More about Evan John
When Evan John Evans was a schoolboy in Fishguard in the 1930s, drawing and sketching occupied all his spare time – a normal way of life for this young lad who was one of a large family living in Main Street.
His father, a marine engineer in the Merchant Navy, had served in the First World War, his very musical mother was a music teacher and his brother Ivor was a gifted artist.
But in those days in remote Pembrokeshire, far from the London ‘scene’, there was no thought that these talented boys should have any formal art training.
Now, however, known professionally as Evan John, John’s work – self-taught as he absorbed the atmosphere of his beloved Pembrokeshire – is constantly in demand and features in galleries and exhibitions. He even had a painting accepted, although not hung, for the 1954 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
Looking back over the years as he approaches his 80th birthday, Evan John says that he has been lucky, and – despite some sadnesses – he retains the quirky sense of humour which makes him a delightful yet unassuming companion.
An early memory is of a meeting with the flamboyantly dressed Augustus John at the 1936 National Eisteddfod in Fishguard. Ivor had won first prize for a drawing of John’s head and the renowned portrait painter stopped to congratulate the young artist and chat with the two very excited schoolboys.
They little realised then that Augustus John’s companion Dylan Thomas, who also talked with them, was equally famous. John also remembers that both men quickly disappeared into the nearest pub and that he was not allowed to follow them into the inn.
Largely untroubled by the outbreak of war in 1939, John continued to sketch the area about him – Lower Town, rows of houses, the local scene – until a visit from the police put an end to these activities.
He vividly remembers the day when he answered the door to a man in a gabardine raincoat and trilby hat (harbour CID?), accompanied by a serious looking uniformed police officer who warned him that he was endangering the nation ‘these drawings could fall into enemy hands’.
The authorities did, at least, fall short of accusing the youngster of being a German spy, and in 1940 – too young to enlist – John redeemed himself by joining the Local Defence Volunteers. His mission was to go on night patrol, the youngest volunteer with a group of First World War ex-servicemen, on the Jordanston road.
Here from their pilibox base, he says, they defended Pembrokeshire and the rail link to Ireland armed with a white armband and a Canadian Lee Enfield rifle – minus ammunition.
Ammunition was to follow, but had still not arrived by the time John joined the RAF Volunteers after his 18th birthday.
“You can imagine us (‘Who goes there?’) challenging an enemy no doubt fully armed with a hand-grenade in his pocket,” John comments.
His vivid memories of these night patrols are interesting.
“Short summer nights, the stillness, the smell of hay wafted on a gentle breeze, the cry of the corncrake (now disappeared from the county) like the sound of a cork being eased from a bottle, and in the distance the desyncronised engines of enemy aircraft approaching, the dropping of flares, the air raid siren and then the sound of departing planes.”
It all added to the excitement of a recent school leaver and, as he points out, Jordanston Bridge is still there.
It was with a considerable armoury of enthusiasm and a hard to procure Royal Sovereign 6B pencil (but with no rubber on the end) that John took his skills to the RAF and was officially drafted to the camouflage section where, he likes to say, his presence was often not observed.
When he wasn’t spraying and painting aircraft and seeking to hide airfields from enemy eyes he was making sketches of his companions, a nice little earner at 6d to 1/6d a time. “I seem to remember they weren’t very good,” he recalls, “but they sold like hot cakes.”
Later he and Ivor, an engineering draughtsman, worked in Wolverhampton for an electrical construction company. Technical drawing did not give John the freedom of expression he needed, so in 1947 the two brothers, on Ivor’s initiative, returned to Pembrokeshire to open their own business, Studio Jon in Haverfordwest and also, at one time, in Fishguard.
Situated in Picton Place in Haverfordwest, next door to the present Iceland premises, this was an artists’ and photographers’ mecca with its wide range of art and photographic materials.
As he dressed the window, John always displayed one of his large oil paintings as a background to the Winsor and Newton and Rowney paints.
“It seemed to sell the paints well enough,” he says, “but at that time I never sold a painting. But I was painting for the sheer joy of painting, which is a very good reason – the best possible reason.”
Soon Studio Jon obtained the contract for the photographic work for the oil refineries which were in the process of construction. Evan John, who claims to have been born ‘of a nervous disposition’ was to be found happily climbing the 600′ stacks with his camera to provide progress reports on the work in hand.
The contract also involved him traveling abroad to Iceland, Holland, Germany and Spain – taking photographs for refinery records and magazines.
Another contract was for aerial pictures for Pembrokeshire County Council. These aerial photographs and hundreds of other local photos taken by John have long formed a valuable photographic history of the county – many of areas that have now changed out of all recognition.
Most happily for John, this work also left him with time to paint and draw and to develop his fascination with history and geology.
While he had been almost exclusively painting large oils he decided to change to smaller paintings with a particular emphasis on Pembrokeshire’s traditional cottages.
This is work for which he is now especially well known, although he continues to paint all aspects of his beloved county, recording its moods and atmosphere in oils, acrylic and pastel.
His brother – ‘a wonderful partner and brother and a fine artist’ had died at the age of 54 leaving John to run Studio Jon alone, something he did very successfully and it wasn’t until 1979 that its doors closed for the last time after 32 years.
The loss of Eleanor, his wife, in 1992 was another sadness in his life.
“Any success I’ve had has been through her and the backup of my family,” he says in tribute. “She always supported me and uncomplainingly put up with the long hours I worked.”
His interest in geology and his skill with his hands are well recognised by his two grand-daughters who knew they could depend on him to meet their requests to ‘please make me a ….’ – whatever was the whim of the moment.
Most notable of these constructions has been a small house with running water, followed by a much acclaimed model of a Pembrokeshire cottage.
Based on a Mathry cottage, it is made up of materials from all over the county. Timber used in the construction of the chimneys came from the sunken forests of Newgale and Abermawr, while the stone and associated materials are from a plethora of local geological sites.
Created in great detail, the model opens up to reveal its traditional interior complete with pictures on the walls.
Today, Evan John’s originals and prints are in great demand, and it is his delight to take art to the people. During the summer months he may be found at Strumble Head, St Anne’s Head or Pwllgwaelod displaying a selection of his work for the enjoyment of the passers-by and ‘meeting many interesting people and sharing with them the Pembrokeshire I love and the way I see it.’