Will Roberts (1907 - 2000) is regarded as one of the greatest Welsh painters of the 20th Century. He was born in Ruabon, North Wales, in 1907. The family moved to Neath in 1918, and apart from war service he would live here for the rest of his life. In 1928 he joined Swansea School of Art on a part-time scholarship. From this point onwards he was to paint and draw until his death. In 1949 he participated in an Arts Council of Great Britain touring exhibition of the work of contemporary Welsh artists. The 1950’s saw him exhibiting in leading London galleries. In 1954 he was featured in an important mixed exhibition "Expressionist, Fauve and Cubist Painting" in Cork Street where he was hung alongside Chagall, Matisse, De Smet and other major figures.
By the early 1960’s expressionist painting was sidelined, so Roberts turned to exhibiting predominantly in Wales. He principally showed at Attic Gallery, Swansea, Albany Gallery, Cardiff and Tegfryn Gallery, North Wales holding regular one-man shows and contributing to numerous group exhibitions. His work was still regularly selected by the Royal Academy for their Summer Shows. His paintings may be seen in numerous public collections. He died on 11th March 2000 aged 92.
Will Roberts’s earlier paintings were more conventional, but he was developing his drawing skills and a sensitivity in the use of watercolour and gouache which at that time were his primary media. His meeting in 1945 and subsequent collaboration over several years with Josef Herman, was to give him new impetus as an artist. Working alongside Herman, Roberts developed his own unique style which focused on the medium of painting or drawing to capture an emotional experience, rather than the straight rendering of the subject in front of him. "This results in some abstraction and, inevitably, some modification of shapes or form. This, in order to stress, underline, emphasize, to clarify to the utmost, the truth within." Thus, while Roberts learned much from Herman, they worked as equals and had separate approaches to their own subject.
The Neath Valley with its natural resources of coal, wood and water was to be an important starting point of the industrial revolution and the scars of industry remain throughout. Roberts recorded the heavy industry around him and in his visits to Neath Galvanising Works in the 1960’s, he drew the roller men and the furnace men in their wooden clogs. He was also attracted by the industrial ruins, but his aim was not to paint them as an historic record, but as part of the landscape.
Ultimately, he found a continuity in the damaged landscape with much earlier times that far predated the industrial revolution. He spent many hours on Penclawdd marshes, drawing the women cockle-pickers whose antecedents had worked the same sands for centuries. In the Neath Valley he was to visit Tyn-y-Waun farm time and again, recording the buildings set in their ancient landscape and observing the farmer himself, as timeless as the land he worked.
Throughout his artistic career Will Roberts was supported by his wife Phyllis, a remarkable lady in her own right, who was the subject of numerous drawings and portraits. She sadly died on 25th June 2009 and, like Will, she is greatly missed by us.
Paul Joyner of the National Library of Wales wrote: Will Roberts is now acknowledged as one of Wales' modern masters . . . Will was a man of strong faith and gentle manners. His work is of immense importance to Wales and the Welsh people.