Obituary, The Independent
Numerous artists since the eighteenth century have found inspiration in the sublime mountains of north Wales or the romantic coastal scenery and industrialised landscape of the south, but few have been drawn to the isolated farming communities in the west. John Elwyn in his native Cardiganshire like Graham Sutherland in Pembrokeshire and John Piper in Snowdonia found inspiration in a familiar environment. Their extensive knowledge and love of their chosen landscape recalls Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision’ at Shoreham - artists for whom landscape served as a vehicle for emotional expression. John Elwyn’s work represents the quieter strain of Neo-Romanticism in British landscape painting.
John Elwyn was born in Newcastle Emlyn in the heart of rural west Wales in 1916 the youngest of four children. His father ran a woollen mill, one of many that once flourished on the banks of the Teifi. Life at Emlyn Mill moved to the rhythm of the seasons. ‘I had a very happy childhood in the country,’ he recalled, ‘nurtured by a very caring family. At the centre was the mill, making cloth. Around that was a smallholding, very busy at times with sufficient livestock to keep the family going all the year round. That was the inner circle, so to speak. Outside that, in a larger circle, was the village community and social activities, and at the centre of that was the chapel.’ His early experiences ultimately shaped his art and his attitude towards the landscape and its inhabitants. John Elwyn lived in Hampshire for fifty years but Wales remained his spiritual home and provided continual inspiration for paintings which reflect his Welsh heritage, his sense of Welsh identity and his empathy with the Welsh people, their language and long-established social traditions. The Welsh have a word to convey such affection for a community, the love of a locality and regional character, brogarwch.
John Elwyn attended Llandysul County Grammar School until January 1935 when he enrolled at Carmarthen School of Art, transferring to the West of England College of Art at Bristol in September 1937 to complete his final year. He was awarded a Royal Exhibition Scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art, London in 1938, one of only six awarded nationally. Wales was commonly perceived to be without a strong visual tradition. There was neither the cultural nor economic climate to support practising artists between the wars, many Welsh artists moved to London in search of training, employment and recognition. A consummate draughtsman, John Elwyn’s facility for figure drawing attracted considerable attention - he was awarded the Diploma Prize and College Prize for Life Drawing. Gilbert Spencer, Professor of Painting, considered John Elwyn to be one of the best students that he had ever been fortunate enough to teach.
In April 1940 John Elwyn faced an Objectors’ Tribunal and was directed to land work, initially as a forestry worker in the Afan Valley and from September 1941 market gardening at a Quaker community in Cardiff. In Cardiff he met Ceri Richards and the Anglo-Welsh writer Glyn Jones who became his closest friend. He returned to the Royal College of Art in September 1946, gained his diploma in June 1947, and following Ceri Richards’ advice remained in London. Richards put him in touch with galleries and alerted him of opportunities to exhibit. In 1947 he joined J. Walter Thompson as a graphic designer.
In September 1948 John Elwyn moved to Hampshire to teach at Portsmouth School of Art. His paintings there concerned themselves with sailors and the sea, but from his lonely bedsit in Portsmouth the fond nostalgia and yearning for the homeland, that the Welsh call hiraeth began to manifest itself in a remarkable series of paintings which drew upon episodes of his life as a young teenager in Newcastle Emlyn. The idea of ‘writing stories in paint’ about the rituals and festivals associated with chapel going in the late 1920s provided his first reason for painting. ‘I was not the kind of person to attempt to push back the frontiers of modern art,’ he wrote, ‘there in the centre of “the Great Wen” I realised that my umbilical cord had not been severed.’ The paintings are remarkable examples of social observation and records of a community spirit which is now under threat. He recalled the comings and goings outside Emlyn Mill on warm Sunday evenings in the summer, the chapel deacons and congregation standing around in animated conversation. He captured their dignity and restraint with affection and respect: their dress, posture and gestures, observed and recorded with great integrity. Of one, Bore Sul, the novelist and film-maker John Ormond wrote ‘I recognised my Uncle Willie Beynon with his bowler and heavy moustache in the foreground. A lovely picture, calm, rural peace, the smell of Sunday gravy coming out of the keyholes and back doors to arise (as in the Bisto Kids) to whet the appetites of the deacon and drunkard on the hungry, salad-serving clouds of heaven’.
The chapel paintings were first exhibited at the Paul Alexander Gallery in Notting Hill, opened by Carel Weight in July 1949. By the early 1950s John Elwyn’s work was widely acclaimed and he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the New English Art Club, the Royal National Eisteddfod (where he was awarded the Gold Medal for Fine Art in 1956), the Welsh Arts Council, the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, the Society for Education through Art and the National Museum of Wales. He showed regularly at the Leicester Galleries, London annual exhibitions of ‘Artists of Fame and Promise’ between 1950 and 1968. Paintings were frequently purchased by education authorities, private and public collections.
The visual drama of the Welsh industrialised landscape soon replaced the tranquillity of the chapel paintings as John Elwyn focused his attention on the miners and their landscape near Pont-Rhyd-y-Fen where he had lived when working on the land during the war. Across open wasteland, scarred by industry, he witnessed miners descend steep roads in pouring rain from a sky into which distant chimneys at Port Talbot belch their sulphurous waste. Such picturesque urban romanticism was a rare departure from the concerns of mainstream British painting; few artists were recording the industrial landscape in 1951.
In September 1953 John Elwyn moved to Winchester where he taught at the School of Art (a position he held until his retirement in 1976). That year he made his first lithographs with Edwin la Dell at the Royal College. He was a sporadic printmaker, later commissions included lithographs for the Curwen Press and a series for the Collectors’ Guild of New York, also printed by Curwen. In 1953 he contributed the first of many illustrations to the Radio Times and some time later Kenneth Rowntree, art director for Shell Guides to the Countryside, commissioned John Elwyn to make paintings of several counties to promote the enjoyment of regional landscape and architecture. Commissions from Barclays Bank, Glaxo Laboratories and the Post Office were to follow. In November 1960 the BBC produced a documentary on John Elwyn in a series devoted to the arts in Wales.
At Winchester John Elwyn’s paintings followed a new line of enquiry, this time drawing upon his wide experience of the working life of the countryside. Paintings of the cattle pastures, farm yards and barns of the Teifi and Ceri valleys and upland rural areas of Cardiganshire record activities in the countryside at different times of the day and as they vary from season to season. They present a panegyric of country life, labour is seen as pure and dignified. Figurative subjects, however, increasingly gave way to pure landscape - the patterned meadows, organised and divided into fields with hedgerows and stone walls dappled with sunlight display a strong sense of genius loci. The debate between the advocates of abstraction and those of more representational modes of painting, created a dilemma for the traditional painters. John Elwyn began to use nature more selectively, his compositions gradually became more economical and the formal passages more predominant. Liberated from pure representation, he used colour more symbolically. In 1962 he started a series of large abstract compositions which eventually formed solo exhibitions at the Leicester Galleries in 1965 and 1969, both were a financial and widespread critical success.
John Elwyn kept in touch with Wales through visits and regular correspondence with family and friends. He was a devoted eisteddfodwr and rarely missed a festival. But it was Welsh and Anglo-Welsh literature, especially the poetry of Glyn Jones and Dylan Thomas, that most sparked his imagination and enthusiasm to paint visual equivalents. Periodic returns to portraiture sharpened his powers of observation and expression. He painted several portraits of his Welsh literary friends - among them Glyn Jones, Leslie Norris, Jac Jones and John Ormond.
In 1970 John Elwyn married the pianist Gillian Butterworth who four years previously had joined the Art School staff as lecturer in the newly established Foundation Course in Music. This coincided with the point in his career when he returned to a more direct representation of the Cardiganshire landscape. Vivid green and orange sunlit fields, violet storm-clouds and shimmering white-washed barns were recurrent motifs in a domesticated landscape compartmentalised by tidy fences, hedgerows and stone walls. To some it will come as a surprise to discover that he never wished to return to live in Wales, it is doubtful that he could have sustained the intensity of his conviction were he to have remained in Wales. John Elwyn’s landscapes themselves are testimony to his undiminished enthusiasm and nostalgia for his homeland and its traditions. Inversely proportional to his diminishing visits to Newcastle Emlyn, they became increasingly Arcadian, after all the nation has long-since recognised that - gorau Cymro, Cymro oddi cartre - the best Welshman is a Welshman away from home.
John Elwyn’s starting point might well have been the Welsh landscape but the paintings tell us equally about the artist himself. He was modest and unassuming. His gentle temperament was never instrumental in drawing attention to his work, nor did he court the media. He was invited to become Honorary Member of the Royal Cambrian Academy in 1970, member of the Royal Institute in 1979 and Honorary Member of the Gorsedd of Bards in 1982. In 1996 the National Library of Wales paid tribute to John Elwyn’s distinguished career with a major retrospective. Later that year he was awarded Honorary DLitt by the University of Wales in recognition of his contribution to art in post-war Wales. He remained a ‘popular’ painter in the true meaning of the word. The appeal of his paintings has been widespread, they have been purchased regularly and consistently by numerous public and private collectors.
John Elwyn passed away as quietly and as peacefully as he had lived. I was privileged to have come to know him as a close friend in his later years and to have played a part in the renewal of interest in his work. We shared many happy times together at his studio in Winchester and travelling throughout his beloved Cardiganshire as he recalled his formative years in the preparation of his biography. A true innocent, in the best sense - without malice or suspicion, John was a natural peace maker (a quality he was grateful to have inherited from his parents). Indeed, the many who were fortunate enough to have witnessed John Elwyn’s warmth of character, humility, compassion, generosity and patience, will sorely miss this most gentle of men. Wales too suffers the loss of one of its most senior and distinguished artists whose paintings, in their subject and distinct character, have contributed significantly to the British landscape tradition.
William John Elwyn Davies, painter: born Newcastle Emlyn 20 November 1916: married 1970 Gillian Butterworth (step-children Robin and Louise); died Southampton 13 November 1997.