Belgian poet Verhaeren in Cardiff 1914

In the first World War, the German invasion of Belgium forced hundreds of thousands of Belgians into exile, with more than 150,000 of them coming to Britain. In extending a welcome to these refugees to Wales the Davies family of Llandinam also saw an opportunity to inject new energy into the arts scene in Wales by inviting artists, musicians and poets to settle there. The pages of The Welsh Outlook, a periodical financed by David Davies, which aimed to stimulate and internationalize Welsh culture, testify to the success of this plan. At this time Cardiff hosted an exhibition of work by Belgian artists in the Royal Academy, and the Davies sisters as well as the Council of the National Museum of Wales purchased paintings from it.

Among the refugees was one of Belgiums most prominent poets, Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916). He arrived in Britain in October 1914, and was the guest of Mr Harry Webb MP at Llwynarthen, near Cardiff. Other Belgians in the area included Émile Claus and Émile Vandervelde. Verhaeren was much in demand on the lecturing circuit, and received invitations to lecture in French at the Universities of Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Bangor as well as further afield in England. Verhaeren delivered a lecture in Cardiff on 4 December 1914, at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire building, Cathays Park, the building in which his compatriot Émile Fabry, an artist and Professor at the Royal Academy of Arts, Brussels, painted a fresco as a mark of appreciation for the hospitality of the people of Wales. Verhaeren’s Cardiff lecture, which like his others was in French, is reported in Llais Llafur, 12 December 1914 as a ‘large and representative gathering’, and he is described as ‘the famous Belgian poet and dramatist’, and praised for singing ‘the toilers of the earth’. Punctuating his lecture with readings from his own poetry, Verhaeren explained that the two communities of Belgium – Walloon and Flemish – had been made one by their suffering in war.

He made an impression in Wales, where he was appreciated as a labouring class poet, who showed ‘sympathy for the lowest in the social scale’ (Cambrian Daily Leader, 6 November 1914), and an elegist for the country way of life, reflected in one of the epithets given to him in the press ‘Ceiriog Belgium’. He left for France in February 1915.

Further reading:

Moira Vincentelli, ‘The Davies family and Belgian refugee artists and musicians in Wales’ National Library of Wales Journal, 22:2 (1981), 226-33

Caterina Verdickt, ‘The Case of Elisabeth de Saedeleer (1902-1972): The influence of Welsh hospitality in the Great War on Belgian Modernist interior design’, The British Art Journal, 15:3 (2015), 93-98

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