'Down the centuries the people of Wales have felt themselves be particularly at one with the land they live on, its substance and its meanings, and they have honoured the mystic loyalty in poetry as in legend. Firmly in this tradition stands the art of Dan Llywelyn Hall – firmly, hauntingly, and as instinct demands, sometimes in grand challenge too.'
Jan Morris 2016
'Plantation in Red' Acrylic on canvas 2009
Essay by Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Dan Llywelyn Hall follows a tradition which first flourished amid the dreams of the Romantics. He is part of that visionary lineage of painters for whom the world was suffused by the mind of its seer, for whom landscape became an embodiment of human feeling and thought. It was this spirit of immanence which such British artists as Turner and Constable were aiming to capture; which their succession of followers from Samuel Palmer through John Piper and Graham Sutherland to Paul Nash all set out to evoke.
Reflections of such predecessors may be glimpsed in Llywelyn Hall’s work along with those of other formative influences as varied as the impetuous passions of Chaim Soutine or the simplified patterns of Henri Matisse. But, drawn together in the bright, sometimes hazily nebulous, sometimes wilfully jarring, surfaces of Llywelyn Hall’s paintings, they work to conjure a fresh, idiosyncratic and fundamentally modern mood.
Llywelyn Hall works rapidly, often out of doors in fast drying gouache or acrylic. But even when it comes to oil works done in the studio, few take more than two or three sittings to complete. This immediacy is important. Llywelyn Hall builds up his images with wandering lines and thin washes of colour, bold swipes of bright pigment and big all-but unmodulated blobs. He is not interested in detailing the minutiae. Rather he sets out to capture a sense of atmosphere afresh. What his paintings show is not the world which surrounds us as a camera might record it, but a landscape as it captures a moment of experience. Llywelyn Hall paints a world haunted by his own memories.
Is memory everything we keep or everything that we lose? The experiences that shape us are quintessentially transient. And yet they are always fixed in a place, the artist explains. When we recall them we recall also their location. These are not just places he paints, but specific moments.
Sometimes he highlights their transience. A figure is caught poised in a momentary mid-handstand balance; a half-smoked cigarette smoulders on a window sill. These are images, the artist reminds us, of fleeting fragments of time. But more frequently, this awareness of time’s passing is more broadly pervasive. The world is mutable. It is altered and adapted by each changing age. Llywelyn Hall is no picturesque painter, blotting out traces of the present as he searches for scenic perfections. Rather he tends to prefer modern subjects from the wind farms which have been planted like giant daisies upon the moors and the mountain-sides of his native Wales through the final flight of Concorde as it cuts through an autumn sunset to television images of the Iraq conflict taking place on the very spot where the vast ziggurat of Ancient Babylon once reared its great stone head.
Llywelyn Hall focuses on his own personal response. He picks out those aspects of a scene which most strike him with strong outlines or bright colours or glowing touches of light. He shows us a world as it is shaped by his feelings and moods. His Plantation in Red, for instance, a vivid image from a Mustique holiday depicts an open space between serried ranks of trees. “The island felt pretty barren to me, just lots of wealthy houses that amounted almost to nothing,” Llywelyn Hall explains; “but I went to this spot to try to clear my head.” The viewer taps into his mood as he watches the way in which the clutter is swept to the sides of the canvas, leaving only calming expanses of emptiness at the picture’s core. Or he senses the strange, almost mystic attraction, of the eerily radiant wind turbines which gather together to create an electric force field.
Llywelyn Hall’s images belong to those elusive hinterlands which lie somewhere between the ostensible subjects of his pictures - the trees, stones or mountains, the sunbathing girls or wind turbines or tents which he plonks down unabashedly in the middle of his pictures - and the shadowy atmospheres which he conjures around them through the way that he paints. Even as images emerge before the eye, they dissolve back again into the landscapes of the mind.
It seems no accident that a recurrent motif in Llywelyn Hall’s work is a winding path looping its way like some meandering perspective line towards the furthermost horizons. This is an artist who leads his spectators beyond the frame of his pictures into a land of imagination, into a place in which the looker may wander and wonder and eventually get lost.
Rachel Campbell Johnston
'What Goes on Amongst Those Lights', Oil on canvas 2012
Dan Llywelyn Hall in conversation with Andrew Lambirth 2013
AL: Rachel Campbell-Johnston has described your work as being ‘bright, sometimes hazily nebulous, sometimes wilfully jarring’. Is that fair?
