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.
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.