Obituary: Chester Williams
Thursday 27 October 1994
Chester Williams was a painter of remarkable versatility. He could produce watercolours of the English countryside which, in their delicate allusiveness, suggested the work of Wilson Steer; hot, angular pictures of Middle East desert and mountain; and totally revealing, yet always sympathetic portraits of people ranging from Rebecca West and Svetlana Beriosova to a host of children.
On occasion a likeness was too exact to please the sitter. When I mentioned the West portrait to Rebecca West herself, she snorted that it looked nothing like her. But in fact it is a wonderfully acute study, catching her abrasiveness and intellectual vigour, along with a certain melancholy. That Williams was such a good portraitist was, in large part, because he was such a wonderful listener. He was intensely and sympathetically interested in what people revealed of themselves, and for that reason they often revealed more than they intended.
Born in Hollywood and educated at Hollywood High School, where a number of his schoolfellows were the children of film stars, Williams arrived in England during the Second World War to work on camouflage. Later, a beneficiary of the GI Bill of Rights, he attended the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Venice. In 1954 he went on to the Courtauld Institute in London. By now he was married to Lucy Halford, a brilliant industrial designer and director for many years of Lucy Halford Associates, the Mayfair public relations company.
His subsequent artistic career was always a partnership between two people wholly unlike each other and yet totally compatible. In contrast to the dreamily impractical Chester, Lucy was a formidable organiser, who guided his career with the shrewdness and impeccable artistic judgement which marked every task which she undertook. They were utterly devoted to each other.
Together, they made a beautiful mill in Ellingham in Norfolk into a centre for modern art. They held exhibitions there, with people as eminent as John Piper and Leslie Waddington acting as their judges of prizes. Rarely a weekend seemed to pass in the summer when the many rooms of the mill were not full of guests. With their ability to draw people of all ages, nationalities and professions, no couple could have been more hospitable.
Subsequently they moved to a smaller house in the Cotswolds village of Long Compton where, despite, his failing health, Chester continued to paint and where both of them continued to entertain on the same generous scale.
For some five years Chester, usually accompanied by Lucy, lived off and on in Oman as, in effect, court painter to the Sultan. Some of his best work was produced during that period - which was, I should guess, the happiest of their lives. Many of the paintings then produced are now to be found in Saudi Arabian palaces.
Chester Williams often exhibited abroad - in Warsaw, Athens, New York, Los Angeles. His last one-man London exhibitions were at the Patrick Seale Gallery in 1983 and at Spink's in 1986. There were many admirers and purchasers of his work; but, an artist who combined rare gifts of observation with technical mastery, he deserved many more.
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