DLH: I would say yes. I definitely try to create slightly jarring effects.
DLH: Because I don’t like the slickness of something that’s too well polished. I like a slight awkwardness that’s created by the jarring of forms – it’s more convincing. And it’s harder to cultivate, actually. When you first see that awkwardness you think it’s something accidental, then when it’s repeated in certain forms, you appreciate it more.
AL: And you strive for that rather than achieving it by accident? DLH: I try to, certainly with figures. It’s a very hard thing to achieve. But if you do get it right, the form can be awkward but it creates its own harmony.
AL: Let’s consider your general approach to your subject. You’re very keen to go off and investigate new places, making what might be termed research trips.
DLH: A lot of the time I’m going in the steps of somebody I admire, not necessarily a painter, it could be a writer or someone like that. I suppose I’m curious about the commonality of experience and how it validates the work by going to a place and experiencing it for yourself. Then I’ll branch out from that...
AL: You don’t get disappointed because the place doesn’t live up to the way they’ve painted it or written about it?
DLH: I don’t actually, because I already have an appreciation of the book or whatever, and the place in some ways is irrelevant. It’s a starting point, and it only becomes relevant when the work I’m doing is realized. Experiencing the place is important, but what takes over is memory and some sort of emotive reaction.
DLH: Not really. I think of imagination as being something that is made up, that hasn’t happened as a sensation. Memory is crucial.
AL: But memory distorts, one remembers certain things not others. Do you like that process?
DLH: Yes I do, because when I say memory I suppose I’m really talking about one’s emotional memory. You go through a set of experiences in your life and something will trigger that feeling again, and that makes the whole thing for me an exciting process. Not always a nice process: you can be unpicking wounds.
AL: So is it all autobiographical then?
DLH: I suppose it is increasingly so. I’m less interested in just recording a place, for the sake of the place itself, I think that’s a slightly pointless process really.
AL: But when you first go somewhere, don’t you make studies of it which are just recording its appearance?
DLH: I do but I don’t really like relying on the sketches to work from. When I get back to my studio I’ve put it behind me already so I don’t refer to my drawings. I’ve already committed it to memory. I’ve never worked from sketchbooks and studies when I’m back in the studio. It’s something I’d quite like to do, because I’m sure it can help you to refine certain things, but again it goes back to creating this awkwardness. It’s something that can’t be rehearsed – you have to catch it, and if it’s right, that’s it and the magic is there. But the moment you start to try to cultivate a way of processing it, you lose the immediacy and it becomes obviously trite.
AL: Actually that’s a problem with all studio work, isn’t it?
DLH: I think it is a problem for paintings that are made in that way, by process and a methodical way of working. The problem for me is to strike a line between that way of working and being in front of the subject. With my portraits, all of which are painted alone in the studio, I see the sittings as research: one or two hours of drawing or taking photographs.
AL: I know you’re quite interested in the British Romantic tradition of painting. Would you consider yourself to be a part of that?
DLH: I do feel as though I carry the baton in some funny way. The Neo-Romantics worked in a period which I think was honest. They were charged with a sense of place, and that great lineage through from Samuel Palmer to Sutherland. That interests me a lot. I feel as though I’m more at home in that milieu.
AL: So they’ve been quite an influence on you?
DLH: The biggest, I think, in the last five years.
AL: And among them Sutherland most?
DLH: Yes, but less so now. The works on paper, the studies, are more interesting.
AL: You saw that show at Oxford, didn’t you? [Entitled Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World, it concentrated on Sutherland’s drawings and ran from December 2011 to March 2012 at Modern Art Oxford.]
DLH: Yes, it was terrific.
AL: Do you paint a lot?
DLH: I do. I work intensively, but not constantly. You need time to think about the paintings in a conscious and subconscious way. So much of it just simmers away without you realizing. That’s how you keep real emotion in pictures. I think it’s important never to force the issue – it has to be as organic as possible.
AL: One of the things that annoys me about contemporary art is that so much of it is washing dirty linen in public. Surely the aim is to balance it in some way: to have emotion in art but also distance from it. You have to have that distance, don’t you?
DLH: Oh, definitely. You don’t want to be saccharine about it or pour everything out. You don’t want to alienate the audience, but you want them to participate, you want to create a point of access to the picture so that they can make it their own. Otherwise you might as well tear out a page of your diary and give it to them.
AL: We’re agreed then that art has to take raw material and transform it, to translate what you’ve seen through what you’ve experienced. How much do you think about the formal aspects of what you do? The way shapes and colours go together – or is that instinctive?
