Kyffin Williams

Black and white image of Kyffin Williams in an art studio, taken in 1966

Last updated: 26 October 2009

At once a pillar of the establishment and a thorn in its side, Sir Kyffin Williams is regarded as one of the defining artists of the twentieth century, famous for rugged landscapes of his beloved North Wales.

An outspoken critic of the contemporary art scene in general, and the Welsh Arts Council in particular, Kyffin Williams painted powerful landscapes and portraits. He described himself as "an obsessive, depressive diabetic epileptic, who's apprehensive, selfish, intolerant and ruthless."

Williams was born in Llangefni in May 1918. Seven years later Williams' family moved to Pentre-felin on the southern side of the Llŷn Peninsula. He went to a prep school in Anglesey before moving to Shrewsbury School. It was here that he contracted the disease polioencephalitis which later led to epilepsy.

Williams' career as an artist would probably never have happened had he not been diagnosed with epilepsy as a young man. A doctor advised him, "As you are, in fact, abnormal, I think it would be a good idea if you took up art".

He followed the doctor's advice and applied for a place at art college, the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, evacuated for the war years to Oxford. He was interviewed for a position by Professor Randolph Schwabe.

"The old prof said I couldn't draw," Williams said. "I was told I could come for one term only. There were few men around because of the war, so he let me stay for another two terms and then a year." In fact, Williams studied at the school from 1941 to 1944.

"My greatest fortune was that I was ordered to take up art for the good of my health" Kyffin wrote in his autobiography, Across the Straits. "This presumed that I was not a born artist and therefore was able to paint naturally, in an uncomplicated manner, free from the pressure of the man who knows he is an artist and has to live up to it."

It was only later, when he found himself thrown out of his lodgings in St John's Wood, that Williams realised that this was his vocation: "Suddenly the idea of being without somewhere to paint seemed awful, and that was when I realised that I really was a painter."

To pay the rent he took up teaching at Highgate School, but often played truant to paint on Hampstead Heath. "The headmaster was very nice about it. He said, 'By the way, you didn't turn up for lesson, you know it is awfully difficult if you don't'"

Nevertheless, he remained in the post of senior art master from 1944 until his retirement, at the age of 55, in 1973. In 1968 he gained a Winston Churchill Fellowship to record the Welsh in Patagonia where he stayed for six months.

Williams carved a reputation for himself with his idiosyncratic use of the palette knife, and found that there was a popular appetite for his work.

"I think I am the first painter that people in Wales have been able to relate to," he said. "In the past, ministers, miners and farmers couln't buy paintings, but thanks to getting a better education, their sons became professional people, and a whole class grew up with a love of their roots.

"I, coming from the same sort of background, was painting the sort of places that they wanted to be reminded of, so that was terribly lucky."

In his lifetime, Kyffin desperately wanted to see a home for the best Welsh art from the 18th century to 1950. He commented, "We are one of the only countries in the world that has not got a gallery for the nation's art."

He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1974 and knighted in 1999, and used this elevated status to campaign for a national art gallery.

Kyffin mourned the disappearance of traditional skills, such as draughtsmanship, from the curricula of arts colleges: "It's quite mad. If you can't draw, you can't sell anything. Students aren't encouraged to sell their work. If you go to any college the basic thing they should teach someone is how to earn a living, but it's not so in art schools. Drawing is absolutely basic to it.

"I'm extremely old-fashioned in that I love what I paint. That's how you communicate your love for a subject. If you love things and look at them and say 'that's beautiful', you must put it down, but you can't put it down unless you can draw.

"So what it really means is that these young artists don't love anything, except themselves. They love what goes on in their minds, and they don't react to anything that's beautiful."

Williams was the President of the Royal Cambrian Academy from 1969 to 1976 and again later from 1992. He was awarded the Medal of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion in 1991 and was made an honorary fellow at a host of Welsh insititutions; University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, University College, Bangor and University College, Swansea in 1992, 1991 and 1989 respectively.

Sir Kyffin Williams died on 1 September 2006 after a long battle with cancer.

In October 2009 the Kyffin Williams Drawing Prize was awarded to artist Louisa Theunissen from Wrexham. She won the £3,000 prize for her charcoal work entitled Deep Inside, which depicts a derelict factory.

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