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John Elwyn Painted Welsh Landscapes

October 22, 2014

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John Elwyn was born (John Elwyn Davies) in 1916 in Newcastle Emlyn in rural south Cardiganshire where his father ran a woollen mill, one of many that once flourished on the banks of the Teifi. After spending two years at the Carmarthen School of Art, he went on to the West of England College of Art in Bristol, where he was awarded an Exhibition tenable at the Royal College of Art in London. In his first year there he studied architectural drawing, still-life painting and life- drawing, and enrolled in an evening class at the London College of Printing in order to learn engraving.

His facility for figure drawing attracted the attention of Gilbert Spencer, the Professor of Painting, who described the young Welshman as one of the best students he had ever had the good fortune to teach. One of the influences on Elwyn at this time was the Euston Road School of painters; he was also deeply impressed by the Cezanne centenary exhibition of 1939.

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John studied at Carmarthen Art School in 1933-37, Bristol College of Art in 1937-38 and Royal College of Art in 1938-39 and 1946-47.

I like the carefree, colourful feel to these paintings from the early sixties.

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I would guess, what he learnt from painting these early floaty, globular landscapes, somehow helped to both stimulate and create a visual subject matter for his later work.

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His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war later that year when the Royal College moved to the Lake District. Having already registered as a conscientious objector, he was directed to work in forestry above Pont-rhyd-y-fen in the Afan Valley, where he remained for four years, painting a scarred industrial district dominated by the steelworks of Port Talbot in a Neo- Romantic style which owed a good deal to English artists such as Michael Ayrton and Graham Sutherland. It was not until 1947 that he was able to resume his studies at the Royal College.

From 1948 to 1953 Elwyn taught at the College of Art in Portsmouth, and began exhibiting his work from 1948 regularly at the Royal Academy, New English Arts Club and in exhibitions arranged by the Welsh Arts Council and the Royal National Eisteddfod. His first London exhibition was held at the Paul Alexander Gallery in 1949 and it was at about this time that he began making engravings for Radio Times. Encouraged by Winifred Coombe-Tennant, a wealthy landowner and generous patron of young Welsh artists, to paint what he knew most about, he now returned in his imagination to his halcyon childhood in Cardiganshire, finding in it the subject-matter which he was to spend the rest of his career exploring.

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Some of my favourite paintings are featured below, which detail everyday life in the village community.

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He was a keen observer of life … in the villages, the colourful seasons and changing landscapes, he recorded and painted them all.

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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.

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In September 1953 John Elwyn moved to Winchester, there his 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.

He won the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod in 1956, held one-man exhibitions at the Leicester Galleries in London and was commissioned to make lithographs by the Curwen Press and to illustrate some of the Shell Guides to the Countryside. 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.

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Beautiful colours, perspectives and shapes here.

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A man of peaceful temperament, John Elwyn remained modest and unassuming about his own work and always ready to praise that of others. His retrospective exhibition at the National Library of Wales in 1996 was the final accolade for a Welsh painter who had practised his art with unswerving devotion and great distinction.

Many thanks to The Independent  and Aberystwyth University for the information that made this post possible.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rachel Ward permalink
    October 22, 2014 9:01 am

    Beautiful and inspiring! I didn’t know anything about Elwyn’s work before this. What a wonderful way to start the day.

    • October 22, 2014 11:34 am

      Cheers Rachel. His work is relatively new to me also, a friend on FB just happened to mention him and once i’d done a little digging, I knew I’d discovered another favourite : ) Happy Findings.

  2. Claire permalink
    October 22, 2014 10:06 am

    LOVED these! Some are reminiscent of Stanley Spencer. Thanks for sharing a new-to-me painter.

    • October 22, 2014 11:33 am

      My pleasure Claire. There are similarities to Spencer’s work for sure, another great artist.

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