An exhibition at Newport’s Cwtsh Community and Arts Centre sheds welcome light on the talents of an artist previously known only to family, friends, and pubgoers in the Pill area of the city. By ANDY RUTHERFORD.

LOOMING into view on a slate grey Newport day, and having passed beneath the Transporter Bridge with seemingly inches to spare, the passenger ship Reina del Pacifico is into the final mile of her life on the ocean waves.

The haunting image of her journey towards the breakers yard at Cashmore’s in Newport, where she was subsequently scrapped, more than half a century ago, is among countless maritime scenes captured on canvas during his spare time and over several decades, by artist Bill Coughlan.

And it is among a selection of his work currently displayed in an exhibition entitled All at Sea - The Newport Maritime Paintings of Bill Coughlan, at the Cwtsh Community and Arts Centre at Stow Hill, near the Handpost, in Newport.

This is the first time an exhibition of work by Cardiff-born Mr Coughlan - who lived in Newport for close to 50 years - has been staged.

But examples of his artistic prowess have for many years adorned the walls of a number of pubs in the Pill area of the city, such as the West of England, the Cambrian, the Ship and Pilot, and most notably the Royal Oak, which has loaned a number of works for the exhibition.

Seeing their father’s work displayed in a formal exhibition is a source of pride for Mr Coughlan’s children, but one with a bittersweet edge.

For father-of-three Mr Coughlan died on October 12, aged 81, just three days before the exhibition opened.

“He didn’t want it (the exhibition) in the beginning, but I think he came round to it,” said daughter Julie Covell.

“I think he was proud that other people would have the chance to see it.

“Painting was a passion, especially maritime subjects. He didn’t do it for recognition, but he had a talent and really enjoyed it.”

A painter and decorator by trade, and with many years of service in the merchant navy - interrupted by a three-year stint in the Welsh Guards - Mr Coughlan, who was born in Cardiff in 1936, moved to Newport in 1970.

“He had the chance to study art after school, but his dad insisted he get a job, to bring some money in,” said Mrs Covell.

“He trained to be a steward, and did one or two voyages, but after that he turned down three ships because he didn’t like the look of them, so he was enlisted in the Welsh Guards, as a punishment.

That was in 1954. Three years later, his discharge papers noted his talents as an artist. He then rejoined the Merchant Navy until the early 1980s.

“He was very proud of his time in the Merchant Navy and in the Welsh Guards,” said Mrs Covell.

After settling in Pill, the Coughlan family later moved to Maesglas. Latterly, Mr Coughlan moved back to Pill.

“Wherever he was based, he was painting, for his own pleasure and for family and friends, and honing his skills,” said Mrs Covell.

“A lot of his paintings have a Newport link, but others are of scenes he heard or read about.

“Ships and the sea were his passion. Name a ship and he would be able to tell you its tonnage, crew numbers, lots of things about it.

“The exhibition has paintings from family and friends, and from the pubs, but dad’s work is all around the world.

“People use to come off the ships into the West of England pub and see his paintings and like them and, they have gone all over the place.”

The family’s move to Pill in 1970 also led to a lengthy involvement for Mr Coughlan with Pill Carnival, through its float competition, which he won more than 30 times - initially for the West of England and afterwards for the Royal Oak - before putting away his paintbrush last year.

“It didn’t really end there though,” said Mrs Covell.

“I don’t think anyone really thought he wouldn’t be involved this year, and though he was wasn’t very well, they would still bring the float designs to him and he would make sure they were right.

“I took him down there on carnival day in his wheelchair, and he was still telling them to reposition things right up until the last minute.

“For years, if he wasn’t painting, he would be designing and painting the float. It took him months, and everything had to be just right. But, every carnival, he didn’t watch the parade. He was proud to win first prize, but it was like he had already done his work.”

Mr Coughlan continued to paint his maritime scenes into his final months, at his flat in Pill.

Daughter Tracy Jones has his final, unfinished work, a poignant reminder of her father’s talent, to add to her memories of him at his work, brush in hand.

“He used to paint in his shed, and we all have memories of him in there working on a canvas,” she said.

For the next three weeks, the wider public of Newport has the opportunity to view some of Mr Coughlan’s maritime paintings at the Cwtsh Community and Arts Centre.

His images of the Reina del Pacifico and other ships heading up and down the Usk, are striking paintings in their own right. But they also act as a record of an aspect of Newport’s maritime history of which, though mere decades past, little evidence remains.

Last weekend’s exhibition launch was attended by a diverse audience of around 50 people, comprising art lovers, friends and family.

The exhibition was officially opened by Phil Cox, chairman of the Friends of the Newport Ship.

l All At Sea – The Newport Maritime Paintings of Bill Coughlan, runs until Sunday, November 12.

Cwtsh Community and Arts Centre is at 226 Stow Hill, Newport, NP20 4HA. Exhibition opening times are Thursdays and Saturdays, noon-3pm, and Sundays 1pm-4pm. Admission is free.

For more information, phone 01633 664498 or visit