Obituary in the Guardian – David Moore

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

Poem – David Wooley

Pursued by a Bear – David Wooley


For William Brown


You never know

when the plane’s

going to strike the tow-


the shit

hit the fan

the scorpion sting,so

it’s best to plough on

pile up the paint

drink deep, jack-

daw up all the little

bits and pieces of this

absurd mess, make some

language out of it – a bit

of anglo-saxon, celt, queb_

ecois; scoop up all the

world’s strange creatures,

tale from the far edge

of places. Distil them

with a measure

of humanity, dis-

regard for the beura-

critic crap, the ivory tower.

Hard work is a virtue

you upheld, and lived

enough for two

lifetimes, yet still we’re

all amazed that you’re not there.

Drink up and get on with it

you’d have said:

exit William Brown

pursued by a bear…

OLD FRIEND – Jeff Aaron

I met William in the early 1970s. I met Joady a bit earlier when she attended York University. She shared an apartment with several other students and I was friends with a woman who was dating one of them. William was working at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto then. I don’t recall seeing William there. Wm was a good and enthusiastic cook. Meals at his place were lots of fun. His wit was quick and sharp, he was well-read and lively. When he and Joady told me they were to be married I volunteered to drive them to City Hall in my mom’s 1972 Chevrolet Impala. Not a limousine but plenty big. I arrived at Wm’s digs as scheduled and found the happy couple still floating in the bath. I got them to City Hall but by the time I parked the car and walked up the steps they were already married and coming out the door so I didn’t witness the ceremony.

My activities sometimes took me away from Toronto so I was not involved in Joady and Wm’s move to England. Apparently they crossed the pond on a Polish liner, the Stefan Batory. Wm said he liked the vodka and cheap beer. I did see the steamer trunks he painted up in bright yellow with pink polka dots. The stevedores would have a hard time losing those.

In September of 1976 I visited Wm and Joady in England. They were living with Joady’s parents in Taunton, Somerset, in a Georgian home named Roughmoor House. Wm had a great knowledge of the local history. He was very interested in ring forts and standing stones. He introduced me to village pubs with skittles alleys and shove ha’penny games. Wm carried a pocket notebook with blank pages. He would draw constantly. He once remarked that he drew like some people knit. Joady’s mom took us on a trip to Ireland. The sea was so rough on the way over that Wm and I had to hold onto our pints at the bar to keep them from sliding away.

Wm and Joady later moved to Buddle Oak, a farm cottage in Halse, a village not far from Taunton. Wm had a “day job” at some manufacturing company in Norton Fitzwarren (Wm called it Warts and Misfortune). At home he painted big pieces of masonite board by leaning them against the wall in the big room downstairs and squatting or sitting on the floor. There was no central heat; the only warmth came from the coal stove in the kitchen. There was a pet rabbit that would warm itself under the stove until it was overheated and then would dash across the kitchen and fling itself down in the cool draft under the front door. Money was tight. They had to scrimp to afford a bag of coal. Wm drew and painted things inspired by the shapes of the local landscape. He cast little figures from aluminum cans melted over a charcoal fire. He dug around in pre-Roman earthworks and ring forts and collected bits of pottery.

Wm and I kept up a regular but infrequent correspondence. His envelopes were always plump, full of leaflets and brochures about shows and projects that he was involved in. He would often decorate them with rubber stamps and little figures. It was always a happy surprise to open the mail box and find something from him.

Wm never told me that his health was failing. I was encouraging him to come to Cleveland and show his work here. He just wrote that he couldn’t fly and didn’t explain more. It was a shock to hear that he was gone. I still really miss him.




William  Brown looms large in many people’s memory, his reputation preceded him. He loomed large over me the first time I met him, I forget the occasion but the venue typically was a public house, The No Sign Wine Bar in Swansea to be precise. I was there with Keith Baylis and other unsavoury characters when the LOOMING took place. Suddenly we were plunged into semi-darkness, like a partial eclipse. A Viking chieftain with fiery red beard standing awkwardly in front of us. I imagined he’d taken his horned helmet off and left it on the coat stand. A generous few pints later and we were all chatting wildly, friendships forming. That was the nice thing about William, he could and would talk about anything, my kind of pub guy. He was very easy to warm to and his obscure meanderings warmed up all those around him.

Then, I saw his paintings and prints. Bright, bold and dynamic, I was taken aback by his easy facility. He never stopped painting but knew exactly when to stop working on A painting. Deft strokes, magical colours, a psychedelic Ikea toy shop of images. His work always made me smile.


