Kyffin Williams – A Welsh Artist in a British Art World

This is the third in a new series by different authors, The Gregynog Papers, which began life at ‘In/Dependent Wales’, the recent conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English at Gregynog Hall in Powys.


In May 1921 Alfred Zimmern, Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University addressed the Cambrian Society at Oxford University, and gave his ‘Impressions of Wales’. He considered the survival of the Welsh language to be particularly important.

‘Welsh’ he said, ‘has survived because it represents something, a spirit, a culture, a national character, an atmosphere – which, unlike its compeers in Scotland and Ireland, in Cornwall and the Isle of Man, cannot survive the transformation into English.’

He also emphasised ‘the absence of any volume of Anglo-Welsh literature comparable to the great Anglo-Irish tradition’ with Swift, Burke, Goldsmith, Sheridan and the oratory of Grattan and Curran. The only Anglo-Welsh writers he named were Henry Vaughan and George Herbert; but at least he cited two Anglo-Welsh authors. Welsh painters did not fare as well.[i]

Despite the Welsh people having ‘the advantage of a beautiful home’ he writes that ‘no native painter has yet done justice to the Welsh landscape’. But he notes that the Belgian artist, Valerius de Saedeleer had recently returned ‘to his native Flanders unknown and unhonoured by the Welsh people’ although he had been painting Welsh landscapes for the past six years.[ii]

Zimmern was therefore unaware that the Welsh artists Augustus John and John Dickson Innes had in the previous decade painted several landscapes in the Arenig area, near Bala. But perhaps ignorance of the work of Saedeleer, John and Innes was not surprising due to the absence of exhibition facilities in Wales. In 1918 The Welsh Outlook stated that the paintings of Augustus John ‘may be seen in the galleries of London, Glasgow, Dublin, New York, … Johannesburg and Tokyo’ but only ‘once or twice casual examples …[ of John’s work had been] exhibited for a brief period in Cardiff’[iii]. And even today – nearly a hundred years on – Wales lags behind, lacking a designated National Gallery, unlike Scotland, Ireland and England.

The Wales that Zimmern saw had only one ‘window towards the world’ it being ‘an English window’. He states ‘the English influence on Wales has been damping, chilling and repressive. …the British Empire, in so far as it is, … has grown up as, an English Empire, … a monument of the extent to which the Englishman has imposed his own standards of value on a less perfectly poised humanity.’[iv] Iwan Bala’s painting Cymru Ewropa (2005) illustrates a contemporary desire to escape such stifling influences.

By the time Zimmern’s address was published, two months after his talk he had resigned his Chair at Aberystwyth. He is described as a ‘Sometime Professor of International Politics’ on the front cover, and he had criticised Welsh education as ‘a ghastly travesty.’ All this contributed to his departure.[v]

Zimmern’s Impression viewed Wales not as a unity but as a country split into three; firstly into Welsh Wales, secondly English or ‘Upper Class’ Wales, and thirdly American or Industrialised Wales. Many others have proposed counter-theories on the divided nature of Wales.

The artist and writer Kyffin Williams R.A. (1918-2006) the main subject of this paper created a rich legacy of pictures, and written literature. He is widely acclaimed as Wales’ most successful artist in terms of image-making, sales and popularity. Williams belonged to Upper Class Wales, but spent his life portraying Welsh Wales (its people and landscape), and with a few rare exceptions, ignored portraying Industrial Wales.

He graduated from the Slade School of art in 1944, and soon afterwards began to teach in Highgate School, London. In a career spanning six decades (until his death in 2006) he regularly exhibited in Wales and London. Indeed, he lived his life on both a Welsh and British axis. Even when he taught in London he returned to Wales at every opportunity. In a television programme ‘Horizons hung in Air’ broadcast by BBC Wales in April 1966, he states ‘I never like to admit to myself that I do in fact live in London. To me, I live in Wales and in fact have to work in London.’ These were not spontaneous remarks, since everything was scripted beforehand. The script survives in the Jack Raymond Jones’ Archive in the National Library, and correlates exactly with the broadcast programme[vi]. Wales appealed to Kyffin Williams because ‘there’s a far greater permanence there, the permanence of the mountains, the weight of the mountains, the light of the mountains and the shape of the mountains.’ However, whilst he appraises Wales as an artist, he avoids attaching to it any notion of nationality, or cultural significance. It’s the physical, visual and geological elements that appeal to him. Kyffin Williams has consistently avoided linking any Nationalistic sentiment to the landscapes of his paintings. Rather, he has explained the appeal of the North Wales landscape in terms of lineage, personal acquaintance and his boyhood obsession with hunting.

