The Latest Book
A Life's Work
published by Sansom & Company
This book is special and perhaps unclassifiable, like the artist it celebrates. Evelyn Williams’ work has won life-long plaudits. Her work features in major collections and throughout her life there were significant exhibitions and publications.
Because the work chimes with part of the world view of those who live with her paintings, drawings, sculptures and reliefs, it felt important and novel to capture the meaning of this artist’s work from her appreciators in their own words and bring them together in this publication.
So it is a book based around celebrating the artist through an assessment from those for whom the work is a daily presence in their lives – those who admire her as an artist and those who own her work.A LIFE’S WORK:
The Art of Evelyn Williams
29.8 x 24.5 cm
hardback For more info contact email@example.com
The book is so beautiful. The words and images combine in an extraordinary dance that finally connect deep within you.
A more personal intimate whispered, less institutional art, I have never seen.
All Evelyn's work has a deep contemplative stillness within it. The dignity of her figures - women above all - is a consequence of their listening hearts. Looking at Evelyn's paintings I think of Keats' "unheard melodies"... love is her theme.
Book review of A Life's Work by Penny Simpson
During her working life, Welsh artist Evelyn Williams forged a unique path, separate from the artistic mainstream, and yet much admired (and collected) by a wide-ranging group of individuals, from playwrights to members of the medical profession. It is their voices which make up the text for a new publication about her work; in place of the critical essays and academic scholarship that usually make up an artist monograph, emphasis is here put on the response of the spectator, or the spectator-owner, often in the form of personal anecdotes that slowly build into a rich array of impressions and images.
It provides a fascinating insight into the relationship between an art work and its audience, largely because it seems to echo the very qualities of the artist's work itself, centred around intense, deeply felt narratives. Williams's visual narratives deliver a cumulative impact, which expands beyond the immediacy of a beautifully painted surface to reveal hidden, interior worlds, evoked by little more than a hand cupping a face, or reaching out to a sleeping body. The atmosphere conveyed in many of her paintings oscillates between one of disturbance and great calm. The pivot between the two is usually a female figure, with pale, oval face, simply dressed, her hair resembling the twisted skeins of embroidery silks. It is no surprise that writers are drawn to her imagery, including the novelist Fay Weldon and playwright Helen Edmundson. The latter reveals she used Williams's paintings as source material for a play she wrote about the human need for intimacy. As telling is a clinical psychologist's account of how he uses a painting he owns in his teaching practice, a means to help his students understand what being depressed is like. For another contributor, the atmosphere and quality of these paintings speak of their experience as a second generation 'holocaust survivor.' Williams's work might focus on human relationships, but it is never cosy, or domestic. Journalist Sue Harper rightly observes in her contribution that the artist follows in the footsteps of British visionary artists, such as William Blake and Stanley Spencer.
Arranged thematically, this is an impressive overview of Williams's work. The layouts are stunning, and the designers not afraid of leaving the image to make its own impression on the reader, particularly when accommodating the heavily populated larger canvases, or a series of paintings built around a theme. Williams's own writings are included, short, autobiographical pieces, or notes on her working practice that help build a sense of her determined and singular approach to her craft. She notes the influence of the cinema in the way she frames her paintings, often in close-up, whilst the process of making a drawing is seen as 'a build-up of restless echoes of a thousand other shapes.'
Oddly, this strangely neglected artist seems all the more radical for taking the path she did; even at the outset, she was setting her course against the main tide. In 1961, she won the John Moores Prize for sculpture, in spite of having entered the painting competition. (Her masked heads were built out of layers of oil paint, appearing like clay reliefs). Her fellow competitors were artists who have since entered the artistic canon, such as David Hockney, Peter Blake, Leon Kossof and Euan Uglow. Why the silence? Curator and art critic Nicholas Underwood suggests it was owing to an 'intense individualism' that meant she failed to fit into any 'neat, art-historical box.' This could well be true, and if so, the subject for a more extensive critique. Extracts from reviews in national newspapers are included, giving a tantalising glimpse of how her work was received and appraised at an early stage in her career. Arguably, it might have been an idea to have included a bibliography of extant critical writings for those interested in delving further into this question.