Despite his happy-go-lucky charm and easy-going nature, William had an astute business mind. He saw the commercial value of his work and produced an avalanche of images, cheap, make you smile low-tech prints, kitchen table sculptures and wall to wall Walrus’, Polar bears and a stampede of Mari-Lwyds.

Hanging an Exhibition with William was a doddle. He didn’t believe in spirit levels, drills or straight lines. We once hung about 120 small paintings in 1 hour. (That’s two a minute…Hello Guinness book of records.. ) We followed no plan, just William’s instinct.


You’ve heard of Capability Brown right? Well, one day I got a call from Spontaneity Brown. He spoke in a whispered code, as if his ‘phone was tapped. I put the receiver down, everything was fixed. I had to get on the train to London next morning and help a burly, beardy man load up the Caboose with a Moose and paintings and bubble wrap. He would be on platform 1 of Bridgend station and would NOT be wearing a carnation. A rickety train ride, an inspection of the Buffet bar and a BIG black taxi ride into the metropolis followed by delivery of said paintings and a generous interview given for a keen Art History student from U.C.L.A. Then it was off for a splendid lunch and a well punctuated stroll back to the station. He paid. That was William alright, GENEROSITY BROWN.


I’d love to think that William had a loyalty card at the Post Office. He spent a fortune on stamps. His communiques were frequent and prolific. He was an expert in the art of dashing off news, ideas, publicity stunts and nonsense all scribbled in his unique, frenetic hand, punctuated with fyffes banana stickers for commas. His letters when opened released a confetti of fragments torn from magazines or a post card of an empty car park in Milton Keynes and a plastic fork from a box of figs. His letters were funny, obscure. encrypted. His envelopes were treasonous, a pair of bunny ears drawn onto the Queen’s head didn’t land him in the tower. ‘Queen bunny’ he wrote underneath the stamp.

His letters arrived in soft flurries, like the snow in Toronto He loved snow and once shared some ancient Inuit wisdom with me “Don’t eat the yellow snow” he said. I always looked forward to mail from him, however nonsensical the contents.

That’s when I first started to miss him, when the door mat in the hallway became a less colourful place and envelopes became beige again


William Brown in Devon

I first met William Brown through Tony Foster, the visual arts officer for South West Arts.  He had the daunting task of monitoring and supporting the work of artists working across the five counties of south west England.  Whereas I had the daunting task of supporting the work of teachers in Art and Design in the 450 schools in the county.  We shared the responsibility for the organisation of the ‘Artists in Schools’ programme in the country of Devon which was financed by South West Arts.

Our main problem was selecting the artists to undertake the residencies form the large number of artists and schools who wanted to be involved in the scheme within a comparatively modest budget!

Tony Foster was a very good colleague having taught art and run departments in schools for many years before joining South West Arts, he had a good understanding of the subject and how visiting artists could contribute to the quality of experience in art that children experience in schools.

He would telephone me when he thought he had found an interesting artist who was suitable for a residency and we would arrange to visit the artist’s studio or exhibition together, talk to the artist and debate his or her suitability for a residency and to what kind of school. 

One day he telephoned to say that  he had found an interesting Canadian artist who could be very suitable for a residency and who had a studio in the abandoned woollen mill on the outskirts of Wellington on the Devon / Somerset border and invited me to join him for a viewing.

I met him there on a crisp and sunny morning and we wandered together throu8gh the empty and derelict spaces of the old mill, littered with bits and bobs of old machinery, spools and bobbins.  Tony explained that William brown the artis was Canadian and was working part-time at Siomnerset college of Art and that he thought his work and its subject matter would enthuse and excite children.  We finally turned a corner and found ourselves in a floor to ceiling paradise of drawings, paintings and woodcuts depicting the flora, fauna of the wildlife of Canada.

There were polar bears raiding rubbish dumps, moose in transit and wolves cogitating, all in bleak and frozen landscapes or deep and dark forests. 

We were greeted enthusiastically by William who instantly produced a bottle of sherry and three glasses so that we could have a ‘proper’ private view of his work.

It was immediately obvious that William, ebullient and articulate, amusing and outgoing would be a knock-out artist for a residency, and that the nature and free-wheeling quality of his work would be of great appeal to children because of its distinctive nature and unusual subject matter for an English audience.

