In a recent blog (My Daily Art Display, October 15th, 2017 – The Alma-Tadema Ladies. Part 2 – The Two Daughters, Anna and Laurense), I highlighted the artwork of Anna Alma-Tadema, the daughter of the great painter, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and marvelled at some of her interior paintings. In today’s blog I am going to look at another female painter who had mastered the art of depicting the interior of houses. She is the nineteenth century artist, Mary Dawson Holmes Ewell. I had featured her in a series of blogs about her husband, Frederick Elwell but for this blog I want to concentrate on her outstanding ability as an artist.
Mary Dawson Bishop was born in Liverpool on August 13th, 1874. Her father, John Bishop, was a ship broker. Her mother, Mary Ellen Dawson, was the daughter of a Liverpool boot maker, Thomas Candlin and his wife Sarah who was a milliner and dress maker. Mary and her younger sister, Elsie, lived in the Fairfield district of Liverpool. Tragedy struck the family in 1879 when Mary’s thirty-six-year-old father died. Shortly after the death of her husband, Mary and her two daughters moved to Heaton Chapel, Manchester to live with her bachelor brother Henry who was fifteen years her senior. It was here that Mary and Elise went to kindergarten and primary school.
Having completed her primary schooling in 1885, eleven-year old Mary enrolled at Manchester’s prestigious Ellerslie College and it was here that she received her early artistic tuition, to ensure she had this “must-have” social skill for young Victorian ladies. The pupils attending this school were mainly from merchant families and it was probably due to Mary’s Uncle Henry and his business connections that allowed her to gain entrance to the college. Mary Bishop completed studies at Ellerslie around the early 1890’s. Not much is written about her life after leaving college but it is believed she carried on her art studies influenced by two of her uncles, Henry and Walter were not only successful business men but avid art collectors.
The next we hear of Mary Dawson Bishop was that she married George Alfred Holmes at the Church of All Saints, Heaton Norris, Stockport in June 1896. Mary was twenty-one years old and her husband George Alfred was forty-one. So why did Mary marry a man twice her age? This has been the topic of much speculation. George Alfred Holmes lived and had his office in Hull and was a prosperous oil broker and so there was the element that on her marriage to him, Mary would be financially secure. Hull, like her birthplace, was a seaport and maybe Mary looked on the prospect of living in Hull with her husband. Maybe she looked upon her husband as a father figure, having lost her own father at the age of five. But, of course, it could simply be that Mary fell in love with George Alfred Holmes.
Mary and Alfred Holmes set up their home in the small inland market town of Beverley which was just ten miles north of from Hull, a town where she would stay for the rest of her life.
It was in 1904 that Frederick Elwell was to enter the life of Mary Bishop Holmes. Following a somewhat unsuccessful period in London as far as his art sales were concerned, Fred Elwell had left London, a somewhat defeated man, and returned to Yorkshire. In the capital there were just too many artists chasing a small amount of commissions and this sudden realisation that the London streets were not paved with gold affected Elwell and there was a suggestion that he had suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by his financial situation. On hearing of his son’s state of health and financial predicament, his father travelled from Yorkshire and brought his son back to Beverley where his family and friends were and where he could expect a more profitable future.
His year in London and his struggle to survive had taken a toll on him so the first thing the family had wanted him to do was to relax and enjoy the tranquillity of the Yorkshire countryside. Elwell also enjoyed the freedom offered by sailing and he would often take a small boat and cruise along Beverley Beck which joined the River Hull. Many like-minded painters would do the same as the clarity of light and the beautiful countryside including the East Riding flatlands surrounding the river was an idyllic setting for landscape artists. On occasion he would tie up the boat alongside a jetty and would welcome visitors to look at his artwork and, by so doing, would often receive commissions. Elwell’s love of landscape painting coincided with the English public’s change of attitude of what they wanted to see in a work of art. Depictions of city life were becoming less popular, displaced by depictions of the tranquillity of the countryside. This was a period when people wanted to “go back to nature”. They worked in cities but hankered for the fresh air of the countryside. They wanted to soak up country life by sailing along inland waterways or get themselves horse-drawn caravans and lose themselves in the peacefulness and serenity of the rural areas.
For complete tranquillity Elwell made his home on a houseboat which he had borrowed from a friend. Not only did he travel up and down the river he would tie up alongside a local hostelry, the Brigham Arms, and his boat acted as his own selling gallery. He also had a “gypsy-type” horse-drawn caravan in which he would wend his way around the country lanes, sketching the beauty of the area. His artwork which depicted the tranquillity and the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside sold well and soon both his health and his finances had improved significantly.
Fred Elwell would also take on portrait commissions and often would visit the client rather than have them come to his studio. It was in 1904, that he received a visit from Alfred Holmes, a luminary of the Beverley community. Holmes asked Elwell to paint a portrait of his wife, Mary. Elwell agreed and went to the Holmes’ family home where he met Mary Holmes for the first time.
Elwell completed the Portrait of Mary Dawson Holmes that year and had it exhibited at the Royal Academy. It is a beautiful work of portraiture with Mary shown as a lady of gracious elegance. Her clothes remind one of the French fashion of the time. We see her adorned in a tight-fitting dress finished off with a fine white lace collar. She tilts her head to one side but holds an upright stance. Her eyes are dark and almond-shaped. Her expression teases us into imagining her thoughts. Does she look a willing participant as a model for this portrait? There is a hint of reticence in her facial expression. Was she unwilling to sit for Elwell or was it simply that she was shy and slightly embarrassed with all the attention.
