These fascinating family portraits, school photographs and pictures of farming life offer a window on history; I was reminded of the wonderful RS Thomas poem ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor.’ Alongside these, Jon has produced images of what it looks like now, which offer an illuminating contrast with the originals. A horse looks out of its stall as if keeping an eye out for visitors. A road leads off into the distance in a beautiful rolling valley.
The photographs trigger a range of memories among visitors, who know people or places in the photos, or know someone who does, or think they recognise someone or somewhere, but are a few streets or miles or a generation out. Jon is influenced by the way art can build connections between people, and the way the Horsebox is a means of getting art out to audiences who may not have access to it. He describes the Valley as a ‘magical, interesting, otherworldly kind of area…as if you’ve passed into another dimension.’
Over the course of the weekend, the Horsebox is also a place for children. Emma Beynon’s wonderful poetry workshops inspire joyous poems about food. Here are a few among many examples of the children’s lines, which any poet would love to have written: ‘The apple is an orange in disguise,’ ‘the apple is a mohawk hair cut,’ ‘the apple is curvy as a hammock,’ ‘the cheese is a creamy yellow miniskirt, subtle but bold and confident.’
Jon’s photographs also inspire writing. ‘Poem to the Valley,’ which I’ll end this piece with, is a communal poem, combining lines from a range of people who visited the Horsebox throughout the weekend, offering a snapshot of visitors’ thinking and reminiscing, the journeys that they went on, inspired by Jon’s wonderful photographs.
– Jonathon Edwards
Poem to the Valley
A horse looking out of its stall, keeping a keen eye out for visitors.
A man holding his pet fox underarm – strange rugby ball, looking round at the world.
Sweat and stone, years of farming, making food in the Llanthony Valley.
The sweet smell of dew in the grass and the bitter taste of smoke in the air.
Bonnets tied tight under freckled chins, shading brightness, casting shadows.
The old signpost, pointing down the lane to the past, shining on memory.
Machine gun on a horse, mouldy apples, neigh!
Determined tractor driver, in his best bow tie.
Humans at one with rural wilderness.
Family roots growing like potatoes.
The purple cauliflower was funny.
About Jon Pountney
‘I first picked up a ‘real’ camera in 1995, a present for my 17th birthday from my Nan. From this moment I began my creative journey as a photographer and artist, exploring photography, painting and drawing at college and university. Since leaving education, I have worked on a series of self-initiated and collaborative projects, which have ranged from a residency in a castle to a photography documentary commissioned and shown by the BBC.
My work is the result of years of seeing and thinking about photography and my place within it as an artist. My aesthetic as a photographer is very simple and straightforward: try to capture interesting places and moments in time and share with others. I make art to communicate my sense of wonder, and the themes in my work are influenced by my interest in people, place and history. Not merely a spectator, I am most often a member of the communities who form my practice. I am driven by storytelling through imagery, in still or moving image, and I believe my familiarity with my subjects helps to vitalise the work by lending credibility and an empathetic interpretation.’
About Abergavenny Food Festival
Over the last 18 years, Abergavenny Food Festival has grown to become the largest, longest running food festival in Wales. The event enjoys an exceptional reputation as a place for chefs, food businesses, journalists, farmers and food producers to come together. The Festival prides itself on transforming the way people think about food; challenging and promoting new ideas, pushing the boundaries of current thinking and encouraging people to look differently at where their food comes from. Abergavenny Food Festival was created in 1999 by two local farmers in response to the BSE crisis and the resulting lack of consumer confidence in British produce. With the outbreak of Foot and Mouth in 2001, the difficulties worsened for farmers and pushed the Festival forward in terms of showcasing the wonderful food on offer locally and the passion of the people who produce it. Each year the Festival attracts more than 30,000 visitors to Abergavenny, generating an estimated £4 million impact for the local economy.
The Horsebox Studio is a creative mobile space which takes Peak projects on the road. Supported by the Brecon Beacons Trust.