DLH: I liken that really to playing golf. It’s a game much like painting. You learn the formal elements and then you’re always tweaking and improving. You learn the game at an early age and then later when you’re playing properly you’re thinking about the shot and where the ball is going to go. You’re not thinking about how you’re going to swing the club. It’s like that with painting: you’re thinking about what you want the paint to do, what you want it to say, you’re thinking about the content, and all the rest of it is second nature. If you start stumbling over how you’re using the brush or what shapes you’re going to put down, you’re definitely not thinking about the end game. So I always have the idea of the painting in my head. I think about the title, for example, the words of the title, and sometimes I think that’s not really relevant to the picture, but it keeps me focused on the idea.
AL: Does one mark lead to another? Do you find that the process drives it along? Or is it the idea that’s keeping it all together?
DLH: The process – the joy of applying paint to a surface – guides you through. The forms that are more appealing to your eye and more harmonious go down first, and then one mark does lead to another. That transition is very dependent on emotion as you move across the picture.
AL: Where do you actually begin a picture?
DLH: I think I start off-centre, to the right probably. Which can mean you have problems with the composition when you get to the back.
AL: Have you ever had to add on a section to a painting?
DLH: Never. I don’t like the look of that – it has a clumsiness to it.
AL: You stick to the given rectangle.
DLH: I do. That restraint, that sense of forcing yourself to work into one area, is a discipline I like. Otherwise where do you end?
AL: What do you call the kind of art you’re making? Realism?
DLH: No, I think Expressionism is the closest. For example, take the realm of portraiture. Now we’re in a very conservative period as to what a portrait is, and what portraiture is doing, and it’s left unchallenged. Big institutions champion the highly slick, comfortable, photographic medium, which is so far away from what painting is or should be about. If you get into the position of making a painting look like a photograph, people will always compare it to a photograph, so they tend to pick holes in it. You end up in the wilderness, because you lose the appreciation of the common man, and those that know a bit more and love painting are never going to appreciate a photographic portrait.
AL: When you put marks on a canvas, are they to do with what something you’re trying to paint looks like, or because you like the pattern they make? Or is it a mixture of the two?
DLH: A mixture, really. I do begin by trying to translate a form onto the picture, by building up the paint. Sometimes you observe a pattern that you create, normally accidentally, then you adapt or adopt that as a separate motif worth working with, and it can become a focal point. But I never think I’m going to make a nice pattern here – it will always emerge from looking at something.
AL: So you welcome chance?
DLH: Yes, it’s very important, otherwise you do nothing new. You just become very formulaic, saying the same thing over and over again. Everybody will be inclined to work in a comfort zone, and do something they’re familiar with, but they’re not learning anything, or furthering their experience. They’re not moving in any direction at all, they’re stagnating. So chance is critical.
AL: Do you find it works differently with different materials? Do you have a preferred medium? You use acrylic, oil, watercolour and so on.
DLH: A lot of that is dictated by practical considerations of where you’re working and what can be transported. When I’m travelling, I always take acrylics – partly because they dry quickly but also because they have their own qualities which can be worked on. But the medium itself is important, whether I’m using a crayon or a nib, for instance. A crayon can be much more gestural – you take on a different set of marks, and you’re drawing on a different set of emotions as well. You can surprise yourself by how differently you can react to a subject by using different materials.
AL: Have you done much printmaking?
DLH: A fair amount. I’m starting a set of etchings for Dylan Thomas’ centenary [27 October 2014], working directly from his poems. Etching is a medium I would liken very much to words – the rhythm and line perhaps – and the drawing on the plate is almost like a form of hand-writing.
AL: How important are the landscapes in your oeuvre?
DLH: Landscape creates the theatre, the set, for much more crucial things. Landscape painting these days has had such a bad press, a stigma – as a genre it’s mistreated by contemporary art. You can’t really make it ironic, and that’s its drawback for contemporary art galleries.
AL: All art doesn’t have to be ironic...
DLH: No, but a lot of fashionable art is.
AL: And that’s partly because people shy away from directness of emotion.
DLH: Irony certainly seems to be the common thread in the contemporary art scene.
AL: Not in your work?
DLH: No. Irony is for people who haven’t got any backbone, who are afraid of putting their emotions into the work. I think you’ve got to be very brave if you’re going to make something that is heartfelt and meaningful, you’ve got to be prepared to put yourself on the line. That’s absolutely essential.
