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Contributions from Keith Bayliss

The Green Monkey on the Street of the Czech and Slovak Army

Malcolm Parr and I arrived first. William was to follow a day later. The Czech poet Josef Janda had arranged an exhibition for me and William and Malcolm’s poetry at the little gallery at Vysehrad above Libuse’s bath, high above the Valtava, Prague. Accommodation was found at the apartment of a magazine editor on the street of the Czech and Slovak army. Pavel spoke a few words of English, his wife spoke none. Our first day was interesting, but strained with little conversation and a feeling that Mrs Pavel was not very pleased with the obvious inconvenience that we caused her and her family. The evening was spent at the Raven, a Prague pub with a group of Czech Surrealists. We learned a lesson that evening, never tell a joke to a group of Surrealists, they take it so seriously, but alcohol helped ease the evening along.
William arrived the next evening and strangely the atmosphere changed. William seemed somehow magically to be able to communicate regardless of language. Pavel instantly understood what William said! Not only that but Malcolm and I seemed also to be able to make ourselves understood.
Next morning, while we waited for our transport to the gallery, William decided to improve the situation regarding Pavel’s wife. The apartment was quiet, all were out. William noticed a sink full of the family’s breakfast dishes, “come on” he said with a wink, “we will change the atmosphere”. We washed the family china, placed all neatly away. That evening after hanging the show and an evening at Pavel’s local we arrived home to a smiling wife and the most wonderful unexpected supper. William had magically altered the situation. Did he work on instinct? He was a great observer of people. Maybe that was the answer.
The Prague trip was a magical adventure; we searched the dark corners of Prague looking for the Golem, exchanged artwork with a woman who appeared out of the blue wanting to meet “the Celts” and give us gifts and then disappeared, talked for hours with Pavel about the youth drug problem in Prague, publishing and holidays in Russia with no common language! And what of the Green Monkey? Malcolm saw that in the middle of the night, floating across his bedroom. When relating this the next day, Pavel apologised. “Yes, sorry, we have a spirit, it is a green monkey”. This gave birth to the appearance of the Bubak , a worrying sprite or spirit, in Williams paintings. On reflection, what more would you expect from a journey to Prague with William.

Keith Bayliss – statement for St David’s Hall

William Brown (1953-2008)

William was a Scots Canadian, who carried with him a restless search for “home”. From Canada to the West Country, William travelled, made friends and art. Here he met and married Carys. Then to Carys’ Wales, where they
made a home together. Williams work is an amalgam, a brilliantly coloured fusion of Canada, with its wolves and bears and Wales with its hills, chapels and villages. He was constantly adding to his visual dictionary, images from Canada, Wales and North Africa (North Africa held a fascination for him), creating a new world in which we could live. The mysterious and reclusive animals of the cold North, wander through a landscape of pine and palm tree or hide beneath the kipper laden dinner table, together with the Buback, that troublesome little Czech monster William, Malcolm Parr and I met in Prague one dark night. The Lou Garou, terrifying wolf spirit of the Canadian forest, Mari Llwyd and the Venus of Blaengwynfi (discovered by William in the dark recess of his imagination) dance a crazy dance together all in the one image. Each had a meaning for him, each was important to him. All were to him real.

William made contact with people and in doing so brought people into contact, creative contact, with each other. He was a catalyst, an engine, a dynamo in disguise. He could not understand the invisible territorial boundaries we impose on ourselves in Wales, like his friend the poster artist Paul Peter Piech, Williams enthusiasm in bringing together sometimes a hybrid mixture of artists under the banner of an exhibition, proved a creative act in itself. William made things happen and by doing so encouraged others to make things happen. Art was his work and every morning William went to work, art was his occupation, “These” he would say, “are what I have, the tools of my trade”, holding out the palms of his hands.

Keith Bayliss

Just William 1953-2008
It was around nineteen years ago that William Brown came into Wales, the office I occupied and my life. I knew then that something significant had happened and that my life and the arts in Wales would never be the same again.

At that time – it seems another life ago – I was the Community Arts Officer based at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea. William had sent one of his letters, a William Brown letter. William Brown letters were to become a colourful, sometimes confusing and mystifying aspect of his friendship with many artists, educators and administrators in Wales. On the strength of the letter a meeting was arranged. Within a few weeks I had organised William into a community residency in a small village in the Swansea Valley. I had housed him in a small chapel school house. Within a day or two William was being fed Welsh cakes and tea by the little old lady next door and seemed to know most of the main characters from the community. Within weeks, as if by magic, William had repeated the same trick on a national scale, seeming to have made contact with many of the creative people in Wales. I saw this marvellous facility, to make friends almost instantly, demonstrated some years afterwards in Prague. We spent a week in the flat of a magazine publisher with no common language but conversed every evening for hours! How was this magic trick achieved? It was the presence of William Brown.

William made contact with people and in doing so brought people into contact, creative contact, with each other. He was a catalyst, an engine, a dynamo in disguise. He could not understand the invisible territorial boundaries we impose on ourselves in Wales, like his friend the poster artist Paul Peter Piech, Williams’s enthusiasm in bringing together sometimes a hybrid mixture of artists under the banner of an exhibition, proved a creative act in itself. William made things happen and by doing so encouraged others to make things happen. Art was his work and every morning William went to work, art was his occupation, “These” he would say, “are what I have, the tools of my trade”, holding out the palms of his hands.

William was a Scots Canadian, who carried with him a restless search for “home”. From Canada to the West Country, William travelled, made friends and art. Here he met and married Carys. Then to Carys’ Wales, where they made a home together. Williams work is an amalgam, a brilliantly coloured fusion of Canada, with its wolves and bears and Wales with its hills, chapels and villages. He was constantly adding to his visual dictionary, images from Canada, Wales and North Africa (North Africa held a fascination for him), creating a new world in which we could live. The mysterious and reclusive animals of the cold North, wander through a landscape of pine and palm tree or hide beneath the kipper laden dinner table, together with the Buback, that troublesome little Czech monster William, Malcolm Parr and I met in Prague one dark night. The Lou Garou, terrifying wolf spirit of the Canadian forest, Mari Llwyd and the Venus of Blaengwynfi (discovered by William in the dark recess of his imagination) dance a crazy dance together all in the one image. Each had a meaning for him, each was important to him. All were to him real.

The more I find out about William, the less I know. William would say that is how it should be.

Keith Bayliss, January 2009

Old Emulsion Customs – David Greenslade

(Images have to be added to this article)

Old Emulsion Customs

William and I made our third book Old Emulsion Customs during a period when both he and I were interested in primal subjects. He was visiting locations of Palaeolithic cave art such as Altamira in Spain and I had written a poem about the vegetable peeler as if it were among the first of tools ever invented. The narrative poem featured a tribe of people known as the Emulsions.

Emulsions are curious liquid materials. They are a combination of incompatible or unlikely elements that normally would not be blended. But some materials such as paints and medicines can be blended enough to become an emulsion. Historically egg yolks were added to pigments and oils and it was in this regard that William took an interest in the project. Because he worked quickly and valued productivity, underpainting canvasses was a commitment for William and a great deal of his work exploits the virtues of underpainting in order to achieve their effect. Historically these backgrounds were achieved by applying cheaper neutral egg tempera emulsions because richer pigments used for finish and detail were very expensive. Painters of the past routinely deployed underpainting and very often this stage would have been done by assistants.

It was through a fascination with emulsions as painterly material and as literary metaphor that we approached the work. In our case the object that emerged from our mixing of imaginations would be a vegetable peeler. The work was, essentially, a joke and Jan Morris commented that we had elevated the humble vegetable peeler to the status of Excalibur.

We took walks, we hung out, we enjoyed meals and we talked the idea over. At that time, fresh as he was from the opening of his Mooseman Cometh show at the East West Gallery, William insisted that he and I went down by train to see the Canaletto exhibit on at the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea. Canaletto was a technician whose painterly grammar – both mass and detail – William greatly admired. It was a dry but cold wintry day and we spent ages looking at the work. It was a particular delight having William point out features which moved him and why. He enjoyed idiosyncrasies of depiction, particularly human postures and the intensity as well as variety of colour. Canaletto’s famed perspective barely got a mention. Linear perspective is one technique that is almost entirely absent from William’s work. While each discreet subject may be three dimensionally depicted the framed field as a whole is noticeably flat. The coastal scenes of north Africa for example, featuring land, sea, vegetation and large structures, just like the Welsh paintings of houses, hills and stars rely on atmospheric effect more than perspective. Distance, depth, height and even the relative size of things in relation to each other are usually undetermined. In terms of pictorial language it is as if the emotional proximity of subjects – compositional placement – takes priority over a point along an axis. It’s also true though that above, below, left or right have little allegorical significance, as can be seen by his disregard for which leg Arthur Rimbaud lost, or whether the Great Bear Constellation actually aligns to the west or east.

Riff Mountains with Moroccan graveyard demonstrating the role of underpainting over considerations of perspective. The stones are not even blocked in.

Tableau with Arthur Rimbaud figure with amputated left leg. It was actually the right leg that Rimbaud lost.

Tableau pun with bear and Great Bear constellation. The constellation dipper handle is actually to the right, i.e to the west, not left as shown here.

