My Favourite Painting: David Anderson

The director of the National Museum Cardiff chooses a portrait by Josef Herman of one of Wales's great modern poets.

David Anderson on Dannie Abse by Josef Herman

“I chose this work because, for me, it resonates with what’s happening all around us. Dannie Abse was one of Wales’s greatest 20th-century poets, but he was also a chest consultant. What might he have written if he were still alive today?

“The artist Josef Herman, although born in Poland, also gave so much to the cultural life of Wales. At a time when our connections with Europe are being restricted, his work reminds us how important it is for ideas and people to be able to cross borders.”

David Anderson is director-general of Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales.

John McEwen on Herman and his work

Josef Herman, son of a Jewish cobbler, was born in Warsaw. After being trained as a typesetter and book designer, he took evening classes in painting and attended the Warsaw School of Art. From the outset, his subject was working people, from peasant life in Romania to, most famously, the coal miners of Ystradgynlais in Powys, South Wales.

Herman came to Britain via Belgium and France in 1940, to avoid the German invasion. He arrived in Glasgow, where he found an exiled community of Polish artists, among them Jankel Adler, with whom he cemented a friendship when they discovered that both their entire families had fallen victim to the Holocaust.

Herman moved to London in 1943. His first solo show, held during the war, was with a leading Cork Street gallery, Roland, Browse & Delbanco, an association that would continue for 35 years.

He went to Ystradgynlais on holiday in 1944 and found life there so congenial that he converted a factory into a studio and lived and worked in his adopted country for more than a decade. Ill health took him away, first to Spain, then back to London and Suffolk. His portraits, which formed an important second-string to his artistic bow, had the advantage of being uncommissioned paintings of friends.

Dannie Abse, poet and physician, was born of a Jewish family in Cardiff. He was a younger brother of Leo Abse, for many years the Labour MP for Pontypool, a flamboy-ant dresser and introducer of more private members’ bills than any other 20th-century British MP. The poet Vernon Scannell wrote that the traditionalist Abse’s poetry offered ‘entertainment, deep feeling and thought, and its own quirky and memorable music’.