However, what this book does achieve is another kind of discourse, stimulated by those who did value the artist's work, and who are able to give expression to its impact in ways that subtly underline the artist's own credo. Originally collated as a gift to the dying artist, this book has been expanded to offer an insight into how an artist is received and interpreted more broadly outside the commercial gallery setting. Largely stripped of the rhetoric of art theory, the book's designers seem to have taken their inspiration from Williams's own thoughts on presenting the visual image: it should, she states, 'have an immediate sense of presence that startles and impinges, skinned of pretence.' There is much to savour here, but ultimately it is the timeless beauty of Williams's images that stand out, 'skinned of pretence' and full of 'restless echoes.'
Penny Simpson divides her time between fiction writing, academic studies, and journalism. Her latest work appears in Catch of the Day: An Anthology of winning stories from the 2014 Rhys Davies Short Story Competition. Accent Press. ISBN: 9781783757930.
Evelyn Williams died on November 14th 2012 aged 83. There were obituaries in The Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph.
She received little recognition in her lifetime from the Art Establishment but her work is greatly valued by many people who own her drawings, paintings and reliefs. A book recording their appreciation has been recently published. David Lee has said of the book: “I think it is the most honest and authentic book about an artist I’ve ever read. Everything in it is felt and genuine. Her work is borne into the future on a tidal wave of love. Nobody exaggerates and everyone addresses the work directly, which is a testimony to how Evie’s work drags you straight into the profundities of life. Evie’s work will be looked at, understood and valued in a hundred years. This is the best reward for any artist neglected in their own time, that their work transcends fashion and touches us forever.”
The Evelyn Williams Trust is a registered charity set up by Evie and her husband in 1991. On Evie’s death all her work and intellectual property became the property of the Trust but will remain on sale to benefit the Trust’s activities.
Short interview with Evelyn Williams
Extracts from the BBC Wales interview with Evelyn Williams for their programme
The Welsh in London 2007
Quote by Fay Weldon
I have known Evelyn Williams since 1961. She came to sit upon my sofa, not so long out of The Royal Collage of Art, via St Martins. She was quiet and composed, a pale, remarkably beautiful girl, with hair long enough to sit upon, regarded with awe by her fellow artists, and indeed by me. (I at the time was just someone who worked in advertising. 'Art' was a serious, different world). Evelyn had just won the John Moores competition for sculpture, at a time when the work of women artists was recognised only after much male harrumphing and hawing. But the profundity of her work, from the beginning, was impossible to ignore. And she is still, in her mid-seventies, beautiful, grave, and composed.
After the flurry of the John Mores prize, proper recognition was a long time coming, but her following was always there, and amongst the most discerning of critics. She has had a steady series of major shows in public galleries – including the Whitechapel in 1972, the Riverside in 1984 and Manchester City Art Gallery in 1997.
She was to move easily between sculpture – sometimes in clay, often in wax – I think that pale, plastic substance with its hint of holiness, of reverence, always appealed. On the surface what she gives us are calm, quiet images of people sleeping, embracing, searching each others faces for information, gently inclining towards one another – but the underlying tragedy is always there. It’s when she goes into endless repetition of the image you see it most clearly: one yearning person can touch you, a frame full of a hundred will terrify you. One baby in the sun charms: a thousand streaming from a central sun creates a frightening beauty.
While other lesser painters flounced, emoted, took to drink or drugs, gained and lost names for themselves, and drifted in and out of group cultural awareness, Evelyn worked steadily on, following her own vision, her own artistic intelligence, unmoved by fashion. The result is a body of work, imbued by an unmistakable mixture of grace and greatness. It is ‘awesome’ – if we can get back to the true sense of the word. It fills you with awe.
Evelyn once wrote asking ‘Is there a disease that manifests a person taking upon themselves the suffering of the world? What is its name? I believe I have the disease. In my case it is at the very centre of my work’.
True enough, and the paintings you see here are not easy, certainly not frivolous, and are not exactly going to cheer you up, but in their restraint, their gravity, the sense they impart of female endurance, female beauty, the power and seriousness of love between woman and child, woman and woman, man and woman, her sheer courage in taking on board the nature of the universe in its most unsmiling mode, they achieve greatness, and will outlast all of us.
