Blog - Kyffin Blog
Kyffin joined Highgate School in north London in September 1944. Much of the School had previously been evacuated to Westward Ho! in Devon but art had not been on the wartime curriculum so a teacher was needed on return to the capital. After working full-time (six days a week) for the first two years, Headmaster Geoffrey Bell suggested that Kyffin should find a colleague to share the job so that he could do more of his own painting and so the elusive William Cole, a friend from the Slade days, took over half of his timetable. Cole only lasted a couple of years though. Kyffin soldiered on alone for a further twelve months but his epilepsy wasn’t under control, so on the advice of his doctor and with the agreement of the School Governors he was awarded a sabbatical from the summer of 1949. This provided an opportunity to start travelling and in 1950 he visited Italy, the first of many trips abroad during the ensuing decade. His replacement was another acquaintance from the Slade, Antony Kerr, whose wife was the artist Elizabeth Rendell. On his return to Highgate Kyffin taught alongside Antony for nine years. Tom Griffiths, mentioned in ‘A Wider Sky’ and yet another Slade graduate, was tempted into teaching for a year, as subsequently was CF Ware. Then stability returned as Kyffin’s former pupil Anthony Green (1951-56) joined the Art Department in 1961 at the age of twenty-one. He was the last of the ‘Slade brigade’ to help Kyffin out – A Dear and JL Lowe from the Royal Academy Schools were his ‘other halves’ from 1968 until his retirement in 1973. Patrick Procktor, who had also studied under Kyffin from 1948-52 chose not to enter the profession. By the time Kyffin returned to Anglesey in 1974 a full-time Director of Art, Gordon Tweedale, had been appointed in his place.
Of course Kyffin had enjoyed another six months off in 1968-9 to travel to Welsh Patagonia on a Churchill Fellowship, an event that was probably responsible for his being nominated to be an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1969 and elected the following year, following an unsuccessful first attempt in 1961.
His becoming a full Academician four years later was proof, if any was needed, that he could finally make a living as an artist. Kyffin had first been accepted at an RA Summer Exhibition as early as 1946, though it wasn’t until 1959 that his work became an annual feature for almost forty years. His first show in a commercial gallery was at Colnaghi’s in 1948 and the Leicester Galleries were soon representing him too. It wasn’t until after he had left Highgate that the Thackeray became his main promoter in London.
Kyffin lived in or close to Highgate for his first twelve years in London, most famously as a tenant of Miss Mary Josling on Bisham Gardens in Highgate Village, a period that is vividly described in ‘Across the Straits’. During that time he recorded many local scenes and personalities, such as the former School cricket coach and groundsman Albert Knight. Albert, in his seventies when Kyffin painted his portrait, had played for England in the 1903-4 Ashes series in Australia, which was won by the visiting side. Brief residencies in Hampstead followed, including a stay with Fred and Diana Uhlman on Downshire Hill, before he spent a few years further west in Holland Park. When his artist friend David Smith moved from Finchley with his wife Elizabeth Hawes, Kyffin occupied one of the flats that they had created in their house for a year before learning that 22 Bolton Studios near the Fulham Road was vacant from Jane Richards, and old acquaintance from North Wales. The eight years he spent on Gilston Road, his last London address, also received a colourful rendering in his first volume of autobiography.
To mark Kyffin’s centenary and celebrate his ‘London years’ to some extent, two exhibitions under the banner ‘Kyffin Williams: Paper to Palette Knife’ are planned in Highgate in the autumn – one at the Highgate School Museum on Southwood Lane and a second in the Gallery of the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution (HLSI) on Pond Square. The former will feature the School’s collection of oils alongside paintings borrowed from private collectors and small loans from the National Library of Wales and Oriel Môn on Anglesey; while the HLSI will be displaying a substantial loan of (mostly) works on paper from the NLW. Together the two exhibitions will possibly constitute the largest ever retrospective of Kyffin’s work to be shown in England. They will run concurrently from 14th September to 7th October with opening times: Tuesday to Friday 1-5pm, Saturday 11am-4pm and Sunday 11am-5pm. On Monday 10th September at 7 pm I will be giving a lecture about Kyffin’s London years at the School. Tickets can be booked online nearer the time here: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/highgateschool Then on Friday 21st September at 8 pm Rian Evans, co-author of ‘Kyffin Williams: The Light and The Dark’, will be giving a talk at the HLSI. Tickets can be booked by e-mail: email@example.com or by phone: 020 8340 3340.
