‘THERE ARE CLOSE PARALLELS between the land and the people of Cornwall and of Wales,’ Tom Cross wrote me in 1995. ‘Each has kept its Celtic identity and they share a magic of coast, moor and mountain and the privacy of their wild places.’ At that time, I was curating a retrospective exhibition of Tom’s work for Aberystwyth University School of Art Gallery (30 October – 27 November 1995). It subsequently toured to the University of Birmingham and Penwith Galleries in St Ives.
Painter and art historian Tom Cross trained at Manchester and the Slade Schools of Art. He was Assistant Director of the Welsh Arts Council in Cardiff, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Reading, and Principal of Falmouth School of Art until 1987. In his two seminal books, Painting the Warmth of the Sun: St Ives Artists 1939-1975and The Shining Sands: Artists in Newlyn and St Ives 1880-1930, Cross demonstrated the important contribution to 20th-century British art made by artists working in Cornwall. As well as the landscapes of south-west Cornwall, where Cross lived and worked overlooking an inlet on the Helford River, the Welsh landscape was for him an enduring subject.
I first came to know Tom and his artist-wife Patricia in 1989 when he was appointed External Examiner in Art and in Art History at Aberystwyth University.
Cross Currents: Paintings of Cornwall and Wales 1957-1995 by Tom Cross
PAINTER-PRINTMAKER HARRY MORLEY ARA is best remembered nowadays for the figure paintings in oils and tempera that he exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1915. Morley’s mythological and classical figure compositions helped establish his reputation and attract critical approval: his subjects included the ill-fated satyr Marsyas who dared to challenge Apollo to a music contest (RA 1924. Tate, purchased by Chantrey Bequest); the beautiful Hylas, servant and companion of Heracles, abducted by water nymphs (RA 1923); and the Trojan mortal Paris, called upon by Zeus to proclaim the fairest among Hera, Athena and Aphrodite (RA 1926, Brighton Art Gallery). The Bible also provided Morley with rich narratives – Ruth and Boaz (1921), The Adoration of the Shepherds (RA 1921) and The Finding of Moses (RA 1928) – as did so-called romantic themes such as The Night Passeth, the Day Cometh and The Coming of Spring (both RA 1921), and Vanity (RA 1923). However, while Harry Morley devoted much of his career to the retelling in paint and print the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, his own story has never until now been told.
Following their exhibition-publication collaborations dedicated to the work of Royal Academician printmakers Sydney Lee, Stanley Anderson and Charles Tunnicliffe, Professor Robert Meyrick and Dr Harry Heuser are now engaged in a reappraisal and cataloguing of the graphic works of Harry Morley ARA RE RWS (1881-1943). Their research draws on previously-untapped family archives: an extensive collection of artworks, sketchbooks, correspondences, diaries, ledgers, photographs, and press cuttings.
The Etchings and Engravings
The 1920s and 1930s marked for Harry Morley a period of success and public recognition. It was during this time that he was most active as a printmaker. Meyrick and Heuser’s catalogue raisonné of prints will comprise a critical essay together with fully-illustrated, documented and annotated entries for all 114 of Morley’s little-known etchings and drypoints (made 1919-25) as well as his 45 line engravings (made 1928-42). Until now, no catalogue of Morley prints has been attempted.
When in 1919 Morley first took up etching at the suggestion of his friend and contemporary Malcolm Osborne RA RE, he looked for subjects to the Bible (Tobias and the Angel and Samson Finding the Jawbone of an Ass, both 1920, and Christ at Emmaus 1922) and to Greco-Roman mythology (Vulcan Expelled from Olympus 1921, The Fall of Phaëton 1922, and Lapith Surprised by Centaurs 1923). Morley needled the copper plates swiftly and with assurance. Rarely did these experimental designs progress through different states. As an extension of his drawing practice, the medium was used to express his thoughts and explore compositions. Etching was for him a personal pursuit. As such, the etchings were printed in small editions and rarely exhibited.
When in 1928 he was persuaded by his younger friend and Osborne’s assistant Robert Sargent Austin RA PRE to turn his hand to line engraving, Morley soon discovered that, according to John Christian, the medium’s precision better ‘suited his strong sense of form and taste for classical themes’. Published in editions of 60 by his agents P. & D. Colnaghi, the line engravings proved to be more commercially successful than the etchings. As an engraver, Morley once again took inspiration from classical myths. Venus and Cupid (1928), The Young Bacchus (1929) and The Infant Mars (1930), as well as depictions of Persephone (1929), Sylvia and Susannah (both 1930), are among his finely-wrought compositions. The engravings reflect the Arts and Crafts influence of his student days as well as his knowledge and appreciation of Italian Quattrocento art.
Together with Stephen Gooden, William Washington, Robert Austin and William Morgan, Morley is credited with re-establishing the art of line engraving in Britain. The clarity of line and restrained simplicity of engraving lent itself to Morley’s idealised figures and elegantly arranged compositions. The artist took his narratives from classical myths, and stylistically borrowed from antique statuary and fifteenth century Italian paintings, yet his engravings – centred on monolithic figures with clearly defined outlines, curvilinear forms and stylised draperies – exhibit a distinctly modern Art Deco sensibility.
In addition to mythological subjects, Morley’s engravings offer insights into Italy and a rural way of life during the late 1920s that was fast disappearing: its townscapes, festivals, pilgrimages and peasant workers. For several years Morley spent each Spring travelling and working in Italy. In 1928, he and his wife Lilias stayed with artist-friend Job Nixon sharing his studio in Anticoli Corrado. The following year, Robert Austin joined the Morleys at Anticoli. In search of interesting subjects the two men accompanied villagers on the annual two-day pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Figura, Sora in the Lazio hills. In a letter dated 28 May 1929 to her daughter Beryl, Lilias described how she had watched by moonlight from her bedroom window as the pilgrimage set out into hills ‘most beautiful with clouds in the valleys all white and ghostly’. Church bells were ringing and ‘rockets and bombs’ were ‘going off at intervals’. She ‘could see in the mists the lights of the torches of other bands of pilgrims more distant’ and hear ‘their singing as they wound their way along the road’.
Without Artistic Pose
In the first of his six articles on the ‘Theory and Practice of Figure Painting in Oils’ for The Artist magazine, published between September 1936 to February 1937, Morley focussed on the challenges of ‘becoming a “modern” painter on the foundation of study of the Old Masters’. Citing Rubens, Rembrandt and Reynolds, Morley took reassurance and validation in the knowledge that many great painters before him had assimilated from the past. Writing on innovation in art, he proposed that since ‘originality is not the first among the artistic virtues […] one should never be afraid of emulating a greater than oneself’.
During visits to Italy between 1905 and 1908, Morley studied paintings by Pinturicchio, Pietro Perugino, Paolo Uccello and Sandro Botticelli. He believed himself to be the first artist of ‘recent years to base his work on the [early] Italian tradition’. Morley was not alone among artists during and following World War I who looked to another time and civilisation. As curator-historian Simon Martin points out ‘the art of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as its mythology and literature, gave them a language and narrative through which to express their social and artistic concerns for the twentieth century’.
Whereas for Morley abstract art was a ‘dead end’ and modern art was ‘divorced from life and the accumulated experience of the ages was abandoned’, Italian Quattrocento painters showed ‘sincerity’ and ‘sound workmanship’. He believed them to be first-class craftsmen ‘without any special “artistic” pose’. The ‘stylisation of the primitives’ he attributed to a time when forms were ‘generalised and handed down from age to age’. In paint or print, Morley learned like those artists he emulated to create a sense of space without the illusion of spatial recession. In the work of the ‘primitives’ he came to appreciate the value of front lighting ‘to emphasise linear forms’ in decorative work without the ‘complication of cast shadows’. Render fine form in space, he advised readers of The Artist, enhance it with good colour, and ‘we cannot be far wrong’.
As John Christian points out, the artist’s ‘strong sense of monumental form and spatial clarity’ may also reflect his early training as an architect. With its academic coolness and detachment, Morley’s work is distinguished from the narrative purpose and sentiment of the Pre-Raphaelites. Art historian William Gaunt attributed that detachment to the ‘aloofness of idealism’. As Gaunt points out in his March 1925 article for The Studio, Morley took the ‘imperfect tradition’ for his model and made it ‘his business to evolve something original out of the incomplete’. Morley alighted on the Renaissance, resting on ‘an art obviously capable of the highest development – that of the Early Florentines’.
Mindful that for his contemporaries the painting of nudes was ‘limited to the bedroom, the bathroom and the bathing-beach’, Morley turned to ‘unfashionable’ classical subjects. Sir William Smith’s ‘ever-useful’ A Smaller Classical Dictionary (London: Dent, 1910) provided him ‘enough description from which to work’ and elaborate upon. A good story notwithstanding, he cautioned readers that a painter is not a ‘historian or an archaeologist, and that his primary purpose is not to tell a story. His main business is with the pictorial aspect of the subject in hand’.
Unpretentious compositions, strong of form and firm of outline, called for an appropriate technique. As well as aesthetic and narrative influences, Morley was also inspired by techniques of the past. Egg tempera – or oils on top of tempera painting – became his preferred medium. Though he did not slavishly follow their recipes or technical specifications, Morley learned much from Christina Jane Powell Herringham’s translation of The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini: A Contemporary Practical Treatise on Quattrocento Painting (London: George Allen and Unwin 1899) and his friend Maxwell Armfield’s A Manual of Tempera Painting (London: George Allen and Unwin 1930). Morley admired the technical achievements of the past, followed new research on the science of traditional painting techniques, and insisted that ‘craftsmanship does count and always will’.
In her 2005 essay for Joseph Southall 1861-1944 published by the Antique Collectors Club, Abbie Sprague claims that the revival of British interest in tempera painting had begun in 1901 with the formation of the Society of Painters in Tempera. The Society held some of its meetings in Morley’s studio. John D. Batten, the painter-activist Mary Sargant Florence, Francis Ernest Jackson, Maxwell Armfield and Joseph Southall were among the regular attendees. As the medium became better understood, the 1920s saw a ‘Tempera Revival’ in British art. However, it was only after the Royal Academy of Arts’ ground-breaking Italian Art at the Exhibition at Burlington House (1 January – 20 March 1930) that the Academy accepted contemporary tempera paintings in its Summer Exhibition. Morley’s tempera The Young Bacchus was one of thirty-six tempera paintings shown that first year.
Harry Morley: A Biographical Sketch
Leicester, 5 April 1881 – London, 18 September 1943
In 1897 Harry Morley enrolled to study architecture at Leicester School of Art. Three years later he was awarded a scholarship to continue his training under Professor Beresford Pite at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1901. He won an RCA scholarship in 1903 which enabled him to visit Italy for the first time. Later that year, with £150 from his father Thomas Morley, a Leicester hosiery manufacturer, he was articled to Beresford Pite whose architectural practice was on the RCA campus. Morley also attended the mural painting department and evening life classes. In 1905 he was awarded an RCA Travelling Scholarship in Architecture as well as the RIBA Owen Jones Studentship and Travelling Scholarship for the Study of Colour Decoration. These awards allowed him to spend long periods in Italy between 1905 and 1908. There he came to admire early Renaissance painters.
Now resolved to become a painter himself, Morley gave up architecture and attended open studios in Paris during 1908: at the Académie Julian, Académie Colarossi and Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He returned to London and began a career as professional artist. On 6 September 1911, Morley married Lilias Swain (Hyde, Cheshire 3 January 1880 – London 30 January 1973) at St Philip’s Church, Earl’s Court Road, Kensington. The couple honeymooned in Florence, Venice and Paris.
Lilias was teaching calligraphy and embroidery at the Royal College when she and Morley became engaged. She had studied design there under William Lethaby. She was trained in lettering and illumination by Professor Edward Johnston and went on to become his first assistant. She studied embroidery under Grace Christie (1872-1953) whom she assisted after her graduation. Lilias shared digs in Chelsea with fellow RCA student Sylvia Pankhurst who, like Lilias, was from Manchester.
A weak heart and lifelong asthma excluded Morley from active service during both wars. The Morleys lived in Earl’s Court and from 1918 in Kensington. In 1923, Thomas Morley purchased for his son, wife and their two daughters a four-storey terraced house on Pembroke Road. Here he established home and studio. The couple had two daughters, Elinor Beryl (7 September 1912 – 26 September 1998) and Julia Morley (2 September 1917 – 16 May 2008), both of whom went on to train at the Royal Academy Schools. Julia Morley won a scholarship to study mural painting at the Slade School of Art and became a professional painter and muralist.
The Morley family holidayed in Italy in the Spring and during August each year in addition to sketching holidays to countryside or coastal regions of England and Wales. They were often joining – or joined by – artist friends. John Christian points out that his watercolours, which looked back to Philip Wilson Steer and the English landscape tradition with a ‘strong sense of place, technical assurance and characteristic integrity’, were noted for their ‘freedom and spontaneity’. As Lilias Morley recalled, ‘when working in watercolour he worked very rapidly and with great concentration, completely oblivious to anything going on around him. If a first attempt did not please him he tore it up and immediately painted another one of the same subject’.
Despite the worldwide economic recession following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Morley continued to paint and engrave throughout the 1930s. From September 1932, he taught painting and life drawing two days a week at St. Martin’s School of Art and took on portrait commissions to supplement his income. Morley’s friend and Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, Sir Walter Westley Russell RA employed him as visiting teacher.
Late in 1940 Morley’s home and studio were bomb damaged and left uninhabitable. He and Lilias relocated to live with his newly married daughter Beryl and her husband Captain John Castle. They shared a small cottage in Wool, Dorset near the Army Fighting Vehicle School at Bovington Camp where Castle trained soldiers to drive tanks.
The Ministry of Information provided Morley with a permit to make drawings of the Camp. Other commissions followed including one to record the destruction at Southampton docks. Morley also completed a number of short commissions for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee and recorded undergoing repairs to damaged vessels at Falmouth. These paintings are now in the Imperial War Museum. At Wool, Morley had his first heart attack. The couple returned to Kensington in 1943. Weakened by a series of heart attacks and bouts of asthma, he died in September that year.
Lilias remained at 4 Pembroke Road until her death in January 1973. Morley’s studio remained largely undisturbed during this time. When Lydia Russell died in 1944, Sir Walter Westley Russel, Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools (1927-42), lodged with Lilias Morley in rooms at the top of the house. He died there in April 1949. Carel Weight RA, Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, rented Morley’s studio to the rear of the property accessed from Pembroke Walk.
