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John Elwyn (William John Elwyn Davies)

John Elwyn (William John Elwyn Davies)

William John Elwyn Davies, professionally known as John Elwyn, (20 November 1916 - 13 November 1997) was a British painter, illustrator and educator.

Davies was born in Adpar, Newcastle Emlyn in rural south Cardiganshire on 20 November 1916. He attended Carmarthen School of Art 1935-37 and the West of England College of Art, Bristol 1937-38.

He was awarded an Exhibition scholarship to the Royal College of Art, London where he trained 1938-40 & 1946-47. During World War II, as a conscientious objector, he was directed to worked on the land - first as a forestry worker in the Afan Valley, then (from September 1941) market gardening in a Cardiff Quaker community.


After a short time working as a graphic designer for J. Walter Thompson in London he moved to Portsmouth where he taught at the College of Art. In 1949 he began a series of paintings based upon childhood recollections of rural life in Cardiganshire in the 1920s – chapel going, festivals and funerals. By the 1950s

Elwyn was exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts, the New English Art Club and regularly at exhibitions arranged by the Welsh Arts Council. In the early 1950s he made paintings of miners and their landscape near Pont-Rhyd-y-Fen in the upper Swansea valley based on his wartime experiences whilst working on the land. He made numerous contributions to the annual ‘Pictures for Welsh Schools’ exhibitions organised by the Society of Education through Art which were staged at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff between 1950 and 1968. In 1953 he moved to Winchester where he taught at the Winchester School of Art. In the same year he made his first illustrations for the Radio Times. Paintings of farm life in Cardiganshire occupied him between 1955 and 1960. In 1956 he was awarded the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the Royal National Eisteddfod, Aberdare.

His illustrations for Shell Guides commissioned by Kenneth Rowntree were published in 1958. Between 1960 and 1964 he worked on paintings which began edging their way towards abstraction. They are based on the seasons and on the growth and felling of trees in the Savernake Forest. Between 1965 and 1969 his paintings drew upon seasonal changes in his garden and the discovery of a world within a world as he examined the inner structures of blooms and seed pods. He staged one-man shows at the Leicester Galleries, London in 1965 and 1969. In 1970, after ten years of near abstraction, he returned to direct representation of his beloved Cardiganshire landscape. That year, he was invited to become an Honorary member of the Royal Cambrian Academy. His paintings present an idealised and peaceful vision of life in the countryside, recording its activities at different times of the day and as they vary from season to season. Memory and imagination are the source of his evocative recreations of the Cardiganshire landscape, with its secluded villages, lonely farms, cottages, barns and sweeping country lanes receding in sharp perspective towards the horizon.

John Elwyn retired from Winchester School of Art in 1976.

He was elected member of the Royal Institute in 1979, Honorary Member of the Gorsedd of Bards in 1982 and an Honorary DLitt was awarded to him by the University of Wales in 1996. That year, to mark John Elwyn's eightieth birthday, Aberystwyth University's Robert Meyrick researched and curated a major retrospective of his work for the National Library of Wales. Elwyn’s paintings are testimony to his undiminished love for Wales.

Although he lived in Hampshire from 1948, Wales remained his spiritual home and provided inspiration for his paintings. He drew continually upon his wide experience of the working life of the countryside, the bustling farmyards and cattle pastures of the Teifi and Ceri valleys and the upland rural areas. Elwyn died on 13 November 1997, some thee weeks after a fall in the garden of his Winchester home. In 2000, the National Library of Wales staged a Memorial Exhibition to coincide with the Scolar Press publication of Robert Meyrick’s monograph on John Elwyn. John Elwyn’s development as an artist was dependent upon any indigenous Welsh tradition, his paintings developed in their subject and character distinctly in the British landscape tradition, within a European context.

The paintings are about his family and personal circumstance. In John Elwyn’s own words 'All this had nothing to do with esoteric modern art but simply autobiographical illustration. I have a parochial mind - sometimes today it’s called regional. I agree with Benjamin Britten when he says “the important things are the local things”.’