He was a popular painter in the best sense: his canvases are bought for private homes as often as by public institutions, in both his native country and further afield. They are, for the most part, landscapes inspired by the genius loci of the villages, orchards, lanes, farmyards and chapels of the south Cardiganshire countryside which he knew and loved, despite his long residence in southern England, and portraits of the people from among whom he had sprung. Retrospective, nostalgic even, and often anecdotal and unashamedly emotive, they are also "landscapes of the mind" which seem to evoke the green arcadies in which so many Welsh people, however long they may have been urbanised, have their family roots.
He was born John Elwyn Davies at Emlyn Mill in the small village of Adpar, a staunchly Welsh-speaking, Nonconformist community consisting mostly of farmers, weavers and craftsmen, across the river Teifi - which is the county boundary hereabouts - from the market-town of Newcastle Emlyn in the old county of Carmarthen.
Many of his paintings draw on a happy childhood which shaped him as both man and artist. He never forgot his Welsh, inheriting from his father, who was something of a local poet, a delight in language and story-telling which served him in good stead when, in later life, he was introduced to a circle of Welsh writers who included Glyn Jones, John Ormond and Leslie Norris, whose portraits he painted.
After spending two years at the Carmarthen School of Art, he went on to the West of England College of Art in Bristol, where he was awarded an Exhibition tenable at the Royal College of Art in London. In his first year there he studied architectural drawing, still-life painting and life- drawing, and enrolled in an evening class at the London College of Printing in order to learn engraving.
His facility for figure drawing attracted the attention of Gilbert Spencer, the Professor of Painting, who described the young Welshman as one of the best students he had ever had the good fortune to teach. One of the influences on Elwyn at this time was the Euston Road School of painters; he was also deeply impressed by the Cezanne centenary exhibition of 1939.
His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war later that year when the Royal College moved to the Lake District. Having already registered as a conscientious objector, he was directed to work in forestry above Pont-rhyd-y-fen in the Afan Valley, where he remained for four years, painting a scarred industrial district dominated by the steelworks of Port Talbot in a Neo- Romantic style which owed a good deal to English artists such as Michael Ayrton and Graham Sutherland. It was not until 1947 that he was able to resume his studies at the Royal College.
From 1948 to 1953 Elwyn taught at the College of Art in Portsmouth. His first London exhibition was held at the Paul Alexander Gallery in 1949 and it was at about this time that he began making engravings for Radio Times. Encouraged by Winifred Coombe-Tennant, a wealthy landowner and generous patron of young Welsh artists, to paint what he knew most about, he now returned in his imagination to his halcyon childhood in Cardiganshire, finding in it the subject-matter which he was to spend the rest of his career exploring.
When questioned about his passionate interest in farm, barn, meadow, hedgerow, stone wall, mart and chapel, he would often quote Benjamin Britten: "The important things are the local things." For Elwyn, his native patch was as inspirational as Suffolk had been to Constable or Cookham to Stanley Spencer.
Nevertheless, John Elwyn's vision was universal in its affectionate, though sometimes mischievous evocation of an essentially rural society which seemed timeless in its close links with the seasons and the land, and for this reason his work has sometimes been compared with that of Dylan Thomas, whose poetry prompted several of his paintings.
His sophisticated, sensuous delight in rich tonal values, his technical virtuosity and highly decorative use of broken planes of colour, especially yellow, orange and green, are reminiscent of the work of French painters like Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, which he had admired and emulated as a student at the Royal College. They went to the making of some of the most lusciously sunlit canvases ever painted of the Welsh countryside.
One of his most frequent images is that of a leafy lane leading to a white-walled farm set among fields of wheat, which (although he was reluctant to comment on what seemed to me its obvious sexual symbolism) I take to be his equivalent of Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill" of his "green and golden" childhood.
In 1953 Elwyn took up a teaching post at the School of Art in Winchester, where he was to remain until his retirement in 1976. By now, in a post- war Wales slowly awakening to its achievement in the visual arts, largely as a result of stimulation by official bodies, he was recognised as one of the most eminent of contemporary painters, and many honours came his way. He won the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod in 1956, held one-man exhibitions at the Leicester Galleries in London and was commissioned to make lithographs by the Curwen Press and to illustrate some of the Shell Guides to the Countryside.
A man of eirenic temperament, John Elwyn remained modest and unassuming about his own work and always ready to praise that of others. His retrospective exhibition at the National Library of Wales in 1996 was the final accolade for a Welsh painter who had practised his art with unswerving devotion and great distinction.
- Meic StephensReuse content