The ethos and camaraderie of artist groups appealed to Harry Morley. He was an active member of the following societies and institutions:
Member of the Society of Graphic Art 1921
Member of the Art Workers’ Guild 1923
Member of the Society of Mural Decorators and Painters in Tempera 1924
Member of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) 1927
Associate Member of the Royal Watercolour Society (ARWS) 1929
Associate Member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (ARE) 1931
Faculty of Engraving at the British School at Rome
Fellow of the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS)
Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (RE) 1936
Master of the Art Workers’ Guild
Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts (ARA)
Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP) 1937-1941
Vice-President of the Royal Watercolour Society (VPRWS)
Edmund B. d’Auvergne The Nightside of Paris (Werner Laurie, 1909) Richard Penlake A Book of Modern Palestine (London: Thomas Nelson, 1910-13?) Edward Verrall Lucas A Wanderer in Florence (London: Methuen, 1912) Alfred H. Hyatt The Charm of Paris (London: Chatto and Windus, 1913) Alfred H. Hyatt The Charm of Edinburgh (London: Chatto and Windus, 1913) Charles Tennyson Cambridge from Within (London: Chatto and Windus, 1913) Edward Verrall Lucas A Wanderer in Venice (London: Methuen, 1914) Edward Hutton Cities of Sicily (London: Methuen, 1926) Edward Verrall Lucas A Wanderer in Rome (London: Methuen, 1926)
THE 2008 DEATH OF EDGAR HOLLOWAY MARKED the passing of the last surviving artist who flourished as a printmaker during the ‘Etching Boom’ of the 1920s and 1930s. A miner’s son and child prodigy, Holloway was a teenager when he first enjoyed success in the early 1930s. A self-taught printmaker, he was etching and printing the plates on his own press at fifteen, selling 10-shilling impressions from a bicycle that he peddled throughout his native south Yorkshire. His father enrolled him on a correspondence drawing course, arranged letters of introduction into the art world and moved the family from Doncaster to London. By the age of twenty, Holloway staged two solo exhibitions in central London, his work had been purchased by the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and his sitters for portraits included T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender and Herbert Read.
Holloway’s anecdotes of key figures of the art world during the inter-war years – among them, curators Campbell Dodgson, Martin Hardie, and Malcolm Salaman, and printmakers John Copley, Paul Drury, Ernest Lumsden, and Joseph Webb – provided fascinating and invaluable insights into a unique period in the history of British printmaking.
During the 1920s there had been an unprecedented demand for contemporary etchings, though Holloway began a little too late to gain financially from the available opportunities. In search of marketable subjects, he made expeditions into the countryside armed with copper plates and a needle. Back in his studio he followed Ernest Lumsden’s seminal 1924 book The Art of Etching, printing editions of popular landmarks and prospects like his 1930 drypoints Lincoln Cathedral, Fountains Abbey, and The Mansion House, Doncaster. In 1931, Lumsden purchased several etchings and invited Holloway to become a member of the Society of Artist Printers in Edinburgh. The young artist’s work also attracted the attention of influential etchers such as Muirhead Bone, Francis Dodd and James McBey.
By 1931 Holloway was in London making a modest living undertaking portrait commissions and selling watercolours and prints of such popular subjects as Eastcote (1932) and Essex Street Water Gate (1934). In 1935 he met the Scottish painter-printmaker William Wilson. They became close friends, travelling together in the UK and Europe. For six months they lived and worked in Essex, bought an etching press and spent their days drawing, painting and printing. Bosses Farm and Latton Priory, both etched in 1936, convey mood and atmosphere through dramatic light, extremes of weather and the expressive use of mark making. By now, Holloway had abandoned his summary linear approach to build up the image in a densely etched, painterly application of line.
Exempted from military service, Holloway held teaching posts in Shropshire and London, drawing views of the blitzed capital. In 1941 he converted to Roman Catholicism and became interested in the writings of Eric Gill. He visited Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains where Gill had lived in the 1920s. There, Holloway met Daisy Monica Hawkins, Gill’s model for Drawings from Life (1940). Holloway began a series of portraits of Daisy Monica. Six weeks later they married.
To support a growing young family, Holloway returned to Doncaster and worked as a sign writer. In 1949 he accepted an invitation from Philip Hagreen to join the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a community of Catholic artists founded at Ditchling by Gill and Hilary Pepler in 1918. Gill’s views on the status of the artist within the community and the role of art shaped Holloway’s attitude towards craftsmanship. For the next twenty-two years, he was a graphic designer, undertaking commissions for lettering, cartography and dust jackets for Britain’s leading publishers. In 1957, not foreseeing that he would ever again take up etching, he sold all but eleven of his copper plates to a scrap-metal dealer.
Though Holloway returned to watercolour painting in 1969, his passion for etching was undiminished. Demonstrating an ease and facility born of maturity, his lyrical landscapes of the South Downs, Wales, Spain and France became larger and more expressionistic. Liberated from detailed observation, he became open to experimentation with etching processes. Between 1972 and 1975, he was commissioned to make watercolours and etchings of the industrial heritage of Troy, in Upstate New York.
Daisy Monica died in September 1979. During long periods at home nursing his wife, Holloway took up line engraving working under the influence of his friend Philip Hagreen.
Holloway will best be remembered as an etcher of portraits, for nowhere is his keen observation and technical virtuosity more evident. During a lifetime of study and self-analysis, he made more etched self portraits than any other British printmaker. With a consistency and conviction comparable to that of Rembrandt, he drew himself in various guises, using bodily gesture and facial expression to suggest different aspects of his personality or state of mind, and over time responded to the aging process. They form a pictorial autobiography. His first self portrait was a drypoint of 1931, aged 16, and his most recent The Fedora, his thirty-third, was etched in 2002, at age 88.
In later years Holloway was fortunate to witness a new enthusiasm for his work as he rose on the tide of interest in prints of the ‘Etching Revival’. In addition, his association with, and portraits of eminent writers and artists, his marriage to Daisy Monica, and his membership of the Ditchling Guild all played a part in drawing the attention of scholars to the artist and his work. His drawings and prints continued to find their way into public collections from the British Museum to New York Public Library.
From 1979 he staged a succession of solo exhibitions in Britain and America. As new commissions followed, the revived interest in his early etching fueled his desire to make prints. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford mounted a retrospective exhibition of prints in 1991. That year, almost sixty years after his first unsuccessful application at age eighteen, Holloway was finally elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. National touring exhibitions followed in 1994, 1999, 2001 and 2004. In 1996, Scolar Press published Robert Meyrick’s A Catalogue Raisonné of Etchings and Engravings by Edgar Holloway.
In November 2008, The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent newspapers carried full and half page illustrated obituaries of Holloway. In 2009, there followed an exhibition of his watercolours at Monnow Valley Arts, while at Abergavenny Museum ‘A World Untouched’ explored the work of Eric Gill, David Jones and Holloway at Capel-y-ffin. The RE mounted a small memorial exhibition at the Bankside Gallery. Aberystwyth University, which along with the Ashmolean holds the UK’s largest public collection of Holloway’s work, celebrated a life’s work in the context of his Etching Revival contemporaries: Graham Sutherland, Bouverie Hoyton, Paul Drury, Webb, F. L. Griggs, and Gerald Brockhurst.
Such exhibitions represent the culmination of a resurgence of interest in Holloway’s work as an etcher and watercolourist. While his work stands apart from much contemporary art, he acknowledged and reinforced a sound art historical tradition, as evidenced in 2009 when the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam purchased Self Portrait No.7 for Holloway had taken his inspiration from Rembrandt.
Holloway was fortunate to witness the art world turn full circle and observe his prints attract the public acclaim they deserved.
Aberystwyth 2009 & 2018
Robert Meyrick. Obituaries and Printmaking Today.
Robert Meyrick. Supplement to The Etchings and Engravings of Edgar Holloway. (Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries Press, 2004). 24pp. ISBN 1 899095 21 7
Robert Meyrick. Edgar Holloway and Friends: an Artist’s Collection of Prints from the Thirties. (Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries in association Wolseley Fine Arts, London, 1999). 36pp. ISBN 1 899095 16 0
Robert Meyrick. The Etchings and Engravings of Edgar Holloway RBA RE. (London: Scolar, 1996. 114pp. Published in two editions: Standard ISBN 1 85928 304 7 & Special ISBN 1 85928 306 3
Robert Meyrick. Edgar Holloway at 80. (London: Wolseley Fine Art, 1994). 40pp. ISBN 1 899095 00 4
Robert Meyrick. On Reflection.
Robert Meyrick. Edgar Holloway at 80 : A Retrospective.
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 14 April – 28 May 1994
Hove Museum and Art Gallery, 25 June – 24 July 1994
Abbott Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Kendall, 1 August – 3 September 1994
Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, September – 8 October 1994
The Gallery in Cork Street, London, 18 October – 11 November 1994
Robert Meyrick. Edgar Holloway and Friends.
Towner Art Gallery and Museum, Eastbourne, 6 November 1999 – 9 January 2000
National Museum and Art Gallery of Wales, Cardiff, 29 January – 12 March 2000
Museum of Modern Art, Wales, Machynlleth, 27 March – 29 April 2000
Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Kendal, 9 May – 18 June 2000
Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries, 1 – 30 September 2000
Wolseley Fine Arts, London, 4 – 28 October 2000
Wakefield Art Gallery, 11 November 2000 – 7 January 2001
Royal Albert Memorial Art Gallery, Exeter 20 January 2000 – 2 March 2001
Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, 31 March – 19 April 2001
Perth Museum and Art Gallery, 17 May – 16 June 2001
Bankside Gallery, London, July 2001
AT AN EARLY AGE, JOSEPH WEBB was acclaimed a ‘master etcher’; his ecclesiastical-looking structures Rat Barn, widely considered to be his masterpiece, and the iconic Dream Barn, were etched when he was just twenty years old. By 1932, the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum had each acquired five of his prints. Soon he was exhibiting in London, Chicago, New York and the Paris Salon. In 1933, aged 25, he staged his first solo exhibition at P. & D. Colnaghi in Old Bond Street, the most prestigious of the London print dealers and publishers. Its Director Harold Wright was a keen advocate of Webb’s work and, not long afterwards, they collaborated to compile a catalogue raisonné of his prints. Yet despite this early promise and his absolute faith in his worth as an artist, Webb was unable to sustain his reputation and career. After 1933 he made prints only sporadically, finally giving up etching in 1947. Subsequently, he helped his common-law wife manage a café in Reading and, during the last six years of his life, ran a boarding house in South Kensington; few who encountered him would have realised that he was an artist.
A PAINTER OF PORTRAIT, LANDSCAPE AND STILL LIFE, Gladys Vasey received no formal training. Rather she studied nature for herself, developing a means of expression unaffected by passing trends. The more Vasey sought to acknowledge and reinforce a sound art historical tradition, the further she isolated herself from mainstream contemporary art. She believed that abstract tendencies in painting had reached an impasse. Divorced from the ordinary person, she argued, abstraction could only communicate with the initiated. She expressed concern that the ‘present trend is far too much for individualism – and not only in Art’. Painters who put themselves first, before their subject, communicate through paint but neither expect nor want an emotional response from their audience. ‘Love – which is the real message – is focused on the wrong things,’ she reasoned, ‘and there can be no revelation of reality or of “truth’s superb surprise”!’
The retrospective touring exhibition of paintings by Gladys Vasey that I researched and curated for the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth some thirty years ago was my first such project and consequently it still holds a very special place in my affections. The lessons I learned in piecing together and reassessing a life lived through art, and presenting artworks to new audiences, were to inform all my subsequent endeavours. Over the years, the joy for me has been to: source and document artworks that have rarely if ever been exhibited; examine an artist’s life and career through the artworks themselves as well as previously untapped archival materials; interview and often make friends with the artists, their families and colleagues; reevaluate the reputations of artists overlooked or sidelined by fashion; present new knowledge and insights, through books, articles, exhibitions and public speaking, that will be useful to a wide range of beneficiaries; and, where possible, acquire for myself to enjoy around the home artworks by those I have spent much of my career studying.
I bought locally my first Gladys Vasey portrait in 1981 for £25. At that time, the name meant nothing to me. On the back of the board was a handwritten label, ‘Eryl 25gns’. Beneath appeared to be other labels. A dampened cloth loosened the adhesive and revealed printed labels from such institutions as the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and Manchester Academy of Fine Art. Evidently Vasey, who had lived in a small cottage in nearby Aberaeron and died at Aberystwyth’s North Road Infirmary, had once enjoyed something of reputation.
A visit to Manchester City Art revealed that Vasey had exhibited 142 paintings at the Annual Spring Exhibitions of Manchester Academy of Fine Arts. Armed with the Manchester list of exhibited works – as well as records from other societies with whom Vasey had exhibited – I trawled UK telephone directories in search of sitters or their heirs. Even in those pre-Internet days, names like Maxwell-Reekie, Wanliss-Orlebar and Shaw-Hesketh were not so difficult to trace. I also had the great good fortune to befriend the artist’s daughters Gabrielle and Madeleine. They were to point me in the direction of sitters for portraits and friends of the artist who in turn led me to other collectors of landscape and still life. Many weekends over several years I spent with Madeleine in her Shropshire home hearing of her mother, sifting through old photographs, and identifying subjects, some of whom she would invite to join us for lunch.
The Vasey project whet my appetite for hands-on original research working from primary sources. It encouraged me to travel, meet interesting people and visit remarkable places. Embarking on each adventure, I had no idea where the research would lead me. The detective work energized me, so too the excitement of the chase and ultimately the discovery. What then did the artworks sourced and hard-fought information garnered tell us about the artist’s practice and achievements? What does the evidence disclose? And what are the wider lessons to be learned?
There was almost no documented evidence of Vasey’s career except for one short article and a handful of letters that she wrote to Art Quarterly. I endeavored to record as much about the artist and her sitters as possible before the memory of them faded along with the generations who knew them.
The National Library of Wales exhibition brought together for the first time some 200 Vasey artworks. Alongside her many portrait commissions and paintings of distinguished sitters – painters, writers and musicians – were hung the sensitive and penetrating portraits of her family and friends. These were complemented by a range of her landscape, still life and flower paintings. While not regarded for their originality, Vasey’s portraits reveal a depth of insight and a sensitivity toward the human condition. Early career, she had witnessed the decline of figurative painting in Britain. Many of her contemporaries rejected the study of nature in favour of surrealist, abstract, action and hard-edge painting with its ever increasing demands on originality. ‘To be original,’ argued her friend, the painter Ronald Dunlop RA, in Art Quarterlyin 1959 (Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 1), ’is to be oneself […] You are what you are and no amount of cleverness or copying or simulating fashionable styles will conceal for long the real fact of what you are and how original you are. But sincerity to self is far more important than originality.’
Vasey believed that abstract tendencies in contemporary painting had reached an impasse. Divorced from the ordinary person, abstract art could only communicate with the initiated. It seemed appropriate, therefore, at a time of renewed interest in the figurative tradition in British Art, that my curated exhibition should pay tribute to an artist who painted sensitively, honestly and ‘from the heart’ in a wildly capricious artistic climate.
As Robert Schumann noted in his 1849 Life Rules for Young Musicians, If your music comes from the heart and soul, and you feel it sincerely yourself, it will have the same effect on others as it has on you.
Against the Tide: The Paintings of Gladys Vasey (1889-1981)
Gladys Johnstone and her twin sister Eva were born 8 June 1889. In the last weeks of pregnancy, her mother Agnes and father Philip Johnstone – a merchantile clerk – visited Blackpool to take the air. The twins were born prematurely at Withnell Road, South Shore.
