Friday, 4 December 2009

The Art of a Climber

Bill Wynn was born in Chester where he gained a scholarship to the city's Grosvenor College of Art. Whilst there he was awarded the Randolph Caldecott Memorial Prize but did not attach much importance to it at the time. It was not until 1996 and the celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic of the 150th anniversary of the painter and illustrator's birth that Bill learned of and made contact with the thriving Caldecott Society and its sister organisation in America. After art school and national service he worked in advertising agencies In Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.
Following his marriage to Marjorie Woolley in 1959, and their move to a cottage on the edge of the Derbyshire moors, he set up as a freelance commercial artist, practising this occupation for the rest of his life. In 1964 the family moved to Trefriw in the Conwy Valley and some years later to an isolated small-holding above the eastern rim of the valley, engaged mainly in commissioned work for children's publications, magazines and television storyboards. From time to time he also taught art at Llandrillo College.

These commitments represented only a fraction of his output. On holidays -- in Mallorca, Corsica, the Greek Islands, Kenya -- he carried sketchbooks which form pictorial diaries. And wherever he went, from the local agricultural show to the Venice Carnival, on the spot or within a few hours, he captured whatever caught his eye with whatever materials lay to hand. To the amusement or mortification of his friends, he often indulged his passion for the figure in caricature or cartoon. He expressed it more seriously in occasional studies of climbers in action and in the erotic art to which he devoted much time in later years. He was at ease in most traditional media but also enjoyed improvisation: he would paint with a feather, draw with a charred stick from the fire, use the dregs from the coffee pot as a wash; a number of his most characteristic pieces are found to be on the backs of college memos or cardboard boxes. He rarely exhibited and never showed the whole range of his work.

Bill started climbing about 1950 with Keith Shone, a fellow-student who was to remain a life-long friend. They were self-taught but almost immediately stumbled upon the unexplored limestone quarry at Maeshafn. On joining the Chester Mountaineering Club their expertise advanced and strengthened by the recruitment of Frank Corner the Maeshafn campaign gained impetus. Clwyd Rock now describes, under names given by later visitors, twenty climbs listed simply as pre-1974. Some photographs survive from not later than 1953 and one shows Corner leading their "Sweat Crack" which could easily be identified.

For almost fifty years Bill enjoyed climbing and hill-walking. (He also had a partiality for adventures on water In unseaworthy canoes, preferring to repair or improvise rather than to buy modern equipment, and he was once an on-the-spot entrant in the Nevis River Race.) In the fifties, at a modest standard, he climbed fairly widely in Britain and also at Arolla and Chamonix. On moving to Wales he teamed up on rare occasions with mainstream activists but mainly kept the company of an older group, centred around Dick Morsley and Len Baggott, from the North Wales Mountaineering Club. He developed a taste for snow gullies at that time and in later years he had the pleasure of excursions with his sons, one an accomplished rock-climber, the other a keen fell-runner and alpinist.
Mountain painting burgeoned with the Romantics but it began five hundred years ago in Europe, in ancient times in the East. It has engaged artists of such world-wide repute and has excited so much commentary as to stand within landscape painting -for mountaineers at least- as a closed genre. By contrast hardly any artists have produced substantial collections of climbers in action.(In Britain, at present, the only other sizable body of work seems to be that of Shelley Hocknell.) The reason is obvious. It's not that leaders are unprepared to hang on while the second sets up an easel or sharpens a pencil. Rather, it's that rock-climbing began about 100 years ago, alpine climbing about 150 years ago: but the camera appeared 160 years ago.

In Victorian times engravers had used their skills to illustrate the first mountaineering books and, since Whymper himself was an engraver, some realism was introduced in this work. But by the time of the Abraham brothers the camera was becoming, with difficulty, portable. Rapid development quickly made it the easy means of recording action. The artist, however, has other resources and Bill Wynn had a crucial combination of these. He was gifted with astonishing eidetic recall. He had a strong interest in kinaesthetics. And his work as a commercial artist had reinforced his natural decisiveness, fluency of line, and ability to discard the unnecessary.

Before his death, two groups of climbing paintings had already passed into private hands. Exceptionally, one of these groups (exhibited as 'The Maneaters') was inspired by John Cleare's black-and-white photographs in Tony Smythe's Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia, though no-one unfamiliar with the book could have guessed at a photographic origin. The cliffs appeared in sparing suggestion, the tiny figures were located perhaps with the simple pin-pointing of a red helmet. They were acquired by the one-time owner of Cobden's Hotel at Capel Curig and their subsequent fate is unknown. The other collection is that of Edwin Hammond and it is hoped that all but one of these paintings will be on loan at Bretton flail -- the missing work being slightly damaged after two months' entombment by an avalanche in the Alps last winter.