By taking this view, he differs from countless poets, both, Welsh and Anglo Welsh have viewed their homeland in terms of a Nationalistic narrative. R.S. Thomas for instance recalls an experience he had as a student whilst travelling home to Holyhead from Cardiff:

‘against that light, the hills rose dark and threatening as though full of armed men waiting for a chance to attack,’[vii] he writes.

And even the English artist JMW Turner when painting a view of Dolbadarn Castle was moved to picture a scene of turmoil and conflict, in his ‘Scene in the Welsh mountains with army on the March’ (1799-1800, Tate Gallery, London).

Although both of Kyffin Williams’ parents were Welsh speakers he was denied the opportunity to learn Welsh as a child, and was educated in a totally English environment. As a result, the split between Welsh Wales and English Wales was more than an abstract concept for him. He often wrote of a clear division between the two societies. For instance, Mr Williams, his headmaster at Trearddur boarding school which he attended from the age of seven to twelve, came from ‘an old Anglesey landed family and of course he couldn’t speak Welsh, because there’s a terrible sort of schism in Wales.’[viii] It was not only a language division but a split based on class as well. Kyffin Williams was brought up with a strong sense of the nation’s ‘division’, and he writes in his first autobiography Across the Straits, that his mother abhorred the ‘vulgarity of the Welsh nation.’[ix] Furthermore, in an interview for the British Artists Lives series in 1995, he described his parents as ‘totally, irrevocably and utterly Tory’ and explains he was a lifelong royalist because ‘[he] was brought up to be a royalist.’[x]

Note how Zimmern had also grouped English Wales and Upper Class Wales together; however Zimmern did not regard Welsh culture as inferior. He learnt Welsh during his two year sojourn at Aberystwyth, and for him, although economically poor, Welsh west Wales was a rich cultured land.[xi] When he took a third class train from London to Aberystwyth, he noted the ‘change in the character of conversation … sport retires to the background and religion and politics … the two great interests of Cardiganshire … are likely to take its place.’[xii] The Aberystwyth geographer H.J. Fleure, for whom Wales was a ‘refuge of old ways and types,’[xiii] likewise wrote (albeit in 1940), of the change ‘from betting to chapels, or from horse racing to the Eisteddfod’ in a railway compartment from England to rural Wales.[xiv] For both of these men, the West was a place of intellect, discussion and culture. The geographer Pyrs Gruffydd has argued that the ‘appeal of the rural’ to Aberystwyth University intellectuals like Fleure during the inter-war years influenced a new generation of students such as Iorwerth Peate.[xv] Peate was the main instigator of St Fagan’s Folk Museum, near Cardiff and a founder member of Plaid Cymru. Consequently, the appeal of rurality was incorporated into the broader political discourse of Wales and Welshness. Certainly, the early manifesto of Plaid Cymru called for the de-industrialisation and the re-instatement of a rural economy, thereby wanting to eliminate Zimmern’s American or Industrial Wales.

Wales was not alone in connecting the purity and culture of the rural west with a sense of nationhood. Similarly in Ireland, the notion of nationhood and the purity of the west is a pervasive influence that inspired many of their writers and artists such as Jack Yeats and Paul Henry. These Irish artists provided a model for Welsh artists such as Kyffin Williams.

Alongside this was a long-standing desire to have a visible expression of Welshness in art. Whilst the merits of this had been debated in Wales for decades, it was only after the Second World War – following the establishment of the Arts Council – that institutional support meant it became a visible reality. Between 1945 and 1963, Kyffin Williams exhibited in fifteen group shows in Wales and England, each of which was described as Welsh. The forewords to these catalogues reveal that the aim was to popularise an art that was approachable and would hang comfortably in people’s homes, with an emphasis on encouraging the public to buy art. Welsh art reflecting the landscape and people of Wales satisfied all these needs.

But the advent of the young and idealistic ‘56 Group’ of abstract painters in 1956, within a few years, changed the dynamics of production, promotion, curation and collection of Welsh art. The regular exhibitions of Welsh art organised by the Arts Council and the National Museum ceased, and traditional artists like Kyffin Williams felt sidelined. He wrote later in an undated manuscript that the 56 Group had ‘eliminated any vestige of national character in Welsh art.’[xvi] It is ironic that this change in art takes place in a decade in which there is some recognition of Wales’ national existence. Cardiff became capital of Wales in 1955, the red dragon became an official flag in 1959, but more importantly, a Minister of Welsh Affairs was appointed in 1951. However, it must be remembered that for a long time, Wales was merely an aspiration. It was not so much a case of ‘dependent Wales’, more a disappearing Wales that was meant to be subsumed within England. And it can be argued that today, Welsh art and artists continue to remain out of sight (with a few exceptions) in the National Museum in Cardiff, and institutions in London.

