The text of the 8th Kyffin Williams Annual Lecture, given at Highgate School, London on 1 February 2016.
First, I’d like to thank David Smith and Highgate School for inviting me to give this year’s Kyffin Williams Lecture. It’s very fitting that Highgate remembers Kyffin so loyally, because he was always grateful to the school and to its Headmaster, Geoffrey Bell, for giving him a secure and flexible place to earn a living.
I’m only too aware of stepping into the shoes of many distinguished predecessors, and I should warn you at the outset about my lack of expertise in ‘Kyffin studies’. Unlike my former colleague Paul Joyner, for example, I’ve not spent years researching and thinking about Kyffin’s art and life.
In my defence I can claim that I knew Kyffin to some extent. As many of you will know, Kyffin had been associated with the National Library of Wales for many decades – as far back as the late 1940s. During his later years we staged a number of exhibitions of his work, and from time to time he would visit our building. I remember two occasions particularly: once a group of us had lunch in the President’s Room in his company, when he treated us all to a continuous stream of anecdotes and jokes, and once in Bodelwyddan Castle, where he spoke with feeling on the occasion of an exhibition of his work in Patagonia in 1968-69.
You always felt it was a privilege to be in Kyffin’s presence and to hear what he had to say. I should add, though, that I always felt a certain caution when talking to him: partly because he was often ill in his last years and that could affect his mood and temper, and partly because he held very decided opinions on some subjects, like contemporary art, and once in full flow it was hard to stop him.
At his death in 2006 Kyffin bequeathed to the National Library the paintings (over 200), works on paper (over 1,200), archives and other material kept in his house at Pwllfanogl. It was one of the Library’s most significant accessions of material in the last twenty years. Much time and effort went into documenting and conserving the material, and making it available to the public and to researchers. One of the latter, Lloyd Roderick, recently completed his doctoral research into the topography of Kyffin’s paintings.
A word about my title. Kyffin Williams, of course, was primarily an artist, and over the years Kyffin the artist has attracted a good deal of attention, in talks, articles and books (though rigorous academic studies are only now getting under way). It’s sometimes forgotten, though, that he was also an accomplished writer. It’s his published work, and specifically his two books of autobiography, that I’d like to talk about today. The first of the books, Across the Straits is, I maintain, one of the classic Welsh autobiographies, a work that will still be read a hundred years from now. Very little attention, literary or scholarly, has so far been paid to the writings, even though it’s clear that Kyffin took great pains in writing. Here is an extract from a long interview for the British Library, recorded in 1995:
Interviewer And do you enjoy writing?
Kyffin No not really. It’s very very aggravating – well so is painting, I find painting most aggravating, I get terrible tempers. And with writing you just fill up wastepaper baskets with bits of paper.
How did you go about writing? Did you just sit down every day and do it, or was it done at midnight, or how did you do it?
No I sat down and did it. If I was writing I wasn’t painting probably. And, it’s very odd, when I started writing, the thing which I felt I owed most to was learning Latin, isn’t it odd? Extraordinary. And when I was doing Latin I never thought it would be any use to me at all.
You mean in the terms of the shapes of sentences?
Yes. Balance and so on.
So that suggests you would get a certain pleasure from it.
No, it’s very infuriating because it’s never quite right. And then you start getting neurotic about the balance within a sentence. I mean there’s no end to it, it’s terrible.
Kyffin’s published work falls into three categories. He sometimes agreed to the publication of lectures he gave. An example is a pamphlet of a talk to Cymdeithas Gelfyddydau Gogledd Cymru (the North Wales Arts Association) in 1987 entitled Traddodiad mewn perygl? Is tradition in danger?, an unrelenting attack on contemporary art and art teaching. Second, he sometimes wrote notes and commentaries on paintings and drawings reproduced in books of his works. The third category is that of the two major books, Across the Straits (1973) and A wider sky (1991). (In a category on its own is the book Boyo ballads (1995), a collection of cartoons illustrating comic rhymes invented by Kyffin and his friend Sandy Livingstone-Learmouth.)