David Smith, Heritage Officer, Highgate School – firstname.lastname@example.org
Kyffin Williams’ emotive seascapes which are on display in the artist’s centenary exhibition here at the National Library, should be celebrated in their own right and stand apart from the artist’s other more well-known works. Kyffin’s highly expressionistic style within these monochrome works manages to convey the movement and the violence of a storm at sea in in a tremendously effective manner, reflecting the artist’s own hidden inner turmoil.
Kyffin’s connection to Trearddur Bay, which is located on the west coast of Holy Island off the coast of Anglesey where many of these seascapes were based can be traced back to the artist’s childhood. As a young boy of six years old who would turn 7 the following week he was sent to Trearddur Bay Boarding School in May 1925. He stated in his memoir ‘Across the Straits’: ‘It did not take me long to fall under the spell of the island’s mood. The storms, the sea mists, the wrecks, the wailing sirens, and in summer the peculiar haze that hung over the island, all made Trearddur Bay a very special place’.
The expressionistic impasto technique used in such works as ‘Stormy Sea’ was explained by the artist in the book ‘The Land and the Sea’, 1998: ‘These great storms have always excited me and I seem to be stimulated by the noise and energy of the waves – to such an extent that, when I transfer my frenzied scribbles onto canvas, my own energy attacks the canvas…These paintings are not easy to control for often they try to take over and I lose my tones in a confusion of white wave and spray… My personal chemistry demands the excitement of a storm at sea.’
As the authors Rian Evans and Nicolas Sinclair stated in the recently published work, ‘The Light and the Dark’ on Kyffin’s life, the artist who had suffered with the afflictions of epilepsy and depression throughout his life acknowledged that he expressed his most turbulent feelings through his seascapes. In an interview in 2000, the artist stated that it was due to his battle with epilepsy that he felt a need to apply strongly contrasting colours down onto the canvas, as can be seen in these seascapes. He stated: ‘It might be part of the epilepsy, the excitement – the epileptic shock of dark against light, it’s very exciting you see. Van Gogh was an epileptic and he had the same love of contrast’. Inspired by other notable palette knife users such Gustave Courbet and Van Gogh, Evans and Sinclair also saw a parallel within Kyffin’s seascapes to other iconic works such as Hokusai’s ‘The Wave’ and August Strindberg’s dramatic seascapes. The artist would return to paint the subject throughout his life.
Morfudd Bevan – Art Curator
As part of the Kyffin Williams centenary celebrations, the Library’s Education Service has been delivering many activities for schools, colleges and families, based on one of Wales’s most recognised and popular artists.
During the year free workshops will be delivered to primary and secondary school pupils to coincide with the Library’s main exhibition Kyffin Williams: Behind the Frame, and a bilingual booklet focusing on Kyffin’s life and work is being distributed free of charge to all who take part in the workshops.
So far this year schools from all over Wales have been visiting the National Library to learn more about the artist from Anglesey, like the pupils of Ysgol Trimsaran and Ysgol Mynydd y Garreg, Carmarthenshire. After taking part in the Kids in Museums Takeover Day in January, they returned in May to enjoy the Kyffin exhibition and workshop.
In April a selection of original paintings and drawings by Kyffin Williams were transported from the Library’s storage facilities to Penygroes, Gwynedd, as part of the Class Art project. Workshops on Kyffin’s style and painting technique were led by two leading Welsh artists in two schools; Catrin Williams studied some of Kyffin’s landscapes with the Year 4 pupils of Ysgol Bro Lleu, and Eleri Jones delivered a session on Kyffin’s portraits for Year 12 students at Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle, to support them with their A Level course work.
Kyffin Williams was also the theme of The National Library of Wales’ stand at this year’s Urdd Eisteddfod in Llanelwedd. Throughout the week a small exhibition about Kyffin’s life and career provided a backdrop to art activities where young visitors were given an opportunity to emulate the artist by reproducing sections of one of his landscapes in acrylic paint on canvas. During a workshop on the Tuesday, under the guidance of artist Catrin Williams, children were shown how to produce pastel drawings in the style of Kyffin Williams. Some of the work produced during these sessions will be exhibited in the Library’s Education Room until September.
Kyffin Williams: Behind the Frame runs until the 1st of September in the Library’s Gregynog Gallery, and the exhibition includes tasks for visiting families – why not have a go at our ‘Kyffin Quiz’ and create your own masterpiece.
