Blog - Kyffin Blog
The Library is buzzing with activity today as we launch our new exhibition Kyffin Williams: Behind the Frame. So what can you expect?
There are 4 themes in the exhibition ‘Self’, ‘Artist’, ‘People’ and ‘Places’ which is situated in the Gregynog Gallery and Annexe on the second floor of the Library. The artist himself will guide you through the show as many of his own words taken from his diaries, letters and publications are placed around the exhibits. For those who want to delve deeper there is an opportunity to scan selected paintings using the Smartify app; the Library and Oriel Ynys Môn are the first institutions in Wales to use this new technology.
Upon entering, you will be confronted with a miscellany of Kyffin’s image in various guises, from the early sketches of the pensive young man to the more confident older artist whose eyes gaze directly into your own in an almost challenging way. Diaries and letters delve deeper into the character of the artist, one of the highlights being a particularly endearing letter he wrote to his ‘Mummy & Daddy’ when he was at boarding school in Trearddur.
In ‘Artist’ you will see the making of Kyffin and his life-long influences, especially his association with Van Gogh and the parallels he drew with his fellow epileptic. His paintings, ’Sunflowers with Mountains Beyond’ and ‘Crows and Storm coming’, are of particular note, the latter often thematically compared to one of Van Gogh’s most famous works ‘Wheatfield with Crows’, in which Kyffin mimics Van Gogh’s strong colour combinations and the menacing sky which is said to signify the artist’s loneliness. Some of his early works from his time in the Slade are uncharacteristically ‘Kyffin’ but a fascinating insight into how he perfected his craft.
Turn the corner and you immediately feel as if you are being watched by the many eyes in Kyffin’s portraits. His placement of the sitter on his canvases is intentional and intriguing. Kyffin mentioned in his book ‘Portraits’: “The placing of the head within the confines of the canvas can show the personality of the sitter.” Indeed, the larger more confident subjects fill the canvas and look directly at you, whilst the more timid and neurotic subjects tend to be placed to one side and looking away. Our favourite is Miss Parry; a partially invented character representing his fascination with old age, “especially those who sit and wait for the end to come”.
Although he never saw himself as a traditional portrait painter, Kyffin was obsessed with people. He once said: “I feel that the land and its people are almost part of me”. Kyffin grew up among the hills and valleys of north Wales and was drawn to the landscape and its people, especially the figure of the farmer whom is constant in his work and adorns many living rooms and gallery walls. There are a few of his best examples in the exhibition.
‘Places’ is the largest and most significant theme in the show. His work in this genre was so prolific, it was very difficult to boil it down to fit into the space; but with a little help from Kyffin himself (he often listed his favourites in interviews and in his diaries) we have tried to represent the very best of his of works inspired by the mountains and seascape of Wales and beyond.
The large Welsh landscape wall which is hung in a salon style as an acknowledgement to the artist’s appointment as a Royal Academician in 1973 is a fitting finale to the exhibition. A challenging hanging method never before attempted by our team, but has been our personal highlight of the whole exhibition.
It has been some 13 years since we last dedicated an exhibition to Kyffin and we do hope that you will enjoy the experience and find some favourites of your own…maybe even be inspired to try your hand at creating your very own masterpiece! Do let us know what your own personal highlights are on social media using #Kyffin100 [Twitter: @NLWExhibtion] and remember to download the Smartify App before your visit.
Our exhibitions team are very busy now as we are gearing up for our major exhibition ‘Kyffin Williams: Behind the Frame’ which opens on 16th February. There are so many amazing collections to choose from – not just his paintings, but his letters, diaries and ephemera from a previously unseen archive. It has been an immense yet enjoyable task; there is enough material to fill our extensive gallery over and over again!
