The 56 Group Wales, named after the year of its inception, was formed by a group of artists and sculptors, living and working in Wales as a reaction to what they considered to be the, dull, conservative influences prevalent in the nation's artistic psyche at the time. Works chosen for the major exhibitions in Wales were invariably dominated by London based selection committees. Centralised art critics seldom felt the need to venture beyond the English capital to fill the limited amount of column inches their editors had assigned to the arts. Prior to 1956 Wales had no private galleries and the only significant artists' group was the South Welsh Group, later renamed the Welsh Group, which was formed in 1948 to 1949.
The rising tide of abstract art emanating from New York and Paris only added fuel to the disquiet already felt by the forward-thinking artists of Wales: many, who strived for an international stage, were being denied even the smallest platform at home.
It was in this climate of general dissatisfaction that the 56 Group was conceived. The idea was that of Eric Malthouse, a lecturer at Cardiff College of Art, who, ably supported by his Cardiff colleague David Tinker and the artist and architect Michael Edmonds, forged ahead to form a group that would represent and promote a progressive attitude to the visual arts in Wales.
Their first meeting was held at the Penarth home of Michael Edmonds. Enthused by the prospect of rebelling against reigning convention, the three radicals set about plotting their orderly revolution.
The 56 Group had no ideology, no official manifesto and no specific style; its purpose was to make a valued contribution to Welsh art and to facilitate exhibition space for each member to select works of their choosing without intervention or prejudice.
A decision was taken to invite nine other like-minded painters and sculptors to join forces and they were fortunate indeed to secure acceptances from some of the most talented artists working and living in Wales; they were — Trevor Bates, Hubert Dalwood, George Fairley, Arthur Giardelli, Robert Hunter, Heinz Koppel, Will Roberts, John Wright and Ernest Zobole. The only one to decline was Brenda Chamberlain.
Together, this newly formed group of artists set about, on their terms, to organise their own exhibitions. Initially the group was to experience first-hand just how difficult it was to find exhibition space; ironically, their first show was held not in the Principality, but in England, at the City Art Gallery in Worcester in 1957.
However, recognition soon followed, and an exhibition was granted at the National Museum Cardiff later in the same year, 1957. Under the energetic leadership of Chairman Arthur Giardelli, who acquired funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation and with the Welsh Arts Council, and with the assistance of their devoted and highly capable secretary Mary Griffiths, the group flourished. Shows were held at galleries in Amsterdam, Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Ludwigshafen and Nantes; more than one hundred exhibitions were to follow in the next decade.
The founding ethos and spirit of the group remained, although membership over the years inevitably changed, due mainly in most cases to the acceptance of teaching posts outside of Wales. However the majority of the original group continued to be members for many years, Arthur Giardelli's allegiance lasing for more than four decades. In 1963 a form of associate membership was introduced for members living outside of Wales but this ceased in 1967.
When the twelve founder members formed the 56 Group, they could hardly have foreseen how their works, both individually and collectively, would in a relatively short space of time be acclaimed both at home and abroad. Neither could they have predicted just how quickly most would be forgotten.