William Brown: Painter and printmaker
Saturday 26 July 2008
The painter and printmaker William Brown triumphantly achieved Picasso’s ambition of drawing like a child. “I steal ideas, usually from children, because they’re smaller,” he freely confessed. But his pictures are more serious than they look.
Brown described himself as a narrative painter; not a believer in abstraction, he used colour “as an excuse to hang the stories on”. The colour is pure and the lines deceptively simple; the stories, though, are extraordinarily mixed. An inveterate traveller, Brown collected myths the way other people collect souvenirs, weaving them into fabulous painted tapestries featuring the world’s great bogymen. Against heraldic fields of colour, cartoon figures of the French-Canadian werewolf Loup Garou and the Welsh grey mare Mari Lwyd project a faintly comic air of menace, serving as “nagging reminders of the animal in the human”. The carnival atmosphere clearly recalls James Ensor, though other artistic influences are more surprising – one recurring still-life composition (the “Kipper Nocturne”), featuring a kipper lying on a table, with the moon shining in through a window, apparently owed its inspiration to Chardin.Literary influences were also credited – Rimbaud appeared in a recent painting beside his amputated leg (the wrong one). And politics were never far out of the picture. In a series of paintings recalling a visit to Tripoli during the US air strikes, a black fighter plane disrupts the blue of a perfect bay, while Approaching Storm, Berguette (1997) is an apocalyptic vision in which the little church at Guarbecque in Pas de Calais, birthplace of Brown’s friend the poet Lucien Suel – with whom he collaborated on the book Le Nouveau Bestiaire that year – descends out of a black cloud on to the Newport Transporter Bridge. “He’s a tricky fellow, this Brown,” wrote the Newport Town Poet Goff Morgan; “warms you up with a tot of irony, then drops the chill ice-cube of millennial anxiety down the back of your neck”.
Born in Toronto to Scottish parents in 1953, Brown studied fine art in Ontario and sculpture in Pittsburgh before moving in 1977 with his first wife Jodie Brennan to Somerset, where he taught at the College of Arts and Technology. When his marriage broke down, he moved to London and got work as a painter and decorator. Then, in 1987, on an artist’s residency at a Devon junior school, he fell in love with the deputy head teacher Carys Griffiths. A man later described by his dealer David Solomon as a cross between Jacques Tati and David Bellamy was an unlikely match for a deputy head teacher, but they married the following year and moved to South Wales in 1991.
In Wales the wandering artist put down roots. He learnt Welsh, became a member of the Welsh Group and the Old Library Artists and established himself as a prominent figure on the literary scene, enlivening poetry volumes such as David Greenslade’s March (1998) with his vivid woodcuts, burnished with the back of a spoon. A 1996 touring exhibition “What’s Behind the Blanket”, organised by the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea, brought his paintings to national attention, and he was taken on by David Solomon’s East West Gallery in Notting Hill, where he exhibited regularly from 1997.
A prodigious sketcher to the end – “I draw like other people knit” – in 1999 Brown supplied the drawings for an animated music video promoting the Welsh group Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, which had the distinction of winning an award at a Canadian film festival despite the failure of the sound system. His copious correspondence, in his inimitable (and sometimes incomprehensible) “pidgin” of English, Welsh and French, was liberally laced with drawings. One example, framed in the lavatory at East West, depicts Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles with the caption: “Don’t sit on that chair, Paul, I’ve just painted it.”
As a former member of the Cold War Mailart movement – for communicating with fellow artists behind the Iron Curtain using the outsides of letters rather than the insides, so as to discombobulate the Communist censors – Brown took as much trouble with the outside of a letter as the inside. Decorated with rubber stamps, scribbled mottoes and drawings, his envelopes had everything on them except the postcode and consequently often took weeks to arrive, or were returned. But Alison Lloyd, as exhibition officer at the Glynn Vivian, recognised them as artworks in their own right and had a set framed for “What’s Behind the Blanket”.