Across the Straits was first published by Gerald Duckworth in 1973. It seems Kyffin found it difficult to find a publisher for the book, being turned down by all he approached before Duckworth agreed. That year, of course, was when Kyffin decided to leave Highgate School and London and return to Wales to become a full-time artist. He doesn’t mention the move in his book, and the text must have been written before he made his decision explicit, but it’s hard to resist the impression that, in the end, Across the Straits represents an attempt, at the age of 55, to weigh up his life so far before a new chapter of it begins.
I say ‘in the end’ because it seems that the origin of the book lay elsewhere. In his preface Kyffin explains that Prof. Idris Foster had first suggested
… that I should write a brief history of my family. He thought it might be of interest as a record of Anglesey social life during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but imperceptibly it grew into an autobiography, an outcome neither he nor I intended.
The book does indeed start with an account of Kyffin’s Anglesey ancestors. Like most Welsh people he was clearly very aware of his genealogy – he traces his male line back to the seventeenth century, to Wmffre the Blacksmith, his jocular equivalent of Lludd ap Beli Mawr. His descendants became wealthy and successful. In the eighteenth century the family divided into a respectable side, based at Treffos, and a wilder branch at Craig-y-Don, where Thomas Williams, the ‘Copper King’ built his monopolistic empire and great fortune based on the mines of Mynydd Parys. This is not dry and pedantic family history, as family history can often be. Kyffin’s historic eye, it’s clear, is always drawn to the eccentric and the wayward members of his family. An example is another Thomas Williams, the Copper King’s grandson:
Thomas was a swarthy, good-looking, bad-tempered man who sired a brood of children destined by the extravagance of their living to shock not only the people of Anglesey but London society as well. In his later years he became eccentric and insisted on telling the time by the sun. This caused him to miss many trains at Menai Bridge station, and his uncontrollable temper often exploded on the unfortunate station master.
Two of Thomas’s children became involved in a duel, which led Queen Victoria to exclaim ‘What a disgraceful business! The Williamses are a bad family’. Kyffin adds, ‘I’m afraid she was right’. He summarises, ‘… the Craig-y-Don side of the family disintegrated in a whirl of extravagance, while we, the descendants of the Rev. John Williams [the Treffos side], continued to live sober lives on our native island’.
‘Sober’ may be accurate, but the Treffos Williamses were just as eccentric as the Craig-y-Don branch, with a particular obsession with lifeboats and lifesaving. Kyffin’s father, Harry, fell out of his cot as a baby and broke his leg. This set the pattern for a lifetime of ill-health, although he did get a job with the North and South Wales Bank:
Nobody could have been less suitable for such a job, but the governors, evidently working on a theory of make-or-break, gave him a revolver and a small terrier and told him to open a branch in Penydarren in the Rhondda [Penydarren is not in the Rhondda, of course!]
Here Harry thrived, mainly because of his ability to get along with people of all kinds – an ability inherited by his son.
Completely and naively oblivious of class, he enjoyed speaking Welsh whenever he could and was as at home in the cottage as in the plas …
He was tall, moustached, and very good-looking, and as he had such a loveable nature it was surprising that he didn’t marry until comparatively late in life. When he finally got round to it, he chose the little girl from the next parish, Esyllt Mary, daughter of the Rev. Richard Hughes Williams.
Kyffin’s relationship with his mother was famously troubled, and he is frank about what he sees as her failings. He prepares us by tracing her characteristics back to her father, who was by the time of Esyllt’s birth rector of Llansadwrn:
To my [maternal] grandfather life was a struggle, and this he recorded in his diaries from 1861 to his death in 1902. They are gloomy, monumentally boring and filled with continual references to the state of his health …
On 1 July 1883, the arrival of my mother into the world takes second place to the weather with: ‘Showery. Little girl born at 12.30p.m.’ And he showed more joy when one of his cows called Blackan calved ten days later.
One could view the opening genealogical chapters as an attempt by Kyffin to account for the mix of characteristics he inherited from his ancestors: the respectable and the rebellious, the morose and the passionate, the traditional and the eccentric. But there’s no doubt that it was his father’s, and not his mother’s, inheritance that he saw as the dominant and positive one. This was not the view of his mother. In discussing his older brother Dick, whom he loved and revered, Kyffin writes,
In later years it gratified my mother to see how Dick grew yearly to look more and more like her father, whereas I, fair and skinny, seemed to be a youthful member of the other side of the family of whom her disapproval was rabid.
But Kyffin devotes much more space to his mother than to his father. His mother, he makes clear, was a prisoner of her genes:
My mother, the product of this melancholy hypochondriac father and a neurotic mother, was small, vital, insecure and apprehensive.
but also of her upbringing. Kyffin paints a gothic scene worthy of Charlotte Brontë:
She lived alone with her ailing father in the old rectory above the sea. She worshipped him unnaturally, and when the time came for her to go to bed she would creep upstairs, terrified of being alone. Instead of going to sleep, she knelt on the landing, her small frightened face peering through the railings at the beloved figure of her father, who sat, neat in a smoking jacket, in the hall below, unaware of his daughter’s sensitivity.
She was sent away to school in London, but ran away home. When she was eighteen her father died. ‘It must have shattered her’, says Kyffin. ‘Some of her vitality was spent playing golf and hockey, but most of it was forced inwards to gnaw and fester so that she lived in a world of unreality and fear.’ Marriage could not transform her:
By the time my mother married at the age of thirty-four, she had assembled a strange mass of inhibiting ideas. Desperately concerned with doing the right thing, and always conscious of what people might think of her, she only succeeded in doing nothing. My father must have given her the stability she needed. I never in the whole of their time together heard an angry word pass between them, but I doubt if there was any real love. Her past had closed the door on her emotions and only apprehension and occasional anger would creep through the cracks. She was a brilliant housekeeper and wonderful cook, and my brother and I were preserved like porcelain figures … She slaved for us interminably, but never do I remember a cuddle or a kiss. Such things were not done, or perhaps she was incapable of doing them. For affection I would climb on to my father’s knee, but to hazard such a thing with my mother would have been unthinkable.
This is a remarkable passage, as carefully composed a picture as any of Kyffin’s oil portraits, and infused with an accumulated resentment and grief about his mother’s incapacity for affection. One senses that the psychological effect on the young, and indeed the older Kyffin, were profound, though not easy to be certain about. Kyffin himself fails to make any direct connections of the sort we might expect from the kind of ‘misery memoir’ that is common today. Could his loveless childhood have had a bearing on his apparent inability, despite his many friendships, to share his life with any other person?
Incidentally, though she was a Welsh speaker, Kyffin’s mother refused to speak Welsh with him, associating the language with vulgarity and the past. This too he seems to have felt as a deprivation in later life.
Kyffin was born, as he says, on Ascension Day 1918, in a house on the outskirts of Llangefni. His grandfather christened him. ‘He remarked that I seemed a nice, clean little boy and died soon after.’ His first years were spent in Chirk, on the English border, where he attended Moreton Hall School, a mainly girls’ school (‘the only other male being a small French boy who could speak no English’). Anglesey, visited in the holidays, seemed an exotic and romantic playground, a ‘fairyland’, to the young boy. In Llanrhuddlad and Llanfair-yng-Nghornwy Kyffin learned to explore the cliffs and rock-pools of the coast, the animals and birds to be found on the low hills, and the standing stones and farmer’s tales across the parishes. The family moved back to Anglesey, and then to Caernarfonshire:
I began to assemble unknowingly a vast library of feelings, sensations and knowledge that were to form the foundations of my future life as a landscape painter.
At the age of seven Kyffin was sent to a boarding school, Trearddur House School, on Holy Island, a place that was to feature so prominently in his later landscape paintings. Holy Island, ‘a land of its own, a wandering contorted eruption of an island’ was exposed and at the mercy of the sea and the winds. ‘It did not take me long’, Kyffin writes, ‘to fall under the spell of the island’s mood’. He enjoyed being at the school, too, with his brother Dick, and he made friends easily there. ‘I suppose I was happier there than I had ever been. I was reasonably bright; I enjoyed games. Above all I enjoyed the place, the sea, the rocks, the sand and the birds’.
In the holidays Kyffin returned home to discover the country around Cricieth, Porthmadog and southern Snowdonia. He was attracted by the men of the Ynysfor Hunt who also roamed this area. Kyffin’s taste for hunting puzzled many, including himself, since he found cruelty abhorrent. The key to its appeal lies in the opportunities the hunt gave him to explore in minute detail every corner of the countryside. In a talk he gave to the Cymmrodorion in 1988 he said, with reference to his wanderings with the Hunt, ‘… as I watched, the knowledge that would later be useful to me as a painter began to be stored in my head’. Place – exact place, micro-place –meant a great deal to him, and he was always alive to the special characteristics of each terrain and habitat. Lloyd Roderick has pointed out in his thesis that throughout Across the Straits Kyffin is far more specific about naming places than he is about noting chronology, which is often left vague.
After the school in Trearddur came Shrewsbury School in 1931. Almost everything about this school was anathema to the young Kyffin: the sadistic bullying and cruel beatings, the warped sense of humour, the cheating, the paedophilia, the philistinism, the ‘puerile traditions and wicked taboos’. He performed badly in exams, and was glad to leave after four years of what was, in the main, a miserable experience.
The way Kyffin structures these three chapters reprises the binary divide he’s already set up between the positive and negative aspects of his father and mother and their respective families. Trearddur School echoes the happy eccentricity of his father’s tradition, Shrewsbury School the emotional constriction and deformed nature of his mother’s side. In between the accounts of the two institutions lies his account of the pleasures of the countryside and the natural world that supply him with unalloyed happiness and, later, inspiration for his art.
After leaving school Kyffin joined a firm of land agents in Pwllheli, a job which allowed him, once more, to roam the countryside and to meet many of the farmers and other characters living there. At the same time he was part of a particular section of north Wales society, the local squirarchy or gentry, that was fast disappearing. It was epitomised by Captain Jack Jones, leader of the Ynysfor Hunt, with whom Kyffin spent much of his free time when at home. Military service was one of the expectations of this class, and in 1937 Kyffin was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His epileptic moments were becoming more frequent and though he was allowed to follow the regiment to Ireland and then to Wrexham –his adventures with the soldiers he relates with bathos – the inevitable moment arrived, after war was declared in 1939, when he was judged to be unsuitable for combat. This brings us to what is probably Kyffin’s most famous anecdote.
The next day in came my doctor.
‘What are you going to do when you leave the army?’
‘Why can’t I stay in?’
‘All the tests have shown that you are abnormal.’
This came as a bit of a shock.
‘Oh. I was a land agent before the war.’
‘Oh no, I don’t suggest that,’ came a soft confident voice. He looked up, a gleam of inspiration in his eyes.
‘As you are, in fact, abnormal,’ he announced, ‘I think it would be a good idea if you took up art.’
This struck me as a most remarkable suggestion and my mind turned to my art prize at Shrewsbury and the few pathetic imitations I had made of Peter Scott’s paintings.
I’ve no doubt that this exchange or something like it really took place. But I wonder if Kyffin is not being economical with the truth about his artistic past. This anecdote was one he regularly repeated in conversation, and it became part of the mythology of the Kyffin story. It suited him to give the public impression that his career as an artist started accidentally and comically.
Across the Straits gives very few clues about Kyffin’s early artistic gifts or achievements. His first drawing, of his brother Dick sitting on his pot, made at the age of four, did not enjoy a good reception.
… I took it to my mother. The result was terrifying. In a second she changed into a mad thing, her eyes shone with ferocity, and picking up a tortoiseshell hairbrush she threw herself at me. ‘Ah, you nasty looking thing,’ she screamed, ‘ah, you dirty little boy; ah ah ah take that, take that and that!’ – and the blows seemed to hit me everywhere. The physical pain I forgot soon enough. But I never forgot the demented figure who was my mother, changed so swiftly, so unaccountably, into another being. Nobody could tell me why. Evidently I had sinned most terribly.
Then nothing until a bare mention in passing of winning ‘Mrs Hardy’s art prize’ at Shrewsbury School, and another, equally dismissive reference to ‘dash[ing] off a feeble watercolour’ at lunchtime while working for the land agent. One can’t help suspecting that art played a more important role in Kyffin’s life before 1939 than is apparent from his book.
Kyffin attributes an equally accidental origin to his art education. ‘A beautiful gazelle-like girl’ called Gwyneth Griffith came to the family home in summer 1941 to help his mother with housework. She was a land-girl but was also an artist who had trained at the Slade, and she wrote to the secretary of the Slade, now based in Oxford, to ask if they would accept Kyffin as a student. ‘A letter came back by return’, says Kyffin,
to say that because of the war any man would be welcome. I went for an interview and showed Professor Schwabe my immature efforts. He was surprised at my inability and obvious lack of talent but in his kindly way suggested that I should enter for a term to see how things went.
Once again, without questioning Kyffin’s veracity about this episode, which he would repeat often in interviews, one wonders whether he understates for effect the artistic skills he had already attained, and his commitment to art, before applying to the Slade. It’s true that the pool of candidates to the Slade was reduced in wartime. The phrase ‘any man would be welcome’ was literally true, and most of his student contemporaries at the Slade were women. But Kyffin’s protestations of artistic incompetence, right through to when he was painting part-time in London, should be treated with some scepticism. They belong to the autobiographical narrative that he’s constructed for us, an artful story that’s consistent throughout the book. It’s the story of a boy and a young man to whom things happen, rather than one who, against the odds and by sheer determination and will power, carves out his own life, pursues and achieves his personal goals. In this sense the Kyffin of Across the Straits is an anti-hero, an almost passive target of life’s circumstance – his genes, his incompatible parents, his bumpy and peripatetic upbringing, his medical condition and its social disabilities, a long series of random events and meetings. ‘Luck’ and ‘suffering’ are two of the commonest words in the book. All of these happenings together make up the complex character at its centre: solitary and self-contained but a friend to many, a foxhunter sensitive to cruelty and lack of feeling, an uncertain starter who found art and became obsessed by it.
If this is the central plan of the book, it accounts for the two striking features of Across the Straits: a lack of interest in Kyffin’s artistic journey, and a fascination with other people rather than the self.
Kyffin’s account of his time at the Slade, and later as an art teacher at Highgate School barely touches on the subject of his art. Art school was not a success, it seems. The climax of the chapter on the Slade is Professor Schwabe’s advice,
Oh Williams, why do you always make your nudes look like oak trees? You can’t draw, so you had better see if you can paint.
As an afterthought, almost, and virtually unexplained, comes the news that Kyffin has won the Slade Portrait Prize and the Robert Ross Leaving Scholarship. More success by accident! At Highgate we learn more about the teaching and the boys than about Kyffin’s painting.
‘Are you married?’ a small boy asked me one day. I told him that I wasn’t. ‘Oh, I thought not,’ was his confident reply.
Surprised at his reaction, I asked him why he was so sure.
‘Oh well, sir, it’s obvious; you’re always so cheerful.’
This gave me an early insight into the marital life of north London.
A whole chapter is given over to the people Kyffin lodged with while in London, and it’s only in the last four pages of the book that he makes any attempt to assess his work as a painter. (Incidentally, for a much more revealing picture of how Kyffin operated as a painter I recommend his Cymmrodorion lecture, reproduced in the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1988, p.185-205). Only now do we learn that he produced on average two paintings a week, or that he deliberately destroyed many of them as sub-standard. He counts it a blessing, he says, that he stumbled upon art accidentally, and was thus free from the pressure of expectations. And back we come, in the final section, to the question of good fortune. Kyffin was just lucky, he says, in his ancestors and his ancestral landscape, lucky to escape the war, lucky to fail to get a job in an art school, lucky to be ‘ignored by the world of art and the critics, who by singing their praises, often bring about the extinction of young artists’. The mask of self-deprecation is maintained at the very end, a little anthology of comments by other people about him.
‘John is a very good little boy,’ stated my report from Moreton Hall.
‘Never have I met a boy with less ability,’ was the verdict of Shrewsbury.
‘This officer is illiterate,’ roared the army.
‘I am sorry, but you are abnormal,’ diagnosed the doctor.
‘Ponderous, unimaginative and insensitive,’ bleated Mr Eric Newton the art critic.
My father used to sigh, ‘Why do you always go bang at things?’
‘Stuff and nonsense,’ said my mother.
That final verdict, ‘stuff and nonsense’, might alert us to the centrality of fictive self-deprecation to Across the Straits. It echoes the ending of another autobiography that disguises serious themes behind an endless stream of stories and jokes, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
L – d! said my mother, what is all this story about? —-
A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick — and one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.
Tristram Shandy is a novel, of course, but I hope I’ve said enough to suggest that Across the Straits has its share of novelistic elements.
It certainly shares with Tristram Shandy a procession of memorable and comical characters, and a host of anecdotes. I suspect it’s the stories that most readers find so captivating about the book – and the portraits of the people in Kyffin’s life. Most are extraordinary, as sketched by his pen, and one of the most memorable is his landlady in Highgate, Mary Josling, who sat for him in around 1960.
She was of medium height, with light silver hair pulled back into a bun, deep set eyes, a strong nose and gentle sensuous lips. She invariably attracted the weak and the suffering. Tramps would sit for hours on the basement steps waiting for food. Men and women, boys and girls from Highgate, Holloway and Kentish Town came to her for help and advice. Every week she went to her women’s club in the poorer part of Highgate. Not only humans, but animals too, were attracted to No. 12 by instinct. Stray cats and dogs were always being fed in that never-failing basement.
… it didn’t take me long to find out that everyone and everything in the house from humans and animals to the wiring system and plumbing was neurotic. Like a rock in the middle of this ebb and flow stood the calm, patient figure of Mrs Josling.
Kyffin’s gift for succinct characterisation of his sitters in words enriches one’s appreciation of his visual portraits, and vice versa. It comes as no surprise to find him reusing the same visual/verbal parallelism in the annotated reproductions included in the volume Portraits, first published by Gwasg Gomer in 1996.
The publication of Across the Straits was a success, and Kyffin was encouraged by the reactions he received to produce in 1991 a companion book of memoirs, under the title A wider sky.
This is a longer, more discursive and less tightly constructed work than Across the Straits. To my mind it’s a less successful book. In the introduction Kyffin denies an autobiographical intent: the book is no more than ‘a selection of stories about different parts of the world and some of the fascinating people I have encountered’. For the most part it concerns his experiences in countries overseas: Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Scotland and Ireland. These chapters are made up of extended anecdotes and character portraits, like those of his cousin Sue Kyffin (‘Gwen’), his talented but flawed artistic friend William Cole (‘Maurice Wood’) and the eccentric scientist Magnus Pyke. At the book’s heart, though, are the two chapters about Kyffin’s visit, funded by a Winston Churchill Trust scholarship, to the Welsh colony, Y Wladfa, in Patagonia. According to a letter he wrote to Norah Isaac he tried to interest publishers in an all-Patagonia book, complete with drawings and watercolours, but no one would risk it. I think that was a missed opportunity, only partly corrected by the National Library’s publication to coincide with the Bodelwyddan exhibition, ‘Gwladfa Kyffin: Kyffin in Patagonia’, in 2004.
Kyffin’s account of the Patagonia trip, not only to the Welsh settlements but also to Ushuaia in the far south, is important because it marked a turning point in his artistic career, the new landscapes and people freeing and extending the reach of his pencil, brush and knife. Kyffin’s initial shock at seeing the desert land and the material poverty of many of the people soon gives way to an intense admiration for the quiet hospitality and warmth of the settlers’ descendants, and surprise at the colours of the landscapes they inhabit.
I remember Dyffryn Camwy as a yellow land. Both the scrub bush and the cactus that grew in the desert had a small yellow flower, and the birds in the orchards and gardens made flashes of yellow as they flew from tree to tree. The parched land on which no grass could grow was yellow ochre, and the cliffs to the north and south a uniform cream.
The people, too, fed directly into Kyffin’s art, people of strong character and appearance, like Kenny Evans, difficult to sketch because he could not stop laughing, Brychan Evans (‘I fought to record that magnificent face’), Ceri Ellis and Winston Churchill Rees.
Kyffin would write notes about the colours on the monochrome drawings he made on the spot, to help him create the oil paintings he intended to produce on returning to London. Everything about Patagonia engaged his artistic self: ‘I tried to draw everything, the landscape, the buildings, the people and the natural history of the valley’.
By the end of his Argentinian travels Kyffin had amassed some 700 drawings and 700 photographs, helps for the paintings to follow back in Britain: ‘images appeared on my canvases that were very different from any I had painted previously’. The paintings that followed helped to make Kyffin’s name in the galleries, and to prepare him for the decision to make a living from his art alone. Later he left all of the Patagonian archives and many of the pictures to the National Library of Wales, including eleven oil paintings, so that future scholars can research in depth what was perhaps the central experience of Kyffin’s artistic career.
The penultimate chapter of A wider sky is called ‘London: Bolton Studios’. Bolton Studios was the name of the rambling and ramshackle collection of twenty-five studios (‘an architectural warren’) that he shared with numerous eccentric neighbours in Chelsea, west London. By no means all of them were artists. We’re treated to portraits of some of them: Honorine Catto, a foul-mouthed French Canadian, Olly the Hungarian waistcoat designer, and David Collins, a brilliant but perfectionist designer. It was while he lived at Bolton Studios, says Kyffin, that he painted some of his best pictures. Painting portraits was now becoming commoner. Some of them were commissions, like those of Huw T. Edwards, Alun Oldfield Davies (two portraits, the first rejected by the BBC as ‘repellant’) and an unnamed Colonel in north Wales, whose wife refused to accept the finished picture, saying, ‘I can’t have that. I can’t have people saying that I have co-habited with Himmler for fifty years’.
The final chapter, which contains the most lyrical writing in either book, concerns Kyffin’s rented home between 1974 and his death in 2006, Pwllfanogl, near Llanfairpwll. It was here, thanks to the generosity of the Marquis and Marchioness of Anglesey, that he found, by the waters of the Menai Strait (‘one of the most beautiful stretches of water to be found anywhere around the coast of Britain’), the perfect haven that he needed to work. He records the characters who lived close by, and the birds and animals that were his constant companions. Later in the chapter he turns to last things – the funeral of a Patagonian man who returned to live in Wales, the sad decline and death of his brother Dick, and, in the very final anecdote, the prospect of his own death.
One summer evening, not long after I arrived at Pwllfanogl, a friend came to visit me with his small son aged five. As we stood at the water’s edge, with gentle waves breaking at our feet, the little boy looked up at me:
‘What will happen to you when you die?’ he asked with a look of concern on his face. I knew I had to answer with a confidence I did not possess.
‘Oh, it will be wonderful,’ I said. ‘I shall slip into the sea and be swept away by the water, and I shall be carried under the bridges and away to Penmon and the open sea. Oh, yes, it will be rather wonderful.’
As he listened to me the worry seemed to disappear from his face and he ran off to throw stones into the waters that were to carry me away …
This story captures almost everything about the Kyffin we take with us from a reading of his two books: his concern for others, and lack of concern for himself; his personal uncertainties; and above all his deep-rooted love of Wales, and specifically of his ‘milltir sgwar’ – his beloved Anglesey.
Autobiography is a tricky literary genre. One need not go so far as Sigmund Freud, who said that ‘what makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity’, to believe that a published autobiography is necessarily a careful self-construction and self-presentation, a knowing selection of episodes, characters and quotations aimed at convincing the reader of the essential goodness or greatness of the author. A persona is the product, and self-justification is the usual goal. Recently a variant has had a long run, the ‘misery memoir’, which tells how the writer overcame a childhood of unspeakable suffering and privation to emerge a successful and celebrated individual. Kyffin’s books belong to a completely different type, the autobiography of modesty and self-effacement. Lloyd Roderick characterises Across the Straits as an ‘act of written self-portraiture’. As a visual artist he would study with frankness the external appearance of himself as well as that of others. He would have suffered few illusions about himself. This way of thinking transferred into his writing. In both books, but especially in Across the Straits, curiosity about other people is far more prominent than accounts of his own achievements, and the roles of genes and chance in shaping his life are given a much higher profile than conquering difficulty and building his own work.
Of all the characters in Across the Straits the most central and all-present is Wales, or rather those parts of north-west Wales that were dearest to Kyffin’s heart. Wales was always in his thoughts, including during his long period in London, and it is Wales – not so much Wales the abstract nation as Wales the collection of individual places and people – that gives him most pleasure and the greatest inspiration for his art, as a painter and as a writer.
I hope I’ve succeeded in inspiring you to seek out Across the Straits and A wider sky and reading them, not just as adjuncts to Kyffin’s pictures but as polished and very enjoyable works in their own right.