At the Swansea home of Gwilym Thomas, a friend and former pottery student at the Royal College of Art, John Elwyn was invited to join a Quaker community in Cardiff. In September 1941 he moved to Llanishen House where he was engaged in food production and market gardening, propagating, planting out, harvesting, ploughing fields and tending to the horses that pulled his cart around the Llanishen and Whitchurch suburbs.
At weekends John Elwyn painted during spare moments: the grounds at Llanishen House, views from the window, figures in interiors, still-life and flower studies.
In the evenings he cleared space on the kitchen table to work on a series of allegorical paintings. The idea evolved after he undertook a commission to illustrate ‘Everyman’, translated from German into Welsh by Leslie Harris for Chwe Drama Fer, a collection of one-act plays published by Gomer Press in 1944. Leslie Harries taught Welsh and junior Latin at Llandysul County Grammar School.
This was a dark period in John Elwyn’s life. Death seemed always close at hand. Britain had been at war for four years, millions had already lost their lives. Cardiff and Swansea were heavily bombed. Additionally, his mother had developed stomach cancer and died in 1942 after a long illness.
The Chwe Drama Fer project prompted John Elwyn to illustrate further scenes from the medieval mystery play; to create an imaginative, melancholic dream-world in which Death in the form of a skeleton stands at the shoulder of Everyman.
In this 1944 watercolour, Everyman screams in anguish amid a cataclysmic landscape. Along with his other allegorical paintings, it echoes work by his contemporaries Michael Ayrton, John Craxton and John Minton whom we now associate with the Neo-Romantic movement that flourished in England during Britain’s war-time isolation.
John Elwyn had not been aware of the emerging young Neo-Romantic painters before he left London but he had seen Edward Burra’s paintings of strange natural objects set against disturbing surrealist landscapes.
Watercolour, ink, gouache, pencil and crayon all lent themselves to the spontaneous effects John Elwyn sought in his painting.
The Aftermath series of paintings that followed in 1945 depict surreal scenes of chaos and destruction. The Two Worlds and Everyman reveal the John Elwyn’s doubts and anxieties about the violent and destructive power of war – and his horror at the atrocities committed at Belsen. The production of these works was undoubtedly a cathartic experience for the artist.