Salem by Sydney Curnow Vosper’s (1866- 1942) carries an estimate of £40,000-60,000 at The Welsh Sale held by Rogers Jones in Cardiff on October 19.
The watercolour, gouache and wash depicts Sian Owen in traditional Welsh costume arriving at her pew in Capel Salem, Cefn Cymerau baptist chapel in North Wales. The primary version of this image celebrating the Welsh religious revival was bought by William Hesketh Lever for 100 guineas prior to the opening of the Royal Watercolour Society exhibition of 1909. Used in countless reproductions to sell bars of Sunlight Soap, since 1922 it has hung in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight.
At the time of its exhibition, Frank Treharne James, a Merthyr Tydfil solicitor and the artist’s brother-in-law, had been disappointed to discover that the picture was sold and commissioned Vosper to paint another version. Although exhibited on several occasions since its ‘rediscovery’ in the 1980s, it has been in the James family ever since.
There are some differences in the two works.
At 15 x 13in (36 x 33cm), this second version is smaller than the original and the composition omits both the clock on the chapel wall and one of the characters, the deacon at Salem, Robert Williams. The treatment of Sian Owen’s paisley shawl is also changed – perhaps ending the popular speculation that the artist had intended the face of the devil to be seen within the folds of the fabric.
Writing in The Tradition (2016) art historian Peter Lord calls Salem “…the most celebrated image ever created of the common people of Wales and, indeed [one that] came to exemplify perception of their character. In the wake of a nationwide religious revival in 1904, the picture itself and its associated mythology entered Welsh homes and folk memory.”
Sian Owen of Ty’n y Fawnog, Pensarn, near Llanbedr modelled for two of Vosper’s paintings. Market Day in Old Wales (1908), now in the National Museum, depicts her again dressed in her best clothes preparing to depart for a trip to the market.