A Quiet Place: The Landscapes of Sir John “Kyffin” Williams

So much of modern and contemporary art is rather loud, poorly executed, and ultimately forgettable, that is always a joy to discover the work of painters who bring a quiet, workmanlike dignity to their art.  Such is the case of the late Sir John “Kyffin” Williams (1918-2006), who not only had a long, fruitful working career which led to his becoming one of the most celebrated Welsh artists of the 20th century.  Most of all, I find his work appealing because he managed to convey a sense of peaceful isolation in his pictures.

Williams is one of those great “but for” cases in the history of art, since interestingly enough, he only took up painting in his twenties.  He began his career in the British Army in the late 1930’s, but in the lead-up to World War II he failed a fitness exam due to his epilepsy.  On the advice of his physicians, he took up the study of painting as a therapeutic measure, and managed to gain entry to the prestigious Slade School in London.  From there, his career as an artist was to span over sixty years.

The viewer is immediately struck by the relation of Williams’ work to that of another artist who enjoyed the use of the palette knife in the creation of landscape,  Paul Cézanne.  Yet whereas the French 19th century artist’s work is often a collection of golden sunbeams dancing across honey-colored stone, lavender fields, and green-black cypresses, Williams tonalities are those of his native Wales: cool, often gray, and bathed in that diffuse and cloudy atmosphere which pervades much of the British Isles.  It is the kind of environment which conjures up images of knights, dragons, and adventure.   One can imagine Tolkien, for example – no mean watercolorist himself – looking at Williams’ paintings and imagining some of the misty landscapes of Middle Earth.

As a figure painter Williams was admittedly a bit more flat in his line, and I must confess that I prefer his landscapes to his portraits.  I also prefer those views where there are no people to be seen hiking along a ridge or strolling down a path.  He also worked in print-making, as it happens, which certainly shows in the way that he treats the human figure.  He typically reduces it to a series of forms much in the way that a stained-glass artist does.

However for me their inclusion in his landscape paintings often serves as a distraction rather than a completion.  One cannot imagine Turner’s justly famous view of “Mortlake Terrace” at the National Gallery here in Washington without the little cut-out dog standing on the parapet, but in the case of William’s paintings I often feel that they would be improved by the removal of the figures.  The blocky nature of the palette knife as an instrument of creation often rather lends itself to the geometry of houses, rocks, and trees, better than to the portrayal of people.

What’s more, it is perhaps a sad commentary on contemporary collecting that his pictures can be picked up for a comparative song.  While untalented British hucksters like Tracey Emin and the Chapman Brothers rake in millions for their enfeebled mental detritus,  Williams’ lovely “Welsh Landscape with Rocks, Cottages, and Hillsides” was recently sold at Bonham’s for less than $50,000.  Note that this result was double the pre-sale estimate, delighting seller and auction house alike, yet how very sad it is that someone who could actually paint – as opposed to simply fooling the nouveau-riche into pretending that they are hip and have good taste – commands such startlingly low sums for his work.

Be that as it may, one can enjoy the work of Williams in this gallery of dozens of images of his paintings provided by the BBC.  One of my favorites appears below, showing the mountains in the Welsh region of Snowdonia, the blocky forms made by the palette knife reinforcing the idea of hard, moss-covered stone and slippery sheets of ice.  Given his prolific brush, or knife, those of my readers in the UK would do well to keep their eyes open at the next estate sale or local auction, since you never know when some undiscovered gem by this woefully under-appreciated artist might come your way.

(c) DACS and Sir Kyffin Williams; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Snowdon Range” by Sir John “Kyffin” Williams (c. 1990-2006)
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

One Is Never Enough


[N.B. This piece was also selected by WordPress as the Editors' Pick for one of the top 10 posts of the month.]

As if you could not guess, gentle reader, I am something of a bibliophile.  By this I do not mean that I collect beautiful, leather-bound volumes of first editions, nice as those are.  I mean that I love and collect books in many different subject areas, fiction and non-fiction, all of which I actually read AND display.  I am the sort of person who winces when he reads of decorators purchasing bulk lots of books by the yard from secondhand bookshops, graded by size, to fill up the shelves of someone whose taste in literature is generally limited to the airport newsstand variety of novel.  And more often than not my books have come to me via someone else’s previous collection.