After Bill's death his work was found to include about eighty further climbing drawings and paintings. A number of these are roughs and show his affection for the cartoon. Almost all are small-scale since he was by inclination a miniaturist and his preferred practice was to work at the finished size for the printed page. The immediacy and originality of this work is evident. Much of it dates from around 1970 and centres on snow gullies or classic climbs. The figures are draped in old-fashioned equipment and winter gear, the sun isn't shining. The sense of effort and purpose, however, is striking and these paintings seem to have an advantage over technically perfect colour photographs of extremists on sundrenched rock. In those photographs the viewer's curiosity is frustrated by the one crucial matter which is forever hidden -- the nature of those few square centimetres of interface between the fingertips and the rock. In a Wynn drawing the figure has a comprehensible lodgement and the balance and involvement of the whole body is understood.

Bill would have drawn great satisfaction from this occasion. Since he can't speak for himself it seems appropriate to remember him briefly. When people summed him up they said that he was a 'character ' and there's no more accurate word. There were two sides to that character. Meeting him at a party or a disco you'd have thought him the gregarious type. He'd drink with the best, he'd tell immensely entertaining stories, and finally he'd get up and dance with exuberance until the music stopped. When his name came up, people smiled: or they smiled and shook their heads. On the other hand he preferred to live three or four miles from the nearest shop or pub. And he was apparently able to hole up there, sometimes for weeks at a time, without getting cabin fever. Perhaps he had a contract deadline, or was simply engrossed in the loving restoration of further additions to the huge display of old trade artefacts and obsolete agricultural implements through which Pant y Rhedyn had become a memorial to forgotten skills.

In fact, he had a strong streak of territoriality, planting 700 trees to shield the house from the little-travelled lane. The uninvited visitors who came because it was their duty -­building inspectors, policemen, Jehovah's Witnesses -- must have groaned at the thought of a second visit. (The building Inspectors wanted him to do things their way, the policemen wanted him to lock up his arsenal of firearms, the Jehovah's Witnesses wanted to save him, an unrealistic aim.)
His independence of mind shocked some and delighted others. A new Head of Art and Design at Llandrillo called a preliminary meeting of his fifteen staff. Having seated them In a semi-circle he asked them to introduce themselves in turn and make suggestions for closer co-ordination of their work. The first speakers stumbled through. Bill stood up, looked the group over, and said that his name was Bill Wynn, that he was there to teach painting and drawing, and that he knew how to do it.
Then he declared that he thought the whole exercise unnecessary and a waste of everybody's time. This announcement lifted a burden from some newly appointed staff who had been anxiously rehearsing their parts.

Contemporary art didn't inevitably impress him. Arriving early for a private viewing of an exhibition of modern sculpture he seized his chance, arranging his coat and scarf around a man-sized scrap metal construction before moving a chair to a strategic position. Then he observed as little knots of people drifted up to discuss it, only a few glancing uneasily over their shoulders.
He was able to find grim humour in dismal circumstance. Many years ago, intending a Sunday walk up Pen yr Oleu Wen, he decided to avoid the crowds by starting about a half mile down the Bethesda road and taking a shallow gully through the cliffs of Braich Ty Du. At the outfall of this gully he discovered the body of a man which had clearly lain there a long time and was clad only in street clothes and shoes. He returned to the Rescue Post to notify the team on standby, who were puzzled at his refusal to guide them. Then he explained that he'd found an old Mini tyre by the roadside and had propped it on top of the wall: if they walked straight up from that point they would find- the spot in ten minutes. Replanning his day, he set off up the Glyders, aware of a great deal of activity when he risked a backward glance. On returning to the car park some hours later he found a single policeman loitering and asked if everything had been sorted out. A confrontation followed, Bill insisting that he couldn't spend his day out gaping at the emergency services in action.

Called to a Police Station a day or two later to make a statement, he was surprised at the presence of a senior officer and at the turn the interview took.
Thank you, sir. And now, if you wouldn't mind answering a few questions.
Mr Wynn, did you recognise this man?
Have you, at any time in your life, lived in Birmingham?
No? Never? Well, when did you last visit the city?
Do you have any interests in any taxi business in Birmingham?
Do you know anybody in the taxi business in North Wales?
And you tell us that you've never lived in Birmingham? And you're certain you never met this man?
The body was, in fact, that of a young man from Liverpool. What Bill didn't know was that the police had an open file on a man from the Midlands, missing for some time but whose abandoned car had been found in the area, and that the Chief of Gwynedd CID had immediately hastened up to Ogwen. Finally he was dismissed with the reminder that he'd be needed at the Inquest and the remark that the police might want to talk to him again. The interview had delighted as well as astonished him. It confirmed everything he believed about authority. Probably the only authority he could ever have acknowledged would be that of someone who could draw a perfect line.

Harold Drasdo©

The above piece was originally penned to accompany a series of exhibitions held after Bill's death in 1998 which included shows at The Electric Mountain in Llanberis and The Mountain Festival of Literature at Bretton Hall. Thanks to Harold for permission to re-publish this work and to Marjorie Wynn for her support and cooperation.

All photographs and images Marjorie Wynn Collection ©