Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Cardiff is a city full of statues, sculptures, memorials and modern art. We have statues of Cardiff’s influential business figures of the 19th century scattered throughout Cathays, and of influential politicians like John Batchelor, David Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan within a five minute walk of one another in the heart of central Cardiff. There are memorials dedicated to the World Wars, the Falkland Islands conflict, the War in South Africa and Spanish Civil War, as well as modern art on Kingsway, Queen St and The Hayes to name a few. That’s all without even mentioning the statues of City Hall,'s Marble Hall of the likes of St. David, Henry VII and Owain Glyndwr.
Many of these statues and sculptures have been sitting around the city for generations already, and most of us walk past them daily without giving them much thought. In fact, having conducted tours around Cardiff over the last two years or so to thousands of people from around the world, it’s still surprising how little people ask about the monuments and statues that aren’t already covered across the tours. For example, any given tour of Cardiff city centre will likely feature the Welsh National War Memorial, or, of course, John Batchelor, because that’s where the Cardiff tour starts, but we walk past the likes of Lord Ninian Crichton Stuart and Nereid every day, yet nobody ever asks about them for some unknown reason.
Therefore, with that in mind, let’s today focus on some of the overlooked outdoor characters and art of Cardiff city centre, that aren’t currently fairly well known already or that we don’t already cover extensively on walking tours around the city, so we will avoid the 3rd Marquess of Bute, Batchelor, the World Wars, Bevan and the Falklands and so on. Also, Cardiff Bay, for example, will likely receive its own article, but that’s for another day.
So from north to south of central Cardiff, here are five of Cardiff's most interesting piece of publin art.
A Memorial - Spanish Civil War
The memorials for the World Wars and the Falklands, in Alexandra Gardens, may be far grander in appearance and far more publicised as events, but the Welsh role in the Spanish Civil War is no less interesting. Between 1936 and 1939, about 200 people from Wales helped the elected Republican government fight the fascist forces of General Franco in Spain.
The Welsh contingent joined an estimated 45,000 international volunteers from 54 countries who sought to defend the Spanish government against Franco's rebel forces. More than 500,000 people ultimately died in the war, about 200,000 of them in combat, and 33 of them were from Wales.
One may be forgiven for thinking Welsh involvement came about due to some feeling of solidarity with the provinces of Catalonia or the Basque country and their independence movements, but that was not the case. It was rather the prevailing concern in Spain, Europe and Wales over the rising tide of fascism across Europe.
Spain had provided the first resistance to this surge, but the military uprising on July 16th and 17th 1936 against the democratically elected republican government in Spain led immediately to the outbreak of Civil War. Meanwhile, in south Wales the mid-1930s was characterised by resistance to mass unemployment and appeasement of the national and Conservative governments.
The response in Wales to events in Spain was largely provided by the South Wales Miners' Federation and the Communist Party, and it eventually came to be supported by a broad coalition of the Labour Party, Liberals, some Welsh writers, academics and teachers as well. Most were largely from the central valleys of the Rhondda, Cynon and Taff although there were also volunteers from the north Wales coalfield, the coastal towns of south Wales and rural areas. The 200-or-so Welsh men who volunteered to fight in Spain represented the largest regional industrial grouping within the British Battalion of the International Brigades.
Incidentally, one of the first to recognise the growing threat of fascism was Labour MP Aneurin Bevan who, as early as 1933, formed an anti-fascist workers militia, named the Tredegar Workers' Freedom Group. Bevan, of course, has one of Cardiff's most prominent statues, sitting at the intersection of Queen St, Kingsway, Castle St and John St, arguably serving as the central point of the city.
Following the bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 and the subsequent fall of the Basque Country, support back in Wales broadened from the mainly working class Spanish Aid communities to the wider Basque Children's Refugee Communities, with the prominent support of former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, as well as from leading academics, teachers and writers.
They established four Basque Children's Homes in Colwyn Bay, Brechfa, Swansea and Caerleon. The Basque children were reportedly the largest ever single influx of refugees into Britain, and they were warmly welcomed by the general public at the time.
A (Known) Person - Lord Ninian Crichton Stuart
The statue of Lord Ninian stands opposite Cardiff’s National Museum in the Gorsedd Gardens. He is standing on a plinth in military uniform, holding binoculars in his right hand, and a riding whip and note book in his left hand.
Born in Scotland in 1883, he was the second son of John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, and the Honourable Gwendolen Mary Anne Fitzalan Howard. Lord Bute has his own prominent statue in the city centre as well, of course, sitting on his own in Friary Gardens, between two of the architectural developments inspired by his wealth; Cardiff Castle and the Civic Centre. Being only the second son of the 3rd Marquess, Ninian is so named because John was already taken by his elder brother, with all first born Bute sons receiving the name John for generations, including all five of the Butes of Cardiff. The Bute family originally hail from the Isle of Bute, in Scotland, but had been owners of Cardiff Castle since the late 18th century through marriage, hence his Scottish birth.
Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Ninian Edward Crichton-Stuart sadly died in 1915 serving in the First World War. He was a Scottish senior officer in the British Army and Member of Parliament for the United Boroughs of Cardiff, Cowbridge and Llantrisant, following the election of 1910.
He originally entered the army in 1903 and served in the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders and the Scots Guards as a lieutenant. Latterly, in 1912, he took command of the 6th (Glamorgan) Battalion, The Welch Regiment.
As a politician, he was prominent in the areas of improving conditions and facilities within the military and for local workers in Wales. He petitioned for improved weapons for the British Cavalry and he was prominent in stressing the terrible working conditions and lack of employment rights experienced by many men, women and children in the Cardiff area.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered his unit for service and joined the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. On October 28th 1914 the battalion of 30 officers and 812 men, plus 500 horses, sailed to France. It was the first Welsh territorial battalion to serve overseas. Following eleven months on the front line, he was shot in the head and killed when leading his men in an attempt to repel a German counter-attack on October 2nd 1915 during the Battle of Loos. He was the only serving MP from Wales to be killed.