For further information on the Library’s free workshops, you are welcome to contact the Education Service on:
At the height of his popularity Kyffin was commissioned to paint a succession of portraits, but by his own admission he preferred to turn to portraiture for pleasure.
In our current exhibition Kyffin Williams: Behind the Frame, a variety of portraits are shown from the Kyffin collection, ranging from his early life studies created while a student, to the later commissions of an established artist, but more interesting are the portraits which he painted purely for delight.
Amongst the items on show is a good selection of female portraits. Kyffin admitted that painting women didn’t come easy to him; it took him about twenty years to be happy painting the smooth face of a girl:
“The reason for this was my use of the palette knife for, painting in broad rough areas of paint; it was difficult to achieve the delicacy necessary”.
Norma Lopez was a favourite sitter of his in Trevelin while he visited Patagonia in 1968/69. Kyffin described Norma as an excitable girl “smiling through two large brown eyes”. Norma, who was about 8 years old, loved to tease the artist and when not playing with her brother Paulino enjoyed sitting for her portrait. Kyffin painted her several times, but could never paint her in oils once back in London as the paint didn’t capture her fun and light character.
Kyffin was obsessed by people, the people of his native Anglesey, the ones he observed as a young boy visiting parishioners with his cleric father. That probably explains why he often turned to portray the people around him, like the sketch “Woman with Duster” held in the collection (finished paintings Mrs Hughes (private collection) and Mrs Rowlands (Anglesey County Council)). She’s a composite portrait of many women the artist had known on the island who would patiently and cheerfully go about their cleaning duties.
Kyffin’s paintings are full of emotion, while working on a portrait he’d be happy to catch the likeness of his sitter but just as important was the mood the work would convey, preferring to catch melancholy rather than a smile. In his portrait of Miss Parry he depicts old age and what he summed up as the feelings and thoughts of an older generation “tired and waiting for rest”.
There’s a chance to enjoy these portraits on the walls in Gregynog Gallery until 1st September 2018, come in to see the anonymous nun, Michelle, Norma Lopez, Miss Parry and many more.
Lona Mason – Head of Graphic, Screen and Sound
The Library is buzzing with activity today as we launch our new exhibition Kyffin Williams: Behind the Frame. So what can you expect?
There are 4 themes in the exhibition ‘Self’, ‘Artist’, ‘People’ and ‘Places’ which is situated in the Gregynog Gallery and Annexe on the second floor of the Library. The artist himself will guide you through the show as many of his own words taken from his diaries, letters and publications are placed around the exhibits. For those who want to delve deeper there is an opportunity to scan selected paintings using the Smartify app; the Library and Oriel Ynys Môn are the first institutions in Wales to use this new technology.
Upon entering, you will be confronted with a miscellany of Kyffin’s image in various guises, from the early sketches of the pensive young man to the more confident older artist whose eyes gaze directly into your own in an almost challenging way. Diaries and letters delve deeper into the character of the artist, one of the highlights being a particularly endearing letter he wrote to his ‘Mummy & Daddy’ when he was at boarding school in Trearddur.
In ‘Artist’ you will see the making of Kyffin and his life-long influences, especially his association with Van Gogh and the parallels he drew with his fellow epileptic. His paintings, ’Sunflowers with Mountains Beyond’ and ‘Crows and Storm coming’, are of particular note, the latter often thematically compared to one of Van Gogh’s most famous works ‘Wheatfield with Crows’, in which Kyffin mimics Van Gogh’s strong colour combinations and the menacing sky which is said to signify the artist’s loneliness. Some of his early works from his time in the Slade are uncharacteristically ‘Kyffin’ but a fascinating insight into how he perfected his craft.
Turn the corner and you immediately feel as if you are being watched by the many eyes in Kyffin’s portraits. His placement of the sitter on his canvases is intentional and intriguing. Kyffin mentioned in his book ‘Portraits’: “The placing of the head within the confines of the canvas can show the personality of the sitter.” Indeed, the larger more confident subjects fill the canvas and look directly at you, whilst the more timid and neurotic subjects tend to be placed to one side and looking away. Our favourite is Miss Parry; a partially invented character representing his fascination with old age, “especially those who sit and wait for the end to come”.
