It is the centenary of the birth of Welsh artist Kyffin Williams (1918-2006) this year, and the National Library of Wales here in Aberystwyth and Oriel Ynys Môn, Llangefni, Anglesey, are celebrating the occasion with special exhibitions. The School of Art has loaned Oriel Ynys Môn an early painting by Williams for the show. Snowdon, the Traeth and Frightened Horse (1948) usually ‘lives’ on the wall above our building’s main staircase and has been one of my favourite works of the School of Art collections ever since I arrived here as a student in 2011. Looking up at the empty space that its temporary removal has left behind feels rather painful, but it is good to know that others, who might not have the opportunity to come and visit us here in Aber, will have the chance to see it up in Anglesey now.
However, I remembered that I wrote an essay about the painting for the ‘Art in Wales’ module during my BA course and thought I might share it here with you. Very briefly, it throws some light on the life and times of Kyffin Williams, the perception of Welsh Art in the past and the image itself. I hope that you will find it interesting, especially if you are planning to see the exhibitions, and that it might make you curious about this popular artist.
(Curatorial & Technical Assistant)
Snowdon, the Traeth and Frightened Horse by Kyffin Williams
Sir John Kyffin Williams (1918-2006) was born on the 9th May near Llangefni, Anglesey, Wales. He worked for Yale and Hardcastle, a firm of land agents, from the age of seventeen. His wish was to join the army, and in 1936 he entered the 6th battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (Territorial Army). He was diagnosed with epilepsy and eventually left service in 1941 (Bebb, Davies 28). He was advised to take up art as it would not be too taxing and was told that he was ‘abnormal’ (Stephens). He returned home, and an employee of his family, Gwyneth Griffith who liked his pictures, recommended him to the Slade School of Art, where she studied Fine Art herself. He was accepted, although he had had no former formal training, and started his studies in October 1941 (Skidmore 54-7). The school was at that time based in Oxford and had merged with the Ruskin School of Art. He was not seriously considering embarking on a career as a professional painter and was hopeless at drawing. However, upon seeing Piero della Francesa’s Resurrection at the Ashmolean Library, he realised that art could have real emotional impact on people and became more dedicated to his course (Meredith 43). He stayed for three years, and ended up winning a competition for portraiture and a Robert Ross leaving scholarship (Stephens). He was chosen to exhibit at the Ashmolean as one of three chosen students of the Slade who showed promise (Skidmore 97). Although he would have preferred becoming a teacher at an art school, he became senior master of art at Highgate School in London in 1944 as no art school would have him (Williams, Desert Island). He worked six days a week for the first two years and then part-time to have more time for painting (Skidmore 74). He worked at the school until 1974 when he left to become a full-time artist and could afford living on the income of his paintings (Williams, Desert Island) He died in 2006, a knighted artist of international reputation.
Artist’s career at the time the painting was created
Snowdon, the Traeth and Frightened Horse was painted in 1948 when Williams was working as an art master in London. As he had no private income, he lived on a salary of £300 and could hardly afford buying canvasses and paint (Skidmore 69); using a palette knife and thick impasto for his Welsh landscapes, he needed quite a lot of paint as he produced about two pictures a week (Williams, Desert Island). He would spend the holidays in North Wales and paint the mountains, the farmers and their dogs. In 1946, one of his pictures was accepted at the Royal Academy for the first time, and he started trying to interest galleries in his paintings. The dealers were not very impressed by his work and would call him “a poor imitator of Cezanne” or complained that he was “far too like Camille Pissarro” (Skidmore 88). However, the influential Welshman Ralph Edwards had good connections in the London art world and organised the artist’s first one-man show at Colnaghi, an old-established art gallery in Bond Street. Professor Schwabe of the Slade had recommended his former student to him. Edwards was impressed by the artist’s work and bought two pictures; one for himself and one for the Contemporary Art Society of Wales (Skidmore 89). The latter bought Snowdon, the Traeth and Frightened Horse the same year for £100. It was the first painting by Williams that sold for a three-figure sum. It was given to the Aberystwyth University School of Art in 1951 (School of Art). Up until the late 1950s, most of his works would be purchased for much less; in 1957, for example, his images would be among the cheapest available at the Porthmadog Art Club exhibition, costing between £7 and £50. However, by 1959 the prices had gone up considerably and lay between £325 and £575 at the Thackeray Art Gallery in London (Skidmore 99-100).
Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, who was a member of an old and important Welsh family, bought two of Williams’ works and became essential to Williams’ success in the late 1940s as he introduced him to other eminent Welshmen during his annual grouse shooting event in Plynlimmon. Williams met, for example, Sir Leonard Twiston Davies there, the director of the National Museum and Gallery of Wales (Skidmore 92). Williams painted him in 1949, but, as Twiston Davies did not like the portrait, it was not hung in the Gallery. Another early exhibition for Williams was at Leicester Galleries where he shared the space with Anthony Fry and Ronald Searle who received good review while Williams paintings were considered “ponderous and unimaginative and insensitive” by Eric Newton, one of the most influential art critics in London. Elisabeth Coxhead of the Liverpool Daily Post, though, already prophesied that Williams would become a popular painter to those who would like to buy art that reminded them of their Welsh home and those who would appreciate the love for and knowledge about his homeland that he put into his work (Skidmore 93). In 1949, the Arts Council of Wales bought a painting by the artist and put three of his paintings on show. At that early stage of his career, they were quite enthusiastic about Williams and wrote that “to know him casually one would hardly believe the fire which burns in him, a fire which seems to be nourished equally by the love of the mountains and a love of art. His gift is rather in his sensitivity and imaginative use of tonal arrangement than in precise drawing.” (qtd. in Skidmore 97) In the early 50s they called him “the Painter of Gwynedd” in a booklet about Welsh art (qtd. in Skidmore 99). Williams was unable to live by his art then but slowly made a name for himself as the painter of the rough Welsh landscape.
The history and development of art in Wales
Up until the nineteenth century, Welsh culture consisted of music, poetry and a story-telling rather than fine art. By the middle of the century, some Welsh families had become wealthy through the industrialisation and became patrons of artists such as Penry Williams (1802-85) who was sponsored by the Crawhays of Cyfarthfa. He went to Rome and became a successful landscape painter. Another Welsh artist, who made a living in Rome and became very famous, was the sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866). As there was no independent art scene or any art school in Wales during the first half of the nineteenth century, artists would usually go straight to the Royal Academy in London or to Rome to study and work there. Only in 1853, art schools were established in Swansea and Caernarfon, followed by Cardiff in 1865. Although the Welsh landscape was very popular with Romantic artists of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century, there was no Welsh school of art or any authority that would exclusively promote Welsh artists. In 1870, the Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition was held at the Drill Hall in Cardiff, and in 1879, the Cardiff Art Society organised its first show. However, there was no annual art show in Wales until the Royal Cambrian Academy held the Fine Art Loan Exhibition in Cardiff. The Academy had been founded in 1881. Their ambitious plan of making Cardiff a cultural centre of Wales failed though, and they eventually moved to Conwy where held an annual exhibition instead (Rowan 12). At the turn of the century, the Welsh entered a phase of national pride. The painter Christopher Williams (1873-1934), for example, was concerned about the fact that Welsh art was often ignored. He promoted Welsh culture and depicted Welsh subjects in his works, such as the allegorical Deffroad Cymru (The Awakening of Wales). The National Library of Wales was established in Aberystwyth by Royal Charter by King Edward VII in 1907, and the National Museum of Wales officially opened in Cardiff in 1927 (Rowan 37). However, only in 1937, the Contemporary Art Society of Wales was founded to promote specifically Welsh art. The Welsh heiresses Margaret (1884-1963) and Gwendolin Davis (1882-1952) at Gregynog Hall in mid-Wales had created a great art collection which they bequeathed to the National Museum after their deaths. They supported Welsh cultural institutions and brought international art such as the Impressionists to Wales. They also bought some works by Welsh artist such as Augustus and Gwen John (National Museum Wales).