At the same time we have been preparing almost 70 items for an exhibition at Oriel Ynys Môn entitled ‘Kyffin Williams: Celebrating a Centenary’ which opens on 3rd February. In return there are few little gems coming here on loan from the collection of Oriel Ynys Môn, which you can see on display at the Library. One of which is an emotive depiction of a storm across the Menai Strait which is the same view of an oil painting in our collection entitled ‘Storm Approaching’. It was Ian Jones, Buildings and Collections Manager at Oriel Môn, who noticed the link between their drawing and our oil painting: “Kyffin called the work ‘Beaumaris’, but it’s a view of the Menai Strait and Eryri beyond from Glanrafon, near Llangoed. Beaumaris is in the middle of the drawing behind the trees on the shore of the Menai.”
Kyffin was a staunch supporter of the Library and Oriel Ynys Môn and he would be thrilled to know that we continue to work together to share his collections with the nation.
For regular updates on the progress of the exhibition, follow us on
The need to conserve, preserve, catalogue and interpret our collections is a vital element of the work of the National Library of Wales, thereby making them available to the public. As the Library is home to a significant number of Kyffin Williams’ most prominent paintings and as we celebrate his life in 2018, safeguarding these and ensuring that they are correctly framed is an integral part of the conservation process.
Not only does a frame protect a painting from damage, but it also affects the presentation of the finished work. Indeed a good frame choice can greatly enhance a work of art and elevate the experience of the individual viewing the contents. Selecting the right frame for a work of art is a skill in itself. Kyffin had very definite ideas about how to frame his paintings, and the Library has embarked on a new conservation project to re-frame some of its works with the aim to honour the artist’s original vision.
The Framing the Future Fundraising Campaign will fund this key conservation project to enable Kyffin’s work to be cared for and appreciated by future generations.
Framing one art work will cost in the region of £2,000 and the generous support of our supporters will allow us to do more of the work. Every contribution will make a real difference and safeguard these iconic works for the future.
Rhian Haf Evans, Fund Raising Officer
‘This is the land that has obsessed me throughout my life. My love of it
is not superficial but deep, for my family have for so many generations
had the same feeling for the land and its people. When I left art school
I did not have to think what I should paint for my subject was deep
inside me and waiting for me to record it’.
(Kyffin Williams, ‘The Land & the Sea’, Gomer Press,1998).
The Kyffin Williams Exhibition which opens on the 16th of February,
2018 will commemorate the centenary of the birth of one of Wales’
leading artists. It is therefore an opportunity for the National Library
to celebrate its rich collection of the Anglesey born artist’s works –
from his iconic landscapes and powerful seascapes of Anglesey,
north-west Wales and abroad to his emotive portraits. There is also an opportunity within the exhibition to view lesser-known works by the
artist previously unseen by the public, which include his preparatory
works such as his sketchbooks and his printing blocks. The Library
houses over 200 oil paintings, over 1,200 works on paper and over 300
original prints by the artist.
Many people mainly associate Kyffin Williams with his impasto technique
of painting – placing the oil paint down thickly onto the canvas using
a palette knife. An extremely interesting aspect of the research into
this exhibition was to discover the early works which the artist created
whilst he was a student at the Slade School of Art and an art teacher at
the Highgate School in London in the 1940s through to the early 1970s.
These early works are of great importance in showing how Kyffin
developed his technique and iconic style of painting which from the
beginning of his career caught the imagination of the people of Wales.
Within this exhibition we shall also gain an invaluable insight into
Kyffin’s creative mind by taking a look at a few films on the
artist and also his diaries and letters which are housed within
our archives. Kyffin Williams was a skilled writer who instantly caught the
reader’s imagination and his entertaining autobiographies are
testimony to this. This exhibition will therefore be an unique
opportunity to celebrate Kyffin’s words and images in an extremely
effective manner on the walls of the National Library’s iconic Gregynog
Morfudd Bevan, Art Curator, National Library of Wales
“It is ironic that I am the most loved & most honoured Welsh artist of all time & yet I am hated by the art world.” – Kyffin Williams (diary) 16th October 1993.
We are delighted to reveal plans to hold an extensive exhibition which will launch in February 2018 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the defining Welsh artists of the 20th century – Sir Kyffin Williams.
The relationship between the Library and the artist first began in 1949 at the start of Kyffin’s career when we first purchased one of his paintings. From this point onwards this relationship was cultivated through consistent purchases, donations and exhibitions until his death in September 2006 when the Library was bequeathed a generous part of his estate. The Library’s existing collection together with the bequest, forms the largest most comprehensive collection of material relating to Kyffin Williams in existence.
