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: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: 020 8340 3340.
David Smith, Heritage Officer, Highgate School – email@example.com