Fay Weldon March 2006
Quote by John McEwen
We live in dangerous and vulgar times when, as the poet and painter William Blake wrote of his own industrially-shattered age, ‘commerce hangs on every tree’.
Perhaps at any time true artists are few in number, but at the beginning of the 21st century when contemporary art has never enjoyed so much attention or attracted so much money, there seems a particular dearth of the inspiring, nourishing, consoling, enlightening article. What we particularly yearn for is some product of the visual imagination to contemplate, to help us by-pass the mundane maelstrom, to enable us to re-discover ourselves, opening, ‘inner thoughts, other worlds’.
Those last words were written by Evelyn Williams, whose art is the nearest contemporary equivalent of William Blake’s, a refuge from desecration. Like Blake, whom she venerates, she has an equal regard for the written word and since 1990 has kept notebooks, some of their contents now published, in which her search for truth is as rigorous as in her sculptures and pictures. ‘I paint what I know and not what is here, and since I work from a memory that is unreliable, how am I to know what is fact and at what point does memory stop and invention begin?’
Meeting Evelyn Williams one is struck by her poise. She says she is not religious but she radiates the calm associated with contemplatives. She sits up straight, speaks gently, yet voices firm opinions. She has a ready humour and delightful laugh. She dresses neatly in mute colours. Her rooms are precise and spotless, the hue of the carpeting exactly pitched between blue and grey, her palette similarly restrained, the neat blobs of paint ranging from blue to white with only a fleck or two from the warm end of the spectrum. Colour is outside in the patio garden, where Welsh poppies (she is Welsh) hit high notes of yellow and the trellised honeysuckle is allowed its unruly way. She describes herself as puritan: surface calm, inner passion. She hates the sugar-pink blossom of ornamental cherry trees.
To write about an artist is always daunting, the more so when the artist in question has verbally analysed her feelings with such precision. Nicholas Usherwood, whose career as an administrator and critic has been notable for its support and respect for artists, takes due note. In his thoughtful and observant essay he warns us against the inadequacy of the words commonly used to convey Evelyn Williams’ art: visionary, feminist, Romantic, apocalyptic, expressionist, Gothic, outsider. It pains me to admit I have been guilty on most counts but of course he is right. Robust generalisation is peculiarly unsuited to an art of such delicacy of feeling, subtlety of tone and exact observation. As he writes: ‘Peel away all those labels however and Evelyn Williams will, I believe, emerge finally, and not before time, as a painter and sculptor, most fundamentally, of ‘people and their attempts to relate to one another’.
This aptitude for empathy, the development of ‘antennae that respond to others’ pain’, as she has put it, seems to have been the product of her own pain in childhood. It was no less than Bertrand Russell who persuaded her parents to send little Evie, barely out of nappies, to A.S. Neill’s eccentric ‘free’ boarding-school Summerhill on the Suffolk coast, thus showing how very silly very clever people can be. She was saved from the worst consequences of this folly by having a surrogate mother in the form of her fellow pupil and elder sister Branwen, but she suffered nonetheless. All of this is expertly chronicled in the main text. There is no need to say more than to marvel at how resilient humans can be, how mysterious the ways our perceptions are formed.
Many artists have testified to the crucial importance of first experience. Evelyn Williams reckons the legacy of that early emotional rupture has been permanent ‘feelings of loss’; but innate shyness proved a surprising compensation, making her an intensely sharp and sensitive observer, especially of social interaction. That she took slowly to reading and writing only increased her subsequent respect for words. As for Suffolk by the sea…
I need the depth and anger of the sea, the restlessness. I need to be engulfed by its vastness.
I need the freedom of the wind. I need to be sucked up by it and scattered over all the world.
I need love most of all.
Like a great sponge I could soak up all the love
That has ever been.
And I should still be thirsty.
This monographic addition is a worthy shelf-mate for the Bernard and Birdsall classic Works and Words, from which I quote some more of her reflections:
The role of lover was over far too quickly, that of wife never ending whilst that of mother the one I enjoyed the most, got the most pleasure from and the most pain, and that of grandmother an unexpected bonus of unbelievable delights.