The family was of German aristocratic descent. Agnes (neé) Ellinger was of a line which could be traced to the Kauffmann family of Schwarzenberg in the Black Forest. Its most eminent member, Angelika Kauffmann, was a founder member of the Royal Academy of Art and a close friend of its first president Sir Joshua Reynolds. Agnes’ mother, Selma Rosalia (1834-1908), was the fourth of nine children born to George Wilhelm Klingelhöffer (1786-1859) and his wife Auguste Konstantia (1807-1871). On 31 August 1857, Selma Rosalia (1834-1908) married Karl Christian Ellinger (1824-1903), a book-keeper and correspondent for foreign languages in Manchester. When Karl Ellinger died, his wife returned to her family home at Emdenau north of Frankfurt am Main. Agnes and her brothers Charles and George remained in England with their families. Her twin grand-daughters Gladys and Eva were then fourteen years of age (see Theodor Klingelhöffer Geschichte der Familiie Klingelhöffer Frankfurt, 1909).
Gladys Johnstone’s paternal genealogy is less clear. Her father, Philip Tocque Johnstone, was son of Julia Tocque who belonged to the French Channel Island de Tocqueville family. Julia had married a drunken and sometimes violent Nottinghamshire miner. She was forced to leave her husband taking with her their three children: Philip, Edward and Edith. To support her young family, Julia set up a private school of dance, music and art. She assumed the name Johnstone. The actual family name is unknown.
The Johnstone twins spent their childhood at Broad Road in Sale, then still a small residential town near Manchester. They attended Sale Grammar School for Girls which their father had played a part in setting up. It was not an easy childhood. Although there were no financial hardships, Agnes Johnstone was a strict mother who instilled in her daughters a sense of discipline and propriety. At seventeen the twins were sent to a finishing school in Germany to learn German and French. Gladys and Eva were alike temperamentally and they never became close. Eva remained unmarried and lived with her parents until their death. As a young woman Eva painted and exhibited, while Gladys was an accomplished pianist. She always had a piano in the house; at first an upright Bechstein, a wedding present from her parents, and later a grand piano.
Gladys Johnstone was an intelligent and receptive teenager. She would have been acquainted with the work of Manet, the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists through Roger Fry’s widely-publicised 1910 exhibition. Manchester by contrast was rich in Pre-Raphaelite and High Victorian painting from the collections of wealthy merchants and industrialists. Yet in the years leading up to the Great War, Victorian anecdotal and history painting had become unpopular.
Like her contemporary Gwen John, Gladys Johnstone rebelled against the propriety of her strict Victorian upbringing. Though she did not gain her parents’ consent to study art in Paris, she attended private painting lessons with William Fitz, a Polish artist working in Manchester. Her fellow student was the young L. S. Lowry. The evening classes improved her self-confidence and nurtured her interest in portraiture. Fitz taught her to start a portrait at the centre with the nose and eyes and to work outwards – rather than paint from the contours inward. Vasey understood the importance of drawing. It is, she wrote for Art Quarterly in 1959, is ‘as necessary to the painter and as vital to painting, as grammar is to writing, as structure is to building and form to music. Construction and imagination are two essentials to any creative work and these are entirely dependent upon each other and useless one without the other’ (Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 32).
In art galleries and in reproduction, Vasey studied the work of painters past and present whom she admired. Though little influenced by contemporary modes of expression, she was not insensitive to the work of others: her annual visit to the London exhibitions was, she wrote, ever an ‘exhilarating adventure into another world […] to see pictures; to absorb them, interpret them and learn from them’ (‘Thoughts on Burlington House’, Art Quarterly 1960 Vol. 3, No. 4, pp.156-9). Her knowledge of past schools of painting was extensive. She studied them in a selective non-academic manner as it related to her own painting. Her preferences were for De Hooch and the Dutch School, Constable and English landscape painting, the swagger portraits of John Singer Sargent and William Orpen, and most of all her illustrious contemporary Augustus John.
Gladys married Roland Vasey at Sale Independent Chapel on 31 August 1911. An insurance surveyor in Liverpool, Roland was two years her senior. The son of Baptist minister William Brown Vasey, Roland subsequently worked alongside his father-in-law Philip Johnstone who was a shipping merchants manager at Ralli Brothers, the Manchester-based bankers and leading exporter of cotton to India. Roland was posted to Birkenhead on the Wirral where the couple made their first home. In later years, Gladys talked of the unhappy time she spent there away from home, adjusting to her lost independence.
In 1914, the Vaseys moved to 4 Laurel Mount, Richmond Road in Bowdon, a small town in Cheshire with views of the parks and woodland of the Bollin Valley. It was a favourite residential area for Manchester businessmen. The couple had two daughters, Gabrielle Agnes (11 February 1916) and Madeleine Isobel (1 August 1922). With a young family, Vasey had little time to paint. The portraits of her mother-in-law Isobel Vasey (1928) and the commissioned portrait of the wife of Altrincham nurseryman and seedsman Florence Clibran (1929) are among her few known paintings to date from the 1920s. Her sketchbooks, however, are filled with pencil studies of the children at rest or at play.
Vasey’s responsibilities toward her daughters and managing the household stalled any aspirations she might have had of a painting career. The home bustled with activity. Her children remembered her as inventive mother who played with them. While a live-in maid attended to the daily chores, setting the fires and cooking breakfast, a cleaner came in daily and, on Mondays (Vasey’s day out in Manchester), there was a washerwoman. A Miss Kennilly provided daily nanny service for Madeleine. Vasey made many of the children’s clothes. On Fridays she helped with the weekly bake of pastries, pies and puddings. Evenings were for entertaining friends and Roland’s business acquaintances. Only in 1930, when both children were away at boarding school, could Vasey set up a studio and paint.
‘A Creative Adventure’
Initially Vasey painted family, friends and acquaintances, a varied and interesting group of musicians, writers and academics. In 1930, she began her longstanding association with the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (MAFA) where she exhibited portraits of those close to her as well as portrait commissions of local dignitaries and businessmen. These include George Swaine, ‘The Head’, Kingsmoor School, Glossop (1932), her daughters’ co-educational school in Derbyshire, Professor Robert Oliphant Boswall (1933), Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering in the College of Technology as well as Manchester University, and his daughter Mary Boswall (1931) who was a school friend of Gabrielle. The quiet and contemplative paintings Gabrielle (1931) and Elizabeth Woollaston (1932) are typical of Vasey’s early portraiture. They are characterized by their muted colours and delicate tones which she achieved by the detailed and methodical application of thin, transparent glazes. Subdued light casts dark shadows that eliminate the closer tones, allowing the figure to merge with the background. Elizabeth Woollaston– daughter of a family friends at Bowdon – was also exhibited as The Glass Beads. Often her portraits were assigned titlesthat anonymize the sitter: The Red Scarf (1952), The Green Stole (1953) and The Black Gloves (1954). With a nod to painter James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), Vasey also ascribed titles like Girl in Black and Gold (1946) and Girl in Black and Silver (1954). Such titles give significance to the paintings’ formal qualities rather than draw attention to the fact that both are portraits of her daughter Madeleine. The Black Gloves was painted especially for the Diamond Jubilee Annual Spring Exhibition of Modern Art at the Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport. It was painted in the hallway of Vasey’s new home in North Wales shortly after her move to Llanrwst.
Within a few years of painting these early characterful portrait studies – of her mother-in-law Isobel Vasey (1928), daughter Gabrielle (1931), sister-in-law Lexie Hall (1931) and maid’s daughter Peggy (1931) – Vasey’s painting methods substantially changed. She rejected muted lighting and clearly define contours in favour of impasto paint and the one-layer technique of the Impressionists. The dry, chalky paint applied directly without charcoal under drawing gave the paintings a solidity intrinsic to their paint application. The change of approach followed her first visit to Cornwall where landscape painter Stanley Gardiner encouraged her to avoid the lower tones and become, as Vasey wrote to the National Library of Wales in 1973, ‘more and more in love with light and colour’.
For Vasey, the subject was paramount. She paid little attention to the backgrounds which were often hastily executed and seldom finished to the canvas edge. She was not a good technician. Old boards and canvases were turned and reused. She exhibited paintings in old gilt and gesso frames that she distressed with emulsion paint.
Vasey worked from a model whenever one was available, anyone she thought had an interesting face and was prepared to sit. She was especially attracted to faces with a story to tell: the vulnerable Eryl (1940) and the sad, mysterious face of Elizabeth in Blue (1960). Vasey had known Elizabeth Woolley as a young girl at Llanyblodwel in the 1940s. She was the daughter of the local grammar school headmaster. This is one of a series of portraits painted in the 1960s when Elizabeth visited Trefriw. In a review of the Annual Exhibition of the Society of Women Artists in 1960, the Daily Telegraph observed that this portrait showed ‘more insight than any of the others’.
All Vasey’s portraits have in common a sympathy for the human condition, but nowhere in her work has a sense of pathos been more successfully portrayed than in her 1940 portrait of Eryl. It reveals a sensitive, vulnerable and apparently complex personality. Its intensity arising from the tightly stretched skin and a penetrating stare.Gabrielle Vasey and Eryl Davies first met at college. Both were intellectual but neither were suited to University. Eryl, who was from Manchester, was half Welsh and half Scottish. Soon after they left University on completion of the first year of a Joint Honours English and Philosophy course, Gabrielle transferred to Studley Horticultural and Agricultural College for Women in Warwickshire. Eryl married a doctor from Poynton in Manchester. They had two children. She remained a close friend of Gabrielle and the Vasey family. Sometime around 1960, at Gladys Vasey’s invitation, Eryl visited with her children, the eldest of whom was then in his teens. When the time came to leave, Roland took them by car to the railway station at Llandudno Junction where Eryl put the children on the Manchester train to be met at the other end by their father. Eryl intended travelling to stay with Gabrielle in Shropshire. Instead, moments after she had waved off the children, she threw herself in the path of an oncoming train.
As journalist Mark Bourne once observed of Vasey portraits, ‘each face is given much more than it can hold at any one physical moment’ (Art Quarterly 1959, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp.12-4). Vasey’s daughters were convenient models. There are many portraits of Madeleine whose patient temperament was better suited to modelling. Preferring to occupy her time with outdoor activities, Gabrielle often refused to sit. ‘The portraits of Madeleine are more than a likeness; they are an axis,’ Bourne continues, ‘Through them runs the invisible faith of a painter round which the world of her work revolves. The Madeleine group of paintings are the core of Mrs. Vasey’s work. In this girl she was to explore and expand her own techniques – the splendid sense of construction that she has; the reticence of flesh colour; the depth of facial expression. Madeleine is the very beautiful skeleton in the cupboard of Gladys Vasey’s work.’
Familiarity with a subject gave rise to deeper understanding and insight, whether in the portraits of Madeleine and Gabrielle, or the landscapes around Llanyblodwel and later in the Conwy Valley. In Bowdon, Vasey painted portraits of musicians who were guests of her first cousin, the music administrator and composer Maurice Johnstone (1951) who lodged with her at Bayfield House. They included Julius Harrison (1943) composer and conductor, and the Hallé ‘cellist Haydon Rogerson (MAFA 1934 & 1938).
Vasey painted head and shoulders, full length, seated, reclining and standing portraits. Invariably the sitter looks directly at the observer. There is seldom background interest. The majority of her portraits are set against a loosely painted backdrop that suggests a curtain. Its colour is determined by the tonality of the head. The sitter is sometimes placed before a sunlit window to intensify the contrast and allow a more interesting colour and tonal values. In her 1940 portrait of Eryl, Vasey used interior light to create cool highlights and warm shadows that glow against the blue background. ‘In the human face,’ continued. Bourne in his Art Quarterly critique, Vasey only ‘ventures into colour – but what ventures those are. Only beside the dark of an eyebrow do you realise the light of a girl’s face; only against the grey of his own shadow, the warmth of the man’s. Gladys Vasey’s sincerity is such that it really needs more than a series of sittings to embrace its object in paint. But, slow to be won, once established, her claim on her sitter is complete. Her friends, her daughter, are seen in their entirety.’
Vasey could achieve more a likeness of the sitter, more than the literal meaning of the word ‘portrait’ from the French trait pour trait (line for line). As well as describe the colour, tone and topography of a face, she imbued the portrait with character and personality. A portrait, she asserted in a 1973 letter the National Library of Wales, ‘must be a true record of the face, catching in a moment of time the various aspects of the personality’. It was for her a ‘challenge and a creative adventure’ and, when successful, the ‘greatest thrill that a painter can have’.
The portrait in fact can tell us as much about the artist as it can of the sitter. No portrait could claim to be a definitive representation of a sitter’s character. What we see is Vasey’s physical and emotional response to her subject observed and scrutinised over a period of time alone together in the studio. We must also be mindful that it is our experience of other people that we unknowingly project on to a portrait. Elizabeth in Blue (1960) we might see as brooding and unhappy. Eryl (1940) sensitive and nervous. Berkeley Chapple-Gill (1960) as grand and self-important. No matter what our backgrounds, we often find it easier to relate to portraits because we are so accustomed to making assumptions and passing judgement about other people, even people we have never met, in the queue at a supermarket checkout or in the pages of our daily newspapers.
In Gabrielle (1931) Vasey suggests an atmosphere of quiet contemplation by the downward angle of the head and the sitter’s preoccupied gaze – and not least in the use of diffused light and close tonal painting. By contrast, the portrait of author James Hanley (1952) is a more animated and spirited composition. The immediacy of the brushwork, the elevated tilt of the head, a stare that confronts the observer, and an energetic pose implies a captured moment in time. ‘As with the writer whose ideas have to be caught and imprisoned in words’, Vasey wrote, ‘so it is with the painter whose visions have to be compressed within the limits of his materials – and what temerity is needed by both – knowing that what is infinite must be expressed in finite terms. In art and life, the same rules apply – and the nearest approach to Truth is in direct human experience and in the knowledge based on critical judgement and finally in Reason, the touchstone of Truth!’ (‘Thoughts on Burlington House’, Art Quarterly 1960 Vol. 3, No. 4, pp.156-9).
Vasey sought to paint portraits that could be appreciated by a wider audience as works of art, paintings that go beyond a mere likeness of the sitter. Most of us who appreciate painted portraits of people we do not know are not looking for a true document of the sitter or indeed are judging whether or not Vasey achieved a good likeness. We assume a portrait to look like the sitter and represent his or her character. We are looking for other qualities. A portrait should have presence and create the illusion of being alive. It should be an elevated representation of the human condition.
Vasey’s portraits of her family and friends stand apart from her painted commissions which were expected to be a record of likeness as well as reflect the importance of the sitter. What concerned Vasey was having to suppress intellectual, aesthetic and emotional responses in order to measure up to the expectations of the audience who will have clear ideas about how the sitter should appear for posterity. She did not always find this easy and occasionally portraits were not accepted on completion.