On the British sitcom “Black Books”, bookshop owner Bernard Black is generally in an impenetrably foul mood.  He hates his customers interrupting his reading, smoking, and drinking, usually getting rid of these interlopers as quickly as possible.  And he has only two friends to speak of: his long-suffering shop assistant and flatmate Manny Bianco, and their mutual friend and fellow alcoholic/chainsmoker, Fran Katzenjammer.  If you have never seen the series, it is a wonderful mix of black comedy, misanthropy, and surrealism.  It is also about the love of books.

It is easy to understand why Bernard gets so fed up with the people who paradoxically both allow him to continue to have books to read, while at the same time they stop him from reading so he can serve them.  Many people in secondhand bookshops are more interested in browsing than buying, and if they do buy they rarely pick up anything more than one book at a time.  The amount of effort required for the shop owner to realize a sale is so much greater than the actual reward, that Bernard does not really care.  In one episode for example, when Manny has successfully managed to shift a large quantity of the stock through good salesmanship, Bernard becomes despondent since he will now have to contact a book supplier to send more books, something which he hates doing and, thanks to his customer handling technique, he almost never has to do.

I know of a bookshop in Barcelona with a proprietor not unlike Bernard in his way, where a few years ago I managed to purchase a book by my great-great-grandfather.  It is probably my most valued book in a rather extensive library (a collection still split between my current residence and my childhood home), since my ancestor inscribed it and gave it as a gift to a friend of his.  The following year I returned to see whether they had any more of his books, but instead of dealing with a pleasant and helpful young shop assistant as I had the previous visit, this time the old man himself quite literally shooed me out of the shop and refused to see whether he had anything: he was too busy smoking his pipe and talking with another elderly fellow.  Needless to say I have never returned there, as tantalizing as their stock is.

Another secondhand bookshop I know here in Washington is somewhat different in its view of its stock, for if you purchase four books you may take a fifth, free – lowest value, of course.  As it is run by a non-profit with a fairly high rate of book turnover, it does a reasonably brisk trade, and there are always new finds being placed on the shelves by the elderly ladies that work there.  I am particularly fond of tracking down rather technical history and architectural/artistic theory books, or English translations of lesser-kn0wn works by Balzac, and often have success at this shop.  Yet here again, one of the women behind the desk strikes me as a bit suspicious of her patrons, and a bit slow to serve, more interested in what she is reading than in serving.

Perhaps this has to do with the sort of person who would be attracted to working in a bookshop in the first place, or more particularly to working in a used bookshop.  People who love books often are only understood by other people who love books.  One can imagine that the scriptorium of a medieval monastery must have been somewhat similar to a secondhand bookshop in this respect, with some of the monks lingering lovingly over the words they were copying, or the librarian himself keeping choice books back for his own, private enjoyment.  In fact, one of the reasons Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” was such an engagingly-written tale was that it tried to capture that love – albeit an obsessive, unhealthy love – of the accumulation of more and more books, which has not really changed over the centuries.

At the moment back at the manse I have a stack of books which I have not yet read, and which I know I need to tackle, and I will definitely take the sensible option of getting through all of them before I even think of accumulating any more.  Yet even as I do so I cannot help but think about what books I want to read which are missing from my collection, or what wonderful discoveries of books or authors I have never heard of might be waiting for me at a secondhand book shop, charity shop, yard sale, or the like.  Unlike most addictions, the love of good books does not make one less, but rather more, of who you already are – provided, of course, that you try your best to be polite.

Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) tries selling an unusual volume on “Black Books”

The Discreet Chair of the Bourgeoisie

Regular readers of these pages know that I often take the time to write about individual works of art, or the artists who created them, as touchstones for the examination of Western culture in general.  Yet an interesting consideration here which I do not often touch upon is one which, to a large degree, has to do with economic forces.  The value of a painting, or a sculpture, or a piece of furniture is not readily apparent, and yet can be measured almost as predictably as the widgets, guns, and butter which are often the commodities being studied in the area of economic theory.  And because of this, no matter how much the art and antiques market may change, there is something about it that is probably always going to remain decidedly bourgeois.

