On display in the main hall of the Library, between the two reading rooms is Kyffin Williams’s Self Portrait, 1968. David Griffiths’s portrait of Shane Williams previously hung in this position. The subjects of the two portraits seemingly have little in common, but as Kyffin Williams reminds us in his first volume of autobiography, he too graced the rugby field. Writing about his time working and living in London, the artist reports:
“I even played for London Welsh extra ‘B’ [the third XV], but when a large St. Thomas’s Hospital forward flattened me and apologised with a “Frightfully sorry, sir,” I realised the time had come for me to become a spectator.” (Williams, Across the Straits, p.173)
Welsh rugby’s loss was indeed Welsh art’s gain. (It is here too, that similarities between the subjects of the pictures end- it is uncertain whether Shane Williams has painted any landscape pictures!).
This self-portrait is one of several in the Library’s collection. The artist is instantly recognisable: his distinctive moustache and semi-long, swept back hair feature in all his self-portraits; the palette held in his right hand acts as a reminder of his vocation. Although the artist wears a serious expression, there is perhaps an element of humour in the image. Photographs of Kyffin show his long moustache drooping around his mouth, but in this portrait his moustache is flicked up at the edges, recalling cartoon images of artists- perhaps the stereotypical artist’s beret is just out of frame.
Kyffin Williams is renowned for using a palette knife technique especially in his landscape paintings. Critics of the artist sometimes note a heavy-handed approach, but this painting shows how nuanced his technique could be when used in portraiture. The heavy impasto often used to give a textural quality to a mountain side or rocky outcrop is used here to imply depth and gradation in the human form. The subtlety (not a word often used in relation to Kyffin’s application of paint) of the facial features is particularly notable, with light catching on the bridge of the nose, and facial hair having a real, bristly quality. Other passages are more expressive: the check of the brown shirt under his sleeveless smock is suggested by lines being scored into the thick paint possibly with the handle of a knife or brush. While the picture contains these subtle elements it retains a sense of rapidity in common with his landscape works. In the painting, Kyffin holds the palette in his right hand; the right-handed artist would naturally have held the palette in his left, reminding us that the picture is being painted from life: that is, from his own reflection in a mirror. The colours on the palette match the tones of the artist’s cheek, giving a sense that the picture is being painted in the here-and-now.
This painting was created in what can be seen as a pivotal year for Kyffin Williams. The artist turned 50 years old on May 18th 1968 and at the end of that year he made his journey to paint the Welsh communities of Patagonia as part of a Winston Churchill Foundation Fellowship. Much of the work produced by the artist as part of his journey to Patagonia is held at the National Library. This self-portrait captures the artist at perhaps the mid-point of his career. A few years later he would return to live on Anglesey after almost thirty years of teaching in London, a period reflected upon in his first volume of autobiography, Across the Straits, published in 1973. Self-Portrait, 1968 captures an experienced and confident artist at a point just before he was to become the dominant figure in Welsh painting of the late twentieth century.
An exhibition of Kyffin’s Patagonia paintings will be on display at MOMA Machynlleth 28 February – 9 May 2015.
Lloyd Roderick (Research student Kyffin Williams Online)