Blog - Kyffin Blog
One of the many artworks held at the National Library of Wales will be projected onto buildings in three of Wales’s cities this evening as part of an event to celebrate Your Paintings – a website showing the entire UK national collection of over 210,000 oil paintings.
Between 4.30pm and 10pm, Sunflowers with mountains beyond, 1940-1950 by Sir Kyffin Williams will be among the paintings projected onto the walls of The Red Dragon Centre, Cardiff; the Miss Selfridge Building, Princess Way, Swansea; and Marks & Spencer’s, Wrecsam.
The projections mark the start of a month of exhibitions and events organised by the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation to celebrate the completion of Your Paintings. The Library has displayed almost 2,000 works from its collections on the website and you can view them all here
The physical cataloguing (i.e. the arranging and describing) of all material has now been completed, comprising Kyffin’s own works of art, his extensive collection of art by others, and his archives, including his correspondence, diaries and photographs. The descriptions will be released into the Library’s main catalogue in the near future, enabling all those interested in the artist to access the catalogue remotely whenever they like. When copyright issues have been resolved, digital images of artworks and some of the artist’s personal papers will also be available on-line, alongside the catalogue descriptions.
Working on this large and varied project has been a real privilege for all concerned and hopefully the end result will enable anyone interested in the artist, including researchers, individuals, school and college students, to gain a greater understanding of the life and work of one of Wales’s most renowned artists of the twentieth century.
The team wish to thank all those who have regularly followed the progress of the project on the blog and everybody who has commented on the posts, whether on-line or otherwise.
Future posts on Kyffin Williams
The completion of the cataloguing and digitising processes marks the end of the bequest project. As such the Kyffin Blog, which was set up to provide updates relating to various aspects of the project will cease to post information. However, this isn’t the end of the Kyffin story, and any future news or information relating to the artist, his works of art or papers will be posted on the Library’s main blog.
As the Kyffin Williams project draws to an end, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the diversity of the archives which have now been catalogued.
Amongst the correspondence, 1939-2006, are letters from fellow artists, galleries and institutions, admirers of his work, and friends from Patagonia (documents relating to his visit are included amongst his personal papers). A group of letters from Kyffin, dating from his childhood, is particularly precious.
His journals provide an insight, for over a decade, into the everyday life and thoughts of one of Wales’s most influential artists, recording when and where he sketched and, perhaps surprisingly, revealing how difficult he often found the process of drawing and painting (“Somehow I find blue a very difficult colour”, 21/9/1999). Financial papers show which paints, canvases and frames were used and record how the value of his work increased over the years. With the comprehensive collection of catalogues of solo and group exhibitions of his work we can track Kyffin’s stature as an artist, and numerous letters discussing exhibitions are dispersed throughout the main series of correspondence.
Kyffin was much in demand as a public speaker and notes used for his talks unsurprisingly reveal that his main themes relate to art, including his own work and experiences as an artist. He was a natural raconteur and his autobiographical works Across the Straits and A wider sky proved extremely popular; the manuscript drafts of these reminiscences are amongst the highlights of the group of literary works by him. As well as publications written by Kyffin, we also hold some illustrated by him.
This patchwork of disparate items (some of which include pencil or ink sketches), when brought together, gives us a captivating overview of Kyffin’s life and enables us to place his pictorial work within a wider context, adding depth to a collection we are so fortunate to have at this Library. Despite Kyffin’s rich legacy of pictures and photographs our understanding of this remarkable artist would be so much the poorer without these archives.
Whilst researching for Small World, an exhibition based on the theme of travel in Wales, I couldn’t help but refer to Patagonia. The voyage of the Welsh who emigrated and settled in Patagonia in 1865 is a story that has been told plenty of times in print, in the media and in exhibitions, so when it was time to present this aspect of history in the Small World exhibition, I was keen to look at it from a different perspective.
Kyffin Williams, Father and son near Trevelin, 1968
In 1968, with the help of a Winston Churchill fellowship, he spent several months in the Welsh-descended communities of Patagonia. The product of this trip was very different from his earlier work as he used brighter colours to depict the arid region and gaucho people of Patagonia.