The name Ninian might be most notable to many as the name of Cardiff City Football Club’s stadium prior to the creation of Cardiff City Stadium. Ninian Park was named after Lord Ninian, after he offered to be a guarantor for the football club's rental of the site in Leckwith. It was the home ground of Cardiff City for 99 years, until 2009.
Following his death, church services and masses were held for him across South Wales and a statue to commemorate him was unveiled in 1919, paid for by public subscription.
A Piece of Modern Art - Nereid
Located on Kingsway in central Cardiff, this bronze sculpture is of an unnamed nereid, wearing a thin dress, with outstretched arms looking towards a bird held in her left hand, standing on a curved 'wave' at the foot of which are two bronze fish. The base may be polished granite, and is 152cm tall. The Nereid herself is 183cm tall alone.
Nereid's are the sea nymphs of Greek mythology, companions of Poseidon, god of the sea (who also has a sizeable sculpture in Cardiff incidentally, outside the Glamorgan Building). Nereid's are also helpers of those sailors and fishermen who get caught in dangerous storms (they assisted Jason and the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece, for example).
Tradition tells that there were 50 Nereids, all daughters of Nereus and Doris, but more than 50 have been named in the ancient works of Homer, Hesiod and others. Nereids can be friendly and helpful to sailors fighting perilous storms, as mentioned, so potentially she is offering protection to the sailors of Cardiff, both historically and today.
Surely that is the significance of this piece of art to the city. In hindsight, perhaps it would be better placed in Cardiff Bay rather than Kingsway, but it is still unmissable when entering or emerging from the underpass of Boulevard de Nantes, if you're heading to City Hall or the Hilton Hotel. If it wasn’t for the riches of Cardiff’s golden age as the world’s biggest coal exporting port over 100 years ago, the fine buildings of Cardiff’s Civic Centre and the renovations of Cardiff Castle may not have been possible, so its locations may be quite appropriate after all.
This particular Nereid was unveiled in 1996. She’s the work of British sculptor and Fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, Nathan David, who has a long and impressive list of work to his credit in Britain and around the world.
An (Unknown) Person - Mother and Son
This sculpture will be known to many who are regular shoppers on Cardiff’s Queen St. Mother & Son, or Mam y Mab in Welsh, sits on the popular shopping street between the entrances of a Gregg's and Tim Horton's. It is a bit larger than life size and is a bronze sculpture of a Mother and Son. It was placed there in 1963.
The creator, Robert Thomas, was a Welsh sculptor born in Cwmparc in the Rhondda Valley. He is best known for his work in bronze sculptures, many of which are on public display, even around Cardiff. Thomas received several commissions that are now public works of art, with permanent residency in major city centres.
Four of Thomas' sculptures are prominently displayed on Cardiff's Queen Street, in the heart of the Welsh capital's shopping district. The four are; Nye Bevan; 'The Family' at the junction with Churchill Way (depicting a family of four on a bench); 'The Miner' (towards the Capitol Centre, a single miner stands tall, ready for work); and 'Mother & Son'. Additionally, there is a bronze sculpture called The Girl at the Gorsedd Gardens, opposite the National Museum.
What makes this particular sculpture of Mother & Son more interesting than the others is its rear. From the front it is just a mother protecting her son, the likes of which can be seen in the day to day life of Queen St. However, it is when viewing the back that the work takes a darker tone. The Mother is carrying behind her back a piece of coal, an industrial bobbin of thread, a foetus and a container which is likely to be a miner’s lunch box. She manages to look proud and elegant despite the perils of her life and the fears she faces daily.
A Sculpture - All Hands
This sculpture features a giant pair of hands holding a rope. This large sculpture depicts the hands of canal workers pulling their boats along with heavy ropes. The 2001 sculpture by Brian Fell, has traditionally been located above an old underground Canal in central Cardiff on Custom House St. However, due to building works taking place over the last year or so at the old Custom House it has been temporarily removed. Hopefully it will return to its home once the building work has been completed.
Regarding the Glamorganshire Canal itself, it began its life when construction started in 1790. The canal used to run from Merthyr Tydfil in the north all the way down south to Cardiff Docks. The canal was thought up as a solution to the issue of transporting goods (iron ore, coal and limestone) from the valleys to Cardiff, from where they would be shipped around the world, but it went out of use in the 1940s. By that stage train travel had very much taken over as a faster and more logical means of transport, and the exporting of these materials had deteriorated extensively by this point as well.
Therefore, seeing as the canal was no longer in use for its original purpose, much of it was filled in. Today, only limited traces of the canal remain. The section from Tongwynlais to the Melingriffith Tin Plate Works at Whitchurch is now the Glamorganshire Canal local nature reserve. In addition, there are a few bridges and locks which have not been destroyed, and there's a footbridge over the canal near Cardiff Castle that is now in use as an underpass. In the past such prominent Cardiff streets like Mill Lane and Churchill Way would have been canals.
The positioning of the sculpture is therefore quite appropriate, as the canal flowed along neighbouring Mill lane, and then south along what we now consider the lower end of Mary St towards Callaghan Square under the train bridge. Therefore, the regular position of the sculpture on Custom House St is quite fitting as it is essentially the intersection of where part of the canal used to be.
Thanks for reading. Please comment with your own preferences of public art around the city. If you have enjoyed this blog, make sure to check out our other articles about Wales, Welsh history, culture, traditions and its people on our regularly updated Blog page.
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