Christopher Williams: local boy makes good
Take a trip to the Town Hall in Maesteg. Quite apart from the wonders of the building and the intricate clock mechanism high above the Hall, here you will find six startling paintings by one of Wales' greatest artists, the Maesteg-born Christopher Williams.
Christopher Williams. Image courtesy of Maesteg Town Hall.
They are on public view and they give a brief insight into the talent of a truly magnificent but now sadly neglected painter.
Christopher Williams was born in Commercial Street, Maesteg on 7 January 1873. His mother died when he was young and his father, Evan, dearly wanted Christopher to become a doctor. Christopher wanted none of it.
An innate talent and visits to art galleries had convinced him that his future lay in art. There was considerable conflict between the two men, Christopher later claiming that he had deliberately failed exams in order to forestall his father's ambitions for him.
And so an artist he became. He studied at the Royal College of Art and at the Royal Academy School and, to begin with at least, it was a severe financial strain for the young man. Despite Evan's thwarted aims, he was obliged to support his son for several years.
David Williams painting by Christopher Williams. Image courtesy of Maesteg Town Hall.
He was rewarded with success when, in 1902, Christopher's painting Paolo And Francesca was hung in the Royal Academy. A portrait of Evan himself followed the year after. Despite his opposition to his son's chosen career, Evan must have been proud.
In 1910 Christopher was invited to become a member of the Royal Society of British Artists. Over the next 10 years he exhibited nearly 40 paintings in their gallery.
Real success, however, came in 1911 when he was commissioned to paint the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle.
Following up this breakthrough he went on to paint many members of the Royal family. Lloyd George, MP for Caernarfon Boroughs and later Prime Minister of Great Britain, loved his work, calling him "one of the most gifted of all Welsh artists."
It was Lloyd George who was responsible for what is arguably Williams' greatest painting. At the end of 1916 he was commissioned for a painting to commemorate the Welsh Division's attack on Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme. The Welsh Division (the 38th Division, to give it its proper title) had spent five days in the woods, engaged in fierce hand to hand fighting with the defending Prussian Guards before finally emerging victorious.
Christopher Williams visited the site of the battle and actually used soldiers who had taken part in the action to pose for him. The result is a startling and gripping depiction of war in all its horrors. Never had a bayonet charge been so realistically portrayed.
Indeed, so brutal and terrifying was the finished painting that, when it went on display in Cardiff, there was something of an outcry from people who had had their sensitivities jolted out of their stupor. The painting was withdrawn and did not see the light of day again until after the war. Now owned by the National Museum of Wales, it hangs in the museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in Caernarfon Castle, a suitable location for a magnificent and humbling piece of art.
Williams had become fascinated by Celtic and, in particular, Welsh traditions after a visit to Bangor to paint the portrait of one of the University professors in the years before the Great War. He was particularly fascinated by the Charlotte Guest translation of The Mabinogion. As he wrote to his wife Emily: "It is a goldmine untouched and full of Welsh fire and imagination."
The result was three outstanding depictions of female characters from the legend - Ceridwen (1910), Branwen (1915) and Bodewedd (1930). These, along with his painting of the Welsh attack on Mametz Wood, remain some of his strongest and most riveting works.
The painting of Branwen was presented to the Glyn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea shortly before Williams' death in 1934.
Three years later there was an exhibition for the centenary of his birth, paintings being shown at the Glyn Vivian, the National Museum in Cardiff and at Maesteg Town Hall. A plaque, commemorating his birth, was duly erected in Commercial Street, Maesteg.
Christopher Williams was an artist of consummate skill and ability. Visit the Town Hall in Maesteg - or even the Museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in Caernarfon - and see for yourself the range and talent of this sadly neglected artist.
Kim Howells explores the dramatic story of Welsh art in the 20th century in Framing Wales.
If you missed Kim Howells exploring the work of Christopher Williams in BBC Cymru Wales' three-part series on Welsh art called Framing Wales, you can watch the programme on the BBC Wales Arts website.
Also, you can read Kim Howells' latest blog on the Wales Arts website.