Great Bear pun, here the constellation (upper left centre) is correctly aligned.

Our day in Swansea was a happy one. But our friendship was new and I was still a bit naïve when it came to the full nature of our excursions. From the Glynn Vivian we went to Wind Street and at the No Sign Bar we had one, then another and probably at least another bottle of wine. Later we took a taxi to the Westbourne Hotel where we joined Malcolm Parr, Glenys Cour, Keith Bayliss and others. This was a new world for me. The Westbourne crowd were clearly indulging themselves in a world of erudite gossip, a scene that simply didn’t happen in the more competitive, less generous arts atmosphere of Cardiff. From the Westbourne we finally took a taxi to Swansea Railway Station, just in time for the last train to Bridgend and Cardiff. If it was that night or another that we actually missed the train I don’t remember. But visits to Swansea were always stimulating and almost always ended on a note of mild misadventure. One time we were sitting on the last train home when across the empty station we saw the other train pull out. Stories of the nomadic, bed-of-nails fakir or the feeble fist fight between myself and the execrable Tim Davies can wait.

William quickly saw that Old Emulsions Customs is actually a narrative spoof of the genre of pourquoi tales or origin stories. He dug out a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So and saw ours as in the same mould. William loved storytelling and in order to get him in the mood for responding to the book it became my job to paraphrase the poem over the course of many meetings and journeys, referring to the creatures, the metalwork, the alchemy, the rituals and the relationships of these strange Emulsion people.

Despite his hospitality William was also a loner and could be shy. He was, by habit an oblique talker (and listener) and would rarely come upon a subject directly. Many times a person would even wonder if he was listening, as his responses could be very disconnected . He was a ruminator. He could be melancholic even while being a good host. I noticed that as we discussed things, even as it seemed that he was avoiding engaging with the topic, it might be days later when he’d come back with an observation or even a fully formed position that he’d clearly thought through. For example on several drives I asked him about the visible sacred hearts in the creatures of his paintings, and it was a long time before he spoke about the mix of Protestant / Catholic iconographies of his Scots Canadian background.

Catchphrases were a big part of his persona and I believed he used catchphrases and comic sayings as a screen for privacy. We once drove for two days along Highway 60, from Renfrew to Barry Bay then on to the south of Algonquin National Park in Ontario. He must have recited variations on the words – “They’re out there, David. Beyond the Veil. The Ghosts. The Ghosts. We’re in Muskoka, the land of Ghosts” – a thousand times. I knew that behind this almost dirge-like chant there was something waiting. And, sure enough, over the course of a long drive, I heard stories of 17th century Jesuit / Huron contact and other native/European interactions. Some of these early encounters ended with the death and cannibalisation of missionaries. Such primal scenes fascinated William and later he gave an exhibit in London with the title, Muskoka Land of Ghosts.

When the time came for William to make his visual contribution to Old Emulsion Customs, he said he wanted me to be there at the studio and that he would make the work all in one go. I found this prospect fascinating and had little idea what to expect. We arranged to meet on a Saturday afternoon and since the studio was near the farm of friend of mine, before our meeting I went there for a walk with Daisy, our family dog.

When I arrived Colin Jones, the creator of the Cadw Swn Welsh programme and himself the author of two books with William was already there. Colin is a man whose sense of humour is so dry his comments could ignite a match. He was the perfect foil for William’s often slapstick silliness. William’s tolerable ability at Welsh was entirely due to the lessons Colin gave him while developing and perfecting the Cadw Swn method.

William had bought about fifty sheets of A3 smooth white paper. He had a sheet of plastic, a roller, pencils, wooden sticks, toothpicks, matches, spatulas and bottles of ink. He proposed to make a heap of monoprints or monotypes for the poem, from which I’d select imagery for a 32 page book. Considering he hadn’t yet drawn anything for this particular task I did feel a little nervous. But having Colin Jones there had a definite stabilizing effect, a counterbalance to my own and William’s sometimes febrile way of skirmishing and egging each other on.

William made the prints over a period of about three hours. He’d already read and studied the poem but now he wanted me to expand on each part of it. He wanted me to tell him what the bright idea was, reveal to him what I’d been trying to do. He wanted me to give my game away, to confess, come clean, reveal my sources, be honest, take down my barriers. He wanted to experience what it was that brought me to these words.

I found having to relive and display all those moments that helped me form the poem rather daunting. Even so, while I may have felt uncomfortably exposed and on the spot, if I wanted to get this book made than I could see that really there was no hiding away behind the finished poem itself. If William was about to risk making his work in front of my eyes then I had to reciprocate by re-entering mine for his listening ears.

A clear mention of Kermesse Sombre as early as April 2001, on a Cadw Swn postcard. This post-Bridgend Eisteddfod phrasal motif grew into the Dark Fairground, paintings – and in 2011, a posthumous publication. Here William refers to himself as ‘Primary McClure

So who were the Emulsions? Where could they be found? I told him that they were people who lived on the surface of sour milk or on the surface of a pot of drying paint. But, while they may be very small these days, in days gone by they were actually giants, which meant that as giants they weren’t very clever.

He encouraged me to expand. Men were not allowed to touch metal I explained. Their culture was matriarchal. Women were worshipped. Women were huge and had all the power.

That was line one.

William then made the most curious drawing. It was clearly a potato figure – a body with stick arms and stick legs, a triangle for a head, then antlers, even a kind of tail (more like a tutu). And so the first Emulsion male was drawn. He started making another and another. Colin and I looked for places to set the prints out to dry.

The first Emulsion male
Expounding as I was, while William drew, I felt like a combination of street preacher and school teacher – my voice getting louder, the thoughts becoming both vatic and bombastic. The men were smelters, metal workers, alchemists. The men were headbangers, nutters, hunters. The men were always far away, heads in the clouds, on some wild goose chase while women ran the cities.

An Emulsion Empress
As I watched him draw on the smooth white paper, then press the paper with his thumbs or with objects and rags I was fascinated to see the nature of the image that emerged on the other – or negative – side. Making a monotype is a mixture of skill and chance as the finished effect isn’t apparent until the print is lifted from the plate. It seemed to me that he was getting it just right. There were the Emulsion men; there, the Emulsion Queen and there were the cutting and smelting tools. A chariot appeared, alchemical signs for lead and gold, the ship of the dead, catacombs and cells from which antlered dancers beseeched their remote Sapphic leaders.

Centre page left

Centre page right

By the time we came to that point where Emulsion males finally stole metal from these goddesses and decided to lacerate themselves, William and I were practically cooing, growling and singing with Colin quietly chuckling nearby. The Emulsion Queen had an axehead for her bed and a non-ironical literality started to inform the lines. If something was over turned William turned the page around, if something was ‘cut’ then an Emulsion was chopped to bits. When it came to the word ‘mitten’ William looked around for Daisy, my daughter’s dog. I picked her up and he put her pawprints on the page. When the Emulsions were described as brainless, they were drawn without any facial features. The imagery flowed for as long as I had the strength to boom as if I were a seer describing the culture of that Emulsion world.

Last page of Old Emulsion Customs

Finally we took a break for a cup of, “Gong tormented tea.”

Colin Jones describes the same experience when he and William made Elastic Black Dog. For about an hour or two Colin related the story while William made the drawings using a pot of black ink and a blunt stick.

Cover of Elastic Black Dog

Centre pages of Elastic Black Dog
In the acrylic paintings this unmediated gift is modulated by other factors – mainly considerations of subject matter and palette. Apart from the cover for Old Emulsion Customs there is no colour. The images for Elastic Black Dog are even less restrained, scratched wildly, forgetting even to leave space for the words.

As with so many things, this quality is evident in the innumerable postcards, envelopes and letters that William wrote and decorated. A postage stamp is given legs. Using bilingual macaronic puns a word is given unexpected ambiguities. Formal or informal, the epistolic format never losing any opportunity to move between the graphic and literal whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Macaronic postcard proposing to launch Old Emulsion Customs at Pontardawe Arts centre 2000

The move from letter to print to full size canvas was second nature for William. The same themes can be found across all his work, whatever the scale. As one admirer put it, if you went to an exhibit and the subject matter had changed, possibly omitting one or two of the usual ‘characters’, then visitors felt disappointed.

Walruses on a large diptych

Walruses on the rear of an envelope to Jeffrey Aaron

Letter enclosure ‘The Compound Eye’ made with a stick and black ink.

It is in regard to the nature and repetition of themes that the letters take on a causal significance. Not all subject material appears first in a letter or card but many subjects do. Envelopes show his incorrigible habit of putting legs on any shape that can serve as a body. This is how the ‘Emulsion man’ was drawn. The weird horned pig for example that later morphed into a very strange person seems to have arisen a bilingual pun strained from P.I.G.O. (Pwyllgor i Gymreigio Ogwr – the committee for Welsh in Ogwr) of which I was an active member. Punning piggo from PIGO is neither elegant nor sophisticated but William didn’t worry about things like that.

Cat creature under a table with the cactus Iolo that William kept in St Stephens,

Envelope to Lucien Suel – melon sticker given legs and feline features

Envelope to Lucien Suel – with mining landscape, cat, tea and lobsters

Two page letter from July 2005 showing the development of a pun that became a painting. Here the pink paper and a Belgian place name is associated with a small pig. The Welsh language protest group PIGO becomes piggo, ‘Mae’r piggo yn siglo’ (the ‘pig’ is swinging). This tattood ‘pig’ later appears in paitings.