Although he never saw himself as a traditional portrait painter, Kyffin was obsessed with people. He once said: “I feel that the land and its people are almost part of me”. Kyffin grew up among the hills and valleys of north Wales and was drawn to the landscape and its people, especially the figure of the farmer whom is constant in his work and adorns many living rooms and gallery walls. There are a few of his best examples in the exhibition.
‘Places’ is the largest and most significant theme in the show. His work in this genre was so prolific, it was very difficult to boil it down to fit into the space; but with a little help from Kyffin himself (he often listed his favourites in interviews and in his diaries) we have tried to represent the very best of his of works inspired by the mountains and seascape of Wales and beyond.
The large Welsh landscape wall which is hung in a salon style as an acknowledgement to the artist’s appointment as a Royal Academician in 1973 is a fitting finale to the exhibition. A challenging hanging method never before attempted by our team, but has been our personal highlight of the whole exhibition.
It has been some 13 years since we last dedicated an exhibition to Kyffin and we do hope that you will enjoy the experience and find some favourites of your own…maybe even be inspired to try your hand at creating your very own masterpiece! Do let us know what your own personal highlights are on social media using #Kyffin100 [Twitter: @NLWExhibtion] and remember to download the Smartify App before your visit.
Our exhibitions team are very busy now as we are gearing up for our major exhibition ‘Kyffin Williams: Behind the Frame’ which opens on 16th February. There are so many amazing collections to choose from – not just his paintings, but his letters, diaries and ephemera from a previously unseen archive. It has been an immense yet enjoyable task; there is enough material to fill our extensive gallery over and over again!
At the same time we have been preparing almost 70 items for an exhibition at Oriel Ynys Môn entitled ‘Kyffin Williams: Celebrating a Centenary’ which opens on 3rd February. In return there are few little gems coming here on loan from the collection of Oriel Ynys Môn, which you can see on display at the Library. One of which is an emotive depiction of a storm across the Menai Strait which is the same view of an oil painting in our collection entitled ‘Storm Approaching’. It was Ian Jones, Buildings and Collections Manager at Oriel Môn, who noticed the link between their drawing and our oil painting: “Kyffin called the work ‘Beaumaris’, but it’s a view of the Menai Strait and Eryri beyond from Glanrafon, near Llangoed. Beaumaris is in the middle of the drawing behind the trees on the shore of the Menai.”
Kyffin was a staunch supporter of the Library and Oriel Ynys Môn and he would be thrilled to know that we continue to work together to share his collections with the nation.
For regular updates on the progress of the exhibition, follow us on
The need to conserve, preserve, catalogue and interpret our collections is a vital element of the work of the National Library of Wales, thereby making them available to the public. As the Library is home to a significant number of Kyffin Williams’ most prominent paintings and as we celebrate his life in 2018, safeguarding these and ensuring that they are correctly framed is an integral part of the conservation process.
Not only does a frame protect a painting from damage, but it also affects the presentation of the finished work. Indeed a good frame choice can greatly enhance a work of art and elevate the experience of the individual viewing the contents. Selecting the right frame for a work of art is a skill in itself. Kyffin had very definite ideas about how to frame his paintings, and the Library has embarked on a new conservation project to re-frame some of its works with the aim to honour the artist’s original vision.
The Framing the Future Fundraising Campaign will fund this key conservation project to enable Kyffin’s work to be cared for and appreciated by future generations.
Framing one art work will cost in the region of £2,000 and the generous support of our supporters will allow us to do more of the work. Every contribution will make a real difference and safeguard these iconic works for the future.
Rhian Haf Evans, Fund Raising Officer
‘This is the land that has obsessed me throughout my life. My love of it
is not superficial but deep, for my family have for so many generations
had the same feeling for the land and its people. When I left art school
I did not have to think what I should paint for my subject was deep
inside me and waiting for me to record it’.
(Kyffin Williams, ‘The Land & the Sea’, Gomer Press,1998).
The Kyffin Williams Exhibition which opens on the 16th of February,
2018 will commemorate the centenary of the birth of one of Wales’
leading artists. It is therefore an opportunity for the National Library
to celebrate its rich collection of the Anglesey born artist’s works –
from his iconic landscapes and powerful seascapes of Anglesey,
north-west Wales and abroad to his emotive portraits. There is also an opportunity within the exhibition to view lesser-known works by the
artist previously unseen by the public, which include his preparatory
works such as his sketchbooks and his printing blocks. The Library
houses over 200 oil paintings, over 1,200 works on paper and over 300
original prints by the artist.
