Jonathan Glasbrook-Griffiths reviews Obsessed: The Biography of Kyffin Williams, one of Wales’ most popular modern artists.
Not without a touch of hyperbole and somewhat erroneously presented by its publisher, Gomer as the biography of Wales’ most popular modern artist, Obsessed, The Biography of Kyffin Williams should perhaps more correctly be termed a double memoir. Written by David Meredith, a former television executive, and John Smith, an officer at Oriel Ynys Môn, both authors had come to know the painter through their professional involvement with him on a number of ventures undertaken towards the end of Sir Kyffin’s life, (his fame in Wales was such that like Dylan, Gareth or Shane he required no surname). From the evidence of their recent collaboration it soon becomes clear that they held the distinguished artist and his work in high regard, an attitude reflected in the affectionate tone that permeates so much of their narrative.
Setting out to write a biography of Sir Kyffin was always going to present a certain kind of challenge to even the most experienced of chroniclers. By the time of his death in September 2006, aside from the countless catalogue notes, prefaces and essays he had penned over a remarkable career lasting over sixty years, he was also the author of two volumes of autobiography, the first of which, Across the Straits(1973) is still widely regarded by many critics as amongst the finest examples of Anglo-Welsh writing in the genre.
Inevitably forced to retrace much of the same ground as Sir Kyffin, Meredith and Smith’s positions as external observers has afforded them an opportunity to elucidate those areas of the painter’s life where his innate modesty, disinclination or a lack of opportunity prevented the artist from covering it himself.
For Sir Kyffin a thorough knowledge of his own history and a history of the land in which he lived was central to both his life, and to his art and this sense of longevity and rootedness in his environment percolates down through the early chapters. Like all good Welshmen of his background, Sir Kyffin was immensely proud of his pedigree, a line that on both sides of his family converged on one Wmffre ap William John ap Rhys (1661 – 1792), a one-time blacksmith in the Anglesey parish of Llansadwrn. Some years later following a serendipitous piece of good fortune involving a skittish young horse and the discovery of a large pot of gold, Wmffre had chosen to anglicise his name to Humphrey Williams, a story related in Across the Straits but curiously omitted here. With all the various branches of Sir Kyffin’s forebears taking an active role in shaping much of the island’s industrial, political, religious, legal and social life over a number of centuries, Obsessed provides a refreshing antidote to the usual socio-political orthodoxy of Welshness as defined by a resilience against the colonial ambitions of those on the other side of Offa’s Dyke.
Equally at ease in the company of the indigenous hill farmers he immortalised amongst the peaks of Snowdonia as he was amongst the Bishops, Lords Lieutenant and hunting fraternity from whom he gained his intimate knowledge of the landscape, Sir Kyffin’s animistic relationship with the rugged terrain of North Wales today seems to more obviously reflect the lives of those residing in the Home Counties. Although the Williams’ were moderately well off as a family, they were not rich enough for their second son to gain entry into one of the elite cavalry regiments he had dreamt of joining since childhood. Schooling at Shrewsbury, one of the original Clarendon public schools, was followed by a brief period working as a land agent. Eventually commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, his military career soon came to an abrupt end when he was famously labelled ‘abnormal’ and told to take up art following his diagnosis with epilepsy. Although Sir Kyffin, like most people of his generation and upbringing, was prone to downplay the true impact of the condition on his day-to-day routine, for both Meredith and Smith it is a central theme that runs throughout the book, informing his art and at times explaining his occasionally erratic behaviour when faced with the anxiety of unfamiliarity.
Notwithstanding the book’s liberal sprinkling of colour reproductions anyone hoping for a socio-historical or geo-political post-colonial insight into Sir Kyffin’s paintings will be disappointed to discover that no attempt has been made by the authors to place him within any context beyond that of his own life story. This is perhaps a lost opportunity particularly given the sometimes controversial Royal Academician’s predilection for ragging those administrators and artists whose aims and output he believed lacked the same artistic integrity he continually strived for in himself. Although a number of other artists do weave their way in and out of the narrative, his friends, Manfred Uhlman, Roland Vivian Pitchforth and Charles Tunnicliffe, although each respected in their own way are not names now recognised widely beyond the confines of academia or picture collectors of modest means.
Choosing to review Sir Kyffin’s eventful life in a linear and loosely chronological order, Obsessed is rich with anecdotes gleaned from personal contact as well as approaches to Kyffin’s many surviving friends and colleagues. Sometimes rambling, occasionally repetitive, the book reveals Sir Kyffin as a highly generous, often diffident but always humane artist with a deep affection for his homeland. Despite his affliction and the occasional limitations it imposed, one is left with the impression that Sir Kyffin could never quite believe his luck at how well things eventually turned out for him. Inevitably as the story unfolds, as is so often the case with anyone writing a memoir of an individual they knew personally, there is a tendency for Meredith and Smith to overplay their own interaction with the artist rather than viewing their own small contribution as part of a much wider story. All of that said, if you are amongst those people lucky enough to own one of Sir Kyffin William’s many artworks then this latest addition to Gomer’s already lengthy library of Kyffinalia should still provide a thoroughly readable and at times informative addendum to a life already well chronicled by the artist himself
Obsessed: The Biography of Kyffin Williams is available from Gomer.
Jonathan Glasbrook is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.