Nevertheless, Vasey undertook numerous portrait commissions through family friends and Roland’s business contacts: William Maxwell-Reekie (1938), a Director of the Manchester textile export company of Robert Barban and Brother; George Spiegelberg (1950), a presentation portrait from his firm Mssrs. Morreau, Spiegelberg and Thompson, dealers in cotton exports in Manchester; and Sidney Whitehead (1950) commissioned by the Board of Directors for the boardroom of Stoneclough Mill to mark his retirement after forty years of service to the company. Vasey received a substantial fee of 250gns for the Whitehead portrait. She had established a name for herself in the North West of England. Despite any misgivings she might have had about official portraiture, she rarely turned down an invitation. For her such requests were an affirmation of public approval and recognition. There was never a question of having to rely on the income from commissions, or indeed the sale of other paintings. Roland Vasey provided steady financial support. Yet the commission fees she received were substantial. In the 1940s, for example, she charged as much as 200 guineas for a portrait. She sold few of the portraits that she painted of her own of family and friends.
Vasey refused to combine the camera’s vision with her own ability to control brush and paint. She never referred to a photograph when painting a portrait since the way the camera sees the world differs to the human eye. It distorts the perspective, tonal values and shadows. When Nils Severin Norem, Norwegian Honorary Consul in Manchester, asked Vasey to paint a posthumous portrait of his son from a small black and white photograph, she initially declined. However she was persuaded on learning that Flight Lieutenant Max Raymond Norem, a pilot with the 103 Squadron, had been killed in action at age 23 along with his crew on 6 March 1945 when his Lancaster was lost on an operation at Chemnitz in East Germany. At Vasey’s Llanyblodwel studio, Robin Norem sat for the portrait wearing his late brother’s Royal Air Force uniform. The photograph though did not provide sufficient information to animate the portrait, or give an impression of the hair colour and flesh tones. Portrait of an Airman is stiff and lifeless and atypical of Vasey’s portraits. In the same year, Vasey painted a three-quarter length portrait of Nils Severin Norem seated in an armchair.
Painting from Nature
Vasey painted few landscapes prior to 1936. Her interest was aroused on a painting holiday in Newlyn, Cornwall where she attended the summer art classes of Samuel John ‘Lamorna’ Birch (1869-1955). Birch’s paintings were already familiar to her. He had been an active member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts since 1905. Birch belonged to the small art colony centred on Lamorna village which sits at the end of a wooded valley in a scenic and secluded rockbound cove close to Newlyn. This group, which included John Armstrong and Dod Proctor, was smaller than the internationally famous Newlyn and St. Ives schools nearby.
Vasey was also acquainted with John Anthony Park (1880-1962), a painter from Preston, whose work she would have been familiar with since his election as Honorary Member of the Manchester Academy in 1927. A popular marine and landscape painter, Park lived and worked in St Ives. On at least one occasion, Park and his wife were Vasey’s guests at her Llanyblodwel home. In Lamorna, Vasey also met landscape painter and teacher Stanley Horace Gardiner (1887-1952). They became close friends. Several times she returned to Cornwall to stay as a guest of Stan and Bertha Gardiner. Vasey credited Gardiner for encouraging her to loosen her style, lighten her palette and paint against the sun. In his own work, Gardiner wished to combine the ‘art of Vincent van Gogh and that of Sir George Clausen [… to] bring about greater virility, a much needed force in present day art in this country’ (Adrian Bury Oil Painting Today Studio, 1938). Vasey’s first portrait of the lively and ebullient Gardiner was exhibited at the Manchester Academy in 1937. The second portrait, painted six years before his untimely death from throat cancer, shows Gardiner quiet and contemplative, illuminated by soft evening sunlight holding the tools of his trade.
The intense light, the mild climate, the close proximity of the small fishing villages, the sea and the countryside in the Penwith area of West Cornwall had obvious attractions for a painter from industrial Manchester. The congenial atmosphere of this artist community and the more relaxed pace of life was both inspiring and conducive to work. According to Caroline Fox, Newlyn provided painters with ‘a sort of English Concarneau’. Indeed, a number of artists who followed painter Stanhope Forbes to Newlyn had, like him, painted in Brittany. Forbes’ success at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions drew attention to the Newlyn School of Painters. He soon became regarded as its leader. Through Forbes, a Newlyn style developed. It was based on painting techniques learned in France and as such came to be seen as a reflection in British Art of French Impressionism. Forbes wrote of Newlyn in the Cornish Review 1878: ‘It was part of our artistic creed to paint our pictures direct from Nature, and not merely to rely upon sketches and studies which we would afterwards amplify in the comfort of a studio.’
In Birch’s classes Vasey was taught the methods of plein air-ism and the study of natural light. For subjects she chose not Forbes’ fishermen at work on the pebble beaches or variations on the harbour scene as painted by John Park. Instead she followed Birch’s example and painted in the peaceful wooded valley leading down to Lamorna Cove. At the Annual Spring Exhibition of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts in 1937, Vasey exhibited two landscapes painted in the previous year, Lamorna Woods and Lamorna Lane both of which are now held by Manchester City Art Gallery. A third painting was her portrait, S. H. Gardiner Esq.
Recording the subtle effects of light and shade, tone and colour were for Vasey the essence of landscape painting. Painting landscapes outdoors was the only means to capture fleeting changes in weather. Unlike portraiture, where careful draughtsmanship and accuracy of form is often expected, landscape could be painted more broadly. In landscape, she wrote to the National Library of Wales in 1973, ‘there is more scope for the imagination and even distortion. Distortion may be used – never for its own sake – but to emphasise the truth, the same as in language. Therefore I find that to do a landscape as well helps one not to be photographic in portraiture.’Unlike portraiture, landscape painting allowed Vasey to exaggerate the volumes and masses and become broad and decisive.
At the outbreak of war, Vasey moved to Wales. She had stayed at Llandudno as a child and during the 1920s and 1930s visited Criccieth, Pwllheli and Black Rock with her own family. The Vaseys together with their domestic staff had spent their annual September holidays in Borth, a small seaside village north of Aberystwyth. As an industrialised city, Manchester was target for German bombing raids. Like many middle class families, the Vaseys sought refuge in the Welsh countryside. In 1939 they rented a cottage at Talybont near Aberystwyth. Roland, who had been a Conscientious Objector during the Great War, stayed in Manchester and served as an air raid warden. Madeleine left farm school at Nantwich to join her mother and sister in Wales where she worked at Aberystwyth University’s newly established Department of Dairy Bacteriology.
Borth was nearby. The large expanse of wet sands and rough seas on this exposed part of the coastline provided an ever-changing subject. Vasey worked outdoors in all weathers painting the reflections on the wet sands and the light on the stormy sea as it shone through a break in the clouds. As the sands dried quickly in the sunshine, she developed a fresh and impressionistic approach to recording the countryside.
Time passed and no end to hostilities was in sight. In July 1940, Vasey returned to Cheshire. While Gabrielle remained in Wales, Madeleine’s work took her around the country. Back in Bowdon the Vaseys sold 4, Laurel Mount and moved locally for a short time to Bayfield House, a large detached house on Stamford Road. When in 1943 Gabrielle persuaded her parents to move permanently to Wales, they bought Llan Farm at Llanyblodwel, a picturesque village on the River Tanat near Oswestry. The small black and white Montgomery-style farmhouse came with ten acres of land that their daughters managed. An outbuilding across the yard from the house was converted into a painting studio. Here Vasey spent the ten years that were undoubtedly were her most inspired and productive. Now in her late fifties, she was painting some of her finest portraits and landscapes.
The more accomplished portraits at this time include that of a minister at Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain The Reverend Glyn Jones (1945) and of his daughter Janet (1945) that won first prize at the National Eisteddfod at Mountain Ash. Twelve years later Vasey painted Janet playing the harp. Janet had become something of a celebrity when appointed first National Hostess of Wales by the Welsh Tourist Board. The portraits of Boris (1945), Madeleine in Black and Gold (1946), the poet and journalist John Eilian Jones (1952), the Lord Mayor of Manchester Alderman Thomas Henry Adams (1948), and the novelist James Hanley (1952) evidence assured brushwork and a clear perception of the essentials, reflecting her admiration for the paintings of Augustus John. Hanley lived at Llanfechain during the 1940s and met Gladys Vasey sometime after her relocation to Llanyblodwel. The portrait of Hanley is particularly arresting. The sitter’s relaxed pose suggests scholarly reflection. Hanley, who lived nearby at Llanfechain, had been introduced to the artist by Gabrielle and a ‘warm friendship developed over the years’. He had ‘great admiration for her work’. She was, he recalled to me in a letter dated 7 October 1983, a ‘devoted artist’. At Glanbrogan Hall in Llanfechain lived Reginald Moore, literary editor of Modern Reading, with his novelist wife Lisa who published under the name Elizabeth Berridge. Vasey first met the Moores in 1947. Shortly afterwards she asked Moore if he would sit for a portrait. It was painted in her studio at Llan Farm in three sittings.
Boris Tietze was a young art student at Manchester when he first saw Vasey’s paintings at the Manchester Academy in 1944. He so admired her work that he wrote her and cycled from Manchester to Llanyblodwel. She was flattered that her paintings had attracted the young man’s attentions. On three or four occasions between 1944 and 1947, he returned to Llan Farm to use Vasey’s studio and receive instruction. It was on one such visit she painted a portrait of Boris.
When Vasey painted outdoors at Llanyblodwel, she called on her daughters to carry paints, easel, canvas and brushes down the lane and through the fields. In the shade of overhanging trees she painted along the banks of the Tanat, the bridge at the heart of the village, and the distinctive church of St. Michael the Archangel with its octagonal spire, the design of artist and nineteenth-century incumbent of Llanyblodwel, the Reverend John Parker.
In need of change and a larger property, Vasey left the green meadows and tall trees of the Tanat Valley in 1953 for the equally sylvan surroundings of the Conway Valley. She lived three years at Tan-y-coed Cottage in Maenan north of Llanrwst before moving to a larger house at Trefriw on the other side of the valley. Here she took a large room as her studio where she resumed painting; in particular, Bourne points out, the view from ‘that flagged terrace where she lives, the flowers about you, and the Conwy sinuous across the green lethargy of the plain below […]’
Though Vasey never aspired to become a household name, she did wish to be taken seriously as a professional painter. Her large corpus of artworks attest to her perseverance. ‘There are times when I just do not want to paint,’ she would remark, ‘but I make myself’. She would have liked to attract the attention of fellow artists as well as critics but was aware that fashion was against her. That said, public recognition was for her less important than a personal satisfaction with her own achievements as a painter. She had a high opinion of her abilities and often met criticism with anger. ‘As regards sins,’ she wrote in a 1963 letter to Art Quarterly, ‘the one I put at the top of the list is “bad taste”, that incurable infliction of the Philistine – and incurable it seems to be, as neither religion nor education seem to have been able to influence it in any way. Wherever we go in town or country, we are hurt, offended and mortified by the preposterous and flagrant results of bad taste. Hatred and anger and scorn are the virtues with which we have to fight this growing vandalism that is the disaster of our age’ (Vol. 5, No. 3, pp.104-5). Possibly her aversion to criticism discouraged her from exhibiting in London until 1956 when she made her first contributions to Royal Society exhibitions. Ultimately, Vasey never achieved recognition beyond the Manchester Academy.
Though Vasey chose to live in some of the more remote parts of Wales, she participated in major national exhibitions. Indeed, living away from the mainstream seems to have provided ideal conditions for work. The generation of younger post-war artists who sought fame and instant success held large solo shows, but for Vasey success was to attain the recognition and appreciation of the art world by exhibiting with prestigious national and provincial art societies.
The first recorded paintings by Vasey are those included in the 1930 Annual Spring Exhibition of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (MAFA) staged at Manchester City Art Gallery. She continued to exhibit with the Academy in unbroken succession for 39 years. The popular exhibitions comprised some 200-300 exhibits, some by the Academy’s Honorary Members: Lamorna Birch, Henry Lamb, William Orpen, John Park and Winston Churchill.
As a non-Member of the Academy, Vasey initially exhibited by payment of a hanging fee. In 1932, however, she was elected Associate Member and was made a full Member two years later. She was henceforth eligible to submit up to five entries for selection free of charge. In 1939, she was elected Honorary Treasurer for a three year term of office. She served on the Council of MAFA (1942-7). She regularly attended the conversazione for artists, Academy subscribers and patrons. It provided her a rare opportunity to enjoy the company of other artists.
Beyond Manchester, Vasey made occasional contributions to the Annual Spring Exhibition of Modern Art at the Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport where she exhibited 12 paintings between 1931 and 1956. In 1953, she was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art with whom she exhibited 12 paintings between 1953 and 1955 and a single exhibit in 1958. She resigned Membership of the Royal Cambrian Academy in 1956.
In 1956 Vasey introduced her paintings to the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RSPP) at the Royal Institute Galleries and the Society of Women Artists (SWA) with whom she exhibited five paintings over six years. She was elected SWA Associate Member in 1960 and a full Member in the following year. For reasons unknown, she resigned SWA membership after only two years. At the Royal Institute of Oil Painters Annual Exhibition in London she exhibited one painting in 1958 only. A number of portraits received their first showing at these exhibitions although occasionally earlier works were exhibited. Boris, for example, shown at the RSPP in 1961, had been painted 16 years earlier. They did not pass unnoticed. Several won the favourable attention of art critic and broadcaster Mervyn Levy. Of the RSPP’s annual exhibition in 1961, which included Augustus John’s Eva Kirk and Romany Lass by Dame Laura Knight, the Daily Telegraph reported that Vasey’s Portrait of Elizabeth (1960) showed ‘more insight than any of the others’.
‘Truth’s Superb Surprise’: Writings for Art Quarterly
Vasey’s opinions are most evident in her contributions to the subscription-only visual arts magazine Art Quarterly. Founded and edited by her painter friend Ronald Ossary Dunlop RA, and written by practising artists, Art Quarterly was first issued in September 1957. Vasey was a regular subscriber. From its first issue she contributed letters and exhibition reviews. The magazine endorsed the view that contemporary painting had divorced itself from the ordinary person and that art criticism, which generally favoured non-representational art, was too evasive and verbose.
Vasey first met Dunlop in Cheshire when, as a young man just out of boarding school, he lived with his parents at Hale. She gave encouragement and advice when he showed her his paintings. When in 1937 he staged an exhibition in Manchester, he wrote to Vasey to express the hope that she had not been too disappointed in him. Dunlop went on to become a distinguished painter, author and Royal Academician. Vasey painted Dunlop’s portrait at Trefriw during a brief visit early in 1956.
Art Quarterly aimed to get art out of the cul de sac into which it had been led by abstract art. It encouraged artists to return to representational painting, to look at nature and to paint objectively. ‘If it is self-revelation rather than the revelation of the reality – the picture is impure,’ Vasey wrote. ‘The self will be manifest as a result – not a cause – if, as is necessary to any composer, the artist is in a condition of love’ (‘Review of MAFA Exhibition’ Art Quarterly 1958 Vol. 1 No. 4).
In Art Quarterly, Vasey sought validation of her own beliefs. She was assured in the knowledge that many artists like her thought contemporary art ‘had reached an impasse’ and that ‘formalisation had taken the lifeblood out of the classic tradition’. She believed that ‘abstract, geometric and tachiste art ha[d] been taken to its logical conclusion’ where ‘communication with any but the initiated is possible only in so rarified an atmosphere there is nothing left to say’ (Vol. 1, No. 4 p. 149).
