Sir Kyffin Williams

Painter of iconic mountain landscapes of North Wales


John Kyffin Williams, painter: born Llangefni, Anglesey 9 May 1918; Senior Art Master, Highgate School 1944-73; President, Royal Cambrian Academy 1969-76, 1992-2006; ARA 1970, RA 1974; OBE 1982; Kt 1999; died Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, Anglesey 1 September 2006.

If there is a stereotype of North Wales as a land of mountains, it has much to do with the art of Kyffin Williams who, for more than half a century, painted the rugged landscape of Snowdonia and its people in a style unmistakably his own.

The typical Kyffin picture shows a peak under dark cloud, a lowering sky and perhaps a shepherd, with hazel stick and dog, making his way down a rocky slope, or a small farmhouse, its whitewashed walls a refuge from the sombre majesty of its setting. The predominant colours are olive-green, slate-grey, ochre and umber, the paint applied lusciously with a palette knife in thick, bold swathes of pigment in which it is possible to take pleasure for its own sake.

Kyffin Williams never tired of painting his native land, or at least those upland parts of it he knew and loved - he rarely ventured into the urban south and never attempted to tackle the industrial landscape of Glamorgan, that other stereotype of modern Welsh painting. He was deeply rooted in Anglesey and Gwynedd, one of the heartlands of the Welsh language, and, although he spoke only English, became its representative artist, just as T.H. Parry-Williams and Kate Roberts were its writers. "I have been extraordinarily lucky," he wrote in the 1971 symposium Artists in Wales, "to have been born and reared in such a lovely landscape among people with whom I have so great an affinity."

He was born in Llangefni, Anglesey's market town, in 1918, the younger son of a bank manager and into a family who, on both the spear and the distaff side, had for generations served the Anglican Church as rectors and vicars in the county. Reduced to near poverty by a lawsuit brought against his mother by a malevolent cousin, the family removed in 1925 to Pentre-felin, a village between Cricieth and Porthmadog on the southern side of the Lleyn peninsula, and it was there the boy first had his eyes opened to the grandeur of the Ordovician landscape. "This was a new world," he wrote, "and I loved the melancholic beauty of the mountain storms."

It was a matter of regret for him that his mother, Welsh-speaking but a genteel and highly strung woman, kept him from the village children, with the result that what he learned of the language in later life was only enough to understand the toponymy of the area.

After a spell in a preparatory school at Trearddur in Anglesey, he went to Shrewsbury School, where at the age of 16 he contracted polioencephalitis which led, two years later, to epilepsy. Even so, having held a job for three years with a firm of land agents in Pwllheli, he enlisted in the Territorial Army with the 6th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and, at the outbreak of war, was sent to Northern Ireland.

His military career came to an abrupt halt in the barracks at Wrexham in 1941 when he suffered an epileptic attack. It was there, with an irony the future painter was to relish, he was told by a doctor that he would have to relinquish hopes of returning to land agency because he was "abnormal" and that, as therapy, he ought to take up art. In October 1941 he enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art under Randolph Schwabe. "They took me in," he said with typical self-deprecation, "because everyone else was away at the war."

At first inept and untutored, and knowing next to nothing about drawing, he was happy at the Slade, relocated for the duration to Oxford and going through one of its less rigorous phases, and found great solace in the use of paint. He began producing pictures in a rough-hewn style not dissimilar to that of his more mature work, and based on what he remembered of his boyhood in North Wales.

The revelation of what art really meant to him came in the library of the Ashmolean Museum when, while gazing at the head of Christ in Piero della Francesca's Resurrection, he felt tears rolling down his cheeks. This incident, movingly recounted in Horizons Hung in Air and Land against the Light, the films made by John Ormond in 1966 and 1978, was to mould his style in that it taught him the vital importance of mood. "It had an incredible effect on me," he said, "because up until then, rather stupidly, I had felt that painting was more or less reproducing the world without getting to any greater depths."

His first and only job was teaching art at Highgate School in London, albeit on a part-time basis, for by now he was set on becoming a professional painter. Living in a dreary room in Bisham Gardens, he managed to survive on soup and kippers cooked by a sympathetic landlady, a Miss Mary Josling, a blind woman who took in lame dogs like him.

"It was in Bisham Gardens," he wrote, "that I first began to draw on my library of memories until I often ceased to be in London as the room became peopled with farmers and sheepdogs, and bounded by stone walls and rocky cliffs." He had found the landscape and figures which were to be his proper subjects for the rest of his life, and shortly afterwards he began painting in Wales.

He gave up teaching altogether in 1973 and returned to Anglesey, where he found a small cottage on the shore of the Menai Straits which was renovated for him at the expense of the Marquess of Anglesey, thereafter his patron and friend, and from which there were splendid views of the mountains of Eryri. On blue-sky days he was usually to be found there; when the weather was overcast, or after snow, he would be out in the mountains with his sketchbook.

