(Blogpost) Exploring ‘Refugee’ by Kathleen Williams

Kathleen Williams, ‘The Refugee’ , 1943 (c) Swindon Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This week Art on Tour decided to explore portraits from Swindon’s art collection, and it didn’t take us long to discover that there are… well… rather a lot of them. This isn’t surprising, given that portraiture is one of the most enduring themes in British art; from those famous bull-like images of Henry VIII, to the revolutionary romanticism of Thomas Gainsborough.  

I could sit here all day talking about famous portraits and portraitists of the past, so rich is British history with images of people… powerful, pompous, poverty-stricken and everything in between. But today I just want to talk about one very special portrait from Swindon’s collection.

This particular piece isn’t notable as a groundbreaking piece of modern painting, as other pieces in the collection are. Nor is it by a famous “name” in our great canon of British art. In fact, we don’t know very much about ‘Refugee’ at all, other than it was painted in 1943 by Kathleen Williams, who lived between 1911-1997 and was a successful portrait painter in Bath.

Yet ‘Refugee’ has been one of my favourite portraits from Swindon’s collection since I can remember, and I can’t let Art on Tour’s celebration of portraiture pass by without drawing attention to it. So in the absence of concrete facts, I want to think about the portrait in terms of my individual reasons for loving it (sometimes it’s nice to just think about why you like something) and also what can be deduced from the little information we do have about it.  

So what makes me respond so strongly to this particular portrait? Partly because of how it is painted. Williams makes use of a very limited, “no thrills” colour palette of black, beige and a little pink, but this only enhances my awareness of the incredibly sensitive way she has painted the sitter. Using soft, fluid brushstrokes, she captures touching details such as the slight flush in her cheeks, and light wisps of hair. She also very beautifully depicts the subtle play of light and shadow on the sitters face.

There’s no doubt about it… Kathleen Williams sure can paint a portrait.

But who is the sitter? That, I’m afraid, remains a mystery. Luckily for us though, the title and the date do provide us with a bit of information. In the context of the Second World War this portrait of a refugee seems to signify displacement and loss, and this is further suggested by her jet black clothes and their associations with mourning.

It also seems that Williams has captured something like sadness and resignation in the sitter’s eyes, and there is something quite psychologically intense about the way she looks out to us. I’d argue that in the absence of any other information provided by the artist, this unforgettable gaze makes us wonder all the more about the experiences of this anonymous refugee.

‘Refugee’ is currently on show at Swindon’s Civic Offices as part of the Art on Tour programme. Sadly it isn’t available to view at the moment due to Covid-19, so hopefully this blogpost has provided an interesting alternative to seeing the work “in the flesh” for the time being!

Quick plug to finish with – If you enjoyed this, and want more of the same, why not have a listen to Episode 18 of our Art Snaps podcast ‘About Face’, which explores more wonderful portraits from the Swindon Collection –Available Here.

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill

2 thoughts on “(Blogpost) Exploring ‘Refugee’ by Kathleen Williams

  1. Thank you for introducing us (or me at least) to Kathleen Williams and I am determined to find out more about her. Like so many British portraits of that era the black and yellow ochre create such a wartime mood and, as you say, it is so sensitively painted. The Art Snaps selection is an interesting take on portraiture, with your examples of the differing artistic aims. I speak as a portrait painter myself who likes to build a story into the composition if a sitter wants their life around her/him, but also likes to focus solely on the person with no distractions. I’ve just been reading ‘True to Life, British Realist Painting in the 1920’s and 1930’s’ by Patrick Elliott and Sacha Llewellyn. Quite a different take to this week’s Art Snap!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Juliet. It’s great to hear your own thoughts as a portrait painter, and what you’re reading at the moment sounds really great! There’s always a push and pull between realism, abstraction and expression in British art history which I find really ineteresting.


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