In the ‘Open Forum’ pages of Art Quarterly, subscribers aired their views. It is here that Vasey’s correspondences attest to her lack of sympathy with contemporary abstract painting:
How does one acquire that ambivalence of mind that is necessary for the understanding and sympathy for both “Abstract” and “Realist” Art? How does one assimilate two such divergent forms of expression? Is not “abstract” euphemism for “vacant”? There is never in human experience an object without a subject. But in these megalomaniac days – the object has become paramount and altogether obliterates the subject. The symbols become meaningless when they bear no relation to what they are supposed to represent – and if they are intended to stimulate the subconscious mind, their motive is false – for the artist, there is no barrier between the conscious and subconscious. On the other hand, why do so many of the “Realist” or representational painters see no further than facts, ignoring all mystery. This is true of so many of the portrait artists whose models appear like tailors’ dummies – lifeless and colourless creatures’
Vasey argued that the artist’s duty was to communicate with an audience that ‘must come with an open mind and the gift of adaptability’ (‘Thoughts on Burlington House’, Art Quarterly 1960 Vol. 3, No. 4, pp.156-9).
Vasey entered fewer paintings to the Annual Spring Exhibition of the Manchester Academy in the 1960s. There had been efforts to refresh the Academy by encouraging younger artists to exhibit. Attempts to represent contemporary practice were, it transpired, at the expense of more traditional idioms. Vasey did not exhibit a single painting in 1964. She broke all ties with London societies. The last painting she exhibited at the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts Annual Spring Exhibition was in 1968. She had contributed a total of 142 paintings over 39 years. This sudden and clean break was a consequence of domestic upheaval.
‘A Stubborn Gaity’: The Last Years
In 1964, at the age of 75 and after 53 years married life, Gladys left Roland for a younger man. The Vasey’s marriage had not been a happy one. Their different personalities had, however, contributed to its survival. Roland was quiet, reserved and tolerant. She was energetic, outgoing and assertive. After the children had grown up, Gladys and Roland had spent more time apart. He lived and worked in Manchester while she remained in Wales. Toward the end of her life, she claimed to have married beneath her socially. She felt Roland had not shared her interests, understood her or recognised her achievements as a professional painter. In fact, he had been more interested in her and her work than she would ever care to admit, not least in undertaking the practical arrangements for framing and the transport of pictures to exhibitions. The house at Trefriw had only recently been transferred to her name since it was assumed that Roland would predecease his wife. After the property sold, Roland spent some time with his daughter Madeleine but mostly lived out his days at a guest house in Rhos-on-Sea.
The Sumners and the Vaseys had long been friends. A little while after his wife died, James Sumner asked Gladys to live with him. They moved to Crown Cottage in Eardisland in Herefordshire where they enjoyed five years close companionship. However, Sumner died unexpectedly in 1969. For the first time Vasey was alone in life. Her twin sister, Eva Tocque Johnstone died at Bowdon on 16 July that year. She had cut herself off from Roland and her daughters and was without the financial support to which she had been accustomed.
Under sufferance, Gabrielle Vasey – who managed dog boarding kennels near Talybont – arranged during the Autumn of 1969 for her mother to live at 4 Harbour Lane in Aberaeron on the west coast of Wales. At age 80 and for the first time living by herself, she felt alone and desperately unhappy. She was a grand woman with sophisticated tastes used to a very different lifestyle surrounded by others who cared for her. She missed her friends with their tea and dinner parties and afternoon sherries. Gabrielle introduced her mother to local antique dealer Clare Herbert who in turn introduced the artist around town. In the garden of her cottage, she set up a small studio overlooking the harbour. Roland Vasey died on 22 March 1972.
Even in old age, Vasey cut a striking figure. High spirited and alert, she remained elegant in her dress. She wore large hats, high-heeled shoes and bright clothes. She was eccentric and timeless, handsome like her mother, and possessed a deep rich voice as well as charming physical gestures. To most people who met her she seemed kind, amusing and generous, if somewhat larger than life. She loved to socialise and to share with her friends a bottle of whiskey and some cigarettes bought with the proceeds of the sales of her small paintings of the harbour. Everyone knew her as Julie. She had long thought Gladys to be a comedian’s name. It did not convey a youthful aura of modernity.
Vasey was a great conversationalist and letter writer. Glyn R. Williams wrote me how ‘she touched upon a wide spectrum of subjects and wrote of breakfast with Vivaldi and going to bed with Brahms or Beethoven; of the beauty and inspiration of colour; of the joy and failure of parenthood; of the cruelty of the Cross which obscured true light for her’ (10 October 1984). She talked of her family and in particular her children who in old age annoyed her. As young girls she could show them off with immense pride. As they became young women with minds of their own, she could no longer manipulate them. Increasingly she had seen them as rebellious. Madeleine was close to her father while Gabrielle was closer to her mother. Even so, Gabrielle admitted that she had been frightened of her all her life.
Those close to her often witnessed the darker side of her character. She could be stubborn, dominant, demanding and, when it suited her, she had – as her daughter Gabrielle pointed out to me in 1984 – ‘a tongue of verbal vitriol’ that often made her enemies. As Betty Cavendish recalled to me in a letter dated 1 August 1984, Vasey could be ‘a little tyrant when she wanted’ and ‘made demands on people which she would not care to meet if the position was reversed’. She chose her friends carefully, educated and cultured people whom she deemed to be her social equivalents, friends with whom she could have long conversations, play bridge, have afternoon tea, or go for walks and trips in the car.
At Aberaeron, Vasey painted portraits of local people, still life, views from the window and oil sketches of the harbour. These small swiftly-painted studies capture the changing weather over the harbour as well as the reflections and ripples of the sea. Vasey exhibited at the Aberaeron and District Art Society Annual Exhibitions between 1969 and 1972. In 1973 the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth staged an exhibition of recent paintings as well as early portraits. ‘Portraits and other paintings by Gladys Vasey’ ran 5 September – 6 October in the Library’s Central Hall. For the exhibition, she painted a portrait of Margaret Evans MBE, well-known magistrate, collector and proprietor of the private museum Aberystwyth Yesterday. However, her brushwork was by now tentative and her sight had deteriorated affecting how she saw colour. In 1974 her right eye was operated on for acute glaucoma, the left in 1976. Vasey later developed cataracts. These were removed in 1977 though the left eye would not tolerate the strong magnifying spectacle lenses prescribed.
Even at age 87, Vasey could be seen in the summer months hanging the notice EXHIBITION OF PICTURES on her garden gate. This drew passer-by visitors into her studio and cottage where she would show them her paintings. Betty Cavendish, a writer who for two years worked in Wales at a nearby village, first met Vasey in 1976 when she called at the studio and was invited for coffee. In a letter dated 1 August 1983, Betty Cavendish wrote me about this and subsequent visits:
‘When I first met Julie, I thought what a delightful personality she had and what a friendly, gay, brave and amusing person to know. She had all the feelings that one would have expected of a well-brought-up woman of her period to have plus, of course, the delicate sensibilities of an artist […] She smiled and laughed easily and quickly, for many things still seemed to her wondrous about life and living and people.
[…] What I particularly remember about Julie was a kind of stubborn gaiety which, somehow or other, she could produce […] Her eyes might be paining her and she had come to realise that she would never be able to see properly again – not even after two operations on her eyes – nor would she paint again. Yet, for friendship’s sake, she would rally her forces up and get out the sherry glasses and, after a little while, colour came back into her cheeks and she smiled a little.
[…] I thought the greatest tribute to life that Julie could make, however, was in the nostalgic and gay charm of her paintings […] There seemed a trembling quality in some of her landscapes: one felt she had perceived the very moment when the tree came into leaf and shared in its struggle.’
Young Russ Norris also came to know Vasey at this time. He did odd jobs around the cottage and garden. Over the years they became very close. ‘During the interludes of pretending to be Julie’s part-time gardener,’ he wrote me in December 1984, ‘we sat in the studio and talked and drank. I played the guitar and Julie painted a most exquisite portrait of her little boy blue.’ In 1978, Norris visited Vasey with Bernard Fallon, a friend who was at the time a TV Timesphotographer. Fallon photographed Vasey in her studio. Typically she wore her painting smock and a wide-brimmed hat. Proudly she sat surrounded by a lifetime’s paintings.
Failing sight and physical weakness confined Vasey to the house where her small sitting room on a dull Autumn morning seemed ‘like a dungeon’. As she wrote to her friend Cynthia Morgan-Smith on 19 August 1979 ‘I can’t do what I want – in fact I’m only alive – but not “living”, only existing […] There are crowds here at present and I find it very hard not to be able to see their faces – only vague figures moving about in a mist.’ Using her right eye with vision that was slowly deteriorating, she painted views of the harbour from the cottage window and flowers on the sill. The portraits she began were abandoned when she could no longer see well enough to continue. Her later paintings are marred by poor sense of colour and hesitant brushwork. ‘I can neither read or do anything’, she wrote to Morgan-Smith, ‘which is devastating’.
At times bored and irritable in her old age, she wrote (in the same letter) ‘The day is dark and dull – like me! And the only way out of my dilemmas practical, physical and spiritual is to leave this earth and try the next one as soon and as noiselessly as possible –and I don’t believe that idea to be a sinful one at all.’
During Vasey’s last months, her health failed and memory became confused. She had become totally dependent on the help of others. She stayed for short periods at various nursing homes before she was eventually admitted to the North Road Infirmary at Aberystwyth. There, Gladys Vasey died in the early hours of Thursday 22 January 1981.
HUGH BLAKER IS CHIEFLY REMEMBERED as advisor to the Davies Sisters of Gregynog. It was his taste that influenced Gwendoline and Margaret in the formation of their internationally-renowned collection of nineteenth-century French art now held by the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. It was on Blaker’s recommendation that the Davieses purchased many of their works by Daumier, Corot, Millet, Rodin and Monet, as well as a small number of Old Master paintings. However, Blaker’s role as consultant has overshadowed his many other activities. He was also a painter, author, critic, museum curator, collector, dealer in Old Masters and, against overwhelming public opinion, an indefatigable advocate of avant-garde tendencies in art.
It was Jane Blaker who introduced her brother to Gwendoline and Margaret ‘Daisy’ Davies. She was the sisters’ governess from 1895 until the young women came of age. She then became companion to their stepmother who was living at Broneirion, Llandinam. Passionate and opinionated, Hugh Blaker ridiculed official conservatism in his support and promotion of young artists. ‘I am trying to do something for the moderns’, he protested, ‘but they won’t let me!’ Since my 2004 essay for the Oxford University Press Journal of the History of Collections, I have explored Blaker’s hugely important, yet largely unrecognised, contribution to the course of art history in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century.
Hugh Blaker : Advisor to Gwendoline and Margaret Davies
While the sisters consulted other collectors, advisors and dealers, it was Hugh Blaker’s artistic tastes and preferences that largely shaped the Davies Collection. He directed them toward artists and movements that he admired. Blaker was charismatic, confident and passionately outspoken, the sisters’ opposite in so many ways. Both sisters were artistically sensitive. Gwen played the violin, Daisy painted. In his 1969 book Spiritual Pilgrims, Ian Parrott described the sisters as so ‘self-effacing, timid, shy and undemonstrative that they seemed to fade from view.’
Perhaps a little cautious at first and in need of reassurance, Gwendoline was soon writing to Blaker requesting that he ‘look out for Impressionist works’ on his next visit to Paris. She found it easier to buy through Blaker, at least until she made her own contacts with Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris and the Leicester Galleries in London.
The sisters first bought Impressionist paintings at a time when such works were not widely accepted in Britain. The most important attempt to introduce the British public to modern French painting was the exhibition Manet and the Post Impressionists staged by Roger Fry at the Grafton Gallery in 1910. The Times critic was offended by the ‘simplicity of the work which has a blatant disregard for skills past artists had acquired and bequeathed, and a rejection of all that civilisation had done.’ His was not a lone voice. Public institutions – including the Tate – were no more open-minded.
Hugh Blaker, however, had studied in Europe. He was a self-professed ‘modernist’ and wholly sympathetic toward artistic developments on the Continent. He knew that collectors in Germany and the United States of America were more enlightened than the British toward Impressionism. Blaker derided The Times critic and others for their ‘ponderous stupidity’, insisting that ‘cultured London is composed of clowns.’ He prophesised that those who then condemned would in twenty years’ time pay large sums of money to possess these paintings. ‘How insular we are still,’ he exclaimed.
In his 1916 Journal, Blaker noted that he had ‘inspired the Davies girls to buy Rodin’s Eve thus adding one more glorious Rodin to their collection. Also some early John paintings, and two drawings.’ Gwendoline Davies also made outstanding purchases independently of Blaker. In 1918, for example, she bought the first of her three Cézanne canvases. Eager to claim some credit, Blaker points out in his 1922 Journal that is was some ‘ten maybe fifteen years ago, [that he] was begging Miss Davies to buy Cézanne.’
The sisters bought relatively few pictures through the London or Paris salerooms. They had an apartment at Buckingham Gate and from there they could attend auction viewings. Since picking up a bargain was not a necessity, they generally liked to go through dealers who guaranteed a painting’s pedigree. However, the dealerships were not perceived to be the domain of women and so it was useful to have Blaker negotiating on their behalf.
Gwendoline and Margaret bought a small number of Old Masters on the advice of Blaker who considered himself to be expert at discovering ‘sleeper’ masterpieces. The question of attribution, however, was all too risky to the uninitiated. Blaker sold paintings to the sisters that he had ascribed to Botticelli, Constable, El Greco, Hals and Van Dyck all of which now have School, Circle or Follower status. Buying contemporary artworks was much less problematic. Some of the sisters’ newly acquired Impressionist paintings had been painted just a few years earlier. Authorship was almost certainly guaranteed.
Blaker became the public voice of the Davies collection. He sprang to its defence when it was subject of criticism or prejudice. The first loan exhibition was to the fledgling National Museum of Wales in Cardiff in 1913. The collection was then only partially formed yet those involved foresaw it as a milestone for art in Wales. Writing in his Journal, Blaker anticipated that the exhibition would ‘educate the population in the love of art’, adding that the ‘Rodin’s are great enough to found a school of sculpture in Wales.’
The sisters sought to encourage and support interest in the arts in Wales. They were concerned that the people of Wales had been starved of the visual arts. They looked on the French collection as a means to introduce Wales to the best of the European tradition and to encourage high standards among indigenous artists. They wanted to see a Renaissance in Welsh art.
Gwendoline and Margaret remained anonymous. Blaker handled the organisation, gave public lectures and invited guest speakers. While the English and Old Master paintings were admired, the Impressionist canvases prompted a strong outcry. The Western Mail critic wrote of the ‘slapdash’ impressions that are ‘of more use to the author than anyone else, and ought never to have been framed, let alone exhibited.’
In 1921 Gwen Davies proposed the loan of two Cézanne oils to the Tate Gallery. The offer was turned down on the grounds of limited space. Blaker took the refusal personally. As architect of the Davies collection, he felt it reflected poorly upon him. Blaker suspected that the Trustees were questioning Cézanne’s importance and the paintings’ merit. In an open letter to The Observer, Blaker made the issue public. A debate ensued on the need for Cézanne to be represented in Britain’s national collection.