Today, Kyffin’s Patagonia paintings are well-renonwed, but you might not be as familiar with his talent as a photographer. During his time in Patagonia he used photographs extensively for the first time. He took a series of striking 35mm. colour slides of the country and its people, and it is a selection of these slides which I decided to exhibit in Small World. Previously unpublished, the collection of photographs on display in this exhibition capture Y Wladfa through the artist’s eyes.
Alongside these colour photographs, the Library has an unique collection of ephemera belonging to Kyffin Williams, and a few of these objects, relating to his Patagonia trip, can also be seen in the exhibition, including his passport, pesos (Argentinian money) and a mate gourd with bombilla collected by the artist during his stay in Y Wladfa.
Kyffin Williams, Self Portrait, 1968
Whilst in the country Kyffin recorded his impressions of an Indian-Welsh family which he spent some time with, where all the Indians spoke Welsh, and the wife:
“…always referred to the Wales she had never seen as the ‘Hen Wlad’ or the Old Country. Señor Goronwy had so imbued her with the Welsh spirit and the Welsh religion that she was indeed more Welsh than many in Wales…”
Since Small World opened its doors on the 16th of October, 2010, I have been aksed several times to identify my favourite item. There are over 300 items in the exhibition and a number of these are valuable and unique, but my favourite item, without doubt, is Kyffin Williams’ palette, the one used by the artist to paint his famous Patagonian landscapes. The bright oil paint can still be seen on the dark and heavy palette, and I felt a thrill of excitement when I first set eyes on it.
The idea of having a barbecue for Christmas may be fine for Bondi Beach or corny TV adverts but isn’t usually the lot of a Welshman. Argentina, like Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, consequently Christmas is in mid summer.
Kyffin spent Christmas 1968 in Patagonia. Festivities started with a visit to a local school where an impromptu drawing lesson was met by wild applause and hero worship. Later there was a Christmas concert and nativity play in Trevelin.
Christmas day was spent in Parque Nacional Los Alerces, the guest of Don Diego Neill, the park superintendent. Christmas lunch was an asado (barbecue) of lamb eaten with bread using a combination of knife, fork and fingers. Food eaten outdoors always seems tastier, so succulent lamb eaten at altitude amongst the whispering pines and looking out towards the snow covered Andes must have been a memorable experience. Don Diego Neill tells Kyffin of his admiration for his Welsh park rangers, saying though that as they live their lives by the Bible they are incapable of ruthlessness. If this is one of our national traits today then I can think of far worse labels, though maybe Papa Noel could give a little bit more ruthlessness to our rugby team in 2011!
Merry Christmas / Nadolig Llawen / Feliz Navidad
Monday (13/12/10) was a day of celebration and thanksgiving at the Library. After over two years of hard work by many individuals involved with the Kyffin Williams project, a major milestone was reached with the official opening of the new storage area.
Julian with a fine binding
The event attracted about fifty people including members of Chapters, the Library Board and the Kyffin Board. We congregated in the Council Chamber where Julian Thomas gave a very interesting talk about his friendship with Kyffin over the years. He exhibited a number of the fine-bindings he had made for Kyffin, using the artist’s own designs for some of his volumes, such as Across the Straits and A Wider Sky. Julian, the Conservation Treatment Unit Manager is retiring this Christmas after serving the Library for more than forty years. The Librarian thanked him for his long and distinguished contribution, and for being such an important ambassador for the Library. Another tribute was paid by Paul Joyner (Head of Archives and Art Acquisitions), emphasizing his worldwide fame as a fine bookbinder and as an expert in archival conservation.
Julian showing more fine bindings
We then made our way to the new storage area where Pamela Small of the Preventive Unit explained her role (and others, including the local blacksmith) in the process of securing and adapting the storage area where the Kyffin collection will be securely kept under the best environmental conditions (see Kyffin Williams Store).