Opportunities that existed for artists to make and display art in Wales at that time
At the time the painting was created, Wales still only had a restricted art scene on its own. There was no major city such as London or Edinburgh where artists could band together and form an autonomous group, so they mainly acted as individuals. There were no art schools in Wales whose degree courses were recognized until 1965 (Rowan 2). There was, for example, the Swansea School of Art which the by the 1940s well-known Welsh artist Ceri Richards had attended; but to get a higher a degree in fine art, students had to move to London afterwards and enrol at the Royal College of Art or the Royal Academy. Many would stay in London as there were more opportunities to show and sell their work. The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, opened in 1911 in Swansea, was one of the established galleries to exhibit works. Another possibility was Plas Mawr in Convwy, home to the Royal Cambrian Academy since the 1880s (Rowan 12). There was also the National Eisteddfod, but the emphasis of their exhibition was more on arts and crafts rather than fine art in the 1940s and early 1950s (Lord 391). The Arts Council of Great Britain had also created a Welsh Committee 1946. David Bell became its Deputy Director and arranged immediately for more exhibitions of contemporary art that would travel around Wales, usually starting or ending at the National Eisteddfod (Lord 391). Assessing the situation of art in Wales, Kyffin Williams surmised in a BBC interview in 2001 that he was the first Welsh painter who could afford living in Wales only on the income his paintings generated—and that did not happen before 1974 (Williams, Desert Island).
Historical, political, economic and social conditions that prevailed at the time the painting was made
The Labour party won the general election of 1945 with a huge majority of votes. There was a good rapport between them and the many mine workers since before the Second World War, and they promised a modern welfare state. One of the first acts was the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947 to achieve fairer working conditions than under private profiteers (Gower 278). Better housing and a national health service were goals as well. Welshman Aneurin Bevan was appointed minister of health and responsible for the foundation of the National Health Service in Great Britain in July 1948. Welsh MP James Griffith fought for the recognition of Wales’s own identity which led to the formation of the Council of Wales and Monmouthshire in 1948. It had no cabinet minister as chair and only acted as an advisory body, but eventually succeeded in 1964 to have the Welsh Office and a secretary of state for Wales established (Gower 280). The government worked hard to help the local economy: The conditions for farming improved when minimum prices were guaranteed for most agricultural products in 1947, and farmers were also subsidised (Gower 282). Although unemployment lay by 5.2% in November 1947 and was higher than the British average, it fell steadily afterwards (Morgan 310). The south of Wales was declared development area as many new and modern factories were set up there. The heavy industry also supported the Welsh economy (Morgan 309). In many families both, husband and wife, would work and could afford buying modern appliances which had come over from America; a consumer society developed (Gower 281). Education and hospitals improved as well, with grants and support from the government (Morgan 346). With the urbanisation of the Welsh population the Welsh language went into decline and was restricted to more rural areas; as was traditional chapel-going. Young people were eager to embrace contemporary amusements such as the cinema and modern music and the traditional way of life changed (Morgan 352-4). A sense of Welsh nationalism was almost non-existent during those post-war years.
The way in which Wales and ‘Welshness’ are represented in the painting, and its relationship to a perceived Welsh tradition
Kyffin Williams made North Wales the lifelong subject of his work. He had an intimate relationship with the mountains and spent as much time as possible there. He walked for miles across the countryside and would even paint outside during rain and snow. He talked to the hill farmers and knew their names and those of their dogs. He helped haymaking and knew all the major families in Anglesey; his family had lived there for generations. This genuine love for Gwynedd and its people comes across in his paintings, including Snowdon, the Traeth and Frightened Horse. The heavy clouds and the dark colours reflect his experience of the landscape. As he told Sue Lawley, “an average Welsh day” for him was “a day with low cloud,” “sun coming through the clouds” and “shots of light on a dark mountain side.” (Williams, Desert Island) Cynefin, was something he wanted to bring across in his works (Meredith 74); it is the deep bond between the Welsh land, its history and its people which is expressed in this painting through the farmer who tries to calm down the frightened horse. What might seem a dramatic—and possibly quite exciting and romantic—moment for the beholder of the scene, would have been very much part of the man’s daily life. There is no pretended drama in Williams’ work, the roughness of the countryside, the unstable weather and the melancholy were all components of the real Wales that he tried to depict. This is supported by the thick impasto which was applied with a palette knife to give the image texture. In 2004, he told David Meredith that he still painted the Welsh ponies, the hill farmers and their sheep dogs, but knew that that world would vanish some day (Meredith 15). Hence, Snowdon, the Traeth and Frightened Horse will always be a reminder of the true Welshman of Snowdonia within the sublime beauty of the area, painted by a Welshman who was obsessed with his country (Skidmore 63).
