'I worked my socks off to pay for the painting'

Farmer, Blaen Nantmor by Sir John ‘Kyffin’ Williams KBE RA OBE (1918–2006), 24in by 24in, Private Collection

Bryn Terfel says:
I started collecting his paintings in my early twenties; this is the very first one I bought and undoubtedly my favourite. A Welsh TV presenter, Arfon Haines Davies, had told me it was being auctioned and that he was going to bid up to the £4,000 mark. If I was even to consider bidding, it would have to be way above that. I went to the auction and sat in the middle of the room. Big mistake. Who was sitting in front of me, but Jeffrey Archer. Was he here for the Kyffin? Well, the auction started. The Kyffin was up. I could see Arfon bidding up to his number. He fell away. Then, Lord Archer bid, once, twice, three times. Then, he dropped off. In I came with my tentative bids. I’d never done this before so my pulse was racing. A little over the £5,000 mark and the hammer came down. Mine was the final bid. Elation. I worked my socks off to pay for the painting and I’m glad now that the young Welsh bass baritone trying to make his living out of singing took the plunge to delve into the works of one of Wales’s iconic painters.

John McEwen comments:
In 1940, as most men were being drafted into the Army, I was being invalided out. The medical authorities… announced that I was abnormal and advised me to become an artist. I don’t know which piece of advice alarmed me more,’ wrote Sir Kyffin (pr. ‘Kuffin’) Williams. The doctors’ prescription was right. In his eulogy, Bryn Terfel described Sir Kyffin as ‘Wales’s foremost ambassador in the visual arts’.

Sir Kyffin’s canvases, the paint applied in lavish slabs with a palette knife, became inseparable in the public imagination from the slate landscapes of his native north Wales. He also painted seascapes, portraits and watercolours. ‘I had no talent at all,’ he wrote, but he was obsessive, which experience proved of far more artistic importance. Obsession, in his case, he considered a side effect of his epilepsy, which made him a self-confessed loner. The result was painting so individual it couldn’t be assessed against anyone else’s. It nonetheless struck a common chord, as the famous queues for the openings of his bi-annual solo exhibitions at London’s Thackeray Gallery demonstrated.

Sir Kyffin was born on Anglesey, his parents both children of Anglican rectors. After Shrewsbury and the Slade, he adopted Kyffin as his painter’s name and became senior art master at Highgate (1944–73). The academicians Anthony Green and the late Patrick Procktor and the composers John Rutter and the late Sir John Tavener were among his pupils.

Charming and a renowned raconteur, Sir Kyffin deplored the laxity in art teaching following the 1960 Coldstream Report. ‘Junk art’ was the result, ‘something that could be copied by any member of the public’.

This article was originally published in Country Life June 3, 2015.

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