The institutional policy change certainly had an effect on Kyffin Williams’s art sales and marketing. He complains in an interview with the Liverpool Daily Post (in December 1954) that the general public didn’t buy his work. However, in the latter part of his career he regularly complained that his work was bought only by the public and not by institutions. There is a strong element of truth in this statement of the lack of institutional support, particularly on a British axis.

When Kyffin Williams became a Royal Academician in 1974, membership of this select body reflected a critical recognition of his art in England. Yet Tate Britain whose mission is to ‘increase the public’s knowledge, understanding, and enjoyment of British art from the sixteenth century to the present day’[xvii] holds no examples of paintings or drawings by Wales’ most successful artist. There is only a single print in their collection. Likewise in Cardiff, the National Museum has been reluctant on occasion to acquire and display later examples of his work. Indeed, Kyffin Williams was most annoyed that one large painting was bought for the expressed purpose of placing it in their underground self-service café. Welsh art, in this case was simply displayed as decoration, with no care as to its long term preservation. Placed there, it was excluded from their cannon.

This lack of institutional support meant that Kyffin Williams as a part-time artist had to cultivate a market selling to the public in Wales and London. He did this regularly throughout his career, and from the early-1990s he became so successful that people would queue to secure a particular painting.

In an interview with Tony Curtis for the 1997 book Welsh Painters Talking he affirms the attraction of his imagery to a new buying public that arose in Wales:

… the subject matter that appealed to me obviously meant much to them. My mountains and my farmhouses were their mountains and their farmhouses. They knew my stone cottages and the people who lived in them and they bought my pictures because they represented what they knew and loved.[xviii]

Following the Second World War there was a new buying public in Wales, one that had benefitted from a University education. Kyffin Williams’ paintings reminded them of their roots. His subject matter – the land and people of Wales – remained a constant throughout his career, but over time he modified his approach and style. This we can note from another statement he made in the 1966 Horizons hung in air television programme.

At one time I always put the figures of farmers and their dogs in the landscape, but the longer I painted … the mountains, … I got a greater feeling of immensity, and … the farmers, the dogs, the people, they had no part. … I suppose, my pictures became more abstract. [xix]

What prompted this change of excluding figures from the landscape? Was it an ideological change, or a commercial decision – that of an artist needing to sell work to survive and re-negotiate his position in a changing world?

I would argue it is the latter. Since 1957 he was a regular exhibitor at The Howard Roberts Gallery in Cardiff, whose programme included mixed exhibitions, with much abstract art. Having examined his exhibition titles from the forties to the nineties, it is clear that he didn’t abandon the subject of the farmer in the landscape. [Titles including the word ‘farmer’ appear as follows: 1940s: 4: 1950s: 8: 1960s: 12: 1970s: 35: 1980s: 72; and 1990s: 81.] Consequently, rather than abandoning farmers as subject matter, over time, he increased his depiction of them.

Kyffin Williams rarely dated his work, and despite his early exhibition lists being merely lists of titles, they provide a good indication of the work he was producing. Although he often stated that he did not set out to paint a Welsh picture, he was clearly responding to a market and, a cultural need. Additionally, throughout his career, these exhibition lists contained a mass of Welsh place names providing titles for his work. Thus he tapped into the Welsh psyche, enabling people to make subliminal connections between word and image and the rich culture of the past.

Whilst Zimmern praised the remarkable survival of the Welsh language, Kyffin Williams, was brought up as an English speaker. His schooling in Oswestry, from the age of eleven onwards, provided him with an upper class English accent. Indeed, he writes of being charged with the responsibility of obliterating a broad Northern English accent for one of his co-pupils, but failed miserably.[xx] This illustrates the pressure then, to conform to a particular superior Englishness in such an establishment.

