William Brown: Painter and printmaker

The painter and printmaker William Brown triumphantly achieved Picasso's ambition of drawing like a child. "I steal ideas, usually from children, because they're smaller," he freely confessed. But his pictures are more serious than they look.

Brown described himself as a narrative painter; not a believer in abstraction, he used colour "as an excuse to hang the stories on". The colour is pure and the lines deceptively simple; the stories, though, are extraordinarily mixed. An inveterate traveller, Brown collected myths the way other people collect souvenirs, weaving them into fabulous painted tapestries featuring the world's great bogymen. Against heraldic fields of colour, cartoon figures of the French-Canadian werewolf Loup Garou and the Welsh grey mare Mari Lwyd project a faintly comic air of menace, serving as "nagging reminders of the animal in the human". The carnival atmosphere clearly recalls James Ensor, though other artistic influences are more surprising – one recurring still-life composition (the "Kipper Nocturne"), featuring a kipper lying on a table, with the moon shining in through a window, apparently owed its inspiration to Chardin.

Literary influences were also credited – Rimbaud appeared in a recent painting beside his amputated leg (the wrong one). And politics were never far out of the picture. In a series of paintings recalling a visit to Tripoli during the US air strikes, a black fighter plane disrupts the blue of a perfect bay, while Approaching Storm, Berguette (1997) is an apocalyptic vision in which the little church at Guarbecque in Pas de Calais, birthplace of Brown's friend the poet Lucien Suel – with whom he collaborated on the book Le Nouveau Bestiaire that year – descends out of a black cloud on to the Newport Transporter Bridge. "He's a tricky fellow, this Brown," wrote the Newport Town Poet Goff Morgan; "warms you up with a tot of irony, then drops the chill ice-cube of millennial anxiety down the back of your neck".

Born in Toronto to Scottish parents in 1953, Brown studied fine art in Ontario and sculpture in Pittsburgh before moving in 1977 with his first wife Jodie Brennan to Somerset, where he taught at the College of Arts and Technology. When his marriage broke down, he moved to London and got work as a painter and decorator. Then, in 1987, on an artist's residency at a Devon junior school, he fell in love with the deputy head teacher Carys Griffiths. A man later described by his dealer David Solomon as a cross between Jacques Tati and David Bellamy was an unlikely match for a deputy head teacher, but they married the following year and moved to South Wales in 1991.

In Wales the wandering artist put down roots. He learnt Welsh, became a member of the Welsh Group and the Old Library Artists and established himself as a prominent figure on the literary scene, enlivening poetry volumes such as David Greenslade's March (1998) with his vivid woodcuts, burnished with the back of a spoon. A 1996 touring exhibition "What's Behind the Blanket", organised by the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea, brought his paintings to national attention, and he was taken on by David Solomon's East West Gallery in Notting Hill, where he exhibited regularly from 1997.

A prodigious sketcher to the end – "I draw like other people knit" – in 1999 Brown supplied the drawings for an animated music video promoting the Welsh group Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, which had the distinction of winning an award at a Canadian film festival despite the failure of the sound system. His copious correspondence, in his inimitable (and sometimes incomprehensible) "pidgin" of English, Welsh and French, was liberally laced with drawings. One example, framed in the lavatory at East West, depicts Van Gogh's bedroom in Arles with the caption: "Don't sit on that chair, Paul, I've just painted it."

As a former member of the Cold War Mailart movement – for communicating with fellow artists behind the Iron Curtain using the outsides of letters rather than the insides, so as to discombobulate the Communist censors – Brown took as much trouble with the outside of a letter as the inside. Decorated with rubber stamps, scribbled mottoes and drawings, his envelopes had everything on them except the postcode and consequently often took weeks to arrive, or were returned. But Alison Lloyd, as exhibition officer at the Glynn Vivian, recognised them as artworks in their own right and had a set framed for "What's Behind the Blanket".

Laura Gascoigne

William Brown, painter and printmaker: born Toronto, Ontario 11 December 1953; twice married (one daughter); died Bridgend 17 July 2008.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery assistants required across Cambridgeshire

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

SEN 1:1 Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified teache...

SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

English and Media Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English & Media Teacher - ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week