The depiction of Mary has often been compared to Renoir’s 1886 work Les Parapluies, which Elwell would have seen, because of the similarity between the way Mary stands, tilts her head, and similarly carries a basket.
Alfred and Mary Holmes became good friends of Fred Elwell and they even had joint ownership of a sailing boat and the three of them took many trips on the Beverley Beck to the upper reaches of the River Hull, a tributary of the Humber. The three of them would often travel to Europe, visiting Venice and Switzerland where Fred Elwell and Mary Holmes would take the opportunity to sketch and paint the local landscapes.
Mary had her work exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1904 onwards and in 1908 she completed one of her most famous works, The Wreath, which was on display at the 1909 Royal Academy annual exhibition. It depicts a recently widowed woman grieving for the loss of a loved one. Queen Victoria had died in 1901 and this solemn period and the Victorian period prior to her death saw many artists concentrate on human loss and the grief felt when a loved one died. Queen Victoria suffered the loss of her beloved husband, Albert in 1861, and continually wore mourning clothes for ten years after he died. Many paintings compared the happiness of life before the death of a loved one with the inconsolable grief of those left behind. Violet Prest, a local girl, a costumier of Minster Moorgate West, in Beverley, modelled the woman in the painting. Ironically, six years after the painting was completed, her husband was killed in the Great War.
She was a much-admired artist and her popularity as an artist and that of Fred Elwell rose amongst the public and the art critics. Mary, and her future husband, Elwell, as far as their artistic ability was concerned, should never be looked upon as pupil and master as was the dictate of social expectation in the early twentieth century. They were truly equals.
The health of Alfred Holmes began to deteriorate in 1910 and he sold his business and gave up his part ownership with Fred Elwell of their beloved sailing boat. That year May and Alfred moved from their large Westwood Road house in Beverley and bought Bar House which was also in Beverley, situated on North Bar Within. Alfred Holmes’ health had got so bad that by 1913 he realised he was dying and it is thought that due to his very close friendship with Fred Elwell he intimated that Elwell and Mary should get together when he died. George Alfred Holmes died on August 5th, 1913 aged just fifty-eight, leaving his widow comfortably provided for and allowing her to employ staff to help run the house.
Holmes’ dying wish with regards his wife and Fred Elwell came to fruition on September 28th, 1914 when they married, and Elwell came to live with his new wife at her beloved Bar House. In 1916 Mary Elwell painted a scene entitled North Bar Within, Beverley which depicted a view from the front steps of Bar House. It is interesting work set during an overcast day and one of predominantly brown tones.
Mary painted many depictions of Bar House including a bedroom scene, which was entitled At the Mirror. There are two large double beds each covered with a purple quilt. In the central background there is a large window which frames the view of Wylies House. The using of a window as a framing device for a townscape was very popular at the time and was typical of the practice of the Camden Town Group of artists. It allowed viewers to catch a glimpse of the outside world, seen through the framing device of a window. The large full-length mirror, next to the window, reveals a reflection of the room. The light which shines through the windows of the room lights it up and the polished brass fender casts its reflection on the dark polished wooden floor. To the right of the window, we see a young woman standing before a mirror attending to her hair. She is oblivious of the outside world that we see through the window. The model used by Mary for this work was Annie Towse, the daughter of one of their employees.
Mary’s mother, Mary Ellen Bishop had died in 1901 and Mary Elwell’s uncles Henry and Walter died in 1917 and 1924. Neither had married and their wealth and properties were divided between Mary Elwell and her sister Elsie. Mary also received her late uncle’s art collection.
One of my favourite interior works by Mary Elwell is one she completed in the 1932 entitled At No.14 Newbegin, Beverley with an alternative title Interior Study. It is a depiction of a sitting room at No.14 Newbegin a house belonging to Reverend Wigfall the curate at Beverley Minster, who we see sitting at his writing desk. The room itself was light due to it having three large windows. The window we see in the painting allows a shaft of light into the room illuminating the large ornately carved bookcase on top of which are three glass cases, each of which contain stuffed birds. A cushion with its bold design and rich colours is placed for decorative effect on the arm of the sofa. The richness of colour of this painting is brought about by the liberal use of reds. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1932.
Beverley Minster from the Friary is a painting Mary Elwell completed in 1934. It is a comparative composition. The imposing edifice of Beverley Minster looms over the modest dwellings we see in the middle ground, which lie close to the railway track. The gable ends of the houses in the middle ground seem to reiterate the shape of the Minster’s transept. Elwell captures the spirit of the time with her depiction of the washing lines laden with clothes in the back yards of the houses. One of the houses on the right was occupied by Miss Woodmansey who ran a wash-house and who would, after washing the clothes, hang them out in her back yard, every day except Sunday. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1934.
In 1947 Mary suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes which meant that she had to have round the clock nursing. Her sister Elsie came to stay for longer periods. Having made her final appearance at the Royal Academy in 1949, she withdrew from the world outside. Mary Dawson Elwell died