Postcard with pig, 2005

Letter enclosure 2005

Envelope to Lucien Suel front May 2005

Envelope to Lucien Suel rear May 2005

One evening I took Japanese poet Kenji Fukuma and his wife Keiko down to William and Carys’ for dinner. The poet and his wife were so quiet and restrained that at one point William burst into John Belushi style fake Japanese-speak. This shocked everyone so much that even he had to attempt some kind of recovery. Driving home the writer’s wife commented that she thought William was very childlike. The poet himself remained silent.

In 2004 David Ambrose chose William to be the featured artist at Beyond the Border, the International Storytelling Festival at St Donats Castle. William arranged for us to put my yurt up in the middle of the festival grounds and we used the yurt as a shop for his work. In letters the yurt became ‘the yurt of a hurt’ , a running catch phrase for several weeks.

Mari Lwyd by Moonlight, in doorway – chosen for the festival programme cover.

Letter enclosure ‘Charms against Anubis’ based on the Two Rivers Press journal Charms Against Jackals. Motifs include the twin towers, MIG jet, lobster, paper plate with pitcher, blanket and alchemical symbols, sacred heart – all of which are found on larger works.

Covers and centre pages of On The Go, a small book we made for the Wales International Storytelling Festival, St Donats, 2004
On the Go featured poems that were not yet finished but William wanted something new to put into the hand of anyone who called by the yurt. We soon discovered that trying to sell it at even £1 was a waste of breath and so we decided to tactically give it away to anyone who seemed interested in the rest of the work.

Making the booklet itself was uncomplicated. It was photocopied, hand guillotined and one hundred copies were stapled between heavy paper covers. This amateurish attitude shows. The poems were later revised and went into Homuncular Misfit. This evolution of the poems was appropriate as during these years I genuinely could not find a place to settle myself – either to work or live. While picking up some teaching in Welsh medium schools, I spent several nomadic summers going from festival to festival and living in the yurt. I even relocated for a while to south Oxfordshire which meant that because I could no longer store the files, much of the material that went into our books was donated to the National Library of Wales.

For On The Go, William made delicate ink drawings that pretty much corresponded to an image or two from the verses. But he made them on unevenly sized scraps of white paper, which confirmed their status as whimsical intuitions, hastily executed. Their coherence, such as the three heads of Io above, is largely editorial. It amused William greatly that a staple (probably rusting by now, in many copies) goes through the head of the centre drawing.

But seeing the words interpreted in this way, possibly more than any of the books we made, opened my eyes even more to the nature of an ekphrastic relationship. Williams skills were graphic, mine were textual. While I may have think of trout, minnows or sticklebacks, invoked in a poem in a literary way (whatever that is), probably via memory, reference or even research; my obligation is to convey that in words. His obligation was to move via graphic line in one form or another. This was the first time I noticed how the word ‘line’ had an unexplored commonality between our respective skills.

Our first book March was very much his shout, no matter what I wrote he was going to cut those lino intaglios his way in any case. A Love Letter was also a very divergent project – not really coming into focus until his imagination divined the wonderful shape of a Venus figure framed in a window. Old Emulsion Customs, as I’ve tried to show in this chapter, was really a book where two imaginations lived side by side, rather than together. The few images of our St Donat’s leaflet were different from my point of view. My word wolf and his drawn wolf, in this case inhabit a shared page, a shared idea, a shared poem and a shared image. But the difference in eye movement and mental obligation engages the reader’s sensibility in a new participatory manifold or product. If either the poem or the graphic image were withdrawn then the experience would be reduced.

I believe that our very modest collaboration in On The Go is what prompted me to collect diagrams during the years I lived in Oman. Out there in the city of Nizwa, I was bereft of William’s graphic company. Yet, influenced as I had been by our friendship, while living in the desert I reflected more and more on the experience of having worked closely with him. I needed visual material around me and in the absence of hand drawn art I collected machine-made graphics and responded to them in the book Lyrical Diagrams. Later this lead to the book Rarely Pretty Reasonable, a collection where thirty artists responded to fifty five of my poems in draft. I completed the poems in response to their mid-way involvement.

The difference between poetic line (line break) and prose line (line punctuation) is subtle and not so subtle. It is visually obvious. Combined with graphic line, however, the written line becomes another creature both for the eye and implications of literacy. Enjoying the ekphrastic play between writing and visual art to this extent is something I owe to my friend William Brown.

Which came first? The Chicken or the Egg? David Greenslade

(Images are to be added to this article)

The Chicken or the Egg

Which came first the picture or the poem? This was often asked of us in relation to the collaborative work William and I did together. It’s a sincere question but asked more by readers than by practitioners. The collaborative process between writer and artist is just that – a process, a mutual, open, meandering, shared experience, not a matter of A then B then C as discrete events. There is cause and effect and a sense of destination but usually within a fluid mix of divergences, explorations, and agreements that result in a united, satisfying sometimes exalted, work, replete with accommodation of the other partner. The result is an amalgam, an enamel or emulsion, where it’s difficult to identify who could claim to be responsible for what.

Naturally in our case William made the visual art and I wrote the words but it’s definite that some of the poems would have ever been composed had it not been for William’s commissioning invitation. He already had many of the intaglios before we even met. But many images, such as Darogan (the frog with needles in it) and Ciosc Talasarn, and the whole of Old Emulsion Customs, were made after the words were written.

The origin of March was definitely William’s desire to make a book with a Bridgend Eisteddfod audience in mind. With March a definite urge, dream and aspiration came first then we – together – acted the desire out.

Knowing that William wanted a book of ‘tales’ and knowing that he adored the bear, it was clear from the first that there should be a poem to Arthur, not only as mythic King but also as constellation and as cosmic sign. Arth as Divine Bear. The page facing Ogof Arthur used bears that William had already made, prints reduced to a fifth of their size.

Overall the working method was that I composed according to what I knew of him, his attitudes, his materials, his knowledge and his manner. When he knew more about me, it wasn’t so much the verses that he responded to, but what I told him about a poem, how and why I made it, more than the (Welsh) language on the page. This is why the visual image of William Price features the famous bridge in Pontypridd, while the poem does not.

I wasn’t the only person William was working with in the late 1990s (nor at any other time). He was also making books with Lucienne Suel, as well as collaborative exhibits, films and workshops with artist in Wales and further afield. Meanwhile I was making books with Peter Hay in Reading. William and I travelled by train to Reading several times where he networked with Two Rivers Press and took part in their flagship compendium Charms Against Jackals, along with Keith Bayliss, Anthony Evans and Emrys Williams also from Wales.

As with other collaborations ours moved into territory that might be regarded as a poetic Venn domain, producing combined ideas, different from and more than the realms of individual participants. While our separate roles are identifiable in March, as with all five of our books, the collaborative product is something that neither of us could have achieved individually. Old Emulsion Customs is the best demonstration of how we tried to maximise the Venn overlap but even there my handwriting is clearly different from William’s marks and delineations, deeply embedded as they are securely together in the horizontal page.

William wanted to include my poem Lovespoon in an exhibit of works he organised with David Moore in Brecon. But there was a simile in the poem he didn’t like. I had described a boyfriend spinning at dawn through an allotment as if he were a windchime. William said that this was too eastern, too feng shui, too Chinese. I should change it to weathercock, a simile I had already preferred but inexplicably rejected. This may seem like a small point but a willingness to give (and receive) critical engagement from a collaborator with a work in progress, is a sign of trust, interest and safety.

From the Lovespoon exhibit catalogue

First page of a letter which shows we had started work on The Dark Fairground as early as 2003 At bottom William thanks me for allowing his change to the Lovespoon poem. There is also a pertinent reference to the penis.

It was along these lines that we encouraged each other. The day we dismantled our 1998 Mari Lwyd Eisteddfod unit William said he wanted to make a booklet for the millennium and he said that it should have an erotic element. This coincided with my idea of debut de siècle as a period of something hatching from an egg. We discussed the primal, titanic Eros as well as the Olympian Eros and Aphrodite. As I was already working on some of the poems that later became Weak Eros we looked at one of these, A Love Letter, which also suited William’s passion for writing letters of his own.

William loved travelling, especially with friends and organising what he called ‘gentleman’s outings”. We travelled many times together, as he did with Tony Goble, Keith Bayliss, Herve Constant, Anthony Evans and several times with Malcolm Parr or ‘El Parro’ as he loved to call him.

But at the beginning I just didn’t get it. He invited me to come along when he and El Parro went to Bristol to link up with old friend and art historian John Furze. I hadn’t quite anticipated cans of beer on the train nor time spent going from pub to pub and felt rather prudish in such salubrious company – I learned to change my ways. Things went awkwardly and our group, while being shown Bristol’s forgotten Georgian architecture by John, for me never really reached a coherent period of rapport. But William tried and I noticed how much he valued convivial groups. He didn’t necessarily want his friends to get drunk or talk shop but he was aware that when writers and artists spend agreeable time together then an organic and intangible imbrication emerges not through formalities but spontaneously just through keeping company. Relaxing with fellow artists is a practice that William demonstrated well.