Tony and I, in discussion, agreed that William’s work could be a significant stimulus within a well-established and successful art department but one working within conventional and traditional subject matter of the ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level examination courses.   We chose a grammar school in south Devon with a very experienced and able Head of Department who welcomed the possibility of working with an artist who could bring a new kind of stimulus to the Department’s work.

William settle in happily for a ten day residency, providing a wide range of work for display in the school, including paintings, prints and some small, inventive sculptures of animals constructed from a variety of materials.

It was a good residency. William and the Head of Department bounced ideas and arguments off each other and the students warmed to William’s informality and enthusiasm for his subject matter which they found very intriguing.   They were impressed by the rigour of his work and his ability to make big woodcuts by carving into plywood with chisels with great freedom.  This encouraged them to approach their own work with greater freedom.

The residency ended with an embarrassed phonecall from the school with the news that one of William’s small sculptures had been stolen – presumably by a student overcome with lust for it.

William’s response was classically amusing.  He cheerfully endorsed the cuklprit’s motives, saying  “If imitation is admiration, just think what theft is!”

His residency was a great success, not just because the students responded so well to his work but also because they warmed to him and the idea that art can be amusing and down to earth as well as inventive and highly skilled.

The school staff were impressed with his magnanimity about the potentially embarrassing theft of one of his works!

The country were further able to support William’s work through  a period of temporary funding for communal arts projects which enabled un to initiate the delivery of small exhibitions of artist’s work to rural areas of Devon which had little by way of exhibition facilities.

These exhibitions were managed by the County Schools Museums Service (now sadly disbanded because of recent cuts in Local Government Services).

Over a period of twenty years the country had built up a good collection of arts and crafts and which were housed in small exhibitions and made available to schools and administered by the schools Museums Service..

We purchased a set of twelve of William’s woodcuts which were mounted and equipped with a set of display screens and made available to schools for display for a period of one term at a time.

The exhibition was a popular choice with schools, some of which would then invite William to talk about his work both to pupils and to community groups.

Another facet of William’s work in Devon was driven by his natural abilities as a teacher and by a desire to teach children how to make their own prints as well as listening to him talking about print-making and showing them his own work. 

Watching William, working alongside the art teacher or class teacher in a primary school and teaching and encouraging the children to make their own prints using a variety of media and techniques was a rewarding experience. 

However, William’s most important residency, towards the end of his stay in Devon, took place at  a large primary school in Plymouth where the Deputy Head teacher was also the driving force behind the school’s art and design programme.

It was a very good residency resulting in commendable degrees of enthusiasm and energy on the part of the children – both for William’s work and as an inspiration for the children to make their own paintings, drawings and prints.  William and the Deputy Head Teacher, Carys Griffiths established such a good working relationship during this residency that it became a permanent relationship and they finished up getting married!

A good example of the power of the arts to unite, enthuse and entrance its practitioners.

Sadly for Devon, and joyfully for Wales, Carys was appointed to a headship in wales where they both went on from strength to strength in their work.

William is still remembered affectionately in Devon for the impact of his personality and for the impact he had upon our work in Arts and Design in schools.

Article from Colin Jones

The Artist Formally Known As William McClure Brown

By Colin Jones

So here is what I remember about my good friend William, his remarkable take on a reality and the work he left behind for us all to enjoy.  Welcome to my therapy.

I need to get something out. Of my system. Out of my head. You’ll excuse my rambling, Rose. There’s a thing about some stuff that’s vitally important and I might just be able to take a stab at remembering the after-image of a shadow of a half-truth. The half-life of memories is merely the blink of an eye.

A car journey to William’s studio, the only time I ever saw him drive. A reflection in the windscreen of an object on the dashboard just before we make a book. The reflection of the book he was yet to illustrate.

The Mari Lwyd ritual I’d been involved in some thirty years before, alive but thankfully trapped in its prison of a picture. Forever captured by the painted frame around the image. Out of time.

The woman who came into our stall in the Eisteddfod, looked at his paintings and remarked, ‘Oh, you get the children to do them, do you?’ William pleased, before putting on his werewolf mask. Loup Garoux, Llew Garw.

You couldn’t make him up, that’s one thing. You’ll never see a William Brown in a movie or a golf-opera, his kind are really just too strange for fiction. Ruth is stranger than Richard, but William was the stranger than even Old Uncle Peculiar and his Box of Myths.

Other people will no doubt remark that he had more than one life. That too seems to be true, but I think the one we saw was the best.

