Art Exhibition: Kyffin Williams at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute

Athlone House

Athlone House - Credit: Archant

A retrospective of Welsh artist and former Highgate School teacher Kyffin Williams runs at the school and institute where he taught

Athlone House

Athlone House - Credit: Archant

For almost 30 years Kyffin Williams was the charismatic senior art master at Highgate School, recognisable by his loping stride, Khaki sports jackets with huge drooping pockets, and fondness for quoting from Under Milk Wood.

But he was also the defining Welsh artist of the 20th century, knighted in 1999 for his tireless contribution to the cause of Welsh art. This month, a major joint retrospective at the school’s museum at the Highgate Tabernacle on Southwood Lane, and Highgate Gallery in South Grove will mark the centenery of the birth of a cartoonist, raconteur, draughtsman, landscapist and portraitist.

The works at the Highgate Lit and Sci will hang in the very room where Williams once taught evening classes.

Paper to Palette Knife includes drawings, linocuts, plein air sketches, studies for Williams’ 1968 commision to paint the Welsh community of Patagonia, sketches from his European travels, and watercolours and oils of Highgate and the Heath including Athlone House.

Athlone House

Athlone House - Credit: Archant

There are also portraits of local figures including a charming painting of his Bisham Gardens landlady Miss Josling.

Williams was born in Llangefni in Anglesey in 1918 and always said his “greatest fortune” was contracting polio which led to epilepsy. It meant that he failed his medical exam for the British Army during the Second World War and led a doctor to advise him to take up art for the good of his health.

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Following that suggestion, he attended the Slade school of art from 1941-1944 when it was based in Oxford, winning the end of course portrait prize.

He went straight into teaching and remained at Highgate until 1973 where his pupils included the historian Sir Martin Gilbert and composers John Tavener and John Rutter.

Ex pupil Stephen Benson says: “We didn’t appreciate how lucky we were to sit at the feet of such a distinguished artist. At the end of term we were allowed to put aside our clumsy lives and listen to him recite with exaggerated Welsh accent lines from (Dylan Thomas’) Under Milk Wood.”

Kyffin - his grandmother’s maiden name, his real name was John - spent the last 30 years of his life at Llanfairpwll in Anglesey where he continued to find inspiration in the Welsh landscape. Prolific and eloquent - he was the author of two autobiographies: Across The Straits, and A Wider Sky.

He never married and died in 2006.

Paper to Palette Knife runs until October 7 and is the largest exhibition of Williams’ work outside Wales including items on loan from the National Library of Wales. Further details at