REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 100

Gwilym Prichard: A Lifetime’s Gazing

by Harry Heuser and Robert Meyrick


{H}ave a conversation with your painting. The damn thing is a living thing, because it’s growing in front of you.
Gwilym Prichard

Gwilym Prichard might be the most exciting Welsh artist you’ve never heard of. This, at least, is what Harry Heuser and Robert Meyrick propose in a new monograph on Prichard’s life and work. Prichard – who was awarded the Silver Medal by the Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letter in Paris – has ‘yet to receive any comparable honours in Wales’, and remains unrepresented in the collection of the National Museum and Gallery of Wales. To a degree, Heuser and Meyrick suggest that Prichard has been overlooked by the wider artistic community in Wales, despite a strong and vocal history of support from artists including Jonah Jones and Kyffin Williams. In Gwilym Prichard: A Lifetime’s Gazing, however – which highlights the extent of Prichard’s achievement – they make a good case for greater recognition of his work. While the book itself suffers from an identity crisis – largely due to problems with consistency of tone – the flaws of the text shouldn’t detract from the astonishing art which Prichard has produced over the last fifty years. The colour reproductions of Prichard’s work are absolutely stunning, and as a document which introduces its subject to an audience unfamiliar with his work, this is a very good place to start.

Born in 1931 in Llanystumdwy, a village on the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales, Prichard’s childhood was ‘not unlike the “village boy” experiences’ of the poet RS Thomas. Prichard says: ‘nature and landscape were part of my life; the river, my bloodstream.’ He spent much of his time outdoors, preferring the tranquillity of the river Dwyfor to school, where his art education was – at best – ‘haphazard’. At that time, Prichard remembers seeing a reproduction of Picasso’s Maya with Doll (1938) in an encyclopaedia for children, and says he attempted to copy it. He was ‘promptly told that it was modern art and rubbish’. If the natural environment was a source of energy and inspiration, the culture of north Wales in the1950s proved to be unsupportive of a youngster inclined to paint.

It wasn’t until he met the artist Claudia Williams in the late 1940s that art became a dedicated focus for Prichard’s energies. ‘Love and Art hit me at about the same time,’ he says, and the partnership he formed with Williams thrives to this day. The story of their development as artists; their travels around Wales, France and Greece; and their struggle to paint while holding down jobs and looking after children is a fascinating narrative – but it is one which remains underdeveloped in this book, although the separate publication next month by the same authors and publishers, of Claudia Williams, An Intimate Acquaintance (to coincide in September with an exhibition at Martin Gallery, Cardiff) may address this issue. In my view, the account of two equally inspired individuals who marry and dedicate themselves to their work is a story begging to be told. This isn’t to say the book doesn’t work as a biography of their relationship: it does to an extent. But in choosing their material, the authors have attempted to balance three quite different strands of enquiry, each of which cannot be accommodated by a slim volume.

The first focuses on personal biography; the second on what it means to be a Welsh artist; the third assesses Prichard’s work from an academic viewpoint. While the authors locate each strand within the wider context of the history of Welsh art, the tone and register of the three strands feels different enough to be incongruous. It is as though the book wants to be three things at once: intimate, confiding biography, history of Welsh art and identity, and academic textbook. While each strand works brilliantly on its own terms, the book’s desire to have a foot in each camp means the text is not fully one thing or the other.

It is the insights into Prichard’s creative process – the act of looking; the practical application of paint; techniques such as dragging and scratching; the attitude he adopts towards landscape – which are truly fascinating. For me, however, there is not enough insight into process. This seems a shame, in part because the reproductions of his paintings show clearly what physical joy Prichard takes in the materiality of paint. The energy of his brushstrokes and textures is a real revelation; as is the sheer diversity of his style. Similarly, when the authors rely less on quotations (there are 128), and instead make clear statements of their own, the text really lifts off and becomes a joy to read. There is so much that is good in this book, but overall, the different elements don’t gel sufficiently. The tendency to over-quote becomes distracting, while further commentary by the authors themselves would have been welcome, since when they do offer an opinion it is illuminating. Perhaps most importantly of all, the art of Gwilym Prichard comes leaping off these pages with all the relentless energy of the artist himself, and for that reason alone this book is an absolute delight.

Amy McCauley is a print and online contributor to NWR

Special offer direct from publisher: copies available with £5 off plus carriage costs. Available from Sansom & Co at £20 carriage paid: contact Paul Deaton on 01179737207.

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