So what has the Library been doing with this generous gift until now? Organising and presenting a comprehensive exhibition of his work is a product of several years of sorting, cataloguing, conservation and study, although this is still on-going and there is much to do. We have been making his collections accessible to the public both on-line, through exhibitions and our loans programme, particularly with our partner Oriel Kyffin / Oriel Ynys Môn. In fact our relationship with Oriel Kyffin is a great legacy of Kyffin’s bequest, where hugs now replace handshakes at meetings! The Library and Oriel Kyffin will be teaming up to share collections during the centenary year along with working together on a rich programme of outreach activities.
The iconic style and subject matter of Kyffin’s work is appealing as it has become synonymous with the vision of Wales and Welshness, an essential aspect of our understanding of who we are. But who was he?
“I am the greatest living expert on myself” – Kyffin Williams (diary), 29th January 1993
How do we represent such an iconic artist who has been written and talked about by so many? We felt the best way of doing this was to draw upon the artists own words – from his own diaries and letters – to interpret his creations. We will look ‘behind the frame’ to learn about his technique, what inspired him and how his personality and complexity of his character and health influenced his life and work.
Our patronage of this artist over the years has culminated in this exhibition and a whole host of events and outreach activities during the centenary year. It is particularly pertinent that – as we come to a close in the year of legends – we launch a celebration of this unique and legendary individual.
This month marks ten years since the death of Kyffin Williams – arguably the greatest Welsh artist of the later twentieth century. As art historian Dr Gareth Lloyd Roderick stated he was in a popular sense the ‘national’ painter of Wales and was made Royal Academician in 1973. Born in Llangefni, Anglesey in 1918 Kyffin Williams stated in his memoir ‘Across the Straits’ that his life aim was to record the land and the people of his childhood. His use of a thick oil paint heavily applied onto the canvas with his palette knife was typical of Kyffin’s style and became iconographic. Through this unique application of paint one felt an intense energy flowing from his work. He was an expressionist painter and stated that the best works he created were when he allowed himself to be ‘…swept away into a fever of exuberance or even anger, the better the final result has been; while conscious thought has invariably brought disaster’. As an epileptic he felt an intense obsession to paint and was therefore a prolific painter- completing up to three paintings a week. One may also assume that the artist’s struggle with depression played its part in his works as well. Kyffin stated that there is a ‘…a seam of melancholy that is within most Welshmen, a melancholy that derives from the dark hills, the heavy clouds and the enveloping sea mists’.
The National Library and Kyffin had a close relationship and upon his death in 2006 a large section of his estate came to the Library. The National Library possesses the largest number of Kyffin Williams works in the world.
Assistant Art Curator
Stag by Kyffin Williams, ink and wash on paper, 305x378mm, between 1950 and 1960
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For more information regarding The Kyffin Williams Bequest Project, click here.
Carw gan Kyffin Williams, inc ar bapur, 305x378mm, rhwng 1950 a 1960
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Am ragor o hanes Kyffin Williams, cliciwch yma.
On display in the main hall of the Library, between the two reading rooms is Kyffin Williams’s Self Portrait, 1968. David Griffiths’s portrait of Shane Williams previously hung in this position. The subjects of the two portraits seemingly have little in common, but as Kyffin Williams reminds us in his first volume of autobiography, he too graced the rugby field. Writing about his time working and living in London, the artist reports:
“I even played for London Welsh extra ‘B’ [the third XV], but when a large St. Thomas’s Hospital forward flattened me and apologised with a “Frightfully sorry, sir,” I realised the time had come for me to become a spectator.” (Williams, Across the Straits, p.173)
Welsh rugby’s loss was indeed Welsh art’s gain. (It is here too, that similarities between the subjects of the pictures end- it is uncertain whether Shane Williams has painted any landscape pictures!).