Recorded in Suffolk in January 2013 and subsequently edited.
Wreckage of Carnedd Llewelyn, 2007
SUE HUBBARD, 2007
There is room enough for a natural painture. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt at something beyond the truth….Fashion always had, & will have its day – but Truth (in all things) only will last and can have just claims to posterity.
How pertinent Constable’s words seem to the present day when we are surrounded at every turn by bravura and fashion in the art world, where truth and authenticity appear like values from another age. In this climate of postmodern shock can it still be said that there is ‘room enough for a natural painture’, for art that through an exploration of landscape reaches towards truth and authenticity?
To paint landscape is to acknowledge history, for the land holds memories. Fields have local names, villages – many which date back in some form to the eleventh century - are part of ancient parishes where every byway and bridle path has a story to tell and trees that have stood for several centuries are silent witnesses to long forgotten events. To paint the landscape is a way of seeing, one that embraces the mystical, the spiritual and the sublime. It is also a record of the passing of time, not just of the changing seasons but of the use of the land itself. For the beauty of landscape is ephemeral and evokes in us a sense of our own mortality. Its gradual disappearance, through our mismanagement and careless indifference, is a reminder of a lost innocence, of a pre-lapsarian world where people and nature were once, apparently, more organically connected.
Today landscape painting is viewed as marginal, peripheral to the philosophical and conceptual concerns of contemporary art. Traditionalists see it as upholding a nostalgic vision of timeless values, whilst for most modernists the landscape is essentially urban, tainted and dysfunctional. To be labelled a landscape painter is something that many ambitious young painters would wish to avoid and modernism and postmodernism have allowed little room for its continuation as a viable practice. Yet landscape painting has, for centuries, described what it is like to live in these small islands. And here the problem lies; for not only is painting itself struggling at the beginning of the 21st century to justify its existence among video, photography and installation but we are also largely uncomfortable with any attempt to define national identity.
It is against this background that Dan Llywelyn Hall’s intense paintings unapologetically deal with the natural world. They owe much to the legacy of William Bake and Samuel Palmer, along with the Neo-Romantics of the 1940s such as Piper and Ayrton and Llywelyn Hall’s compatriot, David Jones. Sutherland and Nash have also been profound influences. Llywelyn Hall’s crashed bombers in the Brecon Beacons’ echo something of the shattered carcases of the grounded fighter planes in Nash’s powerful Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 40-41. For Llywelyn Hall, as for Nash, certain places seem to have a talismanic quality, a genius loci or 'spirit of a place'. Before making a painting he usually decides on a location, and then takes photographs. After that he strips away what he calls ‘evidence’ to leave the raw essence of a form which he explores through his intense, free use of colour.
Yeats line: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” comes to mind, for there is something disquieting about these works, as if everything was in a state of flux. In Ruin of Nice 2006 the far pavilion and the surrounding ruins seem to be dissolving, as if only through the physical language of paint and the avoidance of literal description, can anything true be said. For this is not a slavish copying but an investigation, a reaching for the heart of things. Like Nash’s landscapes Dan Llywelyn Hall’s have something quietly visionary, something elegiac about them. For Nash the underlying elements of foreboding were those of death and war, while in Llywelyn Hall’s work there is a sense that he is describing the end of something; a world that even as he is trying to distil it on canvas is disappearing beneath a welter of development or being destroyed by our casual indifference.
His studies of ancient trees, including Doon Tree, the name given to the last hanging tree in Scotland, have something troubled and anthropomorphic about them. There is a visual intensity based on familiarity and close observation, yet like the best poems all meaning is not instantly revealed but suggested through the processes of engagement. These are paintings that have to be felt as much as understood. Like his precursors Nash and Sutherland, who owed a debt to Surrealism, Llywelyn Hall’s work fits within the Romantic tradition of visionary British fantasy from Blake to Christopher le Brun.
Yet this is not simply neo-Romantic pastiche but rather an attempt to redefine the past within the present. The roots of his trees reach back to extract succour from the fertile terrain that has gone before allowing him to stand firm against the current tide of irony and razzmatazz and create a ‘natural painture’ that searches for authenticity and truth in a way that, I am sure, Constable would have admired.
Sue Hubbard is a poet, novelist and freelance art critic
"...his work is painterly but not reactionary, offering a unique character and blend; enthusiasm for high art, graphic vividness... and an interest in spiritual values..."
Andrew Lambirth, Spectator 2014