Kyffin Williams is best known for his passion for the rugged landscape of North Wales, and this particular piece depicts the snow-capped Moelwyn Mountains. The Moelwyns are part of a group of mountains in Snowdonia and were used as a slate mine for many years. It is possible that this painting depicts the rockier side of the Moelwyns, Moelwyn Bach, in the foreground and the grassier Moelwyn Mawr and its quarries in the distance.
Williams’ dark, monumental paintings of the North Welsh landscape and the people who lived and worked there, became instantly recognisable images and this work is no exception. Williams’ has cleverly used a limited colour palette and thick impasto to recreate the uneven, rocky terrain of the mountains and inclement weather which draws the viewer into the scene. Once determined on an artistic course, Williams’ passion for work was all-consuming and there was never any question as to subject matter, with the landscape before him demanding to be drawn or painted. With his highly distinctive palette-knife technique these dark, monumental landscapes of Snowdonia came to assume an iconic status and so too did the man, affectionately known as Kyffin.
The artist was born in May, 1918 at Tregefni, Anglesey, his family having had long historic and landowning connections on the island. Upon leaving school, Williams became land agent at Pwllhel and this was to be the beginning of his passion and understanding for the landscape of North Wales. He was commissioned into the Territorial Army in 1937 in the 6th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was about to be sent overseas in 1941 when he was diagnosed as epileptic and declared medically unfit. At this stage, it was his doctor that thought he should consider taking up art.
A friend suggested he tried the Slade School of Fine Art, which at the time was based during the war, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. After being told that he could attend for one term only, owing to so few students, Williams eventually stayed for three years. There he was awarded the Slade Portrait Prize and the Slade Leaving Scholarship.
His main aim on leaving the Slade was to find a job as an art-master at some comfortable and undemanding public school, but he had been slow to achieve even that until, unable to pay his rent, he was thrown out of his lodgings in St John’s Wood. This crisis not only had the effect of his getting a job at Highgate School but also made him realise that art was his vocation.
For the next thirty years, the post at Highgate provided Williams with the perfect base to develop his highly characteristic work, “free from the pressures of fashion and the contagious influences of art schools”. He was eventually appointed senior art master. Over the years he was much loved by his pupils, and he produced some outstanding students, among them a fellow Royal Academician, Anthony Green.
His first exhibition was at Colnaghi’s in 1948 and he was fortunate that despite his medical problems, he had extraordinary physical energy. He was able to fulfil his teaching duties while painting nearly a hundred works a year.