Imbrication is the phenomenon of setting shingles on a roof, it occurs on pebbly beaches, in leaf buds, snakeskin and in insect wings. When sharing convivial time a group or salon of artists builds a quixotic, temporary home. Even if he was sometimes a chaotic and disruptive participant, William was a member of so many artistic groups it was difficult to keep track. He was criticised by some and scolded by others for belonging to circles regarded as incompatible. He was a member of the 56 Group, the Welsh Group OLA (Old Library Artists) and even the Leeds Surrealists and the Brunima group. He belonged to several dedicated mail art circles, a surrealist group in Prague and other artistic type de monde. And he was loyal even when he spoke slightly unkindly about some individual members behind their backs.

From this perspective I and others still feel that it’s appropriate to regard the totality of William and Carys’ circle of artistic friends as the nearest thing many of us could regard as a salon. Certainly not a clique. More than once Malcolm Parr said that William Brown was the best thing that happened to art in Wales and I agree. He had an animating influence on those he met, spurring them into media and techniques they wouldn’t have attempted otherwise. Keith Bayliss has admitted that he may never have ventured into printmaking had it not been for the influence of William Brown.

A print by Keith Bayliss from his book White Voices with Malcolm Parr, Old Style Press.

The year that A Love Letter appeared, 1999, William visited Morocco with Herve Constant. The experience was uneven. They remained firm friends but during this trip they disagreed, they quarrelled and their car was vandalised. They also got lost – repeatedly. On the other hand if you travelled with William getting lost was something you could expect. That year he also made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella with Malcolm Parr and Herve Constant.

Subject matter and chiaroscuro influence from southern Europe and the Maghreb was something that William actively invoked. The Barbary Coast series of landscapes, made from sketch books drawn in situ in Tunisia and Morocco feature radical shifts in scale and in mass. Plants are huge while structures are small. Buildings float as easily as ships. Colours remain raw. Content and subject matter combine unlikely perspectives and are packed into unlikely juxtapositions. Paintings remain representational and there are references to earlier work but in these paintings William more and more demonstrates a startling readiness to privilege his demands on materials – paint, texture, design – over the logic of an observed world.

In the Moroccan and Tunisian paintings the coast becomes an opportunity for crescent ochre bands. Oil tankers cluster in formations similar to earlier walruses. Cacti and palm trees allow the application of paint to become ever simpler, freer, more compelling. Painting of subjects as banal as blankets employ colour field disrupted by primitive marks. Titles are always playful.

One of many Barabary Coast paintings. On the left, an oil tanker radically inserted into cactus while from the right a half-tanker plunges in. Cacti and palm trees provide opportunities for circles, bars, columns, torn stripes and spots.

In an earlier painting walruses cluster on one half (of a diptych) with a depiction of the sea, as spirals, on the right. Note the bicameral red and green bar at top – curiously unsuitable for a polar scene but full of colour symbolism.

Depiction of a rug with hybrid soul sign motifs, traditional signs are transformed into winged shapes, pyramids, insects, sandals, chickens, sitting camels, coffee pots and paisley commas.

Palm trees, desert, mosque (in the shape of a Westminster Clock) and a tanker at sea, with moon and tanker’s wake. Land and sea are disrupted by ‘twin tower’ palm trees. Paint is applied with wide spalter brushes. The desert is an inversion of the basin shape of Welsh hills,
These early visits to the Maghreb directly influenced A Love Letter and opened a whole world of possibilities that flooded into the body of William’s work.

Our second book, featuring Mashrabiya windows of the Maghreb the female form in a window

When it came to A Love Letter, after many experiments, William portrayed the female nude framed by a Romaneque arch or mashrabiya window. A first set of unsuccessful drawings had attempted a kind of geometric mosaic – a tessalation that didn’t succeed. But a second set of illustrations did. I witnessed William reject a whole portfolio made in the style of Mattisse’s paper cut outs the day he aggressively stuffed them in the bin. Within a week I received a tube filled with large, new ink-wash drawings on smooth shiny paper.

At one point the poem A Love Letter refers to a moment of hoping to see a female in a window. This voyeuristic pang also refers to vines. William took this as the main opportunity for his visual response. It suited his style particularly well. It also enabled the arc which was already a motif in portraits of the Mari Lwyd and landscapes with viaducts. The arc as a basic shape, but on a much grander scale also served as an elemental sign for physical geography.

Welsh landscape (A Rainbow in the Dark 2002) featuring intersecting arcs of a rainbow and a basin shaped hill near Cymmer in the Afan Valley.

Approaching Storm: William’s vision of Pas de Calais complete with Newport Transporter Bridge and flying Guarbecque Church.

The Venus of Blaengwynfi (with moose antlers) framed in an arched, turquoise doorway.

A recess in the Gelli Tunnel at Blaengwynfi

Tableaux (Re-animator, 2002) beneath a blue arc with vegetative sidebars.

The books we made became calling cards. Without guile, William knew the value of sending tokens and how this led to an interest in seeing more. Also, while interacting with another imagination and making fresh demands the books, as well as work in schools and with film makers perforated his usual practice, enabling other themes to emerge.

When HTV television took an interest in William as a result of all his activity during the late 1990s they wanted to film him walking through a typical Bridgend Valley landscape. To do this they took him to Blaengwynfi. William later claimed that the shape he conjured as the Venus of Blaengwynfi was the result of a pareidolic vision he had when walking with the camera crew. Fortunately this coincided with our Love Letter collaboration.

Pareidolia is that visual phenomenon when people see the Virgin Mary in a cauliflower or the face of Elvis in a burned piece of toast. William claimed that he ‘saw’ the shape of a female figure where the rust-stained River Avan had burst and washed across a Blaengwynfi street. He remained faithful to this cyan pigment when he made prints of the Venus, again within a window as if it were an erotic egg wrapped by a snake. This is an ancient myth of the erotic genesis of life. When we met we’d ramble for hours casually sharing and offering such references like a bag of seeds either to be taken up or cast aside.

Another version is that it was his 92 year old father-in-law Herbert who created the story of the Venus of Blaengwynfi. Herbert pointed out that the female figure in the rounded arch reminded him of riding from Blaengwynfi on the steam train from Treherbert to Port Talbot where he went to school. This train passed through two tunnels, and the image reminded Herbert of emerging from The Gelli and the Rhondda tunnels. William accepted this merrily When asked about the source of this image he would sometimes claim she came out of the Gelli Tunnel at Blaengwynfi, other times that she came from the Afan River. In any event, the figure sketched in a letter of October 1998 became this Venus, a motif later repeated and developed in innumerable prints, drawings and paintings.

The myth of Titanic Eros as the start of all life resonating with William’s depiction of the Venus of Blaengwynfi.

Letter of 4th October 1998 where the Venus of Blaengwynfi is first depicted.

This letter records William’s change of direction from tiles to nude figure in a window – for A Love Letter. The sketch shows some diamond tiles, a Romanesque/Moroccan window, a bunch of grapes and the female form.

Cover of A Love Letter, 1999 (12 pp 10 cm x 12 cm)

Pages seven and eight of A Love Letter. The motif William came up with for A Love Letter exposes his deep and sometimes dangerous obsession with chaos and chaotic creativity. The snake wrapped egg or oval shape with spiral line is a primal indication of primordial erotic force.

At some point during his exhibits William would often feature some theatrical diversion. It added a pause or interlude after which those present usually saw the work anew – either refreshed by peanuts and wine or simply by having experienced something different. It was to this end that he included me in the 1998 La Bise group exhibit at the Model House in Llantrisant. That was the first time I read at a show of his and we chose Welsh language poems from March.

We worked on A Love Letter through the winter months of 1998 and 1999 intending to bring it out by Valentines Day. In fact we brought it out in time for The Moose Man Cometh – New Word From the Back of the Cave, his second solo show at the East West Gallery in January and February of 1999. He had another exhibit approaching in Cardiff and for that he invited poet Anne Cluysennaar. Her recent book, Timeslips, featured Cauldron Rituals a sonnet sequence quite compatible with the new matriarchal figure that the Gelli Tunnel had offered up to him. But, very often William would not be satisfied with just a reading. The ludic side of his nature demanded an element of disruption which is why some of his posters mention raffles, games of twister and ‘weird rituals’ For this raffle I found Venus of Willendorf key rings. William would also raffle a drawing or small watercolour, a practice that has since become customary at Canvas Gallery, Glamorgan Street, Cardiff.

Perhaps it was his keen ear for the marginal but memorable that caused him to give his exhibit such comical names. He was fond of using Oliver Herford’s phrase ‘a whim of iron1 and would play it as a trump card when he felt he wasn’t getting his way.

Exhibit tiles from the years 1998 to 2008 included The Venus of Blaengwynfi, Still Life with Snowball, Muskoka Land of Ghosts, Oh No, Peek a Boo, What’s Behind the Blanket, The Mooseman Cometh, Rasberry Ripple ……………………….. more

Just like a whim or an intuition it was clear that William felt that the potential of even the most modest project should never be underestimated. William highly valued first impressions even when, out of fairness, he also tried to ignore them. In this way he sometimes found himself working against the nature of gallery owners and curators rather than working with them. Not everyone responded as David Solomon in London did, or Alison Bevan when she was at the Glynn Vivian in Swansea or David Ambrose, Sybil Marks or David Wooley (the list goes on). Receiving a letter a day (or more) struck some people as obsessive rather than productive. Alison, as well as curator Sandra Jackerman on the other hand included William’s whimsy in their catalogues or framed on the gallery wall.

