In October 1968, Kyffin Williams arrived in Patagonia having been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to record the descendents of the Welsh settlers who had first arrived there in the 19th century. During our day out on Anglesey, we visited the current exhibition at Oriel Ynys Môn, the gallery in Llangefni, the town where he was born. The exhibition consists of paintings, drawings and photographs made by Williams during the five months he spent absorbing the landscape and meeting the people of Patagonia.
Kyffin Williams is best known for his impasto paintings of Welsh landscapes and muscular portraits, often of hill farmers and characters from the villages and valleys of Anglesey and Snowdonia. This exhibition brings together less well-known, but equally impressive work completed during those months in Patagonia.
On display is a collection of pen, ink, watercolour and oils, ranging from large works to small sketches from Kyffin’s autobiography, Wider Sky. There is a slideshow of highly evocative photographs taken by Kyffin, as well as a display of some of Kyffin’s personal possessions such as his travel itinerary, letter of introduction from the Churchill Fellowship and his airline tickets.
It was in 1865 that a group of about 150 Welsh settlers sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia aboard the tea-clipper Mimosa. The settlers had been inspired by a Welsh Congregationalist minister, the Reverend Michael D. Jones, to make the long voyage to preserve their language, culture and religion. Jones had lived in the United States for a while, and noticed how quickly the Welsh assimilated and lost their language. He believed that it would be better for the Welsh to emigrate to a country where English was not the dominant language. He decided on Patagonia in Argentina, and set about raising funds, gathering public support and conducting lengthy and difficult negotiations with the Argentine government.
Two months later they arrived at New Bay (later renamed Puerto Madryn). The reality of life in barren and inhospitable Patagonia proved extremely challenging for the early settlers. Many faced great poverty and hardship as they struggled to make a living from the land. In time, however, they established their own Welsh-speaking communities where they built chapels and schools.
During the 20th century, the erosion of the Welsh language and traditions was evident as Spanish became the official language. However, in 1960s saw a revival of interest in Welsh culture amongst the descendants of the first settlers.
Kyffin Williams wrote in Gwladfa Kyffin – Kyffin in Patagonia of the inspiration he felt in Patagonia:
The light in Cwm Hyfryd was remarkable and often I drew in Pentre Sydyn in the hills to the east of the valley and heard far below the sound of the voice of Mary Hopkin being relayed from the tops of the telegraph poles. It was through a gap in the hills, that many years earlier a party of Welsh riders who had set out from Dyffryn Camwy to find the valley so praised by the Indians, suddenly I saw what they believed was their promised land.
‘Dyma gwm hyfryd’ exclaimed an excited rider and Cwm Hyfryd it has remained ever since. I also found it a wonderful valley and produced about 200 drawings. I did a water-colour drawing of Brychan Evans. He was a lovely spare man, a great rider and a man who had climbed all the surrounding mountains. I think I did him justice.
The bulk of Kyffin William’s output in Patagonia consisted of pen, ink, watercolour and gouache works, as well as some 35mm slides – rare photographic images that reveal his great interest in the people of Patagonia, as well as the landscape. These works were later donated to the National Library of Wales, and it is from their collection that this exhibition is drawn.
Dyffryn Camwy was the area first colonised by the Welsh after they landed on the ship Mimosa in 1865. The arid, flat landscape like a desert and the simple, rustic cottages that the first settlers built are evoked in the drawings and paintings that Kyffin made:
When I got to Dyffryn Camwy and I asked about hiring a horse they just thought I was absolutely mad; they said I would lose my way and I would be found dead years later and all that sort of thing. So I had to across the desert in an old bus, which is quite an undertaking since it was all dirt road. It was tremendous fun, one of the most interesting periods of my life.
On his return to Britain, Kyffin painted a series of vivid landscapes, such as ‘Horse at Lle Cul’ (below) and ‘Los Altares’ (top). In 1990, he prepared a set of monochrome pen and ink studies based on the earlier watercolours such as ‘Cwm Hyfryd’ (above). These were published as illustrations for A Wider Sky, the second volume of his autobiography, and a selection appear in the exhibition.
Kyffin Williams was born in Llangefni in 1918. His was an old landed Anglesey family, although much of his childhood was spent away from the island. After failing a British Army medical examination in 1941 due to epilepsy, a doctor advised him to become an artist: ‘As you are, in fact, abnormal, I think it would be a good idea if you took up art’.
Kyffin enrolled at Slade School of Fine Art in 1941 and later taught art at Highgate School until 1973. In 1974 he settled back on Anglesey in a house overlooking the Menai Strait, which remained his home for the rest of his life. Here he immersed himself in the community and landscape, and spent day after day outdoors, painting.
It is essential to have produced a great many pictures – drawings as well as paintings – out of doors, on the spot, in order to paint interpretive pictures in the studio. Painting en plein air is a vital preparation… One needs to store a great deal of information about nature, particularly about colour.
The move to Anglesey consolidated Kyffin’s growing reputation as a painter of Wales and its people. He was widely viewed as the first artist to truly connect with the Welsh people, but his reputation began to grow beyond the borders of Wales. In 1982 he received an OBE for his services to the arts and in 2000, his 80th year, he was given a knighthood. He died in 2006.
His work is now on permanent exhibition in Oriel Ynys Môn, in the dedicated Kyffin Williams Gallery, opened in 2008. Typically, it draws inspiration from the Welsh landscape, farmlands and people. This is a small selection:
Two of my favourite Kyffrin Williams portraits from the gallery are ‘Yolanta’ (above) and ‘Evan Roberts’ (below)’
I first saw her at a literary party near Regents Park. She was tall and slim with a mop of dark hair, a sensitive face and with a long and most attractive nose. She was wearing a strange lace-like dress. There was something exotic about her so I asked who she might be. I was told that she was Polish and that her name was Yolanta. I feel sure it is one of my best portraits.
Evan Roberts was a spare but well-built man with a head that had the look of nobility about it, and his voice was gentle and distinguished as he asked me how I would like him to sit. I posed him in order to make him look upwards and as he sat his blind eyes were turned towards the distant shape of Lliwedd, a mountain 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 mountain he knew so well.
A short film made to promote an earlier Kyffrin Williams exhibition at Oriel Ynys Môn:
A clip from Kyffin Williams – Framing Wales (BBC 2):