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Famous names from mystery artist

By Neil Prior
BBC News

Gladys Williamson poster for bananas
Gladys Williamson was commissioned to promote brands in the early 1930s

If Gladys Williamson is not a name which immediately springs to mind when recounting cutting edge Welsh artists, don't worry.

Because until recently, not even the experts knew a lot about her.

Yet, 70 years after they were produced, 50 of the originals of her advertising posters from the art deco age are the talk of collectors in north Wales.

They are also among pieces being auctioned on Saturday in Colwyn Bay, including works by Sir Kyffin Williams.

David Rogers-Jones, of auctioneers Rogers-Jones and Co, said despite working to promote famous brands in the 1930s, such as Dunlop, MG Cars, Great Western Railways and Fyffe's Bananas, "incredibly very little is known about the artist herself."

Gladys Williamson
It sadly seems as though she didn't like to talk about how successful she'd been during the 1930s
David Rogers-Jones, auctioneer

The artist spent most of her life in Bontuchel, Denbighshire, but her work is from a period before then.

Mr Rogers-Jones added: "Judging by her high-profile commissions, she must have been extremely well thought of at the time, but after the war she seems to have been totally forgotten about.

"The posters on sale were bequeathed to her friends and neighbours in Bontuchel after her death, and as far as we can make out, this is the first time they've seen the light of day in 70 years."

It is thought that she studied at Liverpool Art College some time during the late 1920s or early 1930s. A 1931 certificate from the Royal Drawing Society is among the lots on sale on Saturday.

After that it seems she went to London to work at an exclusive fashion house. Dresses in the royal collection, made for Princess Marina and Queen Mary during the period bear her name as designer.

This must also have been her most successful time as a graphic designer in advertising. However, in the middle of the 1930s, seemingly at the height of her career, she left to live in the Netherlands.

Part of the National Eisteddfod poster for 1935, with a very modern style
Part of the National Eisteddfod poster for 1935, with a very modern style

Williamson herself said little publicly about the period in later life.

"We have a body of work stretching from 1931 through to roughly 1936, though it would appear nothing after that," said Mr Rogers-Jones.

"This would seem to correspond with when her neighbours say she mentioned moving to the Netherlands. However, why she went, and why she didn't continue drawing is somewhat of a mystery, I'm afraid."

After the outbreak of World War II, the details of her life become clearer.

In 1939 she returned home to Ruthin, where she spent the war years working as a logger, operating the crane which can be seen to this day outside of Ruthin Craft Centre.

'Cutting-edge style'

It was here that she met her husband, coal and timber merchant Peter Rennie. They married in 1947, and settled in Bontuchel, where she lived until her death in 2007, aged 93.

"Gladys it seems was an extremely modest lady, but popular in her home town," said Mr Rogers-Jones.

An ad poster for Naval Crackers
Nautical but nice: An advertising poster for Naval Crackers

"Her friends only had to look at the intricate tapestries and beautiful glazed tiles around her house to appreciate what a talented artist she was, although it sadly seems as though she didn't like to talk about how successful she'd been during the 1930s."

Frustrating as the lack of information about her intriguing life undoubtedly is, the mystique surrounding her work certainly has not harmed its value.

Rogers-Jones and Co originally estimated that the 50 posters would collectively fetch £1,000 when they go under the hammer although such has been the interest, that the estimates have risen by as much as tenfold.

"I wouldn't say that I have a particular favourite," said the auctioneer.

"Fyffe's Bananas have been very keen to see their poster, as they're celebrating their centenary this year.

"Perhaps one of the most fascinating and incongruous is a poster for the 1935 National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon. It's peculiar to see an event steeped in so much history and tradition, advertised in what was at the time, such a cutting-edge style."

"It just goes to show, in this profession, as soon as you think you know all there is to know, something will come along and make a fool of you - and long may it continue to do so."



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