SEVENTY YEARS AGO, Welsh historian Owen M. Edwards prophesied that one day Wales ‘would wake up to realize’ the ‘greatness’ of Christopher Williams, whose works of art would be regarded as ‘priceless treasures.’ Who is Christopher Williams? Wherein lies his ‘greatness’? And why is it that we have yet to ‘wake up’ to it?
In 2012, the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth staged Christopher Williams: ‘an artist and nothing else’. It was the largest ever exhibition to showcase Williams’ work. Robert Meyrick conceived, researched and curated the exhibition which drew from previously untapped archives and private collections, providing new insights into the life and career of a man whom David Lloyd George described as ‘one of the most gifted artists Wales has produced.’
‘… the thrill of being on Welsh soil’
Christopher David Williams was born in Maesteg on January 7th, 1873. His mother died two weeks later, and he was christened on her coffin. Within a week, his infant sister died as well. Christopher was raised by a wet nurse and her collier husband in a ‘poor but comfortable’ house at nearby Nantyffyllon. His ‘joyous days among the colliers’ came to an end when his father Evan took him from the woman he had learned to call ‘mam’ to live with him above the family’s grocery store on Commercial Street.
At Llynfi British School in Maesteg, the boy’s talent was soon recognised and encouraged; but his father was determined that Christopher go in for medicine. In 1886, at age 13, Christopher was sent to Monkton House boarding school in Cardiff. Painting lessons ceased. ‘Surrounded by walls,’ with ‘no hills or mountains or trees to look at,’ Christopher yearned for the ‘freedom to roam.’ He nonetheless remained very close to his father who, to him, was also ‘mother, sister, and brother.’
In 1889, at age 16, Christopher transferred to Oswestry High School in Shropshire where he received a liberal education. Once again, he could ramble in the countryside or leap over Offa’s Dyke – simply ‘for the thrill of being on Welsh soil.’
‘… an artist and nothing else’
During autumn 1891, Williams visited a school friend who lived on Merseyside. There, he recalled, ‘providence must have stepped in to effect a great change’ when, at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, he encountered Lord Leighton’s Perseus and Andromeda:
‘I had not looked at that picture more than two minutes before I had made up my mind that I would be an artist and nothing else. Come what may, an artist I would be.’
With his father’s eventual consent, Williams started taking lessons with the watercolour painter Frederick Kerr who taught the elements of art at Neath Technical Institute. In 1893, he won an Entrance Scholarship that entitled him to free tuition at the National Art Training School at South Kensington (now the Royal College of Art).
Being ‘in London in a profession of my own choice,’ Williams marvelled in 1896, ‘A happier life no one could live.’ That year, he was awarded free entry to the Royal Academy Schools where he studied painting under John Singer Sargent and George Clausen.
‘… we would see Art make such progress’
As painter of epic biblical and mythological subjects intended for public enlightenment or uplift, Williams believed that the ‘highest form of art is that which portrays the deep problems and aspirations of human life and sets people thinking.’ Commenting on his preoccupation with classic and allegorical subjects, he declared: ‘I glory in the Ideal.’
While Williams worked on classical themes like the romance of Paulo and Francesca or the biblical figures of Judas and Saul, a need to arrive at a distinctive Welsh identity led antiquarians and archaeologists to research Wales’ past in order to enlighten its present. This so-called Second Celtic Revival, linked to a broader 19th-century preoccupation with Medievalism, stimulated literature and the visual arts. After visiting the 1904 Celtic Congress in Caernarfon, Williams too became ‘steeped in Celtic ideals.’ Intent on becoming a ‘Welsh’ painter, he set out to explore the riches of the Mabinogion: Blodeuwedd, fashioned from flowers; Branwen, wistfully looking out to sea; and the enchantress Ceridwen at her cauldron.
And yet Williams continued painting in the European tradition. ‘If we could have the depth of thought of Watts, the dignity, composition and beauty of Leighton, and the . . . humanity of Millais combined in one man, we would see Art make such progress,’ he contended in 1898. Taught to revere the Old Masters, Williams approached his Welsh subjects without developing a distinctively Welsh idiom.
‘… the King commands’
By the early 1900s, Wales was witnessing the emergence of an artistic culture unparalleled in the nation’s history. The National Museum and the National Library were under construction and the constituent colleges of the University of Wales had all been formed.
Welsh patrons, and Welsh expatriates in particular, were eager to provide opportunities for distinguished sons of their homeland while making a display of their own international success. Able to please their egos and enlarge on their importance in the grand manner in which he was trained, Williams became a much sought-after portraitist.
Williams captured the likenesses of Welsh statesmen and academics, men of letters and of the cloth, from the Principals of Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities to David Lloyd George. In 1911, he was ‘taken aback’ when he was informed by an envoy: ‘the King commands you’ to paint the Royal Family at the Investiture of Edward, Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle. It was chiefly through these commissions that he built his artistic reputation and managed to support his family.
‘… Nature in her wilder moods’
Alongside classical and mythological subjects, Williams pursued an intimate engagement with nature. He was drawn to the Welsh coast whose light and atmosphere he captured in spontaneous plein air sketches. Careful to retain their immediacy, he seldom re-worked them in the studio. Some of them were studies for full-scale exhibition pieces; but the majority were never intended for public display. And while his son, painter Ivor Williams, exhibited a number of ‘holiday sketches’ after Williams’ death, most of these experimental works are shown here for the first time.
Williams often visited the dunes of Merthyr Mawr, the foothills of Cader Idris and the shores of the Mawddach. Perched on the limpet-encrusted rocks, painting the craggy coves of Llangrannog and Cilborth beach, he scrutinised rock formations and made a study of breaking waves, passing storms and bursts of sunlight. Like Constable, who professed to ‘a good deal of skying,’ Williams surveyed the firmament – midday and midnight, dusk and dawn, hail or shine.
There was a tremendous storm on the day of Williams’ funeral. ‘It was fitting,’ his son Gwyn remarked, that the ‘rain came pelting down and there was lightening and thunder nearly all the way.’ Father and son had ‘often stood and watched the towering majesty of thunderclouds together. Daddy was always thrilled by Nature in her wilder moods.’
‘… a dream of colour’
As a student, Williams could only imagine ‘how very delightful it must be out in sunny Italy,’ to experience a ‘change of climate, new ways, new scenes, each with its tale, ancient and modern.’ The ‘cold grey scenery’ of north Wales landscape had taken his ‘breath away’; but he was anxious for the ‘warm rich coloured tints of the southern clime.’
When Williams married Emily Appleyard in September 1904, the honeymooners embarked on a yearlong adventure across Italy. It was the artist’s first trip abroad. At Florence, Emily recalled, ‘study began in earnest and the galleries, museums and churches were visited day after day.’ He made copies of Old Masters, painted landscapes, iconic buildings, quiet backwaters and church interiors. In Venice, he delighted in the ‘great old buildings and gorgeous architecture’ and the canal ‘was a dream of colour’ to him.
Thereafter, Williams painted in Switzerland and Holland. In 1914, he went on a three-month tour of Tangier and Spain. Painting as many as three pictures a day, he returned home with about eighty canvases.
His letters from the continent are as evocative and colourful as his oils. He described to his wife the ‘battlemented ramparts’ and ‘cobbled stone streets’ of an ‘old world town in Normandy’ where church bells ring ‘as for centuries past,’ and ‘dogs draw carts and donkeys carry milk and water in panniers.’ On his last holiday abroad, to Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1929, he annotated his pencil sketches with detailed notes on the colours he experienced, from the ‘bright silver gilt’ of snow-capped mountains to the ‘blue sapphire and green’ sea and a sky that was ‘pale pearl blue.’
‘… not for the classes only’
A socialist and member of the Fabian Society, Williams believed that his gifts should be in the service of his people. Studying at the Royal College of Art – the ‘only Welshman there’ – he expressed a hope that Britain would soon ‘see more Welshmen taking a prominent part in Art.’ He was convinced that, once art was ‘cultivated in Wales,’ the Welsh would lead ‘in painting and sculpture’ as they did in music.
Serving on institutional committees and adjudicating exhibitions, Williams later did much to promote an interest in the visual arts in Wales. He and his wife donated paintings to museums, universities and local authorities for the public benefit throughout Wales. He conceived of their gift of paintings to Maesteg Council as ‘the beginning of an Art Collection’ that might lead to the erection of a gallery to hold it.
In his first public address at the Llangollen National Eisteddfod in 1908, Williams criticised the lack of facilities for art students in Wales. He encouraged politicians and wealthy mine owners to help provide ‘art for the masses, not for the classes only.’ He also called for a Welsh National School of Painting ‘so that Wales might progress in art and produce great paintings.’
‘… LARGE CROWD FRIENDS’
Throughout the 1920s, Williams suffered from a heart condition. His eyesight was failing and he was unable to paint for sustained periods. As a Christian Scientist, he refused medical attention. When finally he agreed to meet a specialist, it was too late. Williams was found dead in his chair at his Kensington home on July 19th, 1934. He was 61. Earlier that day, he had received a telegram from his son Gwyn who had just represented his father at a ceremony to mark the presentation of Paolo and Francesca and The Artist’s Father to Maesteg Town Hall. ‘MEETING GREAT SUCCESS,’ the telegram assured him, ‘LARGE CROWDS FRIENDS.’
A simple funeral service took place at Golder’s Green Crematorium. There were readings from the Bible and Science and Health. Flags on Maesteg Town Hall stood half-mast. Some weeks later, at the artist’s request, his ashes were scattered on the Foel, near Llangynwyd, a mountain overlooking his birthplace.
About seventy UK newspapers carried notice of his passing – from the Aberdeen Evening Express to the Swindon Evening Advertiser, from the Times to the News of the World. Lloyd George sent a telegram to his widow Emily. He lauded Williams as ‘one of the most gifted artists Wales has produced.’ This reputation, however, was not to survive the artist beyond the grave.
‘… flogging a horse that was already dead’?
At the time of his death in 1934, none of Williams’ ambitious figure compositions had sold. His widow donated them to public institutions in Wales. Until this day, many of them have remained hidden in museum vaults. In his 1957 survey The Artist in Wales, David Bell argued that, by following the ‘grand manner’ of Leighton and Watts, Williams had been ‘flogging a horse that was already dead,’ thus ‘squandering a very real talent.’ At the National Museum, director Cyril Fox deemed Williams’ paintings lacking in ‘sufficient artistic importance to warrant the occupation of space,’ while the Museum’s Keeper of Art, John Steegman, thought them ’empty’ and ‘deplorably bad’ – no matter how greatly they were ‘admired by the uncritical in south Wales.’
In the intervening years, Wales and notions of Welsh identity have changed significantly, beginning with the 1955 designation of Cardiff as capital and culminating in the establishment of the Welsh Assembly Government. Greater cultural awareness has led to a reappraisal and recognition of Wales’ visual culture judged on its own terms and not, as previously, in relation to the dominant English and European traditions.
One hundred years on, longer perhaps than Owen M. Edwards had anticipated, Wales can at last appreciate – and price – the ‘true greatness’ of Christopher Williams’ ‘priceless treasures.’