William was a magnet, a grazer, a vacuum cleaner of the weighty and of the flimsy. He was like the South Queensferry Burryman in Edinburgh, covered in natural Velcro, alert to everything, open to anything and it was surprising what would or wouldn’t stick. But he wouldn’t collaborate with anyone – he turned quite a few ‘names’ away. Then, when something did hook his sensibility he’d follow through until its promise either flourished or withered and died.

In this regard his letters and envelopes were haunts of intense repetition, opportunities personal to him as much as forms of communication. I was asked more than once by new correspondents if my friend was alright in the head. My consistent opinion of anyone who took this approach was that they wouldn’t know a good thing if it fell through their letterbox.

Rinus Groenendaal in the Netherlands called this illustrative habit of William’s ‘mything the envelope’. Whether the added ‘myth’ were a message, a riddle, a joke, or a doodle I felt it had the effect of serving as an affectionate PS, suggesting that even though the letter is in the envelope then the writer says, ‘I’m still thinking of you’. The extra marks formed a lingering whisper after the sensuality of the handwritten and hand-drawn message had ended.

Front and rear of the same envelope (1999), featuring twelve rubber stamps (there is an ant on the windowsill), four stickers, a pun, an appointment, a historic reference, a drawing and a joke (in Welsh).

A typical envelope post script – lamp, igloo, three bears and joke.

An envelope elephant dating from February 2003, (8cm x 8cm)

Valentine Mari, February 2000, (10.5 cm x 5 cm)

Front and rear of a ‘mythed’ envelope to Rinus Groenendaal featuring sketches and one snowflake sticker.

The power of whim and its influence on the application of paint, can be seen in the envelopes that William sent from his later travels in Tunisia include fairly radical new material. As a tourist and artist travelling alone William visited museums, sat in cafés, ate in restaurants, hitched rides in lorries, kept sketch books and wrote letters to his many correspondents. The letters describe and illustrate his journeys by bus, visits to markets, date farms and even a descent into the ancient disused sewers of the city. Doodles also portray women carrying shopping baskets. As inconsequential as this material may seem, elephants, jets, tankers, cacti and palm trees later appear on large acrylic canvasses. Then something unusual happens – in 2003 a person, Ted appears, a hapless individual, lost and bewildered. Ted was actually a real person, a tattooed, ear-ringed stranger, wearing a singlet and shorts that William had a drink with one afternoon in a Cardiff pub.

Not only Ted but some extraordinary creatures called Mud Man and Piggo start turning up, hurtling William’s work into a dimension where the figurative is seriously challenged and the direct application of paint strains credulity. Colours are wrenched from some very exotic rainbows. Yet the work remains compelling – much like jazz remains compelling the more free-form it goes. Many of the later Maghreb paintings started from what look like afterthoughts, in form of post script slogans, jokes, scribbles and doodles, marks on envelopes, during a frenzy of letter writing. Some of these figures and motifs were developed from work he made Bayliss for a 2006 “La Maison Hantee, The Haunted House, Ty Sgrech” under the motto “We are both the haunters and the haunted” An exhibition of paintings, graphic works and constructions with poetry by David Thomas and Lucien Suel at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea when curator and poet David Woolley was curator there. When Woolley left the Dylan Thomas Centre quite simply lost its spark.

The appearance of a lime green horned pig figure, and heart, within a shower of nocturnal colour framed by sidebars suggesting daylight

It is precisely because they are definitely not that it’s possible to say that some of William’s pictures are immensely trivial. Portentous is a word one would never connect with William Brown but he did have an often solemn presence. Trivial, flimsy or capricious wouldn’t be an automatic observation of the landscapes or paintings of the Mari Lwyd or those ominous variations on The Dark Fairground, but it is something that could be said of the huge tableaux, depicting as they do an apparently random assortment of toys, lovespoons, mummies, half-bears, the loup garou and wolves – in short most of the cast of characters that William returned to time and again.

This would, however, be a mistake. William was one of those people who had the slightly annoying habit of repeating the same joke or catch phrase over and over, sometimes for days at a time. He might say, “There’s no stopping us now,” a dozen times on one short train journey; another time, “Fancy a pizza and a shag?” more than once on the drive to Maesteg; or “They just don’t gerrit do they?” until listeners lost track of who ‘they’ were. Repetition was a mannerism of his socially, demotically (an odd but favourite word of his) and in the studio.

He would occasionally recite and repeat as many forms of the expression ‘still life’ as he could muster, nature morte (Fr), natura morta (It), stillleben (G) and its Dutch origin, stilleven and he would conclude this list with a sigh, ‘all is vanity’ from Ecclesiates. Such apparently jocular tics gave a lot away. He would rarely answer a question directly and went to great lengths to disguise his past as much as his current private life. But his jokes and asides spoke volumes. William was deeply aware of the cerebral role of art even while he superficially posed as an anti-intellectual. Regarding his tableaux, he knew of the deceptive trompe l’oeil tradition but was more drawn to the animation aspect of still-life painting informed by an interest in puppetry, theatre, make believe and even ventriloquism (he was a talented joke teller and mimic). Puppets, masks and toys were always nearby. He was once given a glove puppet of a bat which he named Zippy and painted innumerable times. If it suited his frame of mind anything could be pressed into service as the subject for a painting, props were equally random when it came to stuffing or decorating an envelope.

Zippy the Bat watercolour, included in a letter (6cm x 6cm)

During this, possibly the busiest and most productive period of his career, William was also working with Gerald Conn from Cinetig animation company. He made a significant animations with Gerald, a pop video for Gorky’s Zygotic Monkey (on you tube). He greatly respected the work of animators and the trickery of bringing objects to life. This project involved making thousands of drawings and constructions everyday over a period of three weeks.

As an example of verbal trickery once, following a reception at St Donat’s Arts Centre, where David Ambrose organised several opportunities for William, we called at the Bear Inn in Cowbridge. As usual William was first at the bar, buying drinks for everyone but here he was ordering in French, not just ordering but also embellishing and flirting with the girls. The staff were puzzled. But, as was often the case a small miracle happened. The young girls pulling beer were French A level students at Cowbridge School and everything just went ahead. This was the kind of thing his friends learned to expect.

It is in this non-dualised but bicameral linguistic and visual regard that William Brown’s tableaux are consciously within the tradition but at the margins of still-life painting. The tableaux pay simultaneous tribute to nature morte, story and puppetry as well as fete, street theatre and festival. As an almost defenceless bilingual, switching from French to English as part of his social act, the meaning of tableau both as painting and as table would, as with so many other things, bifurcate for William as it may not have done for others. He saw himself as both auteur de tableau in his role as host a la maison as well as – while at the canvass where he placed his vision – affiche au tableau.

As an alchemical operatio it is not so much the ingredients of a painting, since he manages to transform everything, but the fullest reality of the picture as action, experience, display, story, material, colour and ultimately quality of paint (an aesthetic fusion of innumerable factors), that counts. Chaos was very close to William’s sensibility and each painting is a structure where creative tensions are not so much reconciled as simply enclosed – held, contained, explosively confined.

Tableau (Dreaming Awake 2002) featuring yellow field, scarlet sidebars, bear, tartan, mummy, Masonic floor, toy, lovespoon and loup garou, with vegetation and Antionio Tapies ‘X’ quote.

A literalised tableau as table, featuring Westminster Clock (in the shape of a mosque), bear and toy skeleton (a tribute to James Ensor)

Literalised tableau with bear, moon, lemon, cactus and creature.

Oliver Herford American artist, writer and illustrator (1863–1935)

Meeting Mr Brown

please let me know if you see an errors or have any comments on this essay – thanks/diolch
this essay is in progress – the many pictures have not uploaded – will do that soon

Meeting Mr Brown

I first met William Brown in spring 1997. I remember the year very clearly because, at the time, I was working with Ifor Davies and Iwan Bala on a Beca Artists project for the Abergele Eisteddfod. It was Ifor who repeatedly suggested that I contact ‘a very interesting artist’ now living not very far from where I grew up, Cefn Cribbwr.

On Ifor Davies’ insistence therefore, I sent the unknown artist at first a letter, then a postcard and then I phoned and left a message on his answer machine. I heard nothing back until a few weeks later when I found a message on my answer machine that used up all the minutes on the little micro-cassette-tape those gadgets used in those days. I wish I had that message today. I wish I had it because, as I was to find out, Mr William Brown was an enthusiastic communicator. When he was in the mood, he’d phone several friends in an evening, fill their message machines with barely decipherable spoken information and usually follow the phone-call with an equally scatter-graphed written message featuring, sketches, stickers, jokes, quotations, rubber stamps, and random enclosures. William burned like St Elmo’s Fire. He was an omen. His now luminous, now dark transmissions were, for me, always an inspiration.

