REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 102

Claudia Williams: An Intimate Acquaintance

by Harry Heuser and Robert Meyrick

An Intimate Acquaintance is released as one half of a pair of monographs; the other half, also by Harry Heuser and Robert Meyrick, is Gwilym Prichard, A Lifetime’s Gazing. Where the volume on Prichard (Williams’ husband of nearly fifty years) worked to a clear agenda – to advance the case for a greater appreciation of Prichard’s work – An Intimate Acquaintance is relatively agenda-less, and as such makes for a more coherent book. The extent to which complexity has been sacrificed in the name of unity, however, has in my view resulted in a rather unambitious biography both in terms of scope and intent.

In Gwilym Prichard, A Lifetime’s Gazing, Heuser and Meyrick attempted too much: they sought to contextualise Prichard’s work in the national context, offer a critical and academic approach to his aesthetic, and simultaneously provide a comprehensive biography. The ambition of the project far exceeded the limits of a slim monograph. In the case of An Intimate Acquaintance one could say almost the opposite: although the authors limit themselves to simple biography, on this occasion such single-mindedness leads not to a distillation of purpose but to a thin and rather insubstantial portrait of the artist.

Early on, the authors rule out the possibility of a critical approach to Williams’ work, saying: ‘[s]he has built a vocabulary with which to articulate her knowledge, her faith and her politics, and her language is so clear and rich that it hardly needs translating here.’ This unwillingness to engage with (or ‘translate’) Williams’ work at the level of its aesthetic content – its ‘language’ – seems almost like a dismissal of Williams’ artistic project. Similarly, the authors appear reluctant to place Williams’ work in a wider socio-cultural context, which leaves the reader with a number of key questions. How was (and is) her work received nationally (and internationally)? What position does she occupy as a female Anglo-Welsh artist? To what extent has she influenced younger artists? etc.

These concerns aside, if the book is read as a straightforward – albeit unchallenging – biography, the text ticks along smoothly enough. The authors’ prose style is efficient and readable, and they draw on Williams’ own memories and reflections in an engaging way. One of the most striking things about Gwilym Prichard, A Lifetime’s Gazing was Gwilym Prichard’s own – often revelatory – comments on life, work and the artistic process, and the same can be said for the book under review here. It is the excerpts from Williams’ own diaries, journals and correspondence which really bring her world to life. Take, for example, her description of a group of women on the ferry boat to Skiathos. 'One,' she writes,‘had a voice like a cross between a half throttled chicken or saucepans clattering off a shelf. [...] The others chatted animatedly as they plied their crochet hooks or knitted at an alarming rate, the wool wound round the back of their necks.’ Or this description of a woman washing up, taken from a teenage journal of the late 1940s: ‘Her hands and arms are red & flecked with soap suds and she continually has to stop to push wisps of hair out of her eyes. In her garden grow a few miserable green shoots in longing for the light and fresh air that never comes to them.’

As these observations suggest, Williams’ great subject is women: mothers with their children, groups of women bathing or lounging on the beach, women washing linen, women gossiping, women protesting at Greenham Common. Indeed, Williams’ commitment to representing the various – and often under-represented – aspects of women’s lives is remarkable. Yet the authors make no mention of her work in the wider context of gender politics, nor do they assess the significance of her contribution to the cultural history of Anglo-Welsh painters. They choose instead to quote the critic Bedwyr Lewis Jones, who argues that Williams’ art has an arresting appeal precisely because ‘it is so elementally feminine and maternal through and through.’ This rather patronising attitude towards an artist painting ‘women’s subjects’ seems to be a devaluation of one artist’s contribution to the wider artistic canon. (Perhaps Williams’ real contribution has been to make women the subject rather than the object in her paintings?)

There is of course an inherent difficulty in writing about an artist while he/she is alive. Nevertheless, the seriousness with which Heuser and Meyrick treated the work of Gwilym Prichard is noticeably absent from this book. To me this represents a real underestimation of Williams’ importance as an artist, and a lost opportunity to explore in greater depth the life of a truly interesting woman – one who has lived as she has painted: with passion and integrity.

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.

Claudia Williams’ exhibition of paintings, An Intimate Acquaintance, runs at Aberystwyth University School of Art, Buarth, until 7 February

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