Charles Byrd at 100
By Dave Gwyer – Assistant Curator
Charles Byrd’s colourful, characterful and slightly crazy sculptures make you smile. You smile at their humour, the fun they embody and the sheer joy for life they express. He calls them his ‘magical machines’, and it is his imagination which gives them their magical, transformative power which brings out the wonder of the inner child in all of us. As we celebrate Charles Byrd’s 100th birthday in 2016, Pontypridd Museum is proud to house a small collection of these life-affirming works by one of the most gifted artists ever produced by the town.
Charles Byrd was born in Mound Road, Maesycoed, in 1916. He spent the first 10 years of his life in Pontypridd, a period which provided him with a storehouse of happy and vivid memories. In 1926 his family moved, first to Barry and subsequently to Cardiff, where Charles found work with the General Electric Company as a 14-year-old despatch clerk. In 1937 he joined the Bristol Aircraft Company as a fitter and during World War II he repaired Hurricane fighters and Blenheim bombers. He also saw military service in India, not returning to Cardiff until 1947.
At the age of 32 he first began to follow his interest in art, attending evening classes at Cardiff College of Art, and was so inspired that he took the incredibly bold decision to give up all other work and try to support himself as a professional artist, which he has been ever since.
His artistic inspiration came from his immediate surroundings – the Cardiff cityscape provided him with ample material. He painted the things and places which he knew best, with a keen eye for line and shape. In so doing his paintings became a valuable record of a specific period in Cardiff’s past. For instance, in the 1950s, he made many paintings of Tiger Bay little realising he was documenting an environment and community soon to disappear.
During the 1960s his personal painting style and technique embraced more abstract art forms and sculpture. In 1966 he made his first static constructions from wood, string, wire and other materials which led to his initial experiments with kinetic (moving) works in 1968. Since then his colourful and intriguing sculptures have been exhibited throughout Wales and the UK. Two of his constructions were purchased for the fine art collection of ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum’ in the USA.
The scale of his works gradually increased and many of his larger pieces were shown at the Old Library in Cardiff, in what became known as ‘The Charles Byrd Museum of Magical Machines’. When the library closed most of the bigger constructions were put into storage awaiting a permanent home. In 2008, when the National Eisteddfod visited Cardiff, a retrospective exhibition brought together as many of his works as could be traced, rekindling interest and the ambition for them to be displayed together permanently. In this his centenary year, it is to be hoped that this ambition will be achieved sooner rather than later.