This self-portrait is one of several in the Library’s collection. The artist is instantly recognisable: his distinctive moustache and semi-long, swept back hair feature in all his self-portraits; the palette held in his right hand acts as a reminder of his vocation. Although the artist wears a serious expression, there is perhaps an element of humour in the image. Photographs of Kyffin show his long moustache drooping around his mouth, but in this portrait his moustache is flicked up at the edges, recalling cartoon images of artists- perhaps the stereotypical artist’s beret is just out of frame.
Kyffin Williams is renowned for using a palette knife technique especially in his landscape paintings. Critics of the artist sometimes note a heavy-handed approach, but this painting shows how nuanced his technique could be when used in portraiture. The heavy impasto often used to give a textural quality to a mountain side or rocky outcrop is used here to imply depth and gradation in the human form. The subtlety (not a word often used in relation to Kyffin’s application of paint) of the facial features is particularly notable, with light catching on the bridge of the nose, and facial hair having a real, bristly quality. Other passages are more expressive: the check of the brown shirt under his sleeveless smock is suggested by lines being scored into the thick paint possibly with the handle of a knife or brush. While the picture contains these subtle elements it retains a sense of rapidity in common with his landscape works. In the painting, Kyffin holds the palette in his right hand; the right-handed artist would naturally have held the palette in his left, reminding us that the picture is being painted from life: that is, from his own reflection in a mirror. The colours on the palette match the tones of the artist’s cheek, giving a sense that the picture is being painted in the here-and-now.
This painting was created in what can be seen as a pivotal year for Kyffin Williams. The artist turned 50 years old on May 18th 1968 and at the end of that year he made his journey to paint the Welsh communities of Patagonia as part of a Winston Churchill Foundation Fellowship. Much of the work produced by the artist as part of his journey to Patagonia is held at the National Library. This self-portrait captures the artist at perhaps the mid-point of his career. A few years later he would return to live on Anglesey after almost thirty years of teaching in London, a period reflected upon in his first volume of autobiography, Across the Straits, published in 1973. Self-Portrait, 1968 captures an experienced and confident artist at a point just before he was to become the dominant figure in Welsh painting of the late twentieth century.
An exhibition of Kyffin’s Patagonia paintings will be on display at MOMA Machynlleth 28 February – 9 May 2015.
Lloyd Roderick (Research student Kyffin Williams Online)
One of the many artworks held at the National Library of Wales will be projected onto buildings in three of Wales’s cities this evening as part of an event to celebrate Your Paintings – a website showing the entire UK national collection of over 210,000 oil paintings.
Between 4.30pm and 10pm, Sunflowers with mountains beyond, 1940-1950 by Sir Kyffin Williams will be among the paintings projected onto the walls of The Red Dragon Centre, Cardiff; the Miss Selfridge Building, Princess Way, Swansea; and Marks & Spencer’s, Wrecsam.
The projections mark the start of a month of exhibitions and events organised by the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation to celebrate the completion of Your Paintings. The Library has displayed almost 2,000 works from its collections on the website and you can view them all here
The physical cataloguing (i.e. the arranging and describing) of all material has now been completed, comprising Kyffin’s own works of art, his extensive collection of art by others, and his archives, including his correspondence, diaries and photographs. The descriptions will be released into the Library’s main catalogue in the near future, enabling all those interested in the artist to access the catalogue remotely whenever they like. When copyright issues have been resolved, digital images of artworks and some of the artist’s personal papers will also be available on-line, alongside the catalogue descriptions.
Working on this large and varied project has been a real privilege for all concerned and hopefully the end result will enable anyone interested in the artist, including researchers, individuals, school and college students, to gain a greater understanding of the life and work of one of Wales’s most renowned artists of the twentieth century.
The team wish to thank all those who have regularly followed the progress of the project on the blog and everybody who has commented on the posts, whether on-line or otherwise.
Future posts on Kyffin Williams
The completion of the cataloguing and digitising processes marks the end of the bequest project. As such the Kyffin Blog, which was set up to provide updates relating to various aspects of the project will cease to post information. However, this isn’t the end of the Kyffin story, and any future news or information relating to the artist, his works of art or papers will be posted on the Library’s main blog.
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