But, on a visit to Patagonia in November 1968, he re-examined his relationship with Wales and Welshness. His application form to the Winston Churchill foundation in October 1967 states he intended to

Visit the Welsh-speaking Welsh Colony. To study their way of life, their relations with the local population. [And] To draw them and their landscape …[xxi]

You will note here a clear emphasis on Welshness, in contrast to his previous statements on the Snowdonian landscape, where he avoided a link with nation and nationality. A further document he sent in November 1967 states more forcefully:

This Welsh speaking community has been there for 100 years and is now in danger of coming completely under Argentine influence with its Spanish cultural background.[xxii]

Prior to going on the trip he was assisted by numerous people, and the Welsh Argentinian Society gave practical support ensuring he was met and looked after. The report of his scholarship award in the Western Mail in Feb 1968 stated:

The Welsh language is said to be fighting for its existence in Spanish-speaking Patagonia. ‘I speak Welsh,’ said Mr Williams. ‘I shall have to pick up Spanish on the way.[xxiii]

But prior to entering the Slade, he worked as a land agent in Llyn and Ardudwy, North Wales and admits he ‘didn’t really learn Welsh but I knew I could talk about … the crops, the cattle, my health, their health, the weather and that sort of thing.’[xxiv]

Whilst Kyffin Williams was in Patagonia his posh English accent carried little weight, since there were only a few people who spoke English. He writes: ‘I remarked how Welsh I thought they were, to which Dan Lewis replied that I didn’t have the same effect on him.’[xxv]

In Patagonia his drawings recorded their Welsh chapels, their flora: a ‘lily like yellow flower the Welsh called the cennin pedr or daffodil’, and fauna, the ‘Robin Goch, it was the nearest they could find to the original.’[xxvi]

He kept a rough diary whilst there of thoughts and impressions. These notes formed the basis of articles he wrote in The Artist, The Anglo Welsh Review, and chapters for his second autobiography A Wider Sky.[xxvii] In this rough diary he laments that ‘Girl in Stationers Welsh but won’t speak it. Also man in Post Office.’ and that place names were no longer known by their Welsh forms ‘Llyn y gwr drwg’ was now ‘Laguna del diavalo.’[xxviii] His time in Patagonia clearly made him examine notions of Welshness, and he was ashamed that Beniat the Indian housekeeper for Mrs Christmas Jones spoke eloquent and fluent Welsh, referring to Wales as ‘ yr henwlad’ (the old country) but it was a land that neither she nor her ancestors had ever known. On his return he writes:

Back in Wales there had been no Welsh in my home even though my father & mother being the children of rural clerics could speak it fluently. No nurse or maid was ever allowed by my mother to utter a word in my presence, of what she considered to be a language of the lower classes & so I grew up among people I loved but could not understand & the psychological deafness prevented me from entering the real world of Wales.[xxix]

Coming from a long line of Anglican clerics on both sides of his family, he also had to acknowledge the prejudice against non-conformity and chapel people, and in writing of the foundation of the colony, states:

Back in Wales … there was considerable discrimination against the Non-conformists and English Education laws forbade the use of Welsh in Schools … So it was hardly surprising that a few Welshmen of vision became gradually convinced that their only hope lay in forming an isolated colony far from Britain where uninfluenced by the proximity of other nations, they might eventually create a new Wales.[xxx]

He noted how the descendants of the settlers had retained their Welsh language, non-conformist religion and cultural customs in Patagonia. He wrote in his Patagonian diary that the drawing room of Ty Ni was ‘filled with Welsh things – Welsh Calendars, papers, photographs of first settlers’ and that he had a ‘great talk with Fred about Welsh Nationalism.’[xxxi]

After he returned to London in February 1969 he gave many interviews and talks explaining and promoting his visit. The following month the Liverpool Daily Post reported on his visit. He stated that Wales and Welsh affairs figured prominently in his conversations in Patagonia:

it was terribly nice to go into a little farmhouse and find photographs of the Queen there. There were lots of photographs of the Royal family. Y Wladfa (the colony) will be officially represented at the Investiture also.[xxxii]

As a prominent royalist, Kyffin Williams attended the Investiture in Caernarvon in June 1969 and the following month was in St James’ Palace in the London Welsh Society’s reception for the Prince of Wales. There he met the Prince and presented him with a ‘black and white study of Carneddi, Bethesda’ at the end of the ceremony. [xxxiii] The Western Mail report above, re-affirms links with Britain, rather than seeing the Patagonia Welsh settlement as an attempt to break away from English and British influence. The Welsh items that surrounded him on the walls of Ty Ni are now forgotten. Perhaps it is no wonder that Ian Skidmore described Kyffin Williams as a ‘complex conundrum’ with his complicated Welsh and British background.[xxxiv] Certainly during his life he had to regularly reconcile divided loyalties, to negotiate and re-negotiate his position as a Welsh artist in a British art world.

Kyffin Williams’ background, and the shifting demands of the art market, meant that as a commercial artist he was dependent on sales and the support of both a Welsh and English market. Consequently he was careful to avoid linking any notions of nationality with his art. Although his visit to Patagonia made him confront and examine his upbringing, ultimately the experience did not change him drastically.