My state of reverie is maintained by close attention to the physical details of my life. Protected from and on occasion engulfed by the trivia of existence, my goal has always been to find the moment when all goes still, when my heart cocooned in calm allows the tiny seed of an idea to grow. From such tenuous beginnings the embryo of an image will form.
There is a line to be drawn between sleep and wakefulness when I am suspended and floating between the two. It’s then that I listen to my other self and drift in this non-place which I recognise as a safe haven, which I prefer to any other. My life is illuminated by these states – they seem to have more relevance than waking experiences, which cannot match the other for beauty and tranquillity, or offer such happiness.’
She makes frequent allusion to dreams and reverie. Many of her visions have the limitless scale and incongruity of dreams, sometimes of nightmares, and her subjects often seem to be dreaming, whether asleep or awake. One is powerfully reminded of the human condition so perfectly encapsulated by Shakespeare: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded in a sleep.’
But, as she says, she has also paid close attention to the physical details of her life, and just as the sea fired her imagination in Suffolk, so did the contrastingly dark and claustrophobic landscape of Wales, when Summerhill was evacuated to Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1939. ‘The apocalyptic landscape is the one I can relate to,’ she admits, and surely slate mountains and hallowed woods were rain to her Welsh roots.
Evelyn Williams has had more than her share of the afflictions of age, but you would never tell it from the fertility of her imagination or the energy, meticulousness and impressive scale of her most recent paintings: the strangely coiled relief of endless humanity in As We Are, like discarded film slipped from its spool; or Storm Coming with its thrashing branches and whorls of wind; or the mysteriously ambiguous Ghost. This dynamic witness against all the physical odds can only be ascribed to the poetic ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’.
Evelyn Williams once said: ‘If I have any admirers at all, they tend to be women.’ She was asked what these women said. ‘“That’s just how I feel”’, was the reply. As one of her numerous male fans I appreciate that women may be able to empathise with many of these images – none more than those of motherhood – closer than we men can. Nonetheless, men who turn these pages will find ample reason for saying that is just how they feel, sometimes with a smile at absurdity, other times with a frown of sadness or trepidation.
She also has that hallmark of many of the finest artists in being hypersensitive to the transitoriness of life and ever-presence of death, never more so than in her latest paintings. She speaks of death in typically consoling terms as a space filled with as much energy as the sky is filled with raindrops in a summer storm: ‘As each drop falls and touches the earth seeds of new energy are released to be recycled again and again.’ No words could better describe the effect of her art or its legacy to the yet unborn.
Books about Evelyn Williams
By Nicholas Usherwood has been widely praised. The 150 illustrations cover all of Evie’s life and work. ISBN 978-1-906593-13-1, 176 pages Hardback.
You can order a copy direct from the publishers Sansom & Company
First published 1998, text and 90 images of Evelyn Williams work.
Edited by Derek Birdsall and Bruce Bernard. Introduction by John McEwen.
ISBN 0-9532316-0-7, 176 pages Hardback.
Catalogue of Manchester City Art Gallery Exhibition 1997
Introduction by David Alston.
ISBN 0-9016735-3-6 Fully illustrated in colour.
32 pages of images and texts on this theme in the artists work.
32 pages of images and texts in which the artist speaks of her life and the orgins and practice of her work.
32 Pages of text and images on the theme of the mother and child.
32 pages of text and images on life and death
Martin Tinney catalogue of Evelyn's recent exhibition
Catalogue of the exhibition at the Mead Gallery 1994
Drawings at the University of Warwick.
ISBN 0-9026832-1-7 Essay by Christine Battersby.
In 1999 Evelyn Williams, Natalie Dower and Paula Rego mounted an exhibition of all the artist's known work and published this book.
This book was produced to accompany an exhibition of Cynthia Pell's drawings, discovered later in the Mental Hospital where she committed suicide.
The Evelyn Williams Trust
The primary charitable object of the Trust is the promotion of the Arts.
The Trust was founded in 1993 and the trustees now have responsibility for the care of all the works of the artist Evelyn Williams, which were willed to them on her death.