Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Sonia Terk and Robert Delaunay, the Koonings, the Arps … artist couples fascinate gallery-goers and collectors. And while the New York 1949 exhibition cheerfully entitled “Artists: Man and Wife” would raise eyebrows now, those who have created in tandem present an extra dimension. Do the two visibly influence each other, or emphatically diverge? Does one become better known (Pollock), or have a longer career curve (Hepworth), or do they fuse their identities in a shared style and surname (the Delaunays)?
Gwilym Prichard (born 1931) and Claudia Williams (born 1933), now in their 60th year of marriage and working still in their beloved Wales, have forged complementary careers born out of shared parenting, impecuniousness, travels and travails. Their work could not be more different. Prichard (he was born Pritchard but dropped the “t” when he found himself exhibiting with an artist of the same name – we are not related) has never tired of the landscape of his native North Wales and rarely peoples his dense, craggy, often formidable landscapes. This makes the scale of mountains and outcrops ambiguous, so that they become textural rather than topographical.
Williams, on the other hand, with four small children at home in the Sixties, developed her distinctive, Matissean, decorative tableaux of family, friends and communities, with so many figures and human activities recorded that they tumble over each other and out of the picture. Her Seven Ages of Women (1993) or Christmas Presents (1986) are at once universal, but also the narrative of her own life.
Both fell for art in their teens – Prichard captivated by the school-room Millais print The Boyhood of Raleigh, and, thumbing through an encyclopedia, discovering Picasso’s Maya with Doll. Williams nominated Gaugin’s Women With Mangoes “her favourite picture” at 15 – that artist’s influence is in her Sleeping (1986), a happy-ending version of his Nevermore.
“Love and art hit me at the same time,” recalls Prichard of the moment Williams moved to North Wales. He shared his watercolours, she her life drawings; she was academic, he more intuitive, messier. Rheumatic fever during National Service had put him into hospital where he learned embroidery: his paintings have always had a three-dimensional quality. And he has an eye for unexpected beauty – a passer-by once told him he was “painting the wrong view”.
Getting by in a council house, with no car, the couple struck lucky in the Sixties when sales of their art were brisk in the Heal’s contemporary art gallery, the Mansard. But the authors are dismayed that Prichard is still not represented, bizarrely, in his country’s national collection at Cardiff. Stays in Santorini and Provence, an unhappy teaching job for Prichard leading to alcoholism, recovery and a ripe old age … these affectionate biographies trace parallel but intersecting lives. Prichard paints places, Williams paints times: you can’t conceive of one without the other.