The relationship of the painting to mainstream British and/or European art during the period.
Kyffin Williams always painted in a traditional figurative style and was not impressed by contemporary artists such as Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) or Peter Lanyon (1918-64) who would create abstract and semi-abstract works of art. It had never been his ambition to become a painter and had only become one by accident. Hence, his aim was never to become famous or to follow any movements (Williams, Desert Island). Émigré artists such as Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and the modern Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) held no interest for him. Williams was quite conservative when it came to art and contemptuous about those who wanted to shock with their work. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who influenced generations of twentieth-century artists, left no mark on Williams painting method either (Williams, Ben Bowen).
Kyffin Williams’ contribution to the development of art in Wales
Williams always promoted Welsh art. He was twice the president of the Royal Cambrian Academy, 1969 to 1976 and again from 1992; he ceaselessly lobbied for a dedicated gallery for Welsh art in Wales; he was elected Royal Academian in 1974 and received a knighthood for his services to visual art. He was greatly appreciated by Llion Williams, former Director of the North Wales Arts Association, who commissioned him to present the Ben Bowan Annual Lecture in 1987. His topic was ‘Is tradition in danger?’ Williams also supported the Oriel Ynys Môn in Anglesey since its opening in 1991. He left his art collection which included about 200 oil paintings, over 1200 works on paper and more than 300 original prints to the National Library of Wales (National Library of Wales); other paintings were given to the University of Wales in Bangor and the National Museum of Wales. The Royal Cambrian Academy of Arts benefited as well, as did several charitable organisations (Skidmore 146). Although he was very outspoken and had many disagreements with the Welsh Arts Council, Ian Skidmore comments that “no artist ever got nearer to the hearts of people who would never dream of setting foot in an art gallery.” (111)
Bebb, Lynne, Davies, Carolyn. Painting the Mountains Kyffin Williams. Llandysul: Gomer P, 2005. Print.
Snowdon, the Traeth and Frightened Horse. Aberystwyth University School of Art database. Email. 02 May 2014.
Gower, Jon. The Story of Wales. London: BBC books, 2013. Print.
Lord, Peter. The Visual Culture of Wales: Imagining the Nation. Cardiff: University of Wales P, 2000. Print.
Meredith, David. Kyffin in Venice. Llandysul: Gomer P, 2006. Print.
Morgan, Kenneth O. Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980. ed. G. Williams. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981. Print.
“The Kyffin Williams Bequest Project”. National Library of Wales. Web. 08 May 2014.
“Oriel Kyffin Williams.” Oriel Ynys Môn. Web. 08 May 2014.
Rowan, Eric. Art in Wales An illustrated History 1850-1980. Cardiff: Welsh Arts Council University of Wales P, 1985. Print.
Skidmore, Ian. Kyffin, a Figure in a Welsh Landscape. Bridgend: Seren, 2008. Print.
Stephens, Meic. “Williams, Sir (John) Kyffin (1918-2006)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography. Web. 08 May 2014.
Williams, Kyffin. Ben Bowen Thomas Lecture: Is Tradition in Danger?. Bangor: North Wales Arts Association, 1987. Print.
Williams, Kyffin. Interview by Sue Lawley. Desert Island Discs. BBC Radio 4. London. 15 Jun. 2001. Radio. BBC iPlayer Radio. Web. 07 May 2014.
Sinclair, Nicholas, Evans Rian. The Art of Kyffin Williams. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2007. Print.
For more information about the exhibitions, please visit the organisations’ websites: