The portraits of Kyffin Williams

September 14, 2018 0 Comments

This article is based on a talk given to The Arts Society: Brecknock in Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon on 11 September 2018 to mark the centenary of Kyffin Williams’s birth.


Self-portrait (1968) (National Library of Wales)

My starting point is a talk given by Peter Lord as the Kyffin Williams lecture for 2018 at Oriel Môn, entitled ‘The portraits of Kyffin Williams’.  Despite this title Peter never got round in his talk to discussing the portraits themselves.  That’s a pity, since elsewhere he’s written, suggestively, ‘It seems to me that often Kyffin’s portraits have a startling directness and penetration, and sometimes also originality of conception’ (Relationships with pictures, p.177).

What Peter did discuss in his talk, with his characteristic acerbity, was Kyffin Williams’s status and reputation.  As he makes clear, there are several ‘Kyffins’.  Distinguishing between them has some bearing on any assessment of the portraits.

First, there’s Kyffin the public man, or ‘character’: the moustachioed and tweedy gentleman, the bluff raconteur, the friend of aristocracy and gentry who could talk to anyone, the brusque enemy of abstract and ‘modern’ art.

Farmer amongst the rocks (1990-2006) (National Library of Wales)

Second, and in contrast, is Kyffin the private person: the man who suffered from epilepsy and depression, the complex mix of self-belief and uncertainty about his own worth, the leading light who felt himself a victim of the establishment.  This Kyffin was rarely on show except to close friends.

Then there’s Kyffin the artist, the creator of a large body of work.  For work, read landscape, because for most people it was his landscapes – the landscapes of Eryri and of Anglesey – that defined his art: ‘a construct of national identity’, in Lord’s words, ‘that seems clear and uncompromised’.  Aside from some early paintings of London and later scenes of Venice and Patagonia, his land was overwhelming north Walian, and rural, if not actually mountainous.

Sidney Curnow Vosper, Salem

And that leads us to Kyffin the legend or icon, epitomised by the well-satirised phenomenon of middle-class households ‘owning a Kyffin’.  Just as in the late nineteenth century Sidney Curnow Vosper’s painting Salem symbolised for many Welsh people the imagined pious rural traditions of their forbears, so in recent decades Kyffin’s gaunt mountainsides and weather-beaten shepherds have represented a defiant, idealised Wales, remote though it was from the globalised suburbia of the paintings’ owners.  As Iwan Bala wrote,

It can be no coincidence that the Welsh themselves began to associate landscape painting as being in some way an authentic vision of Wales, hence today the overwhelming popularity of the iconography of Kyffin Williams above and beyond any other one artist from Wales … It isn’t the exact picture that matters [when buyers choose], what matters is owning ‘a Kyffin’. (Iwan Bala, p.31)

There’s yet another Kyffin, less often considered: Kyffin the writer.  As an author he’s been undervalued, though, as I’ve argued, his book Across the Straits has a claim to be considered as one of the outstanding memoirs of the last century.  All his writings are well worth taking seriously, including the notes he wrote to accompany his volume of Portraits (1996, reprinted with a new forward by Rian Evans in 2007).  Not just taken seriously, but considered critically, because we shouldn’t always take what Kyffin wrote at its face value.

Two of these Kyffins, Kyffin the public figure and Kyffin the icon, can get in the way of assessing the work of the artist, especially in the case of the landscapes.  Another problem is our over-familiarity with the most often reproduced landscapes.  That’s why it’s valuable to look carefully at the portraits and the self-portraits.  They can shed new light on Kyffin as an artist, and on the complex relationship of the art and the man.  We can set aside the wider metaphorical and sociological meanings of ‘Kyffin’ and concentrate on how he approaches a group of works not usually considered a central part of the Kyffin oeuvre.

It’s entirely fair to focus on the portraits.  Though they were not his favourite subject, Kyffin rated some of his portraits as among his best work.

Every portrait I have painted has been a considerable strain, for nothing comes easily to me, but I believe that some of my best work has been of the many interesting faces I have painted.  (Portraits, p.9)

Kyffin painted and drew portraits throughout his career.  The prize he won in his final year as a student at the Slade in 1944 was for a portrait, and he accepted commissions for portraits until he was seventy years old.  The publication of the Portraits book, and the highly successful exhibition that went with it, are evidence of his constant interest in the form. 

Problems with portraits

As Kyffin was all too well aware, the portrait is a peculiarly complex and difficult form of representational art.  The expectations and reactions of the ‘sitter’ add an additional dimension to the figuration – made more complex still if there are other interested parties, like commissioners acting on behalf of the sitter.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (detail)

The expectation of a ‘physical likeness’, almost always a prime consideration for sitters and their friends, is a burden for the artist that is absent from other types of painting.  John Singer Sargent once defined a portrait as ‘a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth’, a reference to the inevitability of unwelcome intervention from the sitter who harbours fixed ideas about the ‘correct’ features.

But portraitists are often expected to go beyond capturing a likeness.  They should aim to penetrate the essential character or personality of their sitters, or even to reveal the inner core of their being – what Roland Barthes in Camera lucida, his influential work on photography, called the ‘air’ of the subject.  During the twentieth century doubts about the existence of any essential, coherent identity owned by an individual spread from philosophers to many others, including artists, and contributed to a crisis in the possibility of portraiture.  Even true believers in the sitter’s internal essence can have a hard time deciding exactly which, among a range of possible aspects, traits and behaviours, is the essential one, the one that should be captured in what is usually a single, once and for all, static image.

A further problem is that sitters are all too keen to project their own favoured self-image.  That image is rarely anything but self-serving.  It aims to fix, for the immediate and the longer future, the virtues or imagined virtues that the sitter wishes to be presented to the world: power, dignity, magnanimity, piety, compassion, or whatever it may be.  The sitter requires the painter to find a metaphorical counterpart for these interior values in paint – through posture, face, setting, dress and other externalities.

Jack Raymond Jones (1969) (National Library of Wales) (detail)

This reminds us that social relations are relevant too.  There’s almost always a tension, an asymmetric conflict, between artist and sitter.  In the past, the sitter, of a higher social and economic standing than the artist, had the upper hand, and could dictate the ‘terms’ of the portrait.  After the rise in the social status of (some) painters, the artist could sometimes prevail.  The nature of these social relations invariably leak into the psychological contract between artist and sitter.

There’s another consideration with portraits.  Artists bring their own personalities, obsessions and preoccupations, both artistic and personal, to the canvas.  After all, they’re not simple camera lenses.  The painter’s temperament, or passing mood, or feeling toward the sitter, or struggle with an artistic problem, may all have a decisive influence on the portrait.  Over time these dispositions may count for more, in the eyes of those studying the work, than anything to do with the nature of the sitter.  Walter Benjamin noted that ‘the portrait becomes after a few generations no more that a testimony to the art of the person who painted it’. 

All this is before we come to think about the peculiar difficulties of a variant of the portrait, the self-portrait, where the social and psychological tensions of artist and sitter are played out, beyond the sight of observers, in the mind of a single person.  Self-representation, self-advertisement, self-aggrandisement and self-discovery are just some of the possible drivers propelling the painter’s brush.

Kyffin and portraits

Where did Kyffin Williams stand on these matters?   To begin with, he was clear about what drew him to portraiture in the first place.

The people of Wales have always appeared to me to have an unusual curiosity about their fellow man, so it is strange that we have produced so few portrait painters.  I have never considered myself to be one of these but over the last fifty years I have been unable to resist the challenge of the portrait.  I too have been obsessed by people and have always presumed that this has been because so many of my forebears were parsons who ministered to the needs of their parishioners.  (Portraits, p.8)

As Peter Lord has pointed out, it’s odd that Kyffin should believe that Wales produced few portrait painters before him, but his main point, that curiosity about people is what drove him to paint portraits, can hardly be disputed.  As anyone who heard him speak or who has read his books will understand, he was by nature inclined to be interested in other people.  The short commentaries he wrote to go with the paintings in his book Portraits often concern the eccentricities and stories of the sitter rather than the painting itself.

Tom Owen (1948) (Carmarthenshire County Museum)

Kyffin always denied that he aimed at anything more than a physical likeness:

When I grew up I felt I had to paint Ellis Gegin, Tom Owen or little Jane Tŷ Uchaf, because when I was young they were part of my world.  I tried to record them as accurately as possible without making any attempt to read their different characters, for I found it hard it hard enough to attain a likeness without trying to delve into their subconscious …  In my own work I have simply tried to get a likeness.  Only subconsciously may I at times have revealed some hidden aspect of the character of my sitter. (Portraits, p.8)

He claimed to be astonished that others could see something more than a likeness in his portraits:

And what is odd is, in my portrait exhibition of 114 portraits two years ago, two brain surgeons came to see it and were fascinated by it from the point of psychiatry or…I mean they were neurologists and brain surgeons, and I met them and they took me out for tea and they said they were amazed at the feeling in the portraits.  I mean I couldn’t really understand what they were talking about; they did get tremendously influenced, and they said the way I had an uncanny ability to get to the soul of the person.  Well it’s something I never try and do; I mean if you paint a portrait it’s difficult enough to get a likeness, and I always try and get likenesses, but to get to the soul of a subject, sitter, and to sort of psychoanalyse them is so far from my mind.  And so many people say this about my portraits, that they are incredible interpretations of the people’s psyche, and I never would try and do that, never. (British Library recording, p.54-55)

Miss Josling (c1960), (Oriel Ynys Môn)

It’s hard to take this disavowal of any concern with the person behind the skin seriously.  As soon as you begin to look carefully at the best portraits it becomes very clear that many of them are not mere ‘likenesses’ but rigorous attempts to pin down some true aspect of the sitter’s inner character.  Sometimes Kyffin himself admits that he’s failed to make the picture ‘like’ the subject physically, but has succeeded in capturing something of his or her essence.  In speaking of the difficulty of getting a portrait right, he says,

During the painting of a portrait the character of the sitter may change as many as five hundred times, for the flick of a brush or a knife can turn, in an instant, a look of confidence into one of apprehension, or one of tenderness into one of cruelty.  It is the job of the artist to seize on a sudden revelation and hopefully sustain it.  (Portraits, p.8)

Kyffin is also explicit about what the artist’s own nature brings to the portrait:

The most important element in a portrait is its mood and often this is more likely to be that of the artist rather than that of the sitter.  (Portraits, p.8)

There’s really no joy in the portraits.  There is perhaps a tenseness which reflects my emotional make-up.  (Quoted by John Ormond, unsourced)

Rian Evans has written about how his best work is haunted by the awareness of own pain and frustrations:

… Kyffin Williams’s own experience of life and, in particular, the difficulties presented by his epilepsy, means that implicit in the images is a compassion which is, arguably, the defining facet of the portrait-painter’s art.  (Portraits, p.10)

Mrs Money (1957) (Private collection)

She points to the sympathy in his gaze, which came naturally from one who had suffered himself: ‘it was his own vulnerability which enabled him to empathise with that of others.’  When observing people who were vulnerable or very old or dying he could draw on a personal experience of illness, loneliness and melancholy.  The portraits he made of them inevitably reflect his own as well as their troubles.

In his published notes on his portraits Kyffin can be frank, and witty, about his relationships with some of his individual sitters, though he rarely ventures a general observation about the social tensions that arose.  As we shall see, in one group of portraits his approach to at least some of his subjects may have been strongly influenced by how he viewed those in positions of social authority.

Figures in a landscape / generic portraits

If a ‘portrait’ is a picture of a single real individual, Kyffin’s portraits need to be distinguished from two other types of painting.

Many of the landscapes feature human figures.  They help to lend scale to the scenes, and they also have a crucial role in reinforcing the underlying ethos of a Kyffin landscape.  Typically the figure is a lone shepherd, often with spine bent forward or feet planted apart in the teeth of the wind: a symbol of stoic endurance in a harsh but familiar homeland.  His literary equivalent, as Barry Morgan has hinted, is Iago Prytherch, the old farmer who appears in several of the early poems of R.S. Thomas.

Dafydd Williams on the mountain (1969) (Royal Academy of Arts)

Almost always the shepherd is a stock, undifferentiated figure.  There is, though, at least one exception.  In 1969 Kyffin painted Dafydd Williams, a farmer in the Gwynant valley, as just part of a larger mountain landscape.  He’s certainly a distinct individual:

He was a slight man, bent from walking up hills, and with the sandy hair that made him look like one of the foxes that lived on the mountain behind the farm… Dafydd Williams was part of the mountain and I think of him often as he, in some strange way, became part of the ridges, the screes and the cliffs of Y Wyddfa, Aran and Lliwedd.  (Portraits, p.126)

Painting him as part of his natural habitat helps us to place Dafydd Williams in the land that moulded him – but at the expense of detail in the subject’s face that would give us an insight into his distinctive features.  It was not an experiment that Kyffin seems to have wanted to repeat.

There’s another category of portraits that are not portraits: non-specific, generic representations of types, like nuns or ministers, or old women.  It’s possible that Kyffin saw these as his equivalent of the ‘tronies’ that feature in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings: stock, generalised faces, often wearing an exaggerated shocked expression.

Miss Parry (1984) (National Library of Wales)

Some of his ‘portraits’ of older people Kyffin admitted were less individualised likenesses, more exempla of a stage of life or mental state. Of Miss Parry he wrote:

Old age has always fascinated me, especially those who sit and wait for the end to come.  I saw her in an old folks home and kept her resignation in my mind until I had decided how to paint her.  It was not a likeness, and even her clothes came from my mind, but I think it summed up my thoughts and feelings about the lives of the ever-increasing number of our elder citizens who are tired and waiting for rest. (Portraits, p.28)


A brief word about Kyffin’s painting methods and techniques when tackling portraits.

His art training was traditional and academic, and at the Slade he was taught how to draw human figures: ‘I fumbled on’, he recalled modestly, ‘until I had at least mastered the proportions of the human body’ (Across the Straits, p.140).  Portrait painting too was taught, and Kyffin won the Slade prize for portraiture in his final year.

Larry (William Lee) (1982) (National Museum Wales) (detail)

A single sitting with the subject was normal for Kyffin (just occasionally he worked from photos and memory).  He worked fast and energetically.  He claimed that all of his portraits were painted in a single day (Portraits, p.9), though often he would finish the portrait later in the studio.  Many of Kyffin’s most amusing commentaries on individual portraits are concerned with the circumstances of the sitting. 

Except for very early examples all Kyffin’s portraits were done with a palette-knife and (often thick) oil paint.  This resulted in broad, flat strokes for the planes of a face or for clothes, and an effect that could be highly expressive.  A good example is the tilted, asymmetrical face of ‘Larry’, a tightly composed symphony of light and dark browns confined within a near-black frame of hair and pullover.

Early portraits

Gwilym Owen (1944) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea)

After leaving school Kyffin worked for a land agent in Pwllheli, and was then commissioned in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.  But epilepsy cut short his military career.  He was advised, he said, to study art, and in 1939 he became a student at the Slade School of Art, which during the war was based in Oxford.

One of his earliest surviving portraits, of Gwilym Owen, dates from his time at the Slade: It was painted at Abererch, entirely with a brush, before Kyffin adopted the palette knife.  This was the painting he entered it Slade portrait prize.

Though the slab-like effects of the palette knife may be absent, other features of the later portrait style are already there: a restricted range of colours, the simplifying of figure into flat planes and a mildly expressionist approach which might suggest the influence of van Gogh, one of Kyffin’s most admired painters.

Highgate schoolboy (c1953) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea)

Schoolboy in Highgate was painted around 1953, when Kyffin was working at Highgate School as an art teacher.  ‘This charming portrait of a knobbly-kneed footballer, dishevelled and flushed after a game perhaps’ is David Smith’s description of it.  The innocence and openness of children, and their physical awkwardness, became a common subject later.

In London Kyffin lived in rented accommodation.  His landlady was Mrs Josling, who became a subject for a portrait.  In words he pictured her like this:

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.  (Across the Straits, p.189)

The portrait perhaps fails to convey the remarkable character who appealed so much to the painter, but Mrs Josling is a good example of how it was Kyffin’s curiosity about the life and background of his sitters that powered the way he approached portraiture.

Mature portraits

Mrs Rowlands (1984) (Oriel Ynys Môn)

Kyffin like to admit that he found it easier to paint elderly people, ‘especially those who have suffered’ (Portraits, p.9).  Mrs Rowlands, with its restricted range of wintry colours and the expressive treatment of her defiant eyes, is a striking example of how an encounter with a small but intense personality could stimulate a powerful portrait.  This is how Kyffin describes the meeting:

Her son took me into the kitchen where the old lady, nearer ninety years of age than eighty, sat in a hard-backed chair between the window and the fireplace.  She wore a lace cap on her head, a heavy grey waistcoat hung over her white apron and a brass necklace dangled from her neck.  As I came into the room she gazed at me in bewilderment, rose unsteadily to her feet, crossed the floor and kissed me with great affection.  As I had never met her before, I was naturally surprised, but later decided that she had mistaken me for an uncle for whom she had fond memories.

I painted the portrait of Mrs Rowlands, partly from a photograph I had taken of her and partly from memory.  It is not very like her but I didn’t worry about that as all I wanted to do was to paint a picture of indomitable old age; and Mrs Rowlands was certainly an indomitable character. (Portraits, p.12)

Mrs Rowlands also shows what care Kyffin took to place his figures on the canvas space.  This is how he explains his approach:

The placing of the head within the confines of the canvas can show the personality of the sitter.  A large and confident man should fill the canvas, his head and body almost touching the edge, while a timid child should be painted as a small object surrounded by a frightening space.  (Portraits, p.8)

Mrs Rowland fits the second of these formulae, but makes up for her small size in the ferocity of her gaze.  Her face and her white skirt too shine out boldly against the surrounding darkness.

Mrs Stanley (1956) (National Library of Wales)

A much earlier painting, Mrs Stanley, is a picture of resignation rather than defiance.  Her appearance she seems to have left a lasting mark on Kyffin, and her words to him too:

… her pale, transparent skin made her look as if she had been shut away from the world for many years.  Her hair was thin.  Like mist it crept over her tiny head … Her claw-like hands never stopped moving, and as they moved she sang a strange song that was more of a humming, for there were no words to it …  “You know not the day nor the hour”, she announced.  And later, “God will take you in his good time”   … the small head dropped on to her chest and snores replaced the singing.  (Across the Straits, p.205-6)

And a third portrait of an old woman, Mrs Money, emphasises a different character again:

She came from the same home as the aggressive Mr Dunn but could hardly have been more different.  She was a gentle soul who spoke well of everyone … She had good hands, and I tried to do justice to them.  Hands are so difficult to paint, but I was pleased with the hands of Mrs Money.  (Portraits, p.72)

Girl Guide 2 (1990-2006) (National Library of Wales)

Children are also a common subject, but Kyffin found them hard to paint:

In my early years as a painter of portraits I found it almost impossible to paint the smooth face of a girl.  The reason for this was my use of the palette knife for, painting in broad and rough areas of paint, it was difficult to achieve the delicacy necessary.  It was twenty years before I was satisfied with any portrait that I painted of a girl. (Portraits, p.9)

In Girl Guide 2 the main focus, after the face, is on the tie and the hands of the sitter. It’s a striking composition, but perhaps an over-formal one.  The girl herself stares blankly out of the canvas.  Michelle too gives us little clue about the character of the sitter, an older girl.  It’s possible that Kyffin found children and young people difficult to portray for another reason than the technical one he proposes.  It may be that they simply hadn’t had enough time to accumulate the wealth of experience older people had – the experience that clearly suffuses the portraits of Kyffin’s older subjects.

Yolanta (1967) (Oriel Ynys Môn)

Perhaps the most successful portrait of a younger sitter is Yolanta.  Certainly Kyffin himself thought so:

She was tall and slim with a mop of dark hair, a sensitive face and with a long and most attractive nose. … I feel sure it is one of my best portraits.  (Portraits, p.88)

Unusually for Kyffin, the pose is unbalanced and dynamic, and there is a sharp contrast between the figure and the two-tone, plain background. 

A more rewarding group of sitters was older men.  Men from all backgrounds were welcome, but working people were perhaps especially appealing.  Those who had laboured all their live, and bore the marks of physical struggle in their faces and their stances, offered plenty of material for the painter.  Of Tom Owen, a cowman from Aber-erch, Kyffin wrote,

I believe that this was the best portrait I painted from among the people who lived in Abererch …  He was a small and agile man who laughed and smiled and was excellent with cattle … He appeared to be smiling during the whole time that I was painting him but it was not an obvious smile, merely an expression of contentment.  He seemed to be a man with few problems, and was popular in the village community.  (Portraits, p.26)

Hugh Thomas (1950) (Bangor University)

Hugh Thomas was a farmer near Ro-wen in the Conwy valley.  His wife had just died.  His doctor asked Kyffin to paint his portrait ‘as some sort of therapy’, wrote Kyffin, ‘in order to give him relief from his loneliness and depression.’  The painter found him ‘trimming a disorderly hedge that appeared to grow out of a broken wall’.  This image of dereliction and sadness transfers to the portrait, one of Kyffin’s most poignant.  Hugh Thomas sits limply, cap askew, with grey hair, eyebrows and moustache, staring absently at some object below.  The colour contrast is sharp, between the collarless white shirt and the spots of reflected sunlight, and the dark cap and waistcoat and the dark blue background.  The painting’s desolation was felt immediately it was completed.  ‘[Thomas’s] daughter wept’, Kyffin wrote, ‘when she saw what I had done.  Wailing echoed around the old kitchen and nothing would console her.’

Larry (William Lee) (1982) (National Museum Wales)

Men who’d fallen on hard times form another small group of portraits. ‘Larry’ (William Lee) was epileptic, like Kyffin himself.  He’d fallen into a fire during a fit, lost an eye and damaged an arm.  He became a loner and was living in a small house in Anglesey when Kyffin called to and asked to paint him in his studio:

He was a most unusual man with a nimble and inquisitive mind.  Life had been hard on him and had bestowed on him the burden of epilepsy.  Physically it was not like him but I think the whole tragedy of his life was there.  (Portraits, p.40)

The oblique composition and the stark tonal contrast of the Hugh Thomas portrait are much more extreme and frankly expressionist in this picture, painted over thirty years later.  In particular, the characteristic two-shade plain background has developed.  Instead of a simple, neutral vertical line separating the two tones, we have a jagged shadow of Larry’s head and shoulders – a striking visual metaphor for the disturbed inner nature of the sitter.

John Evans (1971) (Private collection) (detail)

Through Kyffin’s portraits these men achieve dignity beyond their suffering.  John Evans had been a Welsh student at the Slade, but became an alcoholic.  He would sleep every night in a waiting room Paddington Station.  Kyffin was asked to help him by the Secretary of the Slade and he shared accommodation with Kyffin in Mary Josling’s house for a while, till he was ejected for bringing drunken friends home.

John Evans was one of the memorable characters of my life.  He was kind yet improvident, imaginative yet impractical, talented but unable to use what had been given to him.  (Portraits, p.44)

Kyffin took pains to do justice to his ‘magnificent and almost noble head that made him look like a cross between Picasso and a Roman Emperor’. 

Evan Roberts (1992) (Oriel Ynys Môn)

Evan Roberts was a remarkable man, a slate quarryman and gifted amateur botanist who’d lost his sight:

I posed him, in order to make him look upwards and as he sat his blind eyes were drawn towards the distant slope of Lliwedd, a mountain that he knew so well but could not see.  There was no sadness in Evan Roberts, but merely a contented resignation as he dreamed of the flowers and the mountains he knew so well.

There was one group of people with whom Kyffin felt a special affinity – his fellow-artists. 

Jack Raymond Jones (1969) (National Library of Wales)

He developed a friendship with the Swansea painter Jack Jones – he lived close to Kyffin, in Holland Park – and in 1969 asked whether he could attempt his portrait.  Unusually, we have two accounts of the sitting, by both men.  This is Kyffin’s:

The portrait was of a sad and brooding man, something I had not intended, and everyone who knew Jack well said what a ridiculous interpretation it was, since he was a jolly fellow, downing his pints at the London Welsh Rugby Club and telling wild and outrageous stories.  Maybe the portrait was prophetic as both his wife and small son became ill and he had a massive heart attack.  [After Jones moved back to Swansea] life was never as evergreen as it had been before I painted him. (Portraits, p.66)

Jack Jones wrote:

I felt very lonely sitting in the studio which was then in a sad basement.  He hardly spoke at all.  I felt he was struggling to make his first marks on the terrible white expanse of canvas.  I did not dare speak to him.  He looked at me every few seconds – moved to his canvas, made a stroke with his brush and moved back again.  He squeezed his paint out of great fat tubes on to his palette and he began to attack the canvas.  The studio was silent.  We seemed remote, as if we were the only two people in the world.  I lost all sense of time.  He must have been working for hours, but there was nothing on his face that told me how the portrait was going.  I felt very lonely.  He wasn’t painting any old object – he was painting me.  I felt tired – very tired and sad.  I don’t know why.  I think the troubles of all my days were driving through my mind.  And when I saw the portrait almost finished I knew he had captured not only my head but what was in my head and in my heart.  For on that particular day I was sad, and sadness was in the face he painted.  The portrait was not only beautiful – it was true.  (National Library of Wales, Jack Jones papers, item 43; recorded for Wales TV on 15 March 1966 as part of ‘Horizons hung in air’, a programme about KW made by John Ormond and broadcast 20 April 1966.)

The symmetry of feeling in these two passages is striking.  Artist and sitter seem to agree that the portrait had sensed a sorrow hidden deeply below Jones’s steady downward gaze and entwined fingers.

Keith Andrew (1984) (National Library of Wales)

Another painter who sat for Kyffin was his friend Keith Andrew:

He is a very determined man, and a very capable one, but I feel I have not captured these characteristics in my portrait of him.  Nevertheless it is a good likeness …  (Portraits, p.20)

The portrait is far from heroic.  Andrew sits hunched and watchful.  His figure seems to have slipped down the canvas, isolated within a wide expanse of cool grey and white.  The same format is used for a portrait of R.S. Thomas, painted in the same period.  But the result is far less successful.  The poet’s face is curiously inexpressive and the treatment of the hair and clothes is plain and desultory.  It’s almost as if Kyffin, daunted by Thomas’s notoriously severe exterior, felt unable to penetrate the outer shell to reach and bring back for us the more complex essence of the man.

R. S. Thomas (c1980) (National Library of Wales)


As we’ve seen, the expectations and reactions of the sitter add a layer of complication to the making of portraits.  Kyffin always claimed to dislike taking on commissions, and that he took them on out of necessity:

I prefer to paint portraits for my own pleasure but over the years I have had to undertake portrait commissions.  These have been a challenge but the worry over trying to get a likeness has always made it an unsatisfying exercise.  Many times I have been surprised at a success but when I reached the age of seventy I decided that I would not accept any more commissions. (Portraits, p.9)

He gave a slightly different explanation to an interviewer:

I’ve painted commission portraits because I felt I had to, because I have to justify myself as an artist.  I didn’t really do it for the money, although the money was handy.  I felt, if you are asked to do something, if you didn’t do it you were being a coward.  I hated painting commission portraits actually … (British Library recording, p.123)

Painting to commission caused him anxiety:

Months before the sitting I began to worry, and apprehension built up as the day drew nearer; I prayed for anything to prevent the arrival of the sitter.  [But] … I forced myself to conquer my apprehension.  Once I started work, the worry seemed to slip away as my concentration grew, and I found that I was able to finish a full-length life-size portrait in a single day.  (A wider sky, p.211)

But some of the commissions are among the best and most incisive of all Kyffin’s portraits.  In part, perhaps, because they were more of a challenge to paint, and forced him to struggle with the tensions inherent in the form, artistic and social.  Kyffin remarked to Tony Curtis, ‘I have accepted commissions, because in a puritanical way I thought it was good for me, having to do something, that was difficult’ (Curtis, p.78)

But there may be another factor.  Though Kyffin was comfortable engaging with people from all backgrounds and classes, he was often sceptical about the authority of institutions and those who led them.  His battles with bodies like the Arts Council of Wales and the National Museum of Wales and their leading figures were legendary.   I suspect this ‘anti-authoritarian’, quasi-anarchistic aspect of Kyffin’s persona came to the fore when he was asked to portray people whose standing and reputation depended on the official positions they happened to occupy, rather than on their own virtues.  Often you sense a tension between the eye of the painter and the self-regard or even arrogance of the sitter. 

Sir David Hughes Parry (1957) (Aberystwyth University)

The result is often what, at least on a first encounter, seems a less than warm image of the subject.  Sometimes this caused no problem.  In 1957 Kyffin painted a portrait of Sir David Hughes Parry, President of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.  His account of the sitter, ‘a man of great dignity’ with ‘a magnificent crop of wavy white hair’, suggests a slight lack of rapport:

He sat well and from time to time made withering remarks about the Principal of the College in Aberystwyth.  I felt it would have been unwise to inform him that the Principal was an old friend of mine.  (Portraits, p.78)

The finished portrait, a study in black-suited severity, received a frosty reception from Hughes Parry’s wife, but it was accepted by the College, and it contributed, Kyffin thought, to his own acceptance as a Fellow of the Royal Academy.

Huw T. Edwards (1967) (National Museum Wales)

Kyffin’s first encounter with Huw T. Edwards, whose portrait the Wales Tourist Board had commissioned, was hardly promising:

… I answered a knock on the door and on opening it I was confronted by a huge man with a cockade on his cap and the obvious appearance of an official chauffeur.  There was no sign of anyone else.  As I was about to ask if the great man would be arriving, a very small person wrapped in a voluminous coat materialised and pushed past me uttering the two commands, ‘I will not be painted side-face and you will put a twinkle in my eye’ (Portraits, p.106)

But despite this introduction the two men got on well: ‘I enjoyed meeting Huw T Edwards and as I painted him I felt he was a man whose features had to be recorded as part of Welsh history’.  Most of the portrait is very dark, but in its centre is the lined and tanned face of Edwards, with just a trace of humour in the raised eyebrow and piercing eyes.

Moelwyn Merchant (1976) (National Library of Wales)

Kyffin clearly felt less rapport with the subjects of other commissioned works.  Moelwyn Merchant, a scholar, preacher, writer and artist, had a forceful personality (‘ebullient’ is Kyffin’s term).  Though he could acknowledge Merchant’s achievements, Kyffin seems to have found him an unsympathetic character.  Merchant occupies his solid, near-pyramidal space with self-conscious authority.  His head features a large dome, the home of what Kyffin called his ‘latent creativity’, and a grim face, with unfriendly arched brows and tight lips.  The only other lit areas of the picture are the dog-collar and Merchant’s hands, one complacently stuffed into a trouser pocket.  It’s a fierce image.  Merchant’s wife told Kyffin he’d given her husband his ‘Welsh Arts Council face’ – like Kyffin, Merchant ‘had, for long, been locked in cultural battle with that authority’.  Kyffin’s own summary was that ‘my portrait was unkind but nevertheless conveyed his combative energy’.

Sir Thomas Parry (1979) (National Library of Wales)

Three years later the National Library commissioned a portrait of its President, Sir Thomas Parry (Parry had earlier been the Librarian, and Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth).  Parry was a distinguished academic and administrator, but had a reputation for austerity.  Hywel Teifi Edwards once said he looked like a ‘Prussian general’, with his military moustache.  Kyffin described the experience of painting him:

Sir Thomas was a strong and forceful character.  A man of strong principles but nevertheless a man of humanity.  It was not easy to paint a portrait and bring out his essential personality.  I thought I should place him in a challenging manner as if he had made an important statement, but to carry it out was more difficult. Furthermore, I found great difficulty in painting the underlying bone structure around his mouth.  When I had finished, I believed that I had failed but on seeing it again, I feel that I have, maybe, caught something of the rock-like character of Sir Thomas Parry.  (Portraits, p.110)

Indeed, it’s a far from a flattering portrait.  Parry stares directly out at us, a mix of surliness and boredom on his face.  His full hair is neat and well-combed, but his tie is awry.  Its crooked line is echoed in the ragged borderline between the grey-blue tones of the wide background that overshadows Parry’s figure.  That line, descending like a lightning bolt, ends in Parry’s skull.

Dr Brinley Jones, one of Parry’s successors as President and someone who knew him well, told me on many occasions that Kyffin’s image of Parry was unfair, and that it ignored the humour and humanity of the man.  But perhaps those qualities were not on display when Parry was in Kyffin’s studio.  Parry’s biographer, Derec Llwyd Morgan, has this to say about the portrait:

The picture captures his strength of character and his severity – those of an old man, admittedly – but because Kyffin has pushed the subject to the left side of the canvas the impression is given that he almost wants to hide away, and for most of his life Thomas Parry was not one for hiding away.  (Derec Llwyd Morgan, Y brenhinbren: bywyd a gwaith Thomas Parry, 1904-1985, Gomer, p.390 (my translation))

Alun Oldfield Davies (c1970) (National Library of Wales)

A few years earlier a commission had arrived from the BBC, to paint a portrait of its Director between 1945 and 1967, Alun Oldfield Davies.  Davies was an austere and puritanical character, who had ruled at the BBC in Cardiff for 22 years, from 1945 to 1967.  His physical height was as remarkable as the length of his tenure.  Here’s Kyffin’s description:

He was a man of about six feet six in height and the fact that he held himself as straight as a Celtic monolith made him appear to be even taller.  I sat him in a low chair so that his legs when crossed made an unusual pattern and his head, creased with a web of lines, looked even smaller in contrast to his gigantic limbs.  (Portraits, p.32)

The portrait is one of the most remarkable Kyffin painted.  Davies sits in an absurdly low chair, squashed into the corner of a room (Kyffin’s borderline between the two tones of the background makes it look like a tiny attic).  His legs dominate the composition: one of Davies’s hands struggles to keep them under control.  The rest of the man cowers behind them.  His face glowers out.  He is clearly not enjoying the session.  Again, a crooked tie hints at mental tension.

Alun Oldfield Davies (c1970) (BBC Cymru Wales)

Kyffin sent a photograph of the portrait to the BBC governors.  They rejected the picture as ‘repugnant’ (it’s not clear from Kyffin’s narrative whether this is their word or his).  He suggested that the governors try a different painter, Tom Rathmell (’Tom was much better at doing cobwebs than I was and poor Alun Oldfield Davies had a face like interwoven cobwebs’), but Davies proposed that Kyffin start again.  So a second portrait was begun.  This time Kyffin insisted that Davies stood up (‘he came and stood like an Atlas missile all day long’):

I set up a canvas seven feet high and started to draw him in… One problem was to make it clear that he was a very tall man and this I solved by allowing his trousers to touch the bottom of the canvas thereby making anyone viewing it uncertain how long his legs might have been.  I suppose that I concentrated on the small head with a myriad of lines creasing his face.  It was really very like him and this time the portrait was not rejected.  (Portraits, p.32)

The BBC did accept the picture, though it’s hard to see why.  Again, it’s an unflattering portrait.  Davies stands, in the same cramped corner, one hand in trouser pocket, looking like thunder.  His poorly shaven face, downturned mouth, protuberant ears and large glasses all add to the impression of a grim and humourless autocrat. The same wintry background dominates.  ‘Lugubrious’ is the epithet applied to the image by Davies’s biographer, Gerant Talfan Davies.

As bold expressionist works, though, the two Alun Oldfield Davies portraits ranks as some of the best works Kyffin ever painted.

Corporal Norman Pritchard (1983) (Royal Welch Fusiliers Regimental Museum)

The commissioned portraits were not all troubled in their making or reception.  Indeed, one of them is frankly comic.  In 1983 the Royal Welch Fusiliers commissioned Kyffin to paint a picture of their ‘Goat Major’, whose name was Norman Pritchard.  His twin brother had been Goat-Major before him.

… about a month later Corporal Pritchard arrived at about 10.30 bearing large boxes out of which he produced all the magnificence of a full-dress uniform and busby.  It took a while to dress him but soon before 11.00 o’clock, he was ready.  (Portraits, p.54)

The two took a break at lunchtime for beer and cheese.  The beer proved too much for the Goat-Major:

‘Norman’s head dropped on his chest.  I shouted at him and up came his head.  ‘Very sorry, sir,’ he said.  I continued my work and after a few minutes his head was back on his chest and he was fast asleep.  ‘Wake up,‘ I roared and once again he took up his original pose.

When the picture was finished, Kyffin asked Norman to take a look.  ‘Damn,’ he said, ‘it is the dead spit of my twin brother’. 

It’s an affectionate portrait, and one of Kyffin’s most striking images: of an ordinary farmer’s boy (as I imagine, at least), temporarily imprisoned in a fantasy costume.  The flummery of the dress is, we all know, absurd.  It’s not being used by its wearer as a means of inflating his importance or his ego; rather, it’s a theatrical disguise of his real character.


Self-portrait (1992) (Private collection) (detail)

Kyffin painted self-portraits throughout his career.  In his commentary about one of them, Self-portrait (1992) we find the familiar denial of intent to venture beyond capturing physical likeness:

I have painted many self-portraits but I have kept few for it is not so easy to paint oneself in a mirror as it is to paint someone else.  This self-portrait is a simple statement of what I saw before me for I believe it is difficult enough merely to do that without trying to imbue myself with distinction, dignity, romance, strength of character or with a hint of psychological intent.  (Portraits, p.130)

Again, I’m not sure we can take these words entirely literarily.  In this work and in others, like the Self-portrait of 1968, I sense the presentation, rather than mere description, of a self-image: that of an artist combining bluff self-confidence, a penetrating mind and eye, and an inner passion whose emblem is his ample, windswept hair. 

Self-portrait (c1953) (National Library of Wales)

On the other hand, It could be that Kyffin had little interest in Rembrandtesque self-analysis, and we should remember that there was a strong element of self-deprecation in his character.  This showed itself artistically in a leaning towards caricature.  An early painted Self-portrait (c1953) with its slumped head and hangdog pose, verges on self-parody, and many of Kyffin’s liveliest and most acute self-portraits are extemporary humorous pen or pencil sketches scribbled on bits of paper and in the margins of letters.  He was perhaps not self-regarding enough as a man to be a truly great self-portraitist.

In conclusion

What can we say in conclusion about Kyffin Williams the portrait painter?  That he was a portraitist of outstanding ability, without doubt.  His usual oil painting technique didn’t allow him to lavish detail on the faces and bodies of his sitters in the manner of more academic artists, but with economic use of his palette knife he was able to create expressive pictures, recognised, if not as exact likenesses, then as effective visual metaphors for the often complex inner lives of his subjects.

Kyffin was a prolific artist – perhaps too prolific.  If some of his works tended to flow easily from his pen or brush or knife, there was one genre, the portrait, which challenged him and sometimes caused him real difficulty.  Often the tensions, artistic as well as interpersonal, that resulted led to completed paintings that are among the most complex and powerful of all his works.  And the commissioned portraits, which caused him more trouble and anxiety than any others, can perhaps be counted as the best of all.



Iwan Bala, Here + now: essays on contemporary art in Wales, Bridgend: Seren, 2003.

Tony Curtis, Welsh painters talking to Tony Curtis, Bridgend: Seren, 1997.

Rhian Evans and Nicholas Sinclair, Kyffin Williams: the light and the dark, London: Lund Humphries, 2018

Peter Lord, ‘Kyffin Williams: the portraits’, in Kyffin dan sylw / in view: darlithoedd dathlu canmlwyddiant Syr Kyffin Williams RA / lectures to celebrate the centenary of Sir Kyffin Williams RA, Llandysul: Gomer, 2018, p. 17-56

Peter Lord, Relationships with pictures, Cardigan: Parthian, 2013.

Barry Morgan, ‘Kyffin Williams & R.S. Thomas: attitudes to Wales and to faith’, in Kyffin dan sylw / in view: darlithoedd dathlu canmlwyddiant Syr Kyffin Williams RA / lectures to celebrate the centenary of Sir Kyffin Williams RA, Llandysul: Gomer, 2018, p. 76-94.

Nicholas Sinclair and Rhian Evans, The art of Kyffin Williams, London: Thames and Hudson, 2007 

Kyffin Williams, National life stories: artists’ lives: Kyffin Williams. [Transcription of an Interview conducted by Cathy Courtney]. London: British Library, [1995]

Kyffin Williams, Across the Straits: an autobiography, London: Duckworth, 1973

Kyffin Williams, Portraits, Llandysul: Gomer, 1996, rev. ed. 2007 

Kyffin Williams, A wider sky, Llandysul: Gomer, 1991

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