Today we view Zimmern’s Wales as an anachronism, and appreciate that conflicts of belonging and identity as experienced by Kyffin Williams are now the norm rather than the exception. Indeed our present Welsh Civic Society provides a fluid notion of belonging to Welshness, Britishness and other ethnic origins as well.




[i] Zimmern, Alfred E. My impressions of Wales. London: Mills & Boon, 1921, p. 15-16.

[ii] Zimmern, Alfred E. My impressions of Wales. London: Mills & Boon, 1921, p. 21.

[iii] ‘Augustus John and his work.The Welsh Outlook, Vol. V, 1918, p.201.

[iv] Zimmern, Alfred E. My impressions of Wales. London: Mills & Boon, 1921, p.26.

[v] Porter, Brian (Editor). The Aberystwyth Papers: International Politics 1919-1969. London: Oxford University Press, 1972, p.362.

[vi] Jack Raymond Jones Archive, NLW, 30, un-paginated, (Programme transmitted 20.04.1966).

[vii] Thomas, Wynn. For Wales, see Landscape: Early R.S. Thomas and the English Topographical Tradition. Journal Welsh Writing in English, Vol. 10, 2005, p. 2.

[viii] British Artists Lives Series, British Library. Kyffin Williams interviewed by Cathy Courtney, Tape C466/24/02 F4541B.

[ix] Williams, Kyffin. Across the Straits. Llandysul, Gomer, 1993, p.32.

[x] British Artists Lives Series, British Library. Kyffin Williams interviewed by Cathy Courtney, Tape C466/24/07 F4546B.

[xi] Porter, Brian (Editor). The Aberystwyth Papers: International Politics 1919-1969. London: Oxford University Press, 1972, p.362.

[xii] Zimmern, Alfred E. My impressions of Wales. London: Mills & Boon, 1921, p. 20-21.

[xiii] Fleure, H.J. Problems of Welsh archaeology. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3, p.225. (Quoted in Gruffydd, Pyrs. Back to the Land: Historiography, Rurality and the Nation in Interwar Wales. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 19, No.1 (1994) p. 66).

[xiv] Fleure, H.J. The Blue Guide for Wales. 1940, 883. (Quoted by Gruffydd, Pyrs. Prospects of Wales: Contested Imaginations (p.157) in Fevre, Ralph & Thompson, Andrew. National Identity and Social Theory, Perspectives from Wales. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1999, p.157.)

[xv] Gruffydd, Pyrs. Back to the land: Historiography, rurality and the nation in Interwar Wales. Transactions of British Geographers, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1994), p. 61-67.

[xvi] Kyffin Williams Archive, NLW, A 1/12 (i).

[xvii] Tate Britain Acquisition and Disposal Policy 16.11.2011.

[xviii] Curtis, Tony. Welsh Painters Talking. Bridgend: Seren, 1997, p. 89.

[xix] Jack Raymond Jones Archive, NLW, 30, un-paginated, (Programme transmitted 20.04.1966).

[xx] Williams, Kyffin. Across the Straits. Llandysul: Gomer, 1993, p.80.

[xxi] Winston Churchill Foundation Archive, London, Application Form received 02.10.1967.

[xxii] Winston Churchill Foundation Archive, London, Further information dated 25.11.1967.

[xxiii] Western Mail, 13.02.1968.

[xxiv] British Artists Lives Series, British Library. Kyffin Williams interviewed by Cathy Courtney, Tape C466/24/02 F4541B.

[xxv] Kyffin Williams Archive, NLW, A 5/3 (i), p. 42.

[xxvi] Kyffin Williams Archive, NLW, A 5/3 (i), p. 167.

[xxvii] The Artist Magazine, Sept. 1970, & Oct 1970; The Anglo-Welsh Review, Feb. 1970; Williams, Kyffin. A Wider Sky. Llandysul, Gomer, 1991, p.120 -195.

[xxviii] Kyffin Williams Patagonia MS, Oriel Môn, Anglesey, p.5, p.11.

[xxix]Kyffin Williams Archive, NLW, A 5/3 (i) p.85/86.

[xxx] Kyffin Williams Archive, NLW, A 5/3 (i), p.14.

[xxxi] Kyffin Williams Patagonia MS, Oriel Môn, Anglesey, p. 31-34.

[xxxii] Liverpool Daily Post 28.03.1969

[xxxiii] Western Mail 23.07.1969.

[xxxiv] Skidmore, Ian. Kyffin: A figure in a Welsh landscape. Bridgend, Seren, 2008, p.7.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis