JOHN ELWYN WAS BORN IN 1916 in Adpar, south Ceredigion where his father ran a woollen mill on the banks of the river Teifi. He trained at Carmarthen, Bristol and the Royal College of Art. Though he lived and worked in Hampshire for fifty years, John Elwyn painted subjects that reflect his Welsh heritage and empathy with the Welsh people, their language and social traditions. The Welsh word brogarwch conveys such affection for a community, love of locality and regional character.
Like John Constable in Suffolk, Samuel Palmer in Kent and Graham Sutherland in Pembrokeshire, John Elwyn found continued inspiration in a familiar environment. His paintings present a peaceful vision of life in rural Ceredigion. For seven decades he drew upon his wide experience of the working life of the farmyards and cattle pastures of the Teifi and Ceri valleys.
In their subject and distinct character, John Elwyn’s paintings contributed significantly to the British landscape tradition. Writing in 1952, the artist John Petts praised John Elwyn for his ‘quiet sincerity’ and for the feeling conveyed in his paintings of ‘love and compassion for humanity and consciousness of the relations of men and women to nature, buildings, and everyday life in Wales.’
John Elwyn remained true to his convictions. He may have painted landscapes of the mind, but they have a place in reality, based as they are on real places and real situations. The paintings reflect his own experiences and as such are imprinted with his warmth of personality and reverence.
‘Recollections of this kind,’ he wrote, ‘would enable me to keep working away because that is what the artistic bug makes you feel. You can’t stop even if you are not painting. One is always visualising everything on canvas or paper. This is not inspiration, as I understand the term, but is on the way towards it. It is very rare that it can happen as an isolated occurrence, but only by sustained effort and hard work. It is impossible to predict the result. It has to be experienced or lived through and projected before it manifests itself, whether in sound, colour or words.’
In April 1940, John Elwyn faced an Objectors’ Tribunal and was assigned forestry work in the Afan Valley. When in 1948 he eventually completed his studies at the Royal College and embarked on a career as professional artist, he drew on sketchbook drawings of the mining communities near Pont-Rhyd-y-Fen where he had lived when working on the land during the war. News of a Pit Disaster in the Next Valley shows the moments after the ‘hooter’ (steam whistle) sounded to signal a major incident under ground. The miners’ families leave their homes and make their way to the colliery where they will wait anxiously outside the gates for news of loved ones.
In September 1948 John Elwyn moved to Hampshire to teach at Portsmouth School of Art. There a fond nostalgia for his homeland, that the Welsh call hiraeth, manifested itself in a series of paintings that drew upon episodes of his boyhood in Newcastle Emlyn. He recalled the comings and goings outside Emlyn Mill on Sundays, 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 are observed and recorded with integrity. These paintings survive as a record a community spirit that has long been under threat.
The idea of writing stories in paint about the rituals and festivals associated with chapel going in the late 1920s provided John Elwyn his first reason for painting. While his use of softened rounded forms painted in mellow light, short dabbed brushstrokes and decorative use of broken planes of colour recall paintings by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard whose work he had emulated as a student, paintings such as The Hymn Critics owe to Honoré Daumier’s commentaries on life and manners in nineteenth-century Paris, particularly the way in which Daumier captured the essence of a character. Talkativeness and the love of debate are perceived to be a trait in the Welsh. Two people and you have a conversation, John Elwyn commented, three and you have an argument.
As a new lecturer at Portsmouth, John Elwyn spent weekends and summer evenings at the harbour, on the promenade or in the parks and tree-lined squares of Southsea and Gosport. In July 1951 he wrote to his patron Winifred Coombe-Tennant to tell her that he was working on some local subjects for exhibitions in Portsmouth and Southampton. ‘They are rather pretty paintings,’ he wrote, ‘of street and park scenes with marines in their white caps and vermilion bands.’ In After the Rain (Gosport) pedestrians pass by a window with view towards the sea framed by tall buildings. The relationship between the inside and outside world is ambiguous as John Elwyn uses flattened forms and a close tonal range of muted colours to compress spatial recession.
During the late 1950s, John Elwyn was painting large decorative landscapes. The almost Mediterranean light of Sioni Winwns (Johnny Onions) evokes a continental landscape, even though the setting here is Newquay on the Cardigan Bay coast. Sioni was one of the many door-to-door onion sellers from Roscoff in Brittany who travelled to Wales during the summer months. From their base in a rented room at Sussex House in Newcastle Emlyn, just a few hundred yards from John Elwyn’s family home, they cycled miles to sell onions in outlying villages. Once a familiar sight around Wales, ‘Shoni’ is depicted here as characteristically short and stocky. He wears a black beret and carries his distinctive oignon rose de Roscoff strung together with reeds and hung from a stick over his shoulder.
In September 1953, John Elwyn moved to Winchester where he taught at the School of Art. There his paintings drew upon his wide experience of the working life of the countryside. Paintings of cattle pastures, farmyards and barns of the Teifi and Ceri valleys record activities in the countryside at different times of the day and as they vary from season to season. Between 1950 and 1968, John Elwyn painted many such canvases for ‘Artists of Fame and Promise’, a twice yearly exhibition staged by the Leicester Galleries in central London. Oliver Brown, one of the Galleries’ directors, had observed a new confidence in the art market and a trend in the picture buying public away from the established names to art students and young artists. Loftus Brown, a fellow director, purchased The Farmer’s Wife from one such exhibition in 1953.
John Elwyn’s choice of titles reflected either the locality or natural phenomenon that had inspired the painting, or a situation and imagined narrative. Here, a lone cow has ventured away from the safety of the barn, stops and looks back anxiously. Another painting of the same subject he titled So Far, No Further, while a painting of line of cows making their way toward the sheds he called with quiet humour The Milky Way. Meanwhile, The Red Jersey depicts not a bovine subject but a woman wearing a red sweater walking along a village street. The meandering arabesques of a Cardiganshire lane are central to many of his paintings, rising then disappearing from sight over a hill or behind a hedgerow, only to re-appear horizontally displaced and continuing its journey to the horizon.
Periodic returns to portraiture and self-portraiture sharpened John Elwyn’s powers of observation and expression. He painted several portraits of his Welsh friends – among them Glyn Jones, Leslie Norris, Jac Jones, John Ormond and Robert Meyrick. He painted commissioned portraits of Sir Alun Talfan Davies and Dr Raymond Edwards.
Throughout his life John Elwyn was a keen gardener who nurtured a well-stocked kitchen garden and flowerbeds. Even when exhausted from working on the land near Cardiff towards the end of the war, he used spare moments to paint the grounds at Llanishen House, views from the window, figures in interiors, still life and flower studies. In the 1970s he returned to still life painting, often incorporating potted plants and vases of flowers. He painted interiors of his Winchester sitting room, the conservatory, and views from the studio looking down on to the walled garden, its trees laden with blossom. Painted in his bedsit accommodation, Portsmouth Still Life was the first John Elwyn painting to hang at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Throughout the 1950s, figurative subjects increasingly gave way to pure landscape. The strong geometrical shapes of landscapes divided into fields by walls and hedgerows, stone barns dappled with sunlight, and villages nestled in ‘the hill’s elbow’ appealed to John Elwyn’s sense of pattern and design. However, for his friend the critic David Bell, this new departure was too mannered. John Elwyn, he wrote, ‘seems to describe his forms by breaking them up into a pattern of facets of colour and tone, so that at times they appear to have a uniform appearance of paper which has been crushed and then flattened out not very successfully.’ He was concerned that ‘his surfaces tend to lose continuity and his forms their substance’.
A Cardiganshire Farm typifies John Elwyn’s interest in formalised decorative landscapes, fractured when the subject is viewed in dappled sunlight through trees or hedgerows. ‘I have always wondered, wrote David Bell in 1959, ‘whence this mannerism was derived until I stood one winter afternoon outside his home by the Teifi and looked across the river to the steep hillside opposite. Up it climbed the stone walls and the lime washed walls of house and farm and chapel, set amid the evergreen shrubs and the bare boughs in just such a mosaic of facets and with an appearance just as papery as John Elwyn uses with his brush.’
As the debate between advocates of abstraction and representational modes of painting created a dilemma for figurative painters in the 1950s, John Elwyn began to use nature more selectively. His compositions gradually became more economical and the painterly passages more predominant. In so doing, he accentuated the rhythmic and sensuous forms of a landscape. In paintings such as The Valley, he drew analogies between the contours of the landscape – mountain spurs, undulating hills, wooded valleys and writhing country lanes – and aspects of human anatomy. The ‘womb-like enclosures’ of these fertile landscapes brim with sexual symbolism as John Elwyn endeavoured to show ‘how the inhabitants have dug themselves in – so to speak – to the sheltered corners and elbows of the hills and valleys.’
From 1962, John Elwyn painted compositions that were a synthesis of abstraction and an imaginative reworking of natural elements. Their origins, however, remained firmly within his experience and based on observation. At Ceri Mill, his sister’s home in the Teifi Valley, he witnessed large trees sliced into planks. The deep ambers and hot reds when sliced were radiant for only a few moments before they changed colour. He saw analogies between animal flesh and the newly sawn discs of beech. The passion aroused in him by the destruction of large trees was channeled into an exploration of symbolic colour and manipulation of forms to suggest foetal and skull-like shapes. In February 1965 these paintings formed a solo exhibition at the new Mayfair premises of the Leicester Galleries.
William Gaunt in The Times praised the ‘incisive pictorial structure’ of paintings he considered to be ‘abstract in the true sense of the word, in drawing out certain visual qualities from landscape which retain and convey something of its essential character.’ Frank Whitford, commenting in Art News, admired John Elwyn’s ‘richly expressive and versatile’ paintings inspired by landscape ‘that is heavy with romantic overtones’.
After a period of abstract painting, John Elwyn returned to a more direct representation of the Ceredigion landscape. Orange sunlit fields and luscious green meadows, violet storm clouds and dappled white-washed cottages tucked away behind the apple trees in the elbows of a hill, were recurrent motifs in domesticated landscapes that are compartmentalised by lanes, hedgerows and stone walls. Approach to a Farm is a gouache study for one of a series of six lithographs printed by the Curwen Press for the Collectors’ Guild of New York for distribution in the USA.
John Elwyn kept sketchbook journals of Spain, Italy and Greece while on vacation with his wife Gillian. Alongside watercolour drawings he wrote day-to-day accounts of his activities, observations on the architecture, and peculiarities of the landscape, climate, farm animals, vineyards and olive groves. Back in Winchester he used his sketchbooks as a source for smaller works on paper. In a letter to his friend, the Anglo-Welsh novelist Glyn Jones, he described one such painting following his 1989 holiday to Santander, Santiago de Compostelo, Leon and Burgos: ‘the subject is the market at Compostela, Spain – it really could be anywhere – but it’s a starting point. We saw a lot of chickens and cockerels there being sold on the pavement – with their feet tied together or individuals holding one cockerel up at a time – quite decorative, not for the bird though.’
As foreword for my monograph John Elwyn (Ashgate 2000), Sir Kyffin Williams RA wrote of his friend:
John Elwyn was a real artist who knew what he wanted to do and quietly settled down to do it. What he achieved was work of such merit that it will take its place permanently in the artistic history of Wales. John was a clear-headed man who looked at his own world of Wales and loved what he saw. He loved the people, the farms, the chapels, the winding roads and the small and tidy fields and guided by this obsession he gave to Wales something of great worth.
Yet he did more than that, for his natural creative curiosity led him into the world of the abstract in which his personal sense of colour was allowed to burst onto his canvases; but John’s heart was in his native Ceredigion and his painting of it was to become one of the foundation stones in the development of Welsh art since the Second World War.
Much has happened in Welsh art since those days, but looking back at all the many paintings in many different styles that have poured from the brushes of Welsh artists, the work of John Elwyn will always stand out and be admired, for John loved the land he painted and the people who lived in it and had the talent to communicate that love to others.
G A L L E R Y
Robert Meyrick, ’Famous Amongst the Barns: the Cardiganshire landscapes of John Elwyn’, The Journal of the Ceredigion Antiquarian Society Vol. 15, No. 2 (Aberystwyth: Ceredigion Antiquarian Society, 2002) pp.89-104, ISSN 0069 2263
Robert Meyrick John Elwyn (London: Lund Humphries, 2000) 136pp, ISBN 0 7546 0062 9
Robert Meyrick, (designer) and preface, p.5, The Twelve, selected Biblical passages, poetry in English and Welsh, and a bilingual commentary on the apostles by Glyn Tegai Hughes to accompany twelve wood-engravings by John Elwyn (Newtown: Gregynog Press, 2000) 34pp, ISBN 0 948714 85 9
Robert Meyrick, ‘John Elwyn: Chapel Days Remembered’ [obituary] The Guardian (London: 1 January 1998) p.14, ½ page
Robert Meyrick, ‘John Elwyn: artist who loved the countryside’ [obituary] Hampshire Chronicle (Winchester: December 1997)
Robert Meyrick, ‘John Elwyn’ [obituary] The Times (London: 6 December 1997) p. 25
Robert Meyrick, ‘John Elwyn’ [catalogue introduction] (Cardiff: Martin Tinney Gallery, 1997)
Robert Meyrick, John Elwyn: A Retrospective (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1996) 52pp,
ISBN 0 907158 96 X
Robert Meyrick, John Elwyn’s Life Class Portfolio 1936–1966 (Aberystwyth: School of Art Press, 1996) pp.1–6
Touring exhibitions conceived, researched and curated by Robert Meyrick
John Elwyn ‘A Quiet Sincerity’: Centenary Exhibition
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth, 28 November 2016 – 17 February 2017
John Elwyn: A Retrospective of Paintings 1936-1996
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 21 July – 26 October 1996
John Elwyn’s Life Class 1936-1966
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth, 20 July – 26 October 1996
John Elwyn: Works on Paper 1947–1997
Gregynog Festival Exhibition No.8, Newtown, 10 June 1997 – June 1998
John Elwyn (1916–1997): A Studio Exhibition
Bell Fine Art, Winchester, 19 – 27 November 1999
John Elwyn (1916–1997): A Memorial Exhibition
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 13 November – 23 December 1999
Carmarthen County Museum, 8 January – 26 February 2000
Royal Cambrian Academy, Conwy, 24 March – 23 April 2000