Letters between Blaker and Tate trustees were published in the Saturday Review and the Burlington Magazine. Blaker was insistent. After all, Cézanne was already on public display throughout Europe and the USA. In June 1922, Tate Trustee D. S. MacColl approached Gwendoline Davies to arrange a loan. He admitted to having rated the painting ‘too low.’ In so doing, François Zola Dam became the first Cézanne to hang in a public gallery in Britain.
With faith in Blaker and their own convictions, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies went against overwhelming public opinion to form a collection of nineteenth century French art that twenty years later they would not have been unable to afford.
Hugh Blaker : Connoisseur and Collector
Hugh Blaker was himself a collector. He used his modest income from investments in West India Rubber to buy from contemporary English and French artists as well as speculate on Old Masters at the salerooms. He seriously considered becoming an independent dealer for he had made many useful contacts at London galleries and salerooms as a consequence of his dealings on behalf of the Davies sisters.
Since Blaker did not have the financial means to indulge his passion for the work of Cézanne or the other modern French painters in the Davies Collection, he looked ahead of the other dealers and bought works by then underrated artists such as Maurice de Vlaminck and Amadeo Modigliani. Blaker claimed to be the first person in Britain to buy Modigliani’s painting, ‘the only man in London to give a tuppenny damn about them.’ Jane Blaker presented Modigliani’s The Little Peasant to the Tate in memory of her brother.
When Blaker began dealing in Old Masters, however, he entered the risky domain of connoisseurship. He made many speculative investments in Old Master paintings. He bought and sold canvases by Holbein, Rubens, Hals, Gainsborough and Turner. He expected it to be a lucrative market given his self-professed ‘instinctive sense’ for the Masters. In 1913 he purchased from a ‘Somerset nobleman’ what he believed to be an earlier version of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. His most important discovery was made at Christie’s in 1921 when he suspected that a painting attributed to the School of Zurbaran, St John in the Wilderness, was in fact an early work by Velasquez. He purchased it for 60 guineas and resold it to a private collector in the United States for £14,000. It is now in the Art Institute of Chicago.
On the whole, Blaker bought paintings by modern British and French artists. He admired works by those associated with the New English Arts Club, Camden Town Group, and the Fitzroy Street Group. He owned oil paintings by Whistler, Sickert, Orpen, John, Gilman, Gore, Ginner, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, Burra and Gertler. Earlier British artists were also represented in Blaker’s collection: Constable, Millais, Cotman, Burne-Jones, Clausen and Leighton among them. In his 1930 touring exhibition Modern British Paintings and Drawings from the Hugh Blaker Collection there were no fewer than twenty-eight works by Augustus John represented. Gwendoline Davies had bought many John artworks at Blaker’s suggestion. He had long admired John before they met for the first time at a Chelsea bar on 28 September 1916.
Hugh Blaker : The Museum Curator
In July 1905, with a testimonial prepared by the sisters’ brother David Davies, Blaker was appointed Curator of the Holburne of Menstrie Museum in Bath. There he was responsible for the large collections of ceramics, antiquities, miniatures and paintings bequeathed to the city by Sir William Holburne. At the first meeting of the Trustees, Blaker doubted the attributions of many of the Old Master paintings. With the assistance of Ayerst H. Buttery of London’s National Gallery he undertook a reclassification of 258 paintings. They deemed them to be ‘Very Good (11), Good (33), Fair (59), and Bad (159).’ 125 of the paintings were subsequently put into storage. Blaker’s undermining of the Holburne Bequest provoked scathing attacks from both local and London press.
Once the controversy subsided, Blaker appears to have lost interest in his role as curator. He made frequent requests to the Trustees for leave of absence to pursue other activities. He wished to experience the contemporary art scene in London and Paris in order to educate members of the Bath and West Country Society of Artists and rescue them from their conservative and insular views. ‘I am Art in Bath!’ he insisted.
The rift between the Holburne Trustees and Blaker widened following the publication of his 1910 book Points for Posterity in which he attacked many established conventions and beliefs. The contempt he expressed for Trustee-controlled provincial art galleries must surely have been read as an assault on his employers. ‘There is hardly a member of a provincial art gallery committee,’ he wrote, ‘who knew enough about a painting to judge whether an Old Master was genuine or not […] or who had sufficient knowledge of art to prevent his fellow members buying the stupid popular stuff which every year finds its way into permanent collections.’
Hugh Blaker : Gregynog
Blaker was not only the Davies sisters’ picture advisor. He also assisted them in their various art and crafts initiatives. In 1920 they set about turning Gregynog Hall near Newtown, Powys into a rural centre for arts and crafts. Both sisters had worked in Red Cross canteens in France during the World War I. They intended that Gregynog Hall, its formal gardens and beautiful estate, could be used for the rehabilitation and training of soldiers and those affected by war.
Advocates of William Morris’s tenet of good craftsmanship and the importance of hand-made objects, the sisters hoped to nurture a crafts revival in Wales. Hugh Blaker recommended Robert Ashwin Maynard to lead on the arts and crafts venture at Gregynog. Blaker felt strongly that they should appoint an artist rather than a craftsman. He considered Maynard to be a brilliant watercolourist, though he knew nothing of the crafts. Maynard was selling cattle medicines in Shrewsbury at the time.
Maynard was sent to London’s Central School of Art and Crafts to learn craft techniques where he developed a particular affinity for wood engraving and fine printing. In 1922 he moved to Gregynog and set up a print shop and composing room in the stables. The first Gregynog Press book, The Poems of George Herbert, was published in December 1923. However, the residential crafts centre initiative was abandoned in 1924 when Gregynog Hall became the sisters’ home.
Fine printing continued at the Gregynog Press. Maynard’s typography and high standard of printing attracted widespread recognition. When in February 1930 Maynard resigned as Controller, Blaker recommended Blair Hughes-Stanton who was already a well-known wood engraver. Stanton is ‘distinctly modern’, he wrote Gwendoline Davies, and ‘his modernism is all to the good.’ Painter-sculptor William McCance joined as Press Artist. Stanton and McCance were allocated Estate properties where they were joined by their wood-engraver wives Gertrude Hermes and Agnes Miller-Parker.
Stanton, McCance, Hermes and Parker exhibited brilliant technical mastery, meticulous detailing and remarkable imaginations. Between 1930 and 1933 they were responsible for some of the finest illustrated books ever produced by a private press. However, the private press book market was in the doldrums. Britain was in the grip of mass unemployment and an economic slump. There were no more resident Controllers at the Press after 1933. The Press gradually ran down. Work was suspended at the start of World War II and the last book was published in August 1940.
Blaker : The Artist
Hugh Blaker studied at art school in Teddington, London, at the Académie Julian in Paris, and Antwerp School of Art. On his death in 1936, the contents of his Isleworth studio passed to his sister Jane at Gregynog. After Jane’s death in 1948, some 140 Blaker artworks remained at Gregynog until Margaret Davies died at which point they passed to the University of Wales in 1963 and to Aberystwyth University in 1989.
The early life drawings bear the labels of the South Kensington School System Examining Board and were probably made around 1895. They are executed in the traditional academic manner and attest to the fashion for charcoal on a laid Michallet paper. The ink pen illustrations suggest that Blaker once attempted to make a living from his work. Judging by the inscriptions, they were intended for publication. Stylistically they vary from the sketchy manner of George du Maurier and Charles Keene for Punch magazine to more consciously arranged areas of black and white recalling the artworks of Charles Robinson and the Edwardian gift Book illustrators.
In search of a style, Blaker used a wide range of materials and explored different techniques. His attempts to be ‘modern’ led him in unexpected directions stylistically. He emulated the work of painters whom he admired, borrowed from their vocabulary, adopted their means of expression, and often their subjects too: from Franz Hals (Le Lion Comique) and Théodore Rousseau (Kew from the Thames at Isleworth) to the French Symbolist Carriere (Jack, 1912 and Woman Reading), painted in the year that Gwendoline Davies bought her first Carrieres. The correspondences between the paintings that Blaker acquired for the Davies sisters, and his own stylistic experiments, are especially evident in his paintings influenced by Daumier (A Conversation and Two Men at an Easel) whose works the sisters collected between 1912 and 1922.
Blaker was very much a product of his generation, excited by the challenges presented at the turn of a new century. Traditional values in British art represented by the Royal Academy of Arts were being challenged as artists attempted to come to terms with modernism from the Continent. While many still believed in the values formed during the last sixty years of Victoria’s reign, Blaker was against the establishment and officialdom.
Blaker’s ‘squarist’ paintings and drawings are probably the most resolved of his experiments with modernism. There appears to be evidence of a sustained effort to interpret the principles of the Vorticists, adopting the angular simplification of English painters such as Percy Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts and David Bomberg. ‘Squarist’ paintings such as Woodsmen are somewhat more cuboid than Cubist. Blaker never took the contemporary idiom as far as the Vorticists by abstracting or rearranging the objects in a non-representational way. He goes no further than to impose their angularity on to an otherwise traditional subject without interrupting the arrangement of the objects.
Hugh Blaker was endowed with all the advantages necessary to succeed as a painter – natural ability as a draughtsman and an art school training in Britain and abroad. He had many influential and wealthy friends in the art world. He was self-confident and determined with enormous faith in his convictions. However, he was not blessed with a single-mindedness of vision, which is probably why his painting did not develop or mature beyond the experimental. His personality, despite creating fascinating biography, took him in too many different directions at the expense of his commitment to becoming a painter.
As he reveals in a Journal entry dated 25 February 1932:
‘The cause of my failure to “make good” in any single branch of knowledge is that I have too many interests. Had I been isolated in my youth at a time when there was demand for artistic expression, I should have been an artist of repute. I was dumped into a generation which did not care a damn for art – apart from popular art. I just happened. I was an Old Master, born centuries late. No kid ever had greater equipment. No kid ever faced greater frustration. Centuries ago I would have been apprenticed to a painter – as a boy well fitted to make good in a prosperous trade. Instead, at that period of my development, I was the veritable curse of damn-fool schoolmasters at my “public school”, Cranleigh. I was a wondrous fair kid, strong, and good at games. I got something out of them. In the gym I builded up a body as strong and fair as that of any sweet boy of the ’80s.’
Robert Meyrick. ‘Hugh Blaker: Doing his bit for the Moderns’. Journal of the History of Collections Vol.16, No.2 (Oxford University Press, 2004). pp.173-189.
Robert Meyrick. Hugh Blaker 1873–1936: Artist, Collector and Connoisseur. Gregynog Festival Exhibition No.2. (Aberystwyth: School of Art Press, 1991). 12pp
Robert Meyrick. Hugh Blaker 1873–1936: Artist, Connoisseur and Curator.
Gregynog Festival Exhibition No.2, Gregynog Hall, Newtown (1991)
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (1992)
Holborne of Menstrie Museum and Art Gallery, Bath (1993)
Catherine Lewis Gallery, Aberystwyth University (September 1995 – 30 April 1996)
A LONG-SERVING MEMBER OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, Sydney Lee RA RE RWS SWE (1866-1949) was regarded as a ‘pioneer’ printmaker ‘foremost’ among his contemporaries. He was active in numerous professional bodies dedicated to the encouragement of fine art printmaking. For 45 years, he was an exhibiting member of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. At Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he taught some of the first wood engraving classes to be offered by a London art school, Lee did much to stimulate interest in the medium as an original expressive art form. In 1920, he was a founding member of the Society of Wood Engravers. He also pioneered the colour woodcut in Britain, using Japanese techniques. His experimental and innovative mezzotints, aquatints and roulette-toned etchings pushed the boundaries of traditional practice. Few early 20th-century British printmakers were in command of such a broad range of graphic media.
Yet despite his many achievements and professional associations, Lee did not achieve lasting critical acclaim. As history painter Benjamin Haydon observed, the ‘great difficulty is first to win a reputation; the next to keep it while you live; and the next to preserve it after you die, when affection and interest are over, and nothing but sterling excellence can preserve your name.’ In Lee’s case, excellence alone did not suffice. After his death, the contents of his studio were dispersed piecemeal by public auction and the name Lee had made for himself all but died with him. His stature has been reduced to little more than a footnote in the history of 20th-century British art.
I knew nothing of Sydney Lee when, in 1992, I purchased his aquatints A Mountain Fortress (1914) and The Sleeping Square (1928) from Mike Goldmark in Uppingham. As a teacher of printmaking practice and history, I was drawn to their technical and aesthetic qualities. Lee’s prints were also eminently affordable to a young collector with modest means. In the intervening years, I acquired further works. The advent of online shopping, and eBay in particular, opened for me the rich European and North American markets. As my collection grew, I began to record Lee’s prints in other collections and endeavoured to recreate a life through art that languished in museum stores or private lofts. Lee had no children to help ensure his legacy. No archive material appears to have survived: letters, diaries, record books and photographs were seemingly discarded. Little did I imagine that my interest in Lee would, some 20 years later, lead to an invitation from the Royal Academy of Arts to curate an exhibition and publish a catalogue raisonné of his prints.
Born in Manchester in 1866, Lee belonged to an old, prominent and entrepreneurial Lancashire family that had founded mills across the county and into Yorkshire, Cheshire and the Wirral. His forebears, brothers and cousins made significant contributions to British industry, design, commerce and politics. Lee studied at Manchester School of Art and worked for a while at the Atelier Colorossi in Paris. By 1895, he had positioned himself among London’s artist elite with a house and studio on Holland Park Road in Kensington.
Lee travelled near and far, throughout Britain and on the Continent in search of ancient buildings, geological formations and epic natural prospects. Gordale Scar and Rievaulx Abbey, the Colosseum in Rome, a mountain fortress high in the Swiss Alps, the city walls of Segovia and the Basilica de San Vicente at Avila all provided him opportunities to explore the play of light on crumbling stone, brick or plaster. He was acclaimed by critics such as T W Earp for his paintings and prints of ‘picturesque old buildings’ that were ‘rich in the patina and atmosphere of history’. Lee honed his engraving technique to such a degree in The Limestone Rock (1904-5) that Malcolm Salaman heralded it as an ‘example of landscape interpretation in the language of wood engraving comparable with fine landscape painting in the modern conception with its search for structural expression.’
The mastery of craft was no doubt instilled in Lee when he was a student at Manchester School of Art; the School’s Director of Design, Walter Crane, was instrumental in fostering his appreciation of Japanese prints. Lee became one of the earliest followers of Frank Morley Fletcher who, with John Dickson Batten, adapted Ukiyo-e methods of the late Edo period and demonstrated his techniques to students at Central School of Arts and Crafts. Lee not only emulated methods of Japanese printmaking but also studied the Japanese sense of design and composition. One such print is The Bridge (1904), a Yorkshire subject handled in the Japanese manner. Lee’s decorative colour woodcuts of St Ives, in particular, demonstrate that he understood the Japanese use of unexpected angles, flattened backgrounds and high horizons.
