In a host of previous blogs I’ve attempted to critically explore the range of art current populating Welsh castles, particularly when it relates to death and memory. Here I look at Caerphilly and its dragons from last year.
Art is everywhere at Welsh castles. Some of it I like or find interesting, some of it I’m less keen on. Either way, castle ruins are rarely now just ruins, they are replete inside and out with permanent and temporary art installations. Sometimes they get in the way of engagement with the spaces and architecture, sometimes they operate to afford new stories and experiences for visitors. I find a few difficult to interpret while others I can appreciate their aesthetic qualities even if I don’t like their sentiment or meaning. Still, often they are responses to dimensions of the history of castle, its events and people, and hence attempt to connect to a wider cultural and historical environment.
The worst for me are those that are simply honorific of English royalty and/or Welsh resistance to it. A few tell more nuanced and ambiguous narratives. Perhaps my favourite is the Welsh mythological art at Harlech.
This art is almost always political: never neutral. Most overt is the Game of Crowns display at Caernarfon. Most controversial of all, we’ve seen proposed art that has been so controversial it has never happened, notably the furore over Flint Castle last summer.
Feel free to browse this blog for more on art, monuments and memorials in ruined castle settings here.
I visited Caerphilly Castle last year and it bears a wide range of more permanent art installations (for another blog post). Admittedly, like many people, I’d like to see far less investment in dragons and more investment in the conservation of the remains, intelligent and informed heritage interpretation to replace the remedial faux newspaper headlines, and far more investment in actual educational resources and research to contextualise these castles in relation to the past and the present.
That aside, the art has much to tell us and having met one dragon in 2016 on tour and at Flint Castle, and then again at Rhuddlan, in 2017 my kids and I got to encounter a pair at Caerphilly: Dewi and Dwynwen.
Dewis is clearly a Welsh red, Dwynwen (despite her name) is clearly of Norwegian blue stock.
This was perhaps the most evocative placing we encountered the dragon art. The pair of beasts, composed so as to appear as if they are emerging out of the ground, were smouldering by the entrance to the castle, guarding the Outer East Gatehouse.
Subsequent to our visit, the dragon tale got even more ludicrous (or cute) with baby dragons being born to the pair at Caerphilly Apparently these are named Dylan and Cariad.
And yes, I can immediately hear complaints about heteronormativity in dragon sexuality and reproduction of a normative 2 offspring: one girl, one boy… In any case, my kids and I never got to see these.
However, we did get to see something else!
I was present at the rare moment where the dragons got adorned with a fez each. As we know from Doctor Who, fezes are cool. Yet in the context of Caerphilly, and proximal to the statue honouring the late great comedian, these are not arbitrary adornments, but Cadw’s way of honouring Tommy Cooper.
What to take from all this? Has heritage in Wales completely lost its way?
Maybe, but it is fun watching…
So is that the end of the dragons for Cadw? Or will they be back in 2018?