When, in August 1914, Germany invaded Belgium and the stories of atrocities started to circulate, hundreds of thousands of Belgians fled first their homes and then their country. Most headed for France and the Netherlands, but others made for the Channel ports and England. During the First World War, some 250,000 Belgians took refuge in Britain for varying lengths of time. On arrival, they were viewed with compassion and the War Refugee Committee and its local subcommittees eased the passage of these frightened exiles into and around the country, and helped find them homes and jobs.
Among the Belgians displaced by the fighting was the painter Valerius de Saedeleer (1867-1941) and his family. They had reached Zeeland in the Netherlands from their home near Ghent when they received word that Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, two sisters of independent wealth and ties to University College, Aberystwyth, were looking for Belgian artists to come to Wales. Their aim was doubly philanthropic: they wanted to aid cultural refugees and they wanted the example of these skilled incomers to nurture local artistic talent. Fellow Belgian artists brought to Aberystwyth alongside De Saedeleer included his friends the sculptor George Minne and the painters Edgar Gevaert and Gustave van de Woestyne.
In all some 130 Belgians were housed around the town and they were seen as an adornment, with a local newspaper reporting in October 1914 that: “A contingent of Belgian refugees reached Aberystwyth on Saturday by the express train from Euston and received a hearty welcome by inhabitants… It is stated that the adults are distinguished professional teachers, musicians and painters of a high station in life.”
[See also: How Joan Eardley painted the hard way]
De Saedeleer was perhaps the most distinguished of the newcomers. He had already built something of a reputation back home, with the journal La Belgique artistique et littéraire, for example, exclaiming of his work: “Oh! Thanks to some lucky star, he did not bring a new métier to the century! He brought better: all the love, all the care, all the science, all the passion.” International Studio marked him out as “a quite isolated figure in modern Belgian art … He has the eyes of a ‘primitive’, and renders the flat, wide far-stretching landscapes of Flanders with a delightful minutia”. He had exhibited across Europe, including at the Paris Salon and the Vienna Secession, and one of his paintings had been bought by the Belgian royal family.
Once in Wales, De Saedeleer found new landscapes, quite different to those of much of Flanders, but with some similarities to the countryside of the Ardennes where he was living when war broke out. By then, De Saedeleer had found his own style, born of personal experience. His father was a small businessman in the soap trade and wanted his son to have a solid profession too, forcing Valerius into an apprenticeship at a Ghent weaving factory. The boy, however, enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts without his father’s knowledge and set his eyes on a career as a painter. The pictures he would end up painting nevertheless had a simplicity and legibility that could have been made for tapestry designs.
De Saedeleer was brought up, artistically, among late impressionists and symbolist painters, but in 1898 he moved to the village of Sint-Martens-Latem, where he helped to form a colony of artists looking for a simpler, more authentic relationship with the soil – a common theme across Europe at the time, from Pont-Aven to Newlyn. He came of age after seeing a major exhibition of the Flemish primitives in Bruges in 1902. He then developed a careful, low-palette, thin oil, calligraphic style of landscape painting that almost entirely eschewed people in favour of chilly, often snowbound, emptiness. There are echoes of the landscapes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his work (several of his pictures could be of the poor village in The Hunters in the Snow, 1565) as well as the monochrome eeriness of his slightly younger contem-porary Léon Spilliaert.
De Saedeleer’s work proved popular in Wales and the artist himself was content, writing to a friend in 1915: “I am working quite well here. I have my family with me in a beautiful country and a nice home, I am as happy as I can be, far away from Flanders and the horrible war.” This undated watercolour, A View of a Valley, Wales, is, however, far from radiating that happiness or indeed a conventional type of beauty. Whether he was aware of it or not, this pared-back scene, with the green of the four foreground trees offering the only colour, exudes loneliness and melancholy. Time and place are immaterial; though the view is likely a real one, it is mood that is all-important. He would paint variations of such winter scenes over and over again, his own Winterreise, readjusting the same few elements – flat skies, patches of snow and rock, field walls, silhouetted trees and occasionally cottages – in an attempt to fix a composition that would satisfy him perfectly.
De Saedeleer did not explain his motivations, but he had become a committed Christian a decade before he moved to Wales and that seems to underlie his landscapes. His faith was austere and his paintings show a postlapsarian world that is badly in need of a redeeming Christ to melt the snow and bring life to the moribund earth. Perhaps those four trees are promises of hope but as pledges they are far from certain. Nor did the war, roiling just a few hundred miles away, give him cause for optimism.
Nevertheless, as he was giving form to his bleak, bare-branched and frosty vision of landscape, De Saedeleer participated fully in Aberystwyth’s cultural life, exhibiting both there and in London and doing conservation work on paintings in the university collection. He hoped to stay on after the war and run a proposed new craft and design centre, but the idea foundered and in 1921 the family moved back to Belgium. The house he chose was on the top of a hill and he renamed it Tynlon, meaning, in Welsh, “along the way”.
Although he gathered a circle of young admirers around him, he stopped developing as an artist. His repetitions became more marked, his pictures slipped into an increasingly decorative style – the enigma gone – and he began collaborating with printmakers to bring out commercially lucrative versions of his most notable earlier canvases. De Saedeleer had once exclaimed: “For God’s sake, for God’s sake, the greatest art is the art of getting there!” – and perhaps he felt he had indeed got there.
[See also: The wild pictures of Rosa Bonheur]
In fact, it was his daughter Elisabeth who became a more important figure. During the family’s Welsh sojourn she met William Morris’s daughter Mary, who taught her tapestry weaving. Elisabeth started by making work after her father’s floral designs but back in Belgium she became a leading practitioner, mixing continental modernism with British arts and crafts.
If the Davies sisters had hoped De Saedeleer – engaging, jovial and accomplished – would leave his mark on local artists the results were hard to discern. But Wales, especially Wales in the midwinter gloaming, undoubtedly left its mark on him.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special