It was not until 1913 that Lee began to exploit a variety of intaglio processes. Ambitious in their experimentation and imposing in scale, these aquatints are distinguished by their exciting tonalities. Visiting the lakes of Switzerland and Italy, traversing the St. Gotthard, Simplon and Grimsel Passes, Lee found inspiration in the mountain villages and desolate landscapes of bare hills and distant rocky peaks. Burnished to near abstraction, his aquatint The Grimsel Pass (1929) emulates in technique the stone-strewn and weather-beaten terrain it depicts. Once the composition was planned, Lee acted in response to his materials by scraping away, burnishing and reworking his plates to their limit. It was more important to Lee that artists possess manual dexterity and fully understand the techniques of their craft in order to respond to the subject and experiment with the process. Detail and design evolved as work progressed. ‘I simply try to reproduce objects as I feel they are,’ Lee asserted, ‘and my methods are adopted to this end.’
Whether burnishing back to white from a blackened mezzotint plate or teasing light out of the darkness of a woodblock, Lee made the most of media that are eminently suited to the romance of nocturnes. A keen exponent of the white-line technique, his unusually large, finely wrought wood engravings display a painterly attention to tone and texture. At least one of these he claimed to have engraved outdoors in front of his subject in a Spanish courtyard. Like many northern European painters, he was also drawn to the Mediterranean light. For some of his last prints, he chose Venetian views. In his tour de force wood engravings Ponte Paradiso (1927) and A Venetian Merchant (1928), his textural engraving technique reached its zenith.
Lee’s prints are now represented – albeit rarely on view – in major museum collections from Australia and New Zealand to Canada and the United States of America. Until my 2013 exhibition for the Royal Academy of Arts, there had not been an exhibition of Lee’s works since 1945. There had never been a publication devoted to him; his prints had never been catalogued or documented and there had been virtually no critical appraisal of his many and varied accomplishments. My research redressed this oversight to posit Lee within the broader context of print practice. The exhibition and catalogue raisonné aimed to showcase previously unseen artworks by one of Britain’s most underrated painter-printmakers. Nearly seventy years after his death, Lee is finally received the attention that his consummate skill and experimentation so clearly deserved.
[First published Printmaking Today 2013, revised and expanded 2019]
Periodically updated list of Sydney Lee oil paintings shown at Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibitions, the New English Art Club, etc., and a where are they now. HERE
Sydney Lee prints at the Annual Exhibitions of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers HERE
Robert Meyrick. Sydney Lee RA. Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2013). 160pp. ISBN: 978-1907533402. Hardcover £29.95.
Robert Meyrick. ‘From the Shadows’. Printmaking Today Vol.22, No.85. (London: Cello Press, 2013) pp. xx-xx
Robert Meyrick. From the Shadows: The Prints of Sydney Lee RA.
Royal Academy of Arts, London. 27 February – 26 May 2013.
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth University. 17 June – 6 September 2013.
WHEN IN 1948 JOHN ROBERTS, then a printmaking student at the Royal College of Art, visited backstage at Bertram Mills Circus in Earl’s Court, he could not have foreseen that the experience would give his work immediate purpose and direction, and that he would find a subject to engage him for the next five decades. From pencil drawings made in a small hardback sketchbook, he developed characters and compositions that he would revisit time and again, fulfilling an enduring fascination with the costume and ritual of circus life. But it was a very particular aspect of life in and around the Big Top that attracted: the ringmaster, lion tamer, elephants and camels, trapeze act or tightrope walker never appealed. Almost exclusively he was compelled to draw the male performers—the clowns, dwarfs and tumblers—not in the ring performing, but backstage in costume and makeup preparing for, or at rest after a show. He was sensitive to their isolation and the loneliness beneath a façade of gaiety; he called it the ‘fact and fantasy’ of’ circus life.
John Vivian Roberts RE was born in Tredegar, Gwent and studied painting at Cardiff College of Art under Evan Charlton and Ceri Richards (1939-42) before serving with the South Wales Borderers and Indian Signal Corps (1942-47). His wartime drawings document life in the barrack room at Brecon training camp, daily routine aboard a troop ship in the South Atlantic Ocean, and off-duty activity at Arakan, Cairo and Burma.
Roberts went to the Royal College in 1947 originally as a student of illustration and mural decoration. He enrolled for the Saturday morning classes in etching and recalled that Professor Robert Austin PPRE ‘let it be known’ that he would be very pleased if he would consider a transfer to the Engraving School. This he did at the end of the first term. There was an immediate rapport between the two men. Austin’s enthusiasm and discipline greatly impressed Roberts, who was fortunate to have an art school education at a time when good draughtsmanship, the acquisition of skills and a regard for tradition were valued. A fellow student at the Royal College and close friend was Harry Eccleston PPRE.
Backstage (1949), which was among the first etchings drawn from the circus sketchbook, demonstrates that Roberts soon acquired a remarkable command of tone through the subtle manipulation of finely stippled and hatched etched line. With the addition of fine aquatint, sensitively burnished, this mastery reached its zenith in 1951 with Figures and Flowers, an imaginative composition drawn from a busy flower market in Majorca. An RCA Travelling Scholarship had enabled him to work in France and Spain that year. Even as a student, Roberts was drawn to outsiders, those who led unconventional lives, often on the fringes of society. In Edwin la Dell’s lithography classes he drew on London life. Caff (1949) shows a man seated in a late-night tea room, huddled over a newspaper, reading the sports page and biting on a sandwich, and in Two Loose Teeth (1949) an old woman, wearing a flower-trimmed straw hat and astrakhan overcoat, sits alone in a Fulham Bar. Spain also provided subjects to which he would return periodically—notably in his paintings, etching and lithograph of the Seller of Paper Birds, Madrid. Harry Eccleston believed that one of Roberts’ most remarkable qualities was his ‘ability to look at ideas again and again, and to bring to them new aspects to delight.’
In 1951 Roberts returned to Wales to teach at Cardiff College of Art and in 1960 took up an appointment at Liverpool Polytechnic (now John Moores University) where from 1971 until his retirement in 1983 he was principal lecturer in the Department of Graphic Design. At this time he illustrated books for major publishers: Nelson, Macmillan, BBC, Longman, Odham and Penguin— mostly natural history books that allowed him indulge a passion for wildlife, insects and landscape. In 1961 he conceived a series of prints of decorative and abstracted heads as a means to encourage students to explore the creative potential of etching for its intrinsic quality of mark, and to demonstrate that intaglio prints could involve much more than merely etched line.
To this end, Roberts employed a multiplicity of processes, incorporating impressed textures into soft ground, deep open bite, course grain aquatint and vigorous burnishing. For the first time he departed from naturalistic representation, deconstructing the head, then reassembling the features to exaggerate and distort facial topography. He also took an interest in photogravure, photo-etching and photomechanical means of making lithographs, reworking old themes such as Seller of Paper Birds (1967) and developing new, as in The Reluctant Concierge (1983).
In Liverpool Roberts came to know Arthur Pedlar (b.1932), manager of his family’s shopping mall in Southport and a part-time clown. Pedlar had worked at the Cirque Medrano in Paris, for a short time was assistant to Buster Keaton and was the first non-American to be elected President of the World Clown Association. He created many characters on stage but is best known as Vercoe, the absent-minded tramp clown, and Arturo, a continental white-faced clown with sequinned costume and a tall white hat. Roberts used Pedlar as a model over many years, drawing him in different guises, performing card tricks, playing a miniature violin and riding a unicycle.
Much of John Roberts’ work was autobiographical. The etching Novia del Toro (Bride of the Bull, 1962) tells the story of unrequited love. It presents an awkward union. He draws himself as the bull and the bride-not-to-be is his erstwhile art school sweetheart. His admiration of Goya’s work is evident. From the master he learned to use light to focus attention and illuminate depth of character. The Odd Companions series that followed also rely upon disturbing juxtapositions, this time of mannequins, plastic flowers, his daughter Cathryn’s graffiti-covered dolls and her childhood drawings. In March 1986 he wrote, ‘I have always been interested in contrasts, in the bizarre and in strange meetings between objects. When a picture assumes its own identity, as if by magic a small new world is born. That is the excitement of making something that never was.’ In contrast to these darkly surreal compositions, the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology commissioned Roberts in 1978 to produce six etched portraits of its academics and scientists. In 1990 the National Library of Wales staged ‘A Selection of Contemporary Portraits’, an exhibition of Roberts’ portraits of eminent Welsh men and women. The Library now holds 26 of the portraits in its permanent collection.
John Roberts was an artist of great integrity and commitment, he was active while teaching full time and despite the vagaries of artistic taste remained faithful to his convictions, exhibiting at a time when his work would have been considered by many to be outmoded. By the 1950s the market for small black and white etchings had all but dried up and consequently impressions of his etchings were only ever pulled for proofing and as required for exhibition and sale. For the most part only a handful of impressions of each exist. While occasionally an edition size was declared, no plate was ever editioned. In addition to solo exhibitions he was an active exhibiting member of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour, the Royal Cambrian Academy, the Liverpool Academy of Arts (where for many years he was Treasurer) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. In 1983, he retired to St David’s in south-west Pembrokeshire and thereafter made few prints, but he worked almost daily, in spite of increasing ill-health, producing acrylic paintings, watercolours, pastels and densely-hatched ink drawings. Once again he drew upon Arthur Pedlar’s characters, notably the maladroit auguste Vercoe. There is a pervading melancholy and poignancy in these unlucky eccentrics. In Take a Card (lithograph, 1983, etching 1989), Vercoe, wearing battered everyday clothes, forcibly engages the viewer with his direct gaze as he invites us to pick the Ace of Spades.
In his 81st year, I curated a retrospective exhibition of fifty years’ work that demonstrated Roberts’ versatility working in a wide range of graphic media. Unfortunately his deteriorating health prevented him from travelling to see the show and John Roberts died on 11 August 2003, half way through its run. Roberts was a consummate draughtsman and printmaker who was fortunate to be the product of the British art school system that believed drawing was the best means to test an artist’s powers of observation and expression. He was an artist fascinated by human nature and he responded to it in his work. A quiet and unassuming man ‘Robbie’, as students knew him, was a well-loved and respected teacher, though it was not in his nature to promote himself or his work. He exhibited regularly and his popular themes ensured that the work sold well, but it received little critical exposure and now deserves to be better known. Fortunately, these works remain as a testament to this most perceptive of artists who in his paintings and prints demonstrated a genuine empathy with the circus folk he regarded as friends, the humble sitters upon whom he bestowed an almost spiritual significance, displaying a Rembrandtesque sensitivity toward the human condition.
Aberystwyth 2004 & 2018
Robert Meyrick. ‘Odd Companions: The Prints of John Roberts RE’. Printmaking Today Vol.13, No.1, Spring 2004. pp.
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth 2003
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth 2016?
BERNARD CHEESE WAS A QUIET OBSERVER of everyday life. Sketching among the rocky inlets of the Pembrokeshire coast, exploring the north Yorkshire moors and looking out over at the vineyards of Provence, he expressed a fascination with landscape and the patterns imposed by man onto nature. A keen draughtsman, he sought out interesting vernacular architecture as subjects for his lively watercolours and lithographs. He painted thatched farmhouses in Essex, fishermen’s cottages nestled between quay and hillside at Staithes, and the sun-baked medieval hill town of Le Barroux in southern France. But Cheese was also a storyteller. Look closely at his prints and observe a community that goes about its daily business. Women chatter at a street corner, children play games, farmers tend their livestock and seafarers repair their vessels.
Whether drawing cyclists wending their way through Provencal vineyards at Les Hauts, fishermen near Holy Island landing their catch in a race against the incoming tide, or a family taking shelter beneath ancient topiary at Levens Hall, Cheese was habitually out and about with sketchbook in hand, observing and recording. His gloriously playful lithographs and watercolours attest to a genuine curiosity in the world around him, an interest that he conveyed with more than a touch of mischievousness and gentle good humour.
Cheese was born in Sydenham, southeast London on 20 January 1925 to Rose and Gordon Cheese, a black cab driver. He trained at nearby Beckenham School of Art before joining the army as a private. He recalled during his service painting maple leaves on the roofs of Canadian jeeps so that they would be recognised from above, and at the end of the war was in Berlin. After demobilisation, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art, London (1947-50) where he met life-long friend John Roberts. There, Cheese’s enthusiasm for lithography was fired by the newly appointed instructor Edwin La Dell. Together with master-printer George Devenish, La Dell had set up a lithographic workshop modelled on Parisian ateliers. La Dell encouraged Cheese to go out into the streets to record London life; to the markets, public houses and parks, to mingle with the crowd, sketchbook in hand, and observe. Throughout a career that spanned some eight decades, Cheese would become an enthusiastic observer of British society.
At the Royal College, Cheese met fellow student Sheila Robinson, the Nottinghamshire-born printmaker and illustrator. They married in 1951 and set up home in Beaufort Street, Chelsea. Both artists worked on Festival of Britain murals alongside their art-school tutor and close friend Edward Bawden. Their first child Chloe, now a celebrated printmaker and illustrator herself, was born in 1952. Bawden introduced the couple to Great Bardfield in Essex. In 1953, the young family moved to Bardfield End Green at Thaxted where their son Benjamin was born the following year. Cheese established his studio at a former fish and chip shop in Great Bardfield. Both he and his wife taught printmaking at London art schools: Cheese at St Martin’s School of Art 1950-68 and Robinson at the Royal College.
With its picturesque village stores, thatched cottages and only a handful of cars and tractors chugging to and fro, Great Bardfield was a quintessentially English village, a thriving community with butcher, ironmonger, grocer and, remarkably, a close gathering of artists who, by design or happy coincidence, lived and worked in or around village. Bernard and Sheila Cheese would soon enjoy their friendship and support, contributing to regular ‘open house’ exhibitions. Among their artist-neighbours were John Aldridge, Charlotte and Edward Bawden, Kate and George Chapman, Duffy and Michael and Rothenstein, Walter Hoyle, and the textile designer Marianne Straub.
In 1957, Bernard and Sheila Cheese separated. The following year they were divorced. Sheila moved into Great Bardfield with the children while continuing to teach at the Royal College. Bernard relocated to nearby Stisted where he settled with his new wife, a former student Brenda Latham Brown. They had two daughters Joanna and Sarah. For a studio, Cheese rented the Sunday school room next to the church. The 1950s and 1960s saw great innovation and diversity in British printmaking. Lithography had become the favoured medium of the younger generation, and there were much improved opportunities to publish and exhibit prints. As prints became larger and more colourful, Cheese explored lithography for its own sake. A print was for him not just a window on to the world, but an object in itself. He used the whole picture surface, right up to the deckled edge of the paper. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never abandoned observation from life but rather, with nature as his starting point, he investigated new motifs and techniques. Cheese was now exhibiting as far afield as Beijing (1956), Stockholm (1960), Washington DC (1962) and New York City (1968).
