The painting Salem: A symbol of Welsh identity

Learn about one of Wales' most iconic paintings

By The National Library of Wales

National Library of Wales

Salem (1909) by Vosper, Sydney Curnow 1866-1942The National Library of Wales

Instantly recognisable to many Welsh people, Salem is today an artistic icon, a record of Welsh life and the nonconformist tradition in Wales. Painted in watercolour by the artist Curnow Vosper, it depicts a scene at Salem Chapel on the North Wales coast.

Vosper painted two versions of the work, one of which is now held at the Lady Lever Gallery in Liverpool and the other at The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The first was originally purchased by an industrialist called William Hesketh Lever and was used in a far reaching promotional campaign by Sunlight Soap, the Lever Brothers' company. As a result, reproductions of the painting were widely circulated and the image is famous for its appearance in homes across Wales.

This iconic image was painted at Salem Chapel in Llanbedr, North Wales. The Chapel is still in use today and remains practically unchanged since the artists visit in 1908.

Salem (1909) by Vosper, Sydney Curnow 1866-1942The National Library of Wales

Its central character is Siân Owen of Ty’n y Fawnog, a member of the chapel congregation dressed in traditional Welsh costume.

Siân Owen is also the subject of another of the artists works 'Market Day in Old Wales'

Salem increasingly became a talking-point as some believed there to be an image of the devil in the fold of the shawl of Siân Owen - an example of pareidolia.

Siân had a habit of twitching suddenly whilst modelling the intricate Welsh shawl so Vosper eventually pinned it to an artists dummy, affectionately known as 'Leisa Jones'. However the chapel elders insisted that Leisa was removed from the Chapel during the weekly service.

Most of the characters in the painting were modelled from life. Here the Deacon of the Chapel, Robert Williams is seen in prayer.

Partly obscured by the main character is Laura Williams of Ty'n-y-Buarth, Llanfair.

Owen Jones, commonly called Owen Siôn, of Carleg Coch rests his head in his hand and almost appears to look straight at the artist.

The red head child and his mother are Evan Edward Lloyd and Mary Rowland. Each model was paid 2 pence and 5 shillings an hour for sitting.

The seated lady in the tall Welsh hat was the only figure in the painting not drawn from life.

Two versions. Subtle differences

This is the second of two versions of the painting created by the artist. This version, acquired recently by the National Library of Wales was painted about a year after the original. Painted for the artists brother-in-law, Frank James, this version differs slightly from the earlier version.

The figure of William Jones has been removed from the far right of the image.

The original painting featured a clock on the wall. The time, just before 10, suggested that Siân Owen had in fact arrived late for Chapel, as the rest of the congregation observed the customary silence just before the morning service began.

In October 2019 this iconic painting was put up for sale, and was purchased by the National Library of Wales so that it could be preserved and enjoyed by the Welsh public. The Library's aim is to protect and cherish the painting forever. The painting has been digitised, catalogued, and placed on public display at the Library.

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