And the most troublesome part of the whole bunch of his multifaceted reality-shifts and timeslot-distortion is that he did leave you wondering if he was truly the only really sane person you’d ever met. Something in his postman-baiting postcard art, his foolish faxes and his mailshots just seemed exactly right.

Lottie Goes Nuts For Pineapples.

Lottie, it should be said, was my dog. A dog who liked carrots, and pineapples. One of those things that you mention to others in the hope of raising a smile. But William asked Lottie over to his studio, with the carrot of a pineapple. She’d make a good model he thought, but I knew better. I knew.

A blurring whirl, an untameable black mass, Lottie ran around William’s studio like a rat in a playpen. There was no way of capturing her on paper, of course. Ah, but there’s the print of the evidence to banjax my mediocrity. The echo of a half-seen memory etched onto paper. Out of time.

[Picture: Lottie Goes Nuts For Pineapples]

William told me once that he spoke in colour. Of the conventional languages he had some French, some Welsh and some English, and was always happy to jump between all three, often in the same sentence. But I think his real fluency was colour.

What I learnt about colour, and why William never painted himself into a corner.

So firstly William didn’t mix paint. He worked with tubes of different colours, including attractive metal hues. He must have had dozens of tubes all ready to smear and brush and knife his visions into. But there was more to it than that. William saw the colours beneath the colours. So a bear wouldn’t be brown; it’d be brown overlaid with another shade of brown and gold. A background on which the bears moved (too vivid to count and ever reach the same total) wouldn’t be red. It’d be red with chunks of vivid red, and so on and so on. Vivid, shimmering, hallucinogenic. Those bears wouldn’t stay still. Forever moving, forever in the same place. Searching, journeying. Forever. For an instant, captured moving in time.

Oh yes, and watching paint dry was a most interesting experience, said William. I imagine no-one else will tell me that, which makes me a little sad.

Elastic Black Dog

Came from a dream that Carys had. Carys, or William, happened to mention the dream of an elastic black dog, stretching up from a pavement to a bedroom window. So we had a little adventure, me writing a book in an afternoon, visiting William’s studio in Pontrhydycyff and William producing a studio-load of illustrations in an afternoon. It was a joy to see; William dipping a blunt stick into ink and pulling the most remarkable cartoons out of nowhere. I’d read the lines aloud and he’d draw them out, like a visionary shorthand secretary on the phone to a Limbo Leonardo.

Carys didn’t seem to mind our stealing of her dream-title. She turned a blind eye as we used the school copier to print off a hundred-or-so copies of the book’s pages. Then a trip to Gwasg Morgannwg, where Gareth Richards kindly let me trim the edges on his guillotine.

[Picture: Elastic Black Dog]

Yr Enwog Iolo

A Cornish cactus, Iolo fell into our fragile reality on a trip to the Eden Centre in Cornwall. I brought it back as a present for William; I thought it might be one of the few things which could survive in his studio. Instantly named Iolo, and instantly finding a home in William’s paintings.



And that would indeed be it. That should be it. My half-forgotten memories of William, the friend I never knew.

If there wasn’t a nagging feeling just behind where the back of my head should be that I’ve forgotten something that I could have, should have remembered. Fingerprints on my brain.

It might be the Night Rainbow I see outside, or the Mari Llwyd drunk in my doorway. It won’t go away, I’m not even sure if I want it to anymore. But yes, no. The paintings are not the thing. That’s not where it’s at. The paintings are only a window, a door into themselves. Into ourselves.

Aberarthur After the Rain

On the surface one of his most straightforward paintings, with a generous appearance by a full cast of characters. The Mari Lwyd, the Night Rainbow, bear tears, Loup Garoux, a chapel, the town hall. Smoke.

But I live in that row of houses. I know that dog. And that’s exactly how it’s not. There’s something shifting, like perspective in a mirror. The shadow of the reflection of a half-forgotten life.

[Picture: Aberarthur After The Rain]

Virtual Reality of the most real kind. It might not always happen with the prints, but it’ll always happen with his paintings, if you stop to drink. Them in.

That’s almost an echo of what I’m getting to try at. An echo of the idea that comes before the words. The stories that are never told, but are always there to be seen. Those bears. Always walking. In the same place. The landscape. Is reversed. In three dimensions. It’s obviously not there. So obviously that it couldn’t not be there. More real than real, that’s a fact.

The landscape that exists behind where my head should end. Not a reflection of reality, but a reflection of the dreams in a mind. But not a reflection, the reproduction of the original thing reflected back at me from behind another’s eyes.

