The Welsh Salem

There are actually several Welsh Salems, but the most iconic is both a place and a painting: of the interior of a small Baptist chapel in the village of Pentre Gwynfrun, near Llanbedr in North Wales, by Sydney Curnow Vosper (1866-1942).  The focus of the watercolor is an elderly (even ancient) woman in traditional Welsh dress, surrounded by several other members of the congregation, most deep in prayer. Salem was painted by Vosper in 1908, a time when local Welsh traditions appeared vulnerable, and the painting reads tradition, faith, calm in an increasingly industrialized world. It also became the most accessible of images when it was incorporated into an advertising campaign for Lever Brothers’ Sunlight Soap, the first packaged bars of soap in Britain: for £7 of soap, consumers were entitled to send in a voucher and receive a color print of Salem. Many did so, especially in Wales, and consequently it adorns many Welsh walls. The painting has been the focus of a book and a recent exhibition, and Salem Chapel has become the object of many a pilgrimage.

Salem 1908

Salem on Wall

Salem, Sydney Curnow Vosper, 1908, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool Museums; a framed color print, BBC Wales

I saw my first Salem print when I was around 20, in a Welsh bed and breakfast, appropriately. Within a week of my first sighting, I saw several more. I had no knowledge of traditional Welsh clothing at that time, so I thought that this Salem pictured a seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts church and that the woman depicted was an ancient accused witch, being cast out by her congregation. I heard “Salem” and thought Salem Witch Trials. Believe me, I was quickly corrected! There is, however, a vague diabolical connection here: many people see the devil in the folded sleeve of the woman’s shawl–on the right, near her bent elbow, and her bible–as well as a mysterious face in the window. I have to admit that these visions elude me, but clearly there is more to Salem than meets the eye.

10 responses to “The Welsh Salem

  • Mythoughts76

    Well seeings as how I have some Welsh blood coursing through me veins (Grandma was a Jones), plus I have a vivid imagination as most creative people do, and people are prone to seeing faces in EVERYTHING they look at, I do see the face in the sleeve, actually it looks like a profile of a ugly head. In the center bottom window pane is a definite face peering in, I can’t enlarge the bible very well to see a face.

  • Mythoughts76

    Please excuse my typos, they are a true part of my impulsive nature.

  • Matt

    i can see the face in the window. Very creepy. But, the devil in the shawl elludes me, as well. Perhaps it is that I am not thinking of the right “version” of the devil to pick out his outline.

  • Steven McCabe

    Blue eyelids. Greenish eye area. Slyly looking backwards. Horns coming from forehead made by the sienna circle pattern in the shawl. The curve of the pew arm rest leads directly (follow the line upwards) to the green nose! Quite brilliant of this artist to slip this in. Yes a tiny spectral face centre, lower window pane upper left.

  • Steven McCabe

    Her left arm also (left to us): green, round eye. Blue horn. Extended hand as creature’s beak. Medieval devil? Bird? I see a bird-like body in the sienna folds. This artist was either really being directed by his subconscious or was very clever indeed.

  • elwyn davies

    The devil in the shawl is seen by many welsh people as the sin of pride, in this cae the clothing. The woman has the most beautiful shawl. Non Conformist chapels are unadorned and the congregation plainly dressed in this time. I have this picture at home, also my mother had and my grandparents house in Llanelli. It does hang in many Welsh houses

  • Telwyn Jones

    Pure nonsense, the story of the devil came about as to the chapel’s name,
    English people associated with infamous Salem witches in Mass. USA. If you look hard your eye can detect a face in whatever picture. Leave off

  • Are You Looking Forward to Reading Wales 2022? – Book Jotter

    […] Salem was painted in 1908 by Cornish artist Sydney Curnow Vosper and depicts a scene inside Capel Salem, a Baptist Chapel in the village of Pentre Gwynfryn, located in Ardudwy, only a short distance from our lodge. This iconic watercolour painting shows a pious congregation in traditional Welsh garb, at a time when chapel was at the heart of Welsh life. It is also somewhat notorious because it is believed the devil’s face is visible if you know where to look. […]

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