Shoni Winwns (Johnny Onions) depicts one of the many door-to-door onion sellers who during the summer months travelled to Wales from Roscoff on the Finistère coast of Brittany.

Each year their base was a large room at Sussex House in Newcastle Emlyn – just a few hundred yards from John Elwyn’s home. They slept on a large bed in the centre of the room surrounded by tons of onions piled high in sacks. Reeds used to string the onions were stacked against the walls.

Shoni was once a familiar sight around Wales. He was typically short and stocky, wore a black beret and carried strings of ‘oignon rose de Roscoff’ from a yoke-like stick over his shoulder. Shoni worked on commission, cycling miles each day to outlying villages.

The Welsh had a particular affinity with the onion sellers. Often they found it easier to converse in Welsh because of its similarity to Breton.

Though the setting here is Newquay on the Cardigan Bay coast, John Elwyn’s Shoni – with its rich colours and almost Mediterranean light – suggests a continental landscape and in particular John Minton’s paintings of Corsica in the late 1940s.

oil on canvas, 1958

Shoni 1954

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