Bardsey Island (or Ynys Enlli under its lovelier, more alliterative Welsh form) rises out of the western sea off Braich-y-pwll like a hump-backed whale. From the mainland it deceives, concealing its gentler western slopes behind its mountain. Only two miles separate the northern tip of the island from Lleyn, but the voyage out is more like six miles, from the village of Aberdaron, round the point of Pen-y-cil, then over the treacherous waters of the Sound, round the southern tip of Bardsey to a landing near the lighthouse. When the tide is running, the Sound is a maelstrom of thrashing waters vying for room in the narrows. Brenda Chamberlain, following Homer, describes these waters as ‘wine-dark’, and nothing could be more apt, for so swiftly and darkly does the tide run that often opposing floods run counter with a wall a foot high between them.
Colonel Colby’s first Ordnance Survey map published in 1839 shows the island’s topography much as it is today. There along the single lane with old houses either side, life has passed immemorially. Who knows what prehistoric people sought refuge here? The early saints, dipping their weary feet in holy wells all along the spine of the Lleyn peninsula, arrived, lived out their ascetic lives and laid their bones here. But mostly the island bears the stamp of the ‘old people’ of the nineteenth century, surviving into this one: “men of faded photographs; bearded, in Tam o’Shanters, taller than men are now; more heroic, removed from the present into saga-land by the passage of time”.
Then followed mainland curiosity in the years just before the war. Most of the old folk departed, like some disturbed wild species, leaving the island and most of its houses to the birds, rabbits, seals and the lighthouse keepers. Mainlanders came bringing their various neuroses; Stewart Hopkinson and his half-estranged wife who hated the island and threatened to leave any day. And Brenda Chamberlain.
The impact of meeting those already there, still with that lacing of ‘old folk’, affected her deeply. “The suave, secretive faces of seafarers, with the mouths of men who have almost mastered fear” (my italics). That is indicative, for Brenda came to the island part-wounded in some way, came like a pilgrim searching out healing, hoping almost to master fear. One’s first impression of Brenda was of vulnerability. She was small, yet strong of bone with a tall, gothic countenance. But she was susceptible to deep hurt, which she held within. To seek an island is the wish of those who suffer too deeply from the cut and thrust of mainland life.
She took to the island at once, yet was half-afraid, under no illusion as to its insidious cruelties. “Puppet strings took me by the hair roots, drawing me back to the house in the quiet dusk.” Her pessimism shows through, yet it is a poetic pessimism, reminiscent of Rilke — “a bird power-dived. Alas, humankind; featherless, wingless, crawling the earth.” But she roots down and very soon in Tide-race appears the passage where she watches the seals basking and fishing, taking on the aspect of myth. “Below us, a seal cow lay on her back in the bottle-green gloom of the cavern... Come to me, come to me. Her arms extended, folded again to her creamy underside. So great was the human mermaid attraction that I could have leapt to my death by drowning... A woman on land and a silkie in the sea.”
In many ways, Bardsey was ideal for Brenda. It was not that she needed a new landscape to spark off some inspired seam of painting, as Pembrokeshire sparked off Graham Sutherland. She was not simply painter, but writer, poet. She did not really need people or landscape, she simply needed to confront them, explore them as a blind child explores a new face with its fingers, sometimes as sadly, to see how far she could get with them. She records, she does not comment much, yet in recording brings out the poetry of place. “lf l had a thousand years in which to learn the secrets of the sea, the force of my desire would become lost in the thought of eternity. Though tomorrow may be nothing to me: I nothing to tomorrow, today is mine.”
She would call at our house, out of the blue, her timing controlled more by tide than by clock, with her tall, handsome, monosyllabic Paul, would enter the small world of our children, then depart just as abruptly, as though called back to the island. “You who are in the safety of the world, can you guess what this going home means to the islander?” You felt she would be your friend for life, but would never need you. Yet how wrong that was, as those of us who did not discern her need in the last years came to know only too well. For even as she cried, it sounded like poetry, childlike, keening, yet with that sharp ear for the wind’s whispers and the rustle of adder in the hedge bank.
