by David Fraser Jenkins, (with biographical essay by David Moore)
Graffeg, 160 pp
Graffeg’s handsome tribute to William Wilkins has an aspect not common in art publishing. For a period in 2014 an unmistakably distinctive Wilkins oil hung above the desk at Martin Tinney’s Cardiff Gallery. With a copy of the book available it was possible to rest it on the desk, its generous thirty-one centimetres square size not far from the size of the actual artwork. That adjacency of art and reproduction made for an opportunity to compare an image as captured through the camera’s lens with that made by the myriad rods and cones of the natural retina.
‘Sunlight, Cornus, Florida’, a painting from last year, has now been re-hung at the top of the Martin Tinney first floor staircase. Graffeg has had the service of several photographers: Graham Matthews, Martha McGuire, Mike Roberts, Ken Dickinson and Prudence Cuming Associates. Cumulatively they have served the art excellently and their work in conjunction with the writers has made a book that is a work of art in itself.
Wilkins’ infinitely painstaking methodology is a challenge to the camera. The gradual application of the paint, tiny stroke upon tiny stroke, is the opposite to what the camera sensor, however sophisticated, seeks. It searches for a certainty of line for its focus, precisely the element that Wilkins’ method dissolves. It is reassuring that Graffeg’s fine and deep images are simulacra rather than replications. The work itself remains triumphantly a Ding an Sich.
The book has three contributors. David Fraser Jenkins, one time curator of the National Museum of Wales, is author of the forty-page assessment of the work. David Moore rounds out the life and career and Geraint Talfan Davies provides the foreword. Talfan Davies homes in eloquently on the person: ‘A potent mix of vision, old-fashioned courtesy and steely fixity of purpose.’ The Artes Mundi Prize might well have been a legacy of worth on its own, let alone Aberglasney, Llanelli House and the National Botanic Garden.
The editors close with a two-page compendium of supporting information. The exhibitions, solo and group, are recorded, commencing in 1970 in Aberystwyth and taking in London, regularly, New York, Warsaw, and San Francisco. Awards are listed and the selected bibliography includes many a critic of weight. Charles Jencks enrolled Wilkins in 1987 for his monumental Post-Modernism, The New Classicism in Art and Architecture, the primary reason being the depth of allusion. ‘A perfectly plausible representation of the present,’ wrote Jencks, ‘but it also alludes to a previous world of painting or myth.’
John Russell Taylor ‘can think of few modern painters who can paint a group of bowls or pots on a polished wood surface to such ravishing effect.’ ‘The real triumph of William Wilkins’ painting,’ wrote Edward Lucie-Smith, ‘is that, for all their underlying complexities, our first sensation on encountering them is always a shock of delight.’ For Hilton Kramer of the New York Times one aspect predominates. It is the eye of the artist ‘utterly flawless in its analysis of the light that forms his principal subject matter, and his hand unfaltering rendering it.’
David Fraser Jenkins’ essay of appreciation also opens his discussion of the light with a nice phrase: ‘A presence of light in a painting has to be earned, and does not come simply from the contrast of light and shade. Pictorial light is something of its own kind, a glow that can unite a painting.’ He traces the evolution of the artistic treatment from 1979 to the work in a Llandeilo studio in the late nineties. The paint by then is being applied in a single layer in larger touches with the colours much stronger.
In the earlier work he describes the mystery of the compositions that attracted the attention of Charles Jencks. One of the figures in ‘Figures in a Studio’ of 1977 is herself revealed as an image in dramatic pose from a canvas within the canvas. Even at this early stage – Wilkins began to paint in oils in 1974 – the painting is made ‘without lines or drawing of any kind on the canvas’ and in their place ‘touch by touch of small patches of colour on the white ground.’
Good criticism knows context and Fraser Jenkins knows that dots of paint were used by Ian Stephenson, Andrew Forge and Tom Phillips albeit to different purpose, that of ‘abstraction in a shallow space.’ As for the influences Wilkins’ extravagant purchase of a Lucie Rie pot ‘became his talisman.’ The influence of Morandi preceded that of Seurat. The critical writing gives Morandi his due – the ‘etched still lives are miracles of the making of shape by cross-hatching alone.’ The wise designers at Graffeg have placed Wilkins’ drawing ‘Near Ezer’ of 1971 next to the description. The aesthetic essence that elevates them beyond architectural drawing is, in Fraser Jenkins’ words, ‘the compromise between disciplined touch and emotional sympathy.’
When his subject moves oils Fraser Jenkins is acute in his assessment. The early Corot was inspiration for the first colourings. Wilkins paints his nudes in a spirit of opposition to the Coldstream work of the same time. The first New York exhibitions were all landscapes from the west of France. ‘They were a test of his endurance, spending hours alone in remote corners of fields and woods, returning day after day while the weather held, with all at risk till the last.’
The section ‘Possibilities of Paint’ anatomises the period of ‘Picnic’ (1981) and ‘A Dance’ (1983). He traces the influence of ceramics. The extraordinary pots of George Ohr were also painted by Jasper Johns. Regular lengthy visits, beginning in 1987, gave rise to the Venice paintings. In the garden pictures he sees in the treatment of each sunlit leaf how Wilkins ‘discovered a way to a luminosity that had eluded the earlier attempts of the French and of the Camden Town painters.’ At Martin Tinney in 2010 ‘these paintings sparkled.’
David Fraser Jenkins touches on aspects of the life that carry over from discussion of the art. The study at the Royal College of Art was that of the design and manufacture of stained glass. Drawing was an evening class activity. Early married life in Brook Green was accompanied by the purchase of the tumbledown family’s old home above Trapp. Brook Green features among the hundred and four illustrations. That tarmac road that connects Olympia to Shepherd’s Bush becomes a surface of mauves and browns.
David Moore’s complementary ten-page essay follows the course of the life. Arthur Giardelli is a source of encouragement in childhood. Employment with the Greater London Council is a test-bed for the skills of persuasion, diplomacy and project management that are to create the legacy of Aberglasney, Middleton and Llanelli. Moore describes too what it takes to make art. Not yet satisfied with his drawing skill Wilkins ‘over a six-year period…devoted himself three hours a night to drawing for five days a week as well as eight hours a day for three weekends out of four.’
William Wilkins is a worthy tribute to that dedication. Page fifty-eight has an early drawing of Venice. Nine-tenths of the paper is untouched by the pencil. The line of mansions, trees and tower is complemented by one small element of reflection in the Venice lagoon. Pages eighty-eight and nine place ‘Still Life Two Tables’ and ‘Still Life: Three Lucie Rie Bowls’ side by side. They are images to sink into; the critical response by John Russell Taylor is exact and correct. Graffeg has produced a book to treasure.