Born in Llangefni, Anglesey, on 9 May 1918, Sir Kyffin Williams became one of the most defining Welsh artists of the 20th Century.
Best known for his depictions of the Welsh countryside, shepherds and their sheepdogs, livestock, and small villages, Kyffin Williams grew up on the island of Anglesey, situated on the north coast of Wales. With its beautiful sweeping hills and stunning coastline it is no wonder Williams became so inspired by the Welsh countryside.
Williams was educated in Shropshire, at Moreton Hall School and later Shrewsbury School. However, during his time at school he contracted polio encephalitis which lead him to develop epilepsy, a misfortune he later described as “my greatest fortune”. Williams developed his passion for art when he discovered the work of Piero Della Francesca, and Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. Despite initially being told he was not good enough to pursue a career in art, Williams enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1941 and moved to Oxford. During his years at Slade the artist worked relentlessly on his skills, and eventually graduated from the school with the Slade Portrait Prize.
The home of Kyffin Williams, The island of Anglesey
Later that year Williams went on to achieve his ambition to become a teacher of fine art. He secured a job at the Highgate School in London, where he taught his passion for almost 30 years. His pupils included the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Royal Academicians Anthony Green and Patrick Procktor and composers John Tavener and John Rutter. Although living in London for this period, Wales never left his consciousness or imagination, as he would return home in holidays, take his study sketches back to London and complete his canvasses of the rugged Welsh landscape.
Despite the majority of his oeuvre depicting Wales, Williams travelled widely during his time and even won a scholarship to paint in the Welsh settlement of Patagonia, South America. This added a significant body of work to his collection, and the light in Patagonia, radically changed his palette. However, Williams felt such a connection with his home island, that on retirement he returned to Anglesey and spent the remaining 30 years of his life painting and supporting Welsh Schools of Art.
Clouds off South Stack 1 by Kyffin Williams
Today Williams work is best known for its bold palette-knife application of paint, sombre tonality and considerable degree of abstraction, as you can see in this dark, monumental paintings of the North Welsh landscape.
In this work of art Williams has captured the drama of a stormy night’s sky. Using thick impasto, he has rendered the dense collection of full, dark clouds that partly obscure the bright white moon. His two-tone palette enhances the contrast between light and dark, between the moon and the sky which is then reflected for a second time on the water’s surface.
The Moelwyns in Winter by Kyffin Williams
Williams not only painted the coastline of his beautiful home island, but also frequently ventured to mainland Wales, where he became inspired by the towering mountain-scapes. 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 site for slate quarrying for many years. It is possible that this painting depicts the rockier side of the Meolwyns, Meolwyn Bach, in the foreground and the grassier Meolwyn Mawr and its quarries in the distance.
Williams’ has cleverly used a limited colour palette and thick impasto to recreate the uneven, rocky terrain of the mountains and inclement weather which sucks the viewer into the scene. With his highly distinctive palette-knife style these dark, monumental landscapes of Snowdonia came to assume an iconic status and so too did the man, affectionately known as Kyffin.
We have a selection of work by Kyffin Williams available at Trinity House. Click the button below to view more.