When we finally spoke in person, over the phone, the signs weren’t good. William had learned from Ifor that I made small books and he was looking for someone with whom to make something ready for the Bridgend Eisteddfod in 1998. “What kind of book?” “Folktales,” he replied. “What kind of folktales?” asked I of this slightly, high-tenor Canadian voice whose embodied presence I was yet to encounter. The torrent that followed concluded with, “The story of Gelert, that kind of thing.” I’d heard enough and told the voice, “I’m sorry I think you’ve got the wrong bloke.” The voice grew instantly ferocious and snarled, “Wassamarrer you’ve seen a dead dog ain’tcha?” And this became one of the qualities I most admired about William – his no nonsense ability to be direct, whether challenging and offensive or even directly tender and childlike. We arranged to meet.

Prior to the meeting and regardless of our unlucky phone call, I received the following letter.

Our meeting at Chapter Arts Centre soon afterwards came on a day when William was still teaching adult art lessons at various locations around south Wales. He had the knack of finding teaching contracts and of securing grants. I quickly learned, however, that he could be very uncomplimentary about the Arts Council or any other hand that feeds. He could also be caustic about the pretentions that hover around places like Chapter with its often minimalist yet inflated, conceptual indulgences. One of his favourite jokes was, “Art Therapy, I need it, how I can be expected to teach it.” We agreed to meet at Llangynwyd the next time I came to visit my parents in nearby Cefn Cribbwr.

One of the early letters I received from William complete with an entire family of motifs. Bear, doorway, Mari Lwyd, toy, puffin, skeleton and jokes. There is no Venus of Blaengwynfi among these 1998 doodles.

During these early meetings I could see that William was giving us both an opportunity to display our work before a very specific local audience. Should we organize a Bridgend Eisteddfod stand for the Pencoed location in 1998, it was likely that we would personally know many of those who might be interested in his paintings, my writing and ‘our book’. The project was on.

I suggested that we call our book March. This name was at least pronounceable in Welsh and in English, even though the final ‘ch’ should be pronounced as the ‘ch’ in loch. March is a Welsh word that translates as stallion or charger, and it was as ‘charger’ that we intended it. ‘Ysgall’ for example translates as ‘thistle’ and ‘march ysgall y gerddi’ translates as artichoke – or ‘super thistle of the gardens’. It was in the sense of horse ‘power’ that we chose this word.

The cover was a profile lino print of the Mari Lwyd transformed into a dancing dervish. The first full page print would be a more melancholy looking Mari standing forlornly in white space. I felt March reflected the compelling, underlying priorities of his work in the sense that it meant ‘relentless’ and ‘exuberant’.

March, front and back

William’s studio was located in what was once St Stephens Church in the Parish of Llangynwyd. St Stephens was part of a circuit of five churches including the locally famous St Cynwyd’s up in the hilltop village. St Stephens stands across the road from a housing estate on the main Bridgend to Maesteg road. But, as William loved to relate, his studio was technically in Pontrhydycyff, as it was across the road from the estate and therefore in another village. The building had, until very shortly before he moved in, served as a school and church hall. William delighted in local knowledge and the local road-crossing, lollipop man Colin would often call to share scandal, jokes and gossip. As an inveterate letter writer and mail artist William also formed a very close friendship with Gill and Gwyn Evans and later Tal and Daphne Harries at the post office, just the other side of a bus shelter, barely fifty metres from the studio. Gwyn Evans kept a Mari Lwyd under the bed and was Groom for the local party. This was the Mari most closely linked to William’s knowledge of this custom.

William travelled by bus almost everyday and loved to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations which he would repeat, complete with local accent. But as well as being the haunt of schoolchildren the bus shelter had a less savoury side involving under-age drinking, urinating, sniffing glue and so on. Someone from this gang attacked the studio several times, and even attempted to burn it down. One day William went out with black paint and painted a great bear on the bus shelter inside wall. The arsonist was arrested and given a two year sentence while the painting lasted until the bus shelter was replaced by a structure of plastic and glass.

A bear very similar to this was painted in the bus shelter. Not the alchemical shapes, heart, spiral and Shackleton’s ship

I soon noticed that it was because William was so confidently international that he loved the parochial. He loved the vernacular of this tiny corner of the world – Bridgend, Llangynwyd, Pontrhydcyff, Maesteg. He became a language student of writer and Welsh teacher Colin Williams and made several books with him, among them the bipolar Good Dog Bad Dog and the truly hilarious, Elastic Black Dog, which was based a nightmare William’s wife Carys had had of a dog performing bunjee leaps outside their window’.

All of this became apparent as we met over a fifteen month period leading to the 1998 Eisteddfod. I wrote a number of poems and William cut images in lino. Some of these intaglio blocks were up to half a meter square, printed on large sheets of thick, archival paper. Many times when I called by, new prints would be fixed by clothes pegs and hanging from lines inside the cold, cavernous church, a building which never warmed up even in summer. The visits were thrilling, inspirational, and as the prints progressed we invited the editors of Welsh language magazine Barn to come and see them. Barn featured March in the double issue 426,427 (July/August 1998 pages 50 -55). And, thanks to critic Laura Gascoigne, William’s painting Barbary Coast was featured on the cover of Artists and Illustrators (September 1998, number 144), the very week our book was launched.

He had that felicitous touch.

During the nine days of the Bridgend Eisteddfod, March sold out. It may have been a mistake to do a second edition, but eventually these copies sold too and we made more work as a writer-artist partnership.

William’s working method was a high-energy combination of steady, bull-headed production (often making and repeating several canvasses at a time) with explosive bursts of experimentation. Many times I watched him cut a lino block with rapid accuracy – marking out the main image and then finishing it with gouges, lines, rays, dots and other marks that transformed a depiction into an animated metaphor. My close friend and printmaker Peter Hay in Reading commented many times how he admired the unaffected nature of these prints.

The recurring motifs in this print reappear in other paintings, doodles and sketches: triangle, spots, spiral, heart, hand and whisker-like fibres, with little attempt to conceal the gouging chisel action that cuts the lino. This print did not appear in March but was made in response to the poem Crogi Llygoden.

Loup Garou in pram. The motif of the wheel is also important. Note the black white contrast of line – black for the handle, white for the spokes. Lino block residue is given importance in the composition.

William worked quickly but he also nurtured other uses of time during which he supported his creativity with practical tasks such as making stretchers, priming canvasses, writing letters, making phone calls and travelling to see the work of others.

At this time William was making superb prints of the Mari Lwyd representing the tradition as a blended, seamless horse/human figure. William was never an artist who simply characterised the Mari Lwyd as a puppet from Welsh folklore. In paintings the acrylics were applied with spalter brushes which made them chromatically bold and free of detailed line. Meanwhile, quite apart from their graphic quality, the black and white prints captured the animated Mari with unusual linear economy and range of feeling. The subject and style could flip from idiom to idiom.

March, facing page

I saw William’s Mari work as connecting with a mythic force. To me the Mari Lwyd paintings are semi-abstract compositions that provide an opportunity for daubs of paint or coup de couleur., The etymological significance of daub, to plaster lattice with muck (and shit) was an aspect he emphasised in conversation. In many of the Mari paintings the bold application of coloured marks, stripes, smears, speckles, circles and blotches may look as if they resemble a horse’s skull wrapped in a sheet – but they could also be regarded as near magical charms, much like the cave painting of northern Spain that he admired so much and visited. The more basic the smear or mark the more powerful the picture. Over the years that we knew each other, we discussed this. I almost came to think of these paintings as visions where the Mari actually withdraws and William Brown, the magus, appears in their place.

The Mari Lwyd as Canadian Moose appears a doorway.

Our first book, March comprised eleven poems each with its own facing visual image. Including the cover and title page there were ten other incidental prints. The Mari Lwyd on page four was lost (possibly stolen) when William gave a workshop at St Donat’s Arts Centre with the result that March is the only place where this restrained but powerful print is featured.

March, page four – the intaglio that went missing

William was very precise about the way he wanted the book to come out. We agreed that it should be vertical in order to accommodate the verses. Apart from that he specified that it should be on thick card and spiral bound. He wanted the tactile feel to be that of a child’s notebook. Regarding the vertical, rectangular opportunity that the book provided, this was when I saw how mischievous William could be. The designer and I repeatedly asked William for images that would best exploit a vertical format. But very often the material sent obeyed another voice and did not conform to what felt like our petty demands.

Regarding other details, I received editorial support from poet T. James Jones and novelist Manon Rhys. Hywel Teifi Edwards provided a rear-cover comment. This connection came about because William’s father-in-law, Herbert John Davies while headmaster of Garw Grammar School had given Hywel Teifi his first job, there. The book came out looking better as a result of these idiosyncratic but meticulous demands.
Norman Harris, the owner of Harris Printers in Porthcawl, sponsored the book. Carys provided tables, wire racks and other gear from her school and we prepared for our stand at the Eisteddfod. It was during the Eisteddfod that I first experienced William’s extraordinary generosity.

The Eisteddfod is a curious festival that warms up quietly on the first weekend, becoming more intense as the week goes on. This wasn’t our experience. Our unit was busy from the moment it opened on Saturday morning the 2nd of August 1998. One of the reasons we had so many visitors could have been the hand-painted canvass banner William has made, featuring a portrait of the Mari Lwyd. We even called the unit Y Fari Lwyd which caused some irritation. We recruited a flow of volunteer cashiers to sit among bunches of flowers and did our best to look presentable.