While watching “Antiques Roadshow” last evening, something which I do on a regular, if not strictly scheduled, basis, the thought struck me about how very conservative the whole program is, despite its being a production of the decidedly left-wing PBS.  Of course some of the objects being appraised, the owners of the objects, and those performing the valuations are not conservative themselves.  However there is something interesting about the fact that the show distinguishes between the intrinsic and the emotional value of a piece being examined.

A common response for example, from one of the appraisers to an inquiry as to the valuation of a family heirloom, is something along the lines of, “Of course you would never want to sell it, since it means so much to you, and you can’t really put a value on such things.”  Another, related response is when the expert notes that, “Well the value lies in what it means to you, since it is not actually worth very much.”  Yet even when the owner of the object is forewarned, as it were, that they are not going to be able to retire on the worth of their object, they of course still want to know what the value is.  I cannot recall seeing an episode where at least some stab at a valuation has not been asked for or made, even if in an off-hand way without the estimate appearing at the bottom of the screen.

Similarly, there is the idea of the “bidding war”.  When an object is rather unique, the expert will give the valuation and tell the owner that their valuation could be a conservative one.  For if two collectors really wanted to get their hands on that particular object at an auction, the price could skyrocket well above the estimated value.  In such a situation even the insurance value placed on an object, for example, which is generally higher than the auction estimate, and given to give some idea of what one would have to pay in a retail shop to replace it with something similar, can be blown completely out of the water into fantasyland.

However the bidding war situation is one in which emotion and greed can sometimes outweigh common sense entirely.  Academic paintings of the 19th century, for example, while certainly very popular in their day, do not tend to fetch as high prices now as they did then, in real terms.  One wonders whether the same will be true a century from now for things such as “installation” art, which fetch astronomical amounts of money and yet only a very rich fool would want to “install” in their home.  There is something about the accumulation of trendy objects that are poorly made which tends to deflate their value later on, when the bourgeoisie get around to purchasing them as second-hand.

And then there is the art market itself, which paradoxically both encourages and discourages collecting based on income.  To the person of average means, the expert on a program such as Antiques Roadshow always advises caution: the owner of an object is told that the best way to collect is to buy what you like.  However if you are a collector with deep pockets, this sensible advice is sometimes abandoned by the art expert, letting the collector know that so-and-so, a famous collector, has one just like this, and so perhaps you ought to pick one up as well.  This is little more than peer pressure or keeping up with The Joneses, with many “0’s” on the end.

Most of us are never going to find ourselves in the situation where art investment advisers from the banks – and yes, there are such persons – are emailing us with photographs of poor art for sale at rich prices, trying to get us to purchase such things.  We have to be content with grandmother’s pearls, or Uncle George’s collection of Vanity Fair caricatures, or that reproduction Louis XV chair we picked up for a song at a garage sale.  And while this may not, for many, be the most exciting end of the collecting market, it is certainly the bread-and-butter of that market, despite its being more cautious and prudent as a segment.

The next time you have a chance to watch a valuation program like Antiques Roadshow, try to separate yourself a bit from the excitement and the emotional quality of what is going on, and look at the practicalities of it.  The people you see may be wearing jeans and t-shirts, and the chair they are looking at might be something that no Founding Father or Eminent Victorian would ever have considered putting on display in their parlor.  Yet the inherent basis of the market for that object remains the same as it did in earlier times. Prudent purchasing at a low price, with a higher valuation than what was originally paid, continues to be celebrated as a “good investment”, and the purchaser is complimented and told they have a “good eye”, both for the object itself, but also for a bargain.

The times may have changed, but when it comes down to it the bourgeois joy of collecting things like art, furniture, silver, and so on at reasonable prices, it really has not changed much at all.

Illustration of Antique Louis XV-style chairs
from “The Furniture Collector” by Maincent and Guilmard (1871)