So drink up, my furry friend. These words are written in salt. And there are no dreams in Dogtown. Only the half-remembered fragments of the tales that we always meant to tell, which somehow got better for being told aloud and shifted uneasily through the ages.

Meeting Mr. Brown – David Greenslade

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.  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 portrait sketching (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 sketching 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


Independent Obituary – Laura Gascoinge

William Brown: Painter and printmaker

Saturday 26 July 2008



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Brown: a cross between Jacques Tati and David Bellamy

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”.

Laura Gascoigne

William Brown, painter and printmaker: born Toronto, Ontario 11 December 1953; twice married (one daughter); died Bridgend 17 July 2008.


Lucien Suel’s Poem for William’s Memorial Service


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.

Lucien Suel

La Tiremande, 20 juillet 2008.

Alison Bevan’s article for the Western Morning News


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.

Alison Bevan



Laura Gascoinge’s interview with William for Jackdaw.

William Brown


I first met William Brown when I went to interview him for Artists & Illustrators in 1998. His dealer David Solomon sat us down in the back of East West Gallery with two pints; William was too big to hide behind his. “What are you going to do to me?” he asked in the tone of someone addressing the wearer of a white coat. It turned out to be more a question of what he would do to me.


William Brown was a giant. He looked like one, with his big broad face and shaggy red beard, and he painted like one, boldly in bright colours. Having travelled for much of his life collecting folklore, he also bestrode the world in seven league boots. His conversations were typically conducted in a mixture of English, French and Welsh. This was just about comprehensible face to face, but turned into gobbledygook over the phone. The instinctive reaction on picking up the phone to William was to say ‘Wrong number’ and put it down again. His letters, though, were always a delight when they arrived in envelopes covered with rubber stamps and scribbles, weeks late if at all (he didn’t do postcodes). Deciphering them could be a struggle – in the margin of one I found I’d written, “Speak English, damn you!” – but behind the nonsense lay a deep fund of wit and wisdom. Here, from the pad I took to that interview, are some examples.


On lies and myths –


“Artists have to be nosey, to read, to remember or half-remember. Lying is important too: read ‘lie’ for ‘myth’. If I say I’m scared by a cat and it’s the size of a fridge and has wings, then it’s a myth not a lie, so it’s OK… I steal ideas, usually from children (because they’re smaller). I refer to poetry, especially 19th century French: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Villon – all liars.”


On watercolour –


“It’s an interesting little science. You know when people say ‘It’s like watching paint dry’… I can’t think of anything more interesting than watching paint dry, it performs for you. Did you know that if a colour is poking up through another it’s described as ‘grinning’? I don’t want to mystify painting but it’s the most rewarding of things. It has a life.”


On arts council administrators –


“I prefer to work for a commercial gallery. Arts Council galleries have no desire to sell. They will sit and daunt the public… We need to deadhead a bit here and there, that’s how you produce blooms. It may sound corny, but we want a handful of people who actually like pictures – enthusiasts, to use an old-fashioned word. There should be a five-year contract for them – they leave feet first in these jobs. Most of them had some impulse towards being creative and have been subjected to about 25 years of meetings. They become completely enervated by the job.”


On the idea of ‘art in the community’ – 


“Where have I been? Have I been living in a cave for the past 20 years?”


On the obligation to perform –


“Je fais mon cirque. I won’t receive my stipend from the education department unless I perform. I don’t want to do two weeks’ Face Painting with Uncle William. I don’t want to work with children, old people and inadequates, I am one.”


On art and memory –


“All art is about recognition, it’s all remembered. Memory is the defining human trait – association and memory. There’s an eidetic thing at the back of the head that says, ‘Don’t cross the road now, there’s a bus coming.’”


On drawing –


“I draw like people knit, I can sit at a table and do 200. I’ve a 10% success rate with drawings. Editing is the most important. Stream of consciousness is all very well, but the critical faculty is central. It’s knowing when to stop, knowing which one.”


In the middle of my notes there’s a biro drawing by William of a pig with a curly tail under an iron bridge. At the time, he was working on a series of pictures inspired by Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, which showed a little church from Guarbecque in Pas de Calais descending apocalyptically out of a cloud onto Newport Transporter Bridge.  In the pig drawing he was toying with the idea of a visual pun on Newport Transporker Bridge. The critical faculty edited that out, but happily not before it got into my notebook.


Laura Gascoigne


Contributions from Keith Bayliss

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