Many people mainly associate Kyffin Williams with his impasto technique
of painting – placing the oil paint down thickly onto the canvas using
a palette knife. An extremely interesting aspect of the research into
this exhibition was to discover the early works which the artist created
whilst he was a student at the Slade School of Art and an art teacher at
the Highgate School in London in the 1940s through to the early 1970s.
These early works are of great importance in showing how Kyffin
developed his technique and iconic style of painting which from the
beginning of his career caught the imagination of the people of Wales.
Within this exhibition we shall also gain an invaluable insight into
Kyffin’s creative mind by taking a look at a few films on the
artist and also his diaries and letters which are housed within
our archives. Kyffin Williams was a skilled writer who instantly caught the
reader’s imagination and his entertaining autobiographies are
testimony to this. This exhibition will therefore be an unique
opportunity to celebrate Kyffin’s words and images in an extremely
effective manner on the walls of the National Library’s iconic Gregynog
Morfudd Bevan, Art Curator, National Library of Wales
“It is ironic that I am the most loved & most honoured Welsh artist of all time & yet I am hated by the art world.” – Kyffin Williams (diary) 16th October 1993.
We are delighted to reveal plans to hold an extensive exhibition which will launch in February 2018 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the defining Welsh artists of the 20th century – Sir Kyffin Williams.
The relationship between the Library and the artist first began in 1949 at the start of Kyffin’s career when we first purchased one of his paintings. From this point onwards this relationship was cultivated through consistent purchases, donations and exhibitions until his death in September 2006 when the Library was bequeathed a generous part of his estate. The Library’s existing collection together with the bequest, forms the largest most comprehensive collection of material relating to Kyffin Williams in existence.
So what has the Library been doing with this generous gift until now? Organising and presenting a comprehensive exhibition of his work is a product of several years of sorting, cataloguing, conservation and study, although this is still on-going and there is much to do. We have been making his collections accessible to the public both on-line, through exhibitions and our loans programme, particularly with our partner Oriel Kyffin / Oriel Ynys Môn. In fact our relationship with Oriel Kyffin is a great legacy of Kyffin’s bequest, where hugs now replace handshakes at meetings! The Library and Oriel Kyffin will be teaming up to share collections during the centenary year along with working together on a rich programme of outreach activities.
The iconic style and subject matter of Kyffin’s work is appealing as it has become synonymous with the vision of Wales and Welshness, an essential aspect of our understanding of who we are. But who was he?
“I am the greatest living expert on myself” – Kyffin Williams (diary), 29th January 1993
How do we represent such an iconic artist who has been written and talked about by so many? We felt the best way of doing this was to draw upon the artists own words – from his own diaries and letters – to interpret his creations. We will look ‘behind the frame’ to learn about his technique, what inspired him and how his personality and complexity of his character and health influenced his life and work.
Our patronage of this artist over the years has culminated in this exhibition and a whole host of events and outreach activities during the centenary year. It is particularly pertinent that – as we come to a close in the year of legends – we launch a celebration of this unique and legendary individual.
This month marks ten years since the death of Kyffin Williams – arguably the greatest Welsh artist of the later twentieth century. As art historian Dr Gareth Lloyd Roderick stated he was in a popular sense the ‘national’ painter of Wales and was made Royal Academician in 1973. Born in Llangefni, Anglesey in 1918 Kyffin Williams stated in his memoir ‘Across the Straits’ that his life aim was to record the land and the people of his childhood. His use of a thick oil paint heavily applied onto the canvas with his palette knife was typical of Kyffin’s style and became iconographic. Through this unique application of paint one felt an intense energy flowing from his work. He was an expressionist painter and stated that the best works he created were when he allowed himself to be ‘…swept away into a fever of exuberance or even anger, the better the final result has been; while conscious thought has invariably brought disaster’. As an epileptic he felt an intense obsession to paint and was therefore a prolific painter- completing up to three paintings a week. One may also assume that the artist’s struggle with depression played its part in his works as well. Kyffin stated that there is a ‘…a seam of melancholy that is within most Welshmen, a melancholy that derives from the dark hills, the heavy clouds and the enveloping sea mists’.
The National Library and Kyffin had a close relationship and upon his death in 2006 a large section of his estate came to the Library. The National Library possesses the largest number of Kyffin Williams works in the world.
Assistant Art Curator
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