Stock comprised our joint new book March, another new book of mine Yr Wyddor, earlier books, boxes of William’s watercolours, portfolios filled with prints and with larger canvasses gently rocking on the canvass walls. It was a magnet for anyone with an eye for art.

When William noticed that I was diligently noting down every individual sale, such as one copy of our new book March at £3:95 or one print by him at £45, he took me to one side. And, as a good Canadian, his speech was speckled with the occasional ‘Go figure.” Sentences often ended with ‘eh?” especially when he was nervous. “So we split everything down the middle eh?” I didn’t quite follow. “Everything we take, whatever we make, we divide it eh? Equally?” He was serious and I couldn’t persuade him otherwise. That’s the way it remained for all the years we worked together – fifty-fifty. If I sold books to the value of a hundred pounds and he sold paintings to the value of a thousand, that meant we took £550 each. I found this astonishing, but it also meant that we formed a practical attitude and alliance. Many times I found myself promoting William’s work without being connected with his project. He was equally loyal, inviting me to read at innumerable exhibits from Pontardawe to Plymouth, Llantrisant to London, from Ogmore Vale to Ottawa.

The first days of the Eisteddfod passed busily by. I had also been commissioned to read at a Ceredigion kitchen stall and twice a day I also performed Yr Wyddor at a purpose-built theatre provided by the Arts Council of Wales, managed by theatre company Cwmni Da and financed by a Lottery grant. The Mari Lwyd unit on the other hand, relied on our own commercial graft and acumen.

The Yr Wyddor theatre/video installation had steadily become infested by stress and ego conflict. The other artists involved had co-opted what was supposed to be a communal project to their own individual ends and one was even claiming ownership. The spite was dreadful. Even so I dutifully broke away from William every morning and afternoon and recited the book length abstract-minimalist poem to the drone of an Indian tambura.

Often when I returned to the Mari Lwyd space William had transformed our unit from a sales marketing stall, as I conceived it, into a social event, as he enjoyed it. He delighted in wearing hairy, wolfman gloves and would sometimes put on a full head-covering, latex, wolf’s mask. The loup garou werewolf tradition of French Canada entertained him hugely and a leaping wolf featured in many of his paintings, prints and drawings. I became a fan of this childlike aspect and felt that, as much as playfulness, it was also participatory research where William entered into the souls of the cast of characters that visited his work.

One afternoon when I came back from the drudge that working with Tim Davies at Yr Wyddor had become I found William chatting to a lady in our stall. She was clearly one of those slightly senior dames without whom many an eisteddfod project would not get off the ground. She took a coquettish interest in the work and asked lots of quietly flattering questions. As our guest moved from picture to picture and perused the books and portfolios, the large buttons up the front of her summer dress, slowly came undone. Eventually almost every button except perhaps the one at the very bottom and a few at the top became unfastened. How aware was this woman that William and I were now talking to her petticoat? Finally Janet Francis, our cashier for that day, told our alluring visitor that she was visible to the world in a state of demure dishabille. To our amazement our visitor did not blush or turn away but stared calmly at us, as one by one, she slowly did each button up. Janet confirmed that this display had not been our imagination. We never did find out who this delightful exhibitionist was but she left with watercolours and books, leaving behind an atmosphere that charmed our tent for the remainder of the festival. This experience later became the subject of my poem It Was Good to See You (in Weak Eros). It may well have been a prompt for William when he later suggested – “Let’s make something erotic for the millennium eh?” Which led to The Love Letter – a small book snugly packaged in a plastic sheath and brown paper envelope.

It was a memorable week, William sold some canvasses and we came to know each other more. After a long day, some evenings I’d go back to his house in Bridgend and this was also when I started to know Carys. Carys was clearly delighted that our collaboration was going this well. The dining room in Bridgend had a huge plank table piled on one side with books, letters, magazines and photographs leaving space on the other for a bottle of wine or a meal. This impressive table emanated a love not only of food, drink and entertainment but also children, grandchildren, friends and visitors.

Staffing a unit at the Eisteddfod on a daily basis can be quite tiring but we were buoyed up by the very positive response our contribution had received. It wasn’t all sunshine though. Our appropriation of the Mari Lwyd provoked a reaction. We had Maris at the entrance to our space and a third at the back. Staff connected with the TV drama series Pam Fi Duw asked to borrow two of these for some filming they were doing that week. The trouble is they weren’t returned as agreed. I had to argue very forcibly with David Meredith, senior administrator of the Eisteddfod that day, that he should help me get them back. This was a nuisance which briefly robbed our unit of dramatic impact.

We also had a visit from some members of Cowbridge Male Choir. They seemed to feel that that they had a copywrite on the custom and were upset that we were using it for our own devious ends. This happened with other visitors from Vale of Glamorgan villages. But rather than be bothered by these mildly pugnacious visits we were pleased that the tradition was being maintained at more locations that we were aware of. Musician and Mari Lwyd specialist Mick Tems took a great interest in this territorial news and wrote about it for Taplas magazine. With Pat Smith he also sang in front of our space which attracted more audience attention.

Because of these and many other encounters the Mari became an even more absorbing subject. A phenomenology of the Mari was being captured, as if the tent were a lure. Other stories were caught there too. In the years that followed William made many paintings featuring the curtained stage of our canvass cabin. These paintings form a mise en scene with characters appearing as if the stage were a temenos (or llan) enclosing all kinds of figures and spectres, from matriarchs and demons to animals and ghosts – or as William referred to them, as visitors.

Curtained stage scene with Mari Lwyd, Venus of Blaengwynfi, moon and (half) Loup Garou (with heart) leaping in from right.

The idea of an otherworldly visitor at the threshold is a recurring theme of William Brown’s art and the Mari Lwyd provided an opportunity for depicting such apparitions. In this regard the Mari becomes a liminal being and there is no doubt that this is how William regarded it2. Even though a final explanation of the Mari Lwyd folk custom remains unresolved William refused to reduce it to folk residue. Even if misguided we both constantly sought to broaden our interest in this mid-winter ritual rather than view it as a quaint, pastoral relic. Why not take this horse figure back to the cult of Epona and revisit its potential as an animal/human guide? Liminal beings can be both dangerous and benevolent and this fearsome duality is present in William’s hybrid horse-human portrait.

The Bridgend Eisteddfod in 1998 was a week long welcome of strange outsiders but, fortunately, most them appeared in human form. Canvasses following the Eisteddfod featured the drapes that William had made for our stand. In these paintings a stage with curtains serves as a frame within a frame. It is also a Dionysian arena visited by, among others, the Venus of Blaengwynfi, the Loup Garou, the Mari Lwyd and in many canvasses bears, mummies, lovespoons and toys. Characteristically, William later merged the concept of festival with the more modest occasion of charity fete or village kermesse. His close friend, poet Lucien Suel often organised events at his home near Lille, calling them QAGs, which was a parody of a corporate bonding event (Quality Assurance Group) that Lucien’s son once had to endure. William loved Lucien’s domestic festivals which included anything from rock music to face painting (changing shape, changing appearance) to cooking for groups of people (transforming food, transforming mood). Even though sometimes very shy William could also play a central role in communal gatherings of this type. While he did face painting Carys made Welsh cakes.

Even though I’d seen them many times, and had recently seen William’s show (Beyond the Loup Garou) assembled by Sandra Jackerman at Newport Museum Art Gallery it was during the week of the 1998 Eisteddfod that I truly came to appreciate his paintings. It dawned on me how important Canada was to his sense of the north, the wild, to the French language and to landscape. Even though he now lived in the much more compact environment of Wales I sensed that his need to travel – to places like Spain, Greece, Morocco and Tunisia, refreshed his pleasure in other conditions of space and light. Following the Eisteddfod I looked at his canvasses with new eyes.

William repeated themes, motifs, images and content, working through ideas and developing them in series. The black and white squares he sometimes painted flip between paradoxical interpretations as much as any other motif in his work. The black and white squares can be seen as the site of chess, which he regarded as a game of love in the medieval tradition of Scachs d’Amour; but it could also be read as a masculine spiritual location representing as it also does the ritual Masonic floor. One of William’s more radical characteristics was that while being a disciplined anarchist he was also a freemason. If I asked him it if was a chess board he would agree (and amplify); but if someone else identified it as a Masonic space, he would agree with that as well. He enjoyed depicting “those stones that had been rejected”.

Motifs: dotted side bars, cordate heart, tartan bicameral wolf, chequered field.

During our ten day stint I’d seen William in a variety of moods, always attentive, sometimes melancholy, and other times filled with vivacious joy. Now, when I looked at his work I recognised signs of isolation and exile in the Moose Among Pines. William had a metaphoric and a literal imagination and there was the moose’s heart – in one canvass a radiant cordate shape inside the body but in another the heart lays fallen and bleeding in the snow.

White heart within the moose, red heart in the snow

When I looked at his many bears, in tartan, with sacred hearts, cut in half – I thought of his background, conceived in Scotland, born in Canada and felt that this blended identity had given him a love of compound themes. The repeated presence of the Great Bear constellation above Welsh chapels, terraced streets and many times simply as a semiotic shape, stamps his work with a love of simplicity but also with a love of north, of night, of space, and of the zoomorphic human interior that his totemic devotion to The Bear made possible.