Iwan Bryn James
Preventive Conservation Unit Manager
Following his training at the Slade in 1944, Kyffin secured a post as art master at Highgate School in London. His description of this opportunity as ‘one of the luckiest moments of his life’, in his autobiography ‘Across the Straits’, betrays the satisfaction he gleaned from this work, until his retirement from teaching in 1973.
Kyffin’s Bequest to the National Library includes not only his own work, but also the work of other artists and friends. Amongst these are an interesting group of art works by the pupils of Highgate: over 250 drawings / paintings on paper, and 25 linocuts. A former pupil tells me that Kyffin on occasion would ask if he could keep an artwork. The collection provides interesting evidence of Kyffin as a teacher: in its variety, and in his adding example drawings of his own on the reverse side of some items for the students’ benefit.
Many of his former pupils became successful and productive artists in their own right. Notably Anthony Green and Patrick Procktor joined him later as fellow members of the Royal Academy, and an early drawing by Anthony Green is in the collection.
As part of my work I am responsible for copyright research within Kyffin Williams’s personal collection, that is the works of other artists which he accumulated during his lifetime. The purpose of copyright is to protect the ownership of such creative works. Since the original artists are the copyright holders, we cannot show the images without their permission. If the artist has died within the last 70 years I have to contact the family or administrator of the estate.
There are a number of ways of finding this information, but it can be difficult, so I have to don my detective hat! Firstly, I look through our internal copyright database. Other members of staff have previously been searching for copyrights, and have kept it updated. I therefore find some of the artists here.
Secondly, I take a look at two websites, WATCH (Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders) and DACS (Design and Artists Copyright Society). These websites either give information about the copyright holder or advise as to who can help.
Thirdly, I have a look online and search through books. The majority of living artists run their own websites, and I can therefore contact them directly through this – this is the easiest option!
When I find the holder, I write to them asking for permission to use the images and give them an opportunity to supply additional information, for example a title or date which was previously unknown. I then wait for a reply! If I haven’t been able to find the copyright holder the project team must assess the risk of displaying the items on our website.
So far, we have had permission to use 131 images. Here are two examples.
Preventive conservation is an important part of collection care, and I have been periodically involved with the Kyffin Williams bequest since it arrived at the Library. Working on this collection of artwork has been an interesting and enjoyable challenge.
Art works are sensitive to environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, light and ultraviolet light. They require good storage environments that protect them from such damaging processes. The Kyffin bequest is no different, in that it requires such a protective environment, as well as a considerable amount of storage space.
Finding a storage area that met all environmental and security criteria was a priority. With a large collection of books being relocated within the Library it became possible to modify the storage area, adapting a number of the mobile shelving units (on a limited budget).
This was done with the help of colleagues from the building facilities department. The mobile shelving units being modified by adding metal mesh panels, onto which the collection could be hung. This process is reversible and if required could be returned to being used as a book store in future years.
One of the Preventive Unit‘s specialized activities is the conservation mounting of works of art for display and protection. This year, Ruth Evans has the privilege of mounting works of art from the Kyffin Williams legacy. This is nearly the last process in the acquisition of these items into the Library as they have already been cleaned, catalogued and digitised.
Ruth uses our wall-mounted Speed-Mat machine to cut the cream coloured acid-free mounting boards. Good quality paper is used for hinging the works to the mount, with an archival quality paste used as an adhesive. Materials of a lower standard can contain impurities that will yellow and embrittle paper or a work of art. If necessary, the items can be removed from their mounts without causing any damage to the artwork. This ability to reverse our activities is important, as conservation work should be as less intrusive as possible. Over 1,000 Kyffin drawings (on paper) will be protected in this manner.
On completion of the mounts, they will be stored by the dozen in purpose built acid free boxes produced by this unit on one of our specialist machines. Such a box will offer protection against physical damage and the destructive effects of light and airborne pollutants. It will also create a microclimate that will offer a more stable environment in respect of temperature and humidity, and will therefore substantially extend the life of this important collection.
Iwan Bryn James
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Preventive Conservation Unit Manager