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.
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.
“I beg to be considered not as a Topographer but as a curious traveller willing to collect all that a traveller may be supposed to do in his voyage”
In May 1773 the naturalist Thomas Pennant of Downing Hall in Flintshire wrote of his plans for a book of ‘travels at home’. This would become the Tours in Wales, published in three volumes between 1778 and 1783: it was a ground-breaking and profoundly influential work, which would shape people’s ideas about Wales for well over a century.
Pennant was already internationally recognized by the time these Tours appeared. He was known as the author of the beautifully-illustrated British Zoology, as an assiduous correspondent with some of the great naturalists of C18th Europe (including the Comte de Buffon and Carl Linnaeus), and as the adventurous pioneer of two Scottish Tours, which inspired the famous Journey to the Western Isles of Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Pennant’s partnership with the artist Moses Griffith brought Welsh and Scottish scenes to a much wider audience, and encouraged many hundreds of people to undertake their own ‘Home Tours’.
The National Library of Wales holds a rich collection of Pennant’s published works and manuscripts, as well as many of Griffith’s lovely watercolours, some of which will go on display in the Summers Room (5-9 February 2018). The ‘Curious Travellers’ project, funded by the AHRC and run by the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and Glasgow University, has been exploring this wonderful archive, and discovering the delights (and disasters!) of travel in C18th and C19th Wales and Scotland. This is the beginning of modern tourism – and Pennant’s complex legacy is still very much with us today.
To find out more about the project go to: http://curioustravellers.ac.uk/en/
Mary-Ann Constantine, University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies
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.
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.
In less than a month’s time, the Library’s Arthurian exhibition will close its doors, and our hero will return to his isle of enchantment.
To mark this year’s Explore your Archive, two events at the National Library on the 15th of November drew attention to all things legendary and archival here.
A lunchtime presentation by Scott Lloyd of RCAHM Wales (author of The Arthurian Place Names of Wales) discussed myths, legends and archaeology, drawing on examples from over a century of archival accumulation by the Commission.
A gallery talk by Maredudd ap Huw, curator of the Arthurian exhibition, led visitors on a trail following the king in his many guises: from the legendary Welsh figure in sources such as the Black Book of Carmarthen and the White Book of Rhydderch, through his medieval French manifestations, before returning to his mixed fate in Tudor Britain.
It is unlikely that King Arthur himself was an archival creator: he was far too busy to keep minutes, file correspondence, and audit accounts. However, manuscripts and books concerning the king may still be seen and enjoyed at the Library’s Hengwrt Gallery until he finally sets sail on December 16th.
‘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 ?Gallery.
Morfudd Bevan, Art Curator, National Library of Wales
With the Library’s current exhibition Arthur and Welsh Mythology looking at Wales’ rich tradition of myths, legends and folklore, including the Welsh Arthurian tradition, now is perhaps an opportune moment to note that amongst the Library’s Welsh Print Collection is one of Wales’ largest collections of Arthurian literature and works on the Arthurian legend.
With its roots in early Welsh poems such as Y Gododdin, early Welsh tales such as Culhwch ac Olwen and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittania, the Arthurian legend encompasses a variety of literary forms, including the chronicle, the romance, poetry and the novel, and a number of other artistic forms such as opera and film. The Arthurian legend and its mythos also give us an example of a truly Trans-European literary tradition (or transatlantic tradition if we include the Connecticut Arthur). Starting from its roots in Welsh poetry and folklore, Arthurian literature and legend spread across Europe, with English, French, Italian, German and Nordic influences, amongst others transforming, cross-fertilising and enriching the genre.
The Arthurian legend has also proved to be an especially durable and enduring literary tradition, from early Welsh poems and folk-tales through to the chivalrous romances of the medieval period, the Arthurian revival in the nineteenth century and the fantasy novels and historical fictions of the twentieth and twenty-first century. During this time the Arthurian legend has also been used for a variety of political and ideological purposes with the uses made of the legend to support both Welsh and Norman claims to the island of Britain during the medieval period just one example of how Arthur was used in this way.
The Library’s collection of printed works related to the Arthurian legend is as varied as its history. Comprising over 1,500 titles, the collection, dating from the early nineteenth century onwards, reflects its trans-European nature including works in Welsh, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Norwegian. It also reflects the variety of literary forms with works ranging from early Welsh poems and tales, the chivalric poems and tales of the medieval period through to the novels of John Steinbeck, T. H. White, Bernard Cornwell and Rosemary Sutcliffe alongside the Monty Python and the Holy Grail screenplay. The collection also includes a large number of academic works on the Arthurian legend and Arthurian Literature.
So if you have an interest in Arthurian literature, Arthurian legend or the mythology of ancient Britain or are visiting the exhibition and want to learn more, why not take a moment to explore the collection through the Library catalogue.
“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.
There was barely room left in the Council Chamber of the National Library of Wales on Wednesday the 4th of October when friends of the Library came together from all over in order to take part in our Accessions Day. All the guests had contributed something important to our collections, a valuable item or a financial donation enabling us to purchase a specific item. The Library has benefitted from the generosity of the public since its founding and the Accessions Day was a opportunity for us to say thank you very much to our to our friends by creating a varied exhibition of some of the treasures that have come through the doors in the past few years and by offering them the chance to socialise over lunch.
Afterwards specialist Library staff gave several presentations on different aspects of the collections: a look at the wonderful family pedigree of Gawen Goodman; a description of the various interesting ways that archives arrive here, traditional paper archives and screen and sound recordings; and the importance of Gwilym Pritchard’s sketch books in the process of creating a painting.
The event was also an opportunity for us to talk about our new Collections’ Fund. This fund will become more and more important as we have to compete with other bodies for public money. In 2016 the Library failed to purchase a letter by the famous Welsh buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan. It would have been great to see the letter in our recent accessions exhibition this year but maybe, with your help, the next time a similar treasure comes to market, we will have quite a bit more wind in our sails!
A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.