Kyffin Williams held his first one-man exhibition at Colnaghi's in 1948 and almost immediately began to enjoy a reputation as the Welsh landscape painter par excellence. His inclusion in the Arts Council of Great Britain's "Twenty-five Paintings by Contemporary Welsh Artists", in the year following, confirmed his standing as a major presence in Wales. Further exhibitions of his work followed in quick succession at the Leicester Galleries, the Glynn Vivian in Swansea, the Tegfryn in Menai Bridge, the Howard Roberts in Cardiff and the Thackeray in London, and over the next few years his work was bought by all the major collections in Wales.

Commissions came his way, too, especially to paint eminent Welshmen such as Sir Thomas Parry, Dr Huw T. Edwards, Sir Charles Evans, Lord Flowers and Sir David Hughes Parry, all stout pillars of the Welsh establishment which took him up almost as its official portrait painter, so that there is hardly a public institution in Wales which does not have at least one Kyffin picture in its boardroom.

Although the artist preferred his portraits of people to his landscapes, they are not always admired, for it may be that his painterly skills were better suited to the depiction of sky, sea and mountain than to reproducing the features of the great and the good, however distinguished. But some of his women and children have an attractive poignancy and tenderness, while his studies of old country people are done with honesty and sympathy; a selection of them is to be found in his book Portraits (1996).

Williams was aware of his weaknesses as a painter. Almost as if to escape the confines of what he knew he could do, in 1968, with the help of a Winston Churchill Fellowship, he spent several months in Patagonia, where a hundred years before some 160 Welsh people, fleeing religious, linguistic and political persecution at home, had settled in the salt-dry valley of the Chubut and in the foothills of the Andes, and where several thousand of their descendants are bilingual in Welsh and Spanish to this day.

What he brought back was very different from his earlier work in its brighter colours and in its depiction of this arid region and its gaucho people. Most of the gouaches and watercolours he made during the trip were donated, as a valuable pictorial record of the colony, to the National Library of Wales and shown at the National Eisteddfod of 1971. A brief visit to Venice in 1979 again suggested the direction in which his work might have developed if only he had not felt so committed to his native North Wales.

Kyffin Williams was also an accomplished writer. He published two volumes of autobiography: Across the Straits (1973), which describes his boyhood and youth, and its sequel A Wider Sky (1991), which he dedicated to Lord Anglesey. A superb raconteur, he wrote with panache about the people and places he had known, often movingly and always with wit and compassion. A good selection of his paintings and drawings was reproduced in The Land and the Sea (1998).

In one of his many anecdotes, he told how, while out painting one afternoon in Anglesey, he returned to his car parked in a narrow lane only to find that it was stuck in the muddy ditch. The noise of the revving engine as he tried to start it attracted the attention of a farmer in a nearby field, who promptly helped him to get the car going again. In gratitude, Williams, the most amiable and generous of men, then thrust into the man's hands one of the sketches from which he habitually worked; today it would fetch a thousand pounds in a Cardiff or London gallery. The farmer took one blank look at it, pushed back his cap in bewilderment, roughly folded the paper into eight squares and stuffed it into his back pocket. "Diolch," he said curtly, "thank you" - and quickly disappeared through the hedge.

Curiously, given that Kyffin Williams depended so much on official and corporate patronage, he was not averse to expressing acerbic views about such bodies as the Welsh Arts Council, which neglected him for many years, and the ill-fated Centre for the Visual Arts in Cardiff, which during its brief existence in 1999/2000 showed only the work of what he considered the second-rate avant-garde. He was passionately in favour of a National Art Gallery for Wales, which we still do not have, and warmly supportive of the younger painters of whom he approved.

One of his obiter dicta was "A painter who pursues success and fashion, chasing after them with the utmost vigour, will, in fact, always be five minutes late". He was able to say this more often, moreover, towards the end of his life when his pictures were fetching high prices and his work had achieved iconic status in Wales. There was a joke about the price of his paintings: "They cost a kyffin lot."

Meic Stephens

Further to Meic Stephens's well- observed obituary of Kyffin Williams, perhaps a few more words might be devoted to his time at Highgate School, writes Martin Levy.

Kyffin (whose name, we were all instructed, rhymed with puffin) was an inspirational teacher. Seen as a breath of fresh air within the confines of a conventional educational establishment, Kyffin shared his passion for art, particularly with those pupils who took art or art history in their final years. Painting, in his view, ended with Cézanne; there was no argument.

His opinion of 20th-century art led to lively discussions with his young protégés who, quite naturally, were not as instinctively hostile to the inventions of that period. But with his warm smile, rolling laugh and inimitable voice, he encouraged thoughtfulness and had the respect of his students. Indeed, he maintained contact and followed with interest the careers of those whose lifelong interest in art he first kindled.

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