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