A regular exhibitor of fine art prints, Cheese also worked on commissions for poster designs and illustration. In 1951, London Transport commissioned the first of several posters, Pantomimes and Circuses. In 1953, Cheese contributed The Drum Major to ‘Coronation Lithographs’, a suite of prints by RCA staff, students and eminent artists for a celebratory exhibition at the Redfern Gallery. The brewers Guinness – seeking to establish a market for unsigned lithographs for display in public houses – commissioned A Fisherman’s Story in 1956. Choosing his subject from the Guinness Book of Records, Cheese shows a contented fisherman on a bar stool, arms outstretched, a half-empty glass of ale in one hand, pipe in the other, boasting of his day’s catch to the barman and all within earshot. In 1964 his Shakespeare’s Kings formed part of a folio of prints published by the Royal College to commemorate the Bard’s quarto-centenary. Cheese regularly undertook commissions for clients such as A&C Black, the BBC and P&O Cruises.
After leaving St Martin’s, Cheese was appointed Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths’ College 1970-78 and taught part-time at Central School of Art, London 1980-89. He and Brenda separated in 1988 and were divorced in 1992. Cheese initially moved to Earls Colne before settling in Nayland, north of Colchester.
Cheese remained faithful to lithography throughout his long career. For subjects, he was constantly drawn to the sea. Not a dark cruel sea that claims lives, but one that is bountiful and a provider of livelihoods. In Attaching the Winch (1957), a fisherman wades out to his boat against a strong north-westerly wind, while in a later lithograph Cheese depicts a boatman mooring his two vessels Kindly Light and Love Divine (1998). Delightfully idiosyncratic still life arrangements such Trout on a Plate and Big Plate of Prawns (1995), portray the sea’s culinary bounty. Looking down into the harbour at Staithes (1997), Cheese was drawn to the patterns made by the web of ropes mooring rowboats to the jetty. Like the seagulls that observe the town from lofty chimneys, the artist takes a high vantage point to survey a patterned townscape of rooftops, chimneys, windows, clouds, bricks and slate. Ornamental street furniture, cast iron lampposts, reflected light and cast shadows invariably appealed to his sense of design. Though Cheese’s work often comes across as whimsical, his seemingly light-hearted touch is rooted in sound draughtsmanship and a well-structured composition.
In later years Cheese continued to travel in search of new material for lithographs that he printed in small editions at his home studio. There were numerous invitations to stage solo exhibitions. His works were acquired by many important collections, from the V&A and HM The Queen to MOMA and New York Public Library. I was pleased to stage a retrospective exhibition of his prints and assemble over one hundred representative lithographs and watercolours for the permanent collection of Aberystwyth University’s School of Art Museum and Galleries. It is the largest public collection of his works. However, accolades were long overdue.
Bernard Cheese was fortunate to have witnessed a renewed interest in the British figurative artists who had come to the fore during the 1950s. He was not elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers until 1988, over forty years after he made his first print. He died in Colchester on 15 March 2013 aged 88. An indefatigable printmaker and respected educator with nearly forty years service to higher education, Cheese made a significant contribution to fine art lithography in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century, yet his influence has still not properly been recognised.
Robert Meyrick Aberystwyth, updated 2018
Robert Meyrick. Bernard Cheese at 80. Catalogue essay. (Saffron Walden: Fry Art Gallery, 2005)
Robert Meyrick. Bon Appétit!: Lithographs and Watercolours by Bernard Cheese.
Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries, 10 December 2001 – 18 January 2002
FRANCIS RUDOLPH IS NOT WHAT YOU MIGHT CALL A LISTED ARTIST. His name appears in none of the standard reference dictionaries of British painters and printmakers, his work rarely turns up at auction and, until now, Internet searches yielded little useful information.
I first encountered Rudolph’s artworks in July 2006 some months after his death. I had been invited by the beneficiary of his Estate to help clear his Wandsworth studio and make a selection of representative prints and drawings for the permanent collection of Aberystwyth University’s School of Art Museum and Galleries.
Rudolph was unmarried, he had no children, and was reclusive in his later years. There are no extant correspondences, exhibition catalogues or artist statements, and his diaries spanning 1943 to 1966 have yet to be translated from his native Latvian. Nonetheless, I present here my first attempt at a biographical sketch of the enigmatic Francis Rudolph.
A Biographical Sketch
The twin son of Aleksandrs Peders, Francis Rudolph was born Rūdolf Peders in Ventspils on the east coast of the Gulf of Riga, Latvia on 20 September 1921. Ventspils, which lies some 200 km west of the capital Riga, is one of the largest and busiest ports on the Baltic Sea.
Rudolph was born at a time when Latvia was enjoying a rare period of independence between the First and Second World Wars. A small album of photographs of drawings and watercolours dated 1936-1940 suggests that Rudolph received some formal training in Latvia at the Academy of Arts in Riga. At the outbreak of war, however, he was accused of being a sympathizer of communists and Jews and was expelled.
In 1941, when Rudolph was 19, Stalin annexed Latvia to the USSR. In an unidentified newspaper clipping dated 1956, Rudolph recalls witnessing how ‘Russian trucks laden with Latvians rumbled along […] on their way to Siberia.’ In 1944, German troops marched into Latvia. Under Nazi occupation, Rudolph was drafted into the Latvian Legion which was led by German officers. He fought on the Russian front before his battalion was transferred to Flenbsburg in northern Germany, the last holdout of the retreated Third Reich. He escaped but was caught and returned to his unit.
Soon after the fall of Germany, Rudolph’s legion surrendered to the Canadian Allied Forces. He was taken prisoner and interred in a labour camp. On registration, he assumed the name and identity of Francis Rimicans (claiming that he was born in Riga on 15 September 1923). On learning that it was the intention to send Latvians back to their Russian-occupied homeland behind the Iron Curtain, Rudolph escaped the camp. On 19 February 1947 he registered as a Displaced Person, was issued an identity card under his assumed name, and taken to a Displaced Persons Camp at Flensburg. ‘It is hard to describe how I felt.’ he reflected, ‘True identity being discovered would mean my return to Latvia and Russian bosses. For three years I was haunted by this fear. The English representatives came to the Camp. I volunteered to work in this country. Once my feet touched British soil I was no longer afraid. But I could speak no English. So I kept on being Francis Rimicans’ (unidentified newspaper clipping, 1956).
Rudolph arrived in England as a European Voluntary Worker on 10 June 1947. On 23 July, he registered as a Displaced Person with East Riding Constabulary at Beverley, Yorkshire, under the name of Rimicans. At first he was sent to Windlestone Hall, near Bishop Auckland, County Durham, onetime family home of Prime Minister Robert Anthony Eden. Eden’s brother had sold the Hall in 1936. During wartime it was requisitioned as a camp for senior German officers and, later, a rehabilitation centre for European Displaced Persons. Rudolph moved to Leicester in 1947 and to London in December 1948. From January 1949 he worked as a ward orderly at Springfield Mental Hospital, Beechcroft Road, Tooting, where he was also provided with accommodation.
During the summer of 1955, Rudolph applied for a Certificate of British Naturalization and completed the forms in the name of Francis Rimicans. At his interview with Detective Inspector Ferguson Smith of the Special Branch of New Scotland Yard he revealed his true identity. On 25 July 1955, he was charged with making a false statement in order to procure Naturalisation. In spite of advice from Smith to the contrary, he resigned from Springfield Hospital and was obliged to take temporary rented accommodation at 64 Nightingale Lane, Clapham, London SW12.
Rudolph appeared at South Western Magistrates Court on 7 February 1956 where he pleaded guilty as charged. The magistrate, A. H. Glenn Craske summed up: ‘I can understand how your original change of name came about and don’t think you can be very much blamed for that. The pity is that when you came to this country you did not make a clean breast of the matter to the authorities right at the beginning, and if you wanted to change your name you could have done so quite easily […] I think there are considerable mitigating circumstances, but this is a serious matter and I must impose a penalty. The penalty I impose is one of £10. Nobody will think very much the worse of you because of this’ (unidentified newspaper clipping, 1956). The case featured in several local papers: ‘Tooting Hospital Orderly Changed His Name: Alleged False Identity on Naturalisation Form’, ‘He Assumed False Identity’, and ‘The Man Who Feared His Own Name’.
In February 1956, Rudolph bought 5 Herondale Avenue, Wandsworth, a property in which he had previously briefly lodged. In June that year, his application for a Naturalisation was turned down. In March 1958 he became a night porter at Bolingbroke Hospital where he remained until May 1966. He was to continue running his home – which he named ‘Villa Riga’ – as a boarding house. He set up a studio and etching press on the ground floor.
The Home Office was finally to grant Francis Rudolph a Certificate of Naturalisation on 19 December 1991, the year in which 51 years of Soviet rule in Latvia ended with the collapse of the USSR.
Rudolph died in Wandsworth in October 2005.
Draughtsman, Printmaker and Painter
At Leicester, Rudolph enrolled at the School of Art. In London, his first engagement with fine art education appears to have been at the Regent Street Polytechnic where, in 1951, he made his first etching, Two Barges with St. Paul’s taken from a drawing of 1949. He learned lithography at Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1953. At this time, he was almost exclusively a draughtsman and printmaker. As a hospital night porter his days were free to pursue courses in printmaking, life drawing, head modeling, stained glass, and book binding at various art schools. In 1954 he studied printmaking under Henry Wilkinson (1921-2011) at the City and Guilds of London School of Art. Between 1954 and 1956 he worked on a series of etchings of mental patients made from his drawings at Springfield Hospital. His first linocuts, including a self portrait, were made in 1955. The etchings are often experimental in technique, some for example are on copper salvaged from the top of a discarded operating table, while there are drypoints made from old aluminium serving plates.
Rudolph exhibited his paintings and prints at the annual Chelsea Art Exhibition, Toynbee Art Club Exhibition, and the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society at the Mall Galleries. For over 10 years he was a Member of the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society, London’s largest life drawing group, and he rarely missed a class. The Society’s President remembered how ‘Francis was an exceptionally good draughtsman […] much admired for the strength and freedom of his drawing. He was also an accomplished printmaker. He served on the Council of the Society and was a very involved member who greatly contributed to the spirit of the evenings.’ Rudolph was also member of a Saturday art club ‘Painting in London’. Together members walked the city, drawing and painting the grand buildings and bridges along the Thames, St Paul’s, Southwark Cathedral, Imperial War Museum, Brompton Oratory, St Martins in the Field, Houses of Parliament and Orleans House and Park at Twickenham. As a young man Rudolph had lived in Riga, the ‘Paris of the Baltic’. It is a city rich in history, architecture and culture, with an old city centre, narrow cobbled streets, and the largest number of Jugendstil buildings in the world. It is small wonder that he was to acquire and develop a passion for architectural subjects. Rudolph was also a stalwart member of the Toynbee Hall Art Club which was established by C. R. Ashbee in London’s East End in 1886. It is an informal art group that meets fortnightly for life drawing and aims to ‘rekindle the pioneering spirit of [its] founding father, with the goal of once again teaching the craft of drawing and painting in the ethos of Ruskin and the Old Masters.’
Rudolph’s paintings and drawings of mental patients at Springfield Hospital are a consequence of his admiration for not only the grotesque portraits and penetrating studies in character of the Spanish artists, Velasquez, Ribera and Goya, but also Theodore Gericault’s paintings of lunatics made in Parisian asylums around 1820. Renoir’s nudes provided a model for his own figure paintings from life.
It was chiefly to the Impressionists that Rudolph turned when painting the city, studying closely the works of Monet, Sisley and Pissarro in London. He was clearly a most prolific and sensitive draughtsman possessed with considerable ability. His drawings were usually executed on interesting papers using sanguine or umber conté pencils applied in hatched line characteristic of French and Italian Old Master draughtsmen. Many drawings are on 18th-century ledger papers incorporating the ink manuscript and interesting watermarks.
Unable to reconcile his influences, Rudolph’s paintings lack all refinement. In his imitation of Rubens or Renoir, his intent is clear, yet such models were beyond his ability and he was unable to successfully work out the challenge. Large canvasses, such as those of nudes reclining before the Tower of London or Admiralty Arch, draw attention to his lack of training. They are vulgar, insensitive and crude in technique. As a painter, Rudolph was most accomplished when painting small-scale head and shoulder portraits from life.
An artist of unremitting determination, faith in his abilities and the importance of his work, Rudolph compiled a meticulously detailed, hand-written Catalogue Raisonné recording thousands of his prints, sketchbooks and paintings (now in the possession of Aberystwyth University’s School of Art Museum and Galleries). The prints have been numbered and painstakingly documented: the various states, papers, and edition sizes of 228 etchings, linocuts and lithographs are described and annotated. To this he added the dimensions and information about the composition of the plate or block, signatures, and where they were printed.
Likewise 1,146 oil paintings were all assigned numbers and framed, each titled and entered in the ledger, noting medium, support, dimensions and date. Numbers 1-11 were painted in Latvia, 12-40 between 1951 and 1969, and the remainder executed between 1970 to 2002. In the studio there were 175 hardback sketchbooks filled with life class and figure studies, portraits and drawings made in and around London as well as on the Continent. Each has been bound by Rudolph himself using carefully selected papers and consistently bound in grey hessian with FRANCIS RUDOLF blocked on the cover and spine in blue. These sketchbooks begin in 1985 and the last drawings date from 2004 at the life classes of the Toynbee Art Club. In addition, there exist several thousand loose leaf and mounted drawings. All works are signed Rudolfs, though Peders and Rimicans are occasional early variants.
Aberystwyth, updated 2018
Ten leather-bound illustrated diaries written in Latvian
Volume I, Spring 1943 – 1944
East Front, Riga and East Prussia, with pen and ink sketches Volume II, Autumn 1944 – 12 April 1946
End of War, time as a Prisoner of War, interment and Flensburg Volume III, to end June 1946
Flensburg, with pen and ink sketches Volume IV, Spring 1946 – Summer 1947
Husum – Cuxhafen, with pencil, pen and ink sketches Volume V, 1947
England, Windlestone Hall (County Durham) Volume VI, 1947
Leicester Volume VII, 1 January 1949
London, mostly written on sheets Volume VIII, 1950
written over sepia drawings done in London art schools Volume IX, 1952
written over sepia drawings done in London art schools Volume X, 1956-1966
written over sepia drawings done in London art schools
June – 28 August 1947 Priory Road Hostel, Hull 29 August 1947 – 28 May 1948 Windlestone Hall, Ferryhill, County Durham 29 May – 30 December 1948 General Hospital, Leicester December 1948 – March 1956 Springfield Hospital, London March 1958 – May 1966 Bolingbroke Hospital
Education, Artist Clubs and Societies
Latvian Academy of Arts, Riga 1948
School of Art and Technology, Leicester 1951
Regent Street Polytechnic 1954
City and Guilds of London School of Art 1955
Central School of Arts and Crafts 1970
John Cass School of Art 1972 –
Richmond Adult College
St Martin’s School of Art
Mary Ward Centre
Hesketh Hubbard Art Society
Kingsway College, Clerkenwell Centre
City Literary Institute, 6 Bolt Court
Sol Studio(?), Farrington
Fellow Printmaking Students in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
Artists with whom Francis Rudolph was at one time a student.
Bernard Philip Batchelor RWS
Tom Darling (? Dowling or Dorling)
Mary E. Douglas-Home
L. von Heideken
J. Kounln (? Kourlu)
Rachel Ann Le Bas RE
Roland Langmaid (1897-1956)
Renate E. Meyer
Patricia A. Regnart
Edward W. Sharland
Linda S. Shineberg