Bear emerging from terraced houses, with chapel. Motifs include cordate heart, speckles and dehiscent edges, moon, windows. The title of this painting is New Guy in Town, confirming (as he said in many statements) how William perceived himself as a bear.

The Eisteddfod came to an end and we had made quite a bit of money. We’d sold over 400 copies of a book that (thanks to Norman Harris’ sponsorship) had cost us next to nothing to produce. We’d sold other books, prints and paintings. I had fallen into the role of secretary-treasurer and it was with some relief that on Saturday evening the 9th of August, seated at their commodious dining table, I showed Carys our sales record and proceeded to count the money out.

There were sides of William many of his friends did not know even up to the day he died. What I hadn’t known, until that evening, was that he had a vehement disregard for money. “Oh no!” Carys cried out, “You’re not giving him cash! David you mustn’t do that!”

But it was too late. William already had the money in his hand and almost squealing like a child he was promptly putting it in different envelopes. “Right, I’ll send this to Goble, this to Kathleen, this to Malcolm . . . .2 ” continuing his litany until all the money was packaged and his hands were empty. It was as if the money had to be thrown from his hands as quickly as possible. Carys didn’t interfere and when this almost phobic display was over we returned to our review of the week.

Looking back there had been signs of a strange relationship with money but it seemed like a kind of game. We’d sold books, prints and paintings for cash and cheque but William, instead of taking payment himself would playfully point a customer in the direction of our assistant who’d be sitting under a horse’s skull at the rear of our tent. I soon did the same, jokingly telling people that we’d both been advised by our Taoist Doctor not to touch cash. This was a ploy that kept all of us employed – our helper recording sales and giving change while William and I welcomed people into our always busy space. It was important to be gracious and welcoming as many people clearly liked the art but some found it strange and might leave, feeling unable to engage. If William did the talking he referred to me as his writer-collaborator; if I made the opening then I would refer to him as my painter-friend. This always eased the seller/buyer relationship and when it actually avoided touching money made it seem like more of a gift exchange than a sale. In any case William was an extremely charitable individual.

One sunny afternoon we were visited by three or four young women who turned out to be art teachers. They’d been through college together and were now attending the Eisteddfod as a group. They liked our unit and took their time looking through William’s boxes of drawings and watercolours. After making their choices he gave a price which they found astonishingly reasonable even foolishly cheap and turned to me as if to ask if they could offer more. We compromised by inviting them to choose a few more small paintings and thus pay a slightly higher price. William was satisfied with this. He’d sold more work, generated more goodwill and commented that he loved to think of his art being found on the walls of appreciative homes.

This aversion to money was however symptomatic of a much more complex side of William’s character. He loved to give and often presented a friend with a novel or CD or souvenir from his travels. He also gave gifts of drawings or drawing materials to the children of his friends. He routinely donated work to charity auctions. He was interested in the tradition of sin-eating and its twin custom of placing money in the mouths of the deceased, at their feet or on their eyes. Those who choose not to touch money often do so for reasons of ritual purity but I don’t believe William was that pious or that pretentious in any way. His extravagance with money was I think connected with his love of chance and of living outside conventional boundaries. He was, as they said in Samuel Johnson’s day, a devotee of Deep Play, which is often a commitment to chance and risk that many people would avoid. Diane Ackerman3 has described it as ecstatic, rapturous and transcendental. Perhaps it’s also manic. Its melancholy shadow was found in Sombre Kermesse.

Motifs: mummy, lovespoon, bear in doorway, half bear entering from right, great bear constellation, moon, cordate heart, chequered field, toy, half loup garou (leaping from left) Venus of Blaengwynfi, tartan, stripes, dots.

William would follow wherever circumstances led. He enjoyed parties and was an extremely professional figure at the social opening of his exhibits. Going into the pub William was always the first to buy a round, including a drink for whoever served him at the bar. When he organised a group show there was always food and drink even when no one else contributed. But he was nobody’s fool, if he felt that a buyer was trying to haggle a price down out of greed rather than frugality then he wouldn’t budge and inch.

And so, that evening, I watched him give a lot of money away and I saw it more than once. Our week was over. I didn’t know what to expect and felt more or less that we’d leave the possibility of any collaborative future work to fate. But it wasn’t to be that way. I was leaving for America in two days time to join my family on holiday. On my return William insisted I must certainly call up and see him at the studio in Llangynwyd. He had other projects, other plans and other ideas – not only for me but for his other collaborators – constantly in mind.

1 See the work of Victor and Edith Turner.
2Tony Goble artist; Kathleen Hommel, his sister;, Malcolm Parr poet.
3see Deep Play by Diane Ackerman.
5082 words

Obituary for the Guardian – David Moore

William Brown

Creative Scots-Canadian artist who left his mark in Wales


William Brown was a prolific and highly imaginative painter and printmaker “born on the shores of a large grey lake” in Toronto, Canada, to Scots parents Cathy and Alex Brown in 1953. Twenty years later he came to Britain, living in the South West but, later, moving to Wales where he was to make a strong impression in the visual arts.


Brown had a unique sensibility. His art, whilst intentionally naïve in style, reflected a personality which was, in certain respects, troubled and curiously child-like. His colours were unusually vivid; his brushwork loose, immediate and expressive.  His work comprised a fantastic – yet sophisticated – blend of visual imagery derived from his travels, poetry, mythology, folklore and folk-art.  It displayed remarkable visual playfulness as well as surreal humour, seeming to affirm an enjoyment of life whilst, paradoxically, having a melancholic feel about it.


Brown’s imagery was eclectic, drawing freely upon places and cultures familiar to him. Polar bears, moose and wolves evoked the tundra, icy wastes and coniferous forests of Canada. Loup-Garou  – a werewolf – was “a nagging reminder of the animal in the human, powerful, cunning and unsophisticated.” The Welsh New Year custom of the Marie Lwyd, still played out at Llangynwyd where Brown’s studio in an old church was located, became a popular motif. He visited Galicia, Morocco and Tunisia and aspects of Berber culture became absorbed into his visual vocabulary.


Brown’s paintings display exciting tension and movement derived from his particular combination of colour and composition. Yet, he produced highly successful images by linocut and silkscreen printmaking in black and white. The French poet Lucien Suel remarked that: “even his black and white is full of colour.” Marie Lwyd Chat, a copy of which is in the collection of the Contemporary Arts Society for Wales, features opposing horse figures derived from the Welsh custom of the Marie Lwyd confronting one another and, bizarrely, engaged in conversation.


Brown considered himself to be a narrative painter. He enjoyed the play of words as much as images. An enthusiastic frequenter of the imbibing haunts of south Wales artistic and literary circles, his conversation consisted of disconcerting wordplay, riddles, tales and puns. An all-pervading urge to express himself in both word and image was revealed in communications to friends and curators who might receive inexplicable bundles of drawings and jottings. He empathised with the restless French 19th century bohemian poet Jean Rimbaud and collaborated with poets. He responded to the poetry of David Greenslade on Welsh themes in the book March and to the work of Lucien Suel in Le Nouveau Bestiaire. He was a close friend of the American socialist graphic artist Paul Peter Piech, another outsider who had settled in Wales.


Brown married Goady in 1976 until their divorce in 1983. He met Carys, a deputy headmistress, in 1987. He turned up as artist-in-residence at her Devon school a little the worse for drink and she took him home to keep him off the premises. They married in 1988 and moved in 1990 to Bridgend after her appointment to a headship. She provided necessary stability, a foil for Brown’s fertile imagination, and enabled him to focus successfully upon his art. This flourished in the Welsh valleys and galleries and Brown was in demand for school and gallery workshops.


Brown once had a studio in the Old Library in The Hayes, Cardiff. There he created work such as a witty yellow painted wood and straw sculpture Yellow Horse Box with a switch for an eye and a brush for a tail. He became a vociferous member of the Old Library Artists when, in a cause célèbre of the late 1990s, they were asked to leave their studios to make way, ironically, for the high profile Centre for Visual Arts, Cardiff.  Sadly, this project, which promised much and opened in 1999, barely lasted a year. The Old Library Artists moved to Oriel Canfas in Canton.


Brown exhibited with the Welsh Group of artists and, for a time, with 56 Group Wales. He showed in major public galleries in Wales and also in the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and Switzerland. He was commissioned to create the 1995 Brecon Jazz Festival publicity and, by Newport Museum & Art Gallery, to paint a giant bear on the side of a double-decker bus.  Yet, he was modest about his work and stated that: “Through indifference more than defiance I shy away from the current unseemly trends of Promotion, Promotion, Promotion. The most banal thoughts can appear important when subjected to this kind of treatment.”


Brown’s untimely death is another loss in recent years from a remarkable group of artists in Wales – including Peter Bailey and Tony Goble – who created distinctive work from the surreal world of their imaginations. They were inimitable and widely loved figures in the Welsh visual art world. That they persisted with their individual visions is more remarkable given the discouraging commercial market for their art.


William McClure Brown, artist, born Toronto, Canada, 11th December 1953; died Bridgend, Wales, 17th July 2008