William Brown, painter and printmaker: born Toronto, Ontario 11 December 1953; twice married (one daughter); died Bridgend 17 July 2008.
William, my friend
William my friend cooking in the kitchen, explaining how to make that tasty gravy sauce,
William inventiveness and sense of humour, William smiling laughing and joking,
William with his paintbrushes, pencils, carving tools, inkrollers, wooden spoons, “Look at these hands, I can do anything anywhere”,
William drawing carving woodcutting printing and painting in the Old Library in Cardiff,
William drawing carving woodcutting printing and painting in his Church, St Stephen’s Cathedral in Llangynwyd,
William smiling, teaching to the children in Maesteg Valley,
William quoting Arthur Rimbaud « The drunken boat »
Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guide par les haleurs
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs,
William and his own personal zoo: wolves, puffins, camels, beavers, bears, moose, elephants and kippers,
William working hard, everyday taking the bus from Bridgend to Llangynwyd, William delivering paintings, collecting paintings,
William, hundreds of canvas and watercolours, William red yellow and blue, William black & white, William orange, William brown,
William in junk shops buying red plastic lobsters, green spiders, inflatable sheep, all sorts of plastic bugs,
William in the morning at his desk, left hand writing hundreds, thousands of letters,
William and his rubber stamps collection, playing, drawing and decorating envelopes, sending mail art all around the world,
William in every season, no coat, only his jacket and a shirt “Je n’ai pas froid, je suis canadien” “I’m not cold, I’m Canadian”
William speaking in tongues, English, Welsh and French, quoting Gilles Vignault “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver”,
William in Vimy, looking at his name, William Brown engraved on the Canadian Monument,
William in Flanders tasting Belgian Beers and eating chips in Bruges under the snow,
William in Flanders and Artois and Picardy visiting British cemeteries haunted by the ghosts of world wars,
William with relentless energy, so prolific so generous, giving everything, interested in every person and every story, William with Tony Goble in a bar planning to create the riffraff society,
William in Cardiff teaching the art of portrait to aged men and women, offering biscuits and sherry,
William in Swansea University talking about the art of Chardin,
William in public houses explaining new projects, working in front of a glass of cider,
William taking care of Carys, taking care of his parents, his family and friends
William not too much taking care of himself,
William happy with his life, faithful and kind, semper fidelis,
William and all his friends, William with Malcolm and Keith, and Gareth and Colin and Anthony and David, and Peter and Hervé and Adrian and Johannes and more and more,
William so sad when Tony died, William now it’s your turn, too soon, too fast,
William walking in the souks of Morocco or Tunisia, staring at fruit and vegetables, paying attention to the smells and colours, to the silhouettes of people,
William travelling from Scotland to Canada, to England, Wales, Ireland, United States, France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Greece, pilgrimaging to Galicia, to Santiago, Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, William walking on the earth, to give us joy and beauty,
William as a true celtic boy interested in spirits, Mari Lwyd, loups-garous and haunted houses, giving birth to the Venus of Blaengwynfi, Glamorgan,
William and his admiration for Georges Danton, “Bourreau Montrez ma tête au peuple !”
William reading William Burroughs and James Lee Burke, reading the poets Louis Mc Neice, Hedd Wyn, Edward Thomas, WH Davies, Wilfred Owen, Dylan Thomas, Ronsard et François Villon, Mais où sont les neiges d’antan…
William French speaking on the phone with that typical québécois accent “Christ en calvaire”,
William calling me, saying he had the vision of the small church of Guarbecque, my native place, as a New Jerusalem coming down from the sky over the Transborder Bridge in Newport and painting that vision,
William painting bears on the Newport city busses, William trying to get prints of bear paws by putting liquid plaster in a damp in Toronto,
William playing with his fax machine: “Attention je pousse le bouton”,
William on stage in Lille, “je fais mon cirque”, appearing under a red light douche, masked and disguised as a loup-garou, wolf-man mittens and mask, while the audience can’t help laughing and laughing,
William in London at the East West gallery, talking to everybody with kindness and simplicity,
William at the Eisteddfod, looking like a bard with his red beard,
William eating mussels in Perros-Guirec, Brittany, William tasting French wine in Carcassonne, William at La Taverne Flamande in Hazebrouck, two years ago, so weary…
William, mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?