As she sang her songs of innocence, there was a great deal of experience to her too, perhaps more than she needed. She was a Bangor girl, educated there, and she followed her artistic bent by attendance at the Royal Academy Schools where she met, and subsequently married John Petts, the painter, engraver and typographer. Together they settled at Llanllechid in the hills behind Bangor, at the beginning of the war, where they produced the inimitable Caseg Broadsheets, a pattern for that mixture of word and image beloved of the Welsh. For though some claim the Welsh are visually blind, a reading of Welsh poetry soon corrects this assumption.
Ac yna trwy egni’r gaeaf,
Arwyddion goruchafiaeth yr haf—
Gwynion bach, gwyrddion bach
O’r pridd du...
writes Gwyn Thomas.
And then through Winter’s force
Come signs of summer’s conquest
Little whites, little greens
Out of the black earth...
Such images from nature, her colours, sights, sounds, a fox traversing the mountain top, blazing red against the setting sun, the sheer proﬂigacy of nature...
The green vibrancy worn yellow
with its prophecies red and black…
All this is abundant in Welsh poetry from the beginning, for do not the Welsh in their green landscape live within touch of heaven? Brenda early found her vocation as poet, whether in prose, verse, painting or drawing. The story of the Gwasg y Gaseg enterprise is told in Alun Lewis and the Making of the Caseg Broadsheets. Those broadsheets are now precious collectors’ items.
But alas, the sunderings of war. John was torn away on national service, joining 224 Parachute Field Ambulance, where I met him, serving in Europe and the Middle East. Their parting broke the bond. They separated. She was in Germany soon after its defeat, staying with Karl von Laer, to whom she dedicated her ﬁrst volume of verse, The Green Heart.
It was in Shinwell’s hard winter of 1947 that she settled in Bardsey with Paul, and stayed till 1961, with occasional sorties to the mainland, arranging framing for an exhibition at Gimpel Fils in London, or printing, or simply feeling her feet on the mainland, testing out friends, who was still faithful to life’s poetry, who betrayed by the daily treadmill. I recall even printing one of her broadsheets myself, though I have no trace of it. No, she was not short on experience, if one means the prints life lays upon the heart in its passage. Yet always she was shot through with innocence. Even when Paul and she seemed to drift apart and Enlli possibly soured (who is to know?), she sought another island amidst the wine-dark sea. Once, when my wife and I sailed out of Piraeus in the little island steamer, I stopped off at Aegina to pay homage to the temple of Aphaea while my wife sailed on to Ydra off the tip of the Pelopennessos. Mistaking her for English, the skipper declared for her benefit: “There is Englishman at top of hill”. And sure enough, when Judith climbed the hill, there behind lemon-yellow curtains and a jar of golden asphodel was Brenda.
But there is no doubt the centre of her 59 years on this earth were those at Ynys Enlli and Tide-race is their monument. From the island she sang her poetry like a syren, tempting the unwary to brave the treachery of the waters and share in her troubled and precarious ecstasy. She soaked up the island and its moods, its volatile weather, the tide-race in the Sound, rippling black silk beneath the shadow of the mountain, the cry of shearwater, the dip and dart of oyster-catchers, the basking mermaid-life of seals, but above all the in-grown living of the islanders, the shooting of a sick cow for want of the vet and where to bury it (“Wasn't sure where the other buggers had been buried” moans Cadwaladr), strange nostrums for sick children, the guarded relationships of spouses, the intermittent mourning for the mainland that would offer them no great solace should they fall for its temptations. For the islanders too have their neuroses, the women in their perpetual insecurity, the men at sea in a storm, no doctor within reach should a child fall mysteriously ill; Cadwaladr haunted by a dead neighbour: “Old Dai tried to grab me last night, and there was a man in the tower last week, singing to himself about a shipwreck”.
Tide-race is the record of an inner voyage, embellished by drawings of what her eye caught. There is nothing quite like it. Although Brenda was a very successful painter, with several one-man shows in London and her works placed in most Welsh collections and elsewhere, Tide-race is her true memorial, her benefaction to us who dwell on the mainland and ponder sometimes as we look over the Sound.