William, mais ourson les neiges d’antan ?
Here is a short story written by William. He wrote that piece and sent it to me in April 1998. It is a child memory, un souvenir d’enfance, when he was 5 years old.
So it’s nearly 40 years ago, and I am at a gas station in Ontario. Maybe not too far from Parry Sound – Pointe au Baril – I can’t remember exactly… anyway it’s dry, hot and August… smell of gas. I noticed a car with American Plates… New York State… and a big dead bear strapped across the hood.
Near the pumps, I tried to feed some Cheezies to a little bear chained up. He was too busy trying to scrape the worms out of his ass. To this day, I remember him scooting around the gravel.
I do think that William is now holding the hand of that little boy he used to be in the fifties. He rejoined this innocent child who has always been a part of himself…
William I miss you. William, we miss you.
La Tiremande, 20 juillet 2008.
William McClure Brown, 1953 – 2008
Many people in Wales and the West Country will remember the artist William Brown, who was based in this country from 1977 until his death; all those who knew him, and the many whose walls are graced with his work, are very sorry that he has died, after a long illness, aged 54.
Brown was born in Toronto, Canada, to Scottish parents who had recently emigrated there. He began his artistic career in Canada, and then came to Britain and moved to Somerset in 1977. In 1987, Brown was employed as artist-in-residence at Woodford Junior School in Plympton, Devon, whose then deputy head, Carys Griffiths, became his second wife the following year. Carys was later appointed as head of a school in South Wales and the couple moved to Bridgend in 1990 where William rapidly became a leading figure in the Welsh art community.
A larger-than-life character who somewhat resembled one of the bears frequently depicted in his works, Brown was a one-off. Despite a seemingly effortless, cornucopic talent, he rarely achieved the acclaim he deserved from the main contemporary art world, partly due to a failure to see that this irreverent, humorous and wonderfully eccentric man was actually unerringly serious about his art. Many individual art critics, gallery owners and collectors did recognise the depth of his ability, however, and his work was exhibited and collected extensively, including a major solo touring exhibition launched at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea in 1996.
William Brown’s work is marked with fluid draughtsmanship, assured use of colour, and masterly handling of a whole range of media. At first glance, much of his work is deceptively simple, deliberately achieving a childlike naïvity, but there is a depth to all his pictures which enables them to reward repeated viewing.
His drive to create was such that he used whatever came to hand. He took great delight in relating that an exquisite, tiny etching of Morocco had been etched using his own urine in the absence of any other acid: he peed on it daily until the plate had been bitten. The creative possibilities of all sorts of materials and activities were explored, from envelopes – he made correspondence into an art form – to cooking, using pastry to create a bas-relief portrait of a friend’s dog, for example. He is best known, however, for his woodcut prints and for his bright, bold paintings, the largest of which included the whole of a railway bridge at Reading and a commission from Newport Museum and Art Gallery to paint a working double-decker bus.
Highly intelligent, widely read and friends with several notable poets, Brown’s work often included references to stories, myths and literature. In Canada he had learned to speak French as well as his mother-tongue Scots-accented English, and to this he added the Welsh language in later years. Whether he spoke all or any of them fluently tended to depend on the listener’s own linguistic knowledge, since his conversation was invariably peppered with bits of all of them – a favourite piece of French colloquialism would be followed by a sentence or two gleaned from a Welsh children’s programme. The folklore and writings of all three cultures infiltrated his work, to which he added his own imagined legends, such as ‘The Venus of Blaengwynfi’.
Still painting daily up to his final hospitalisation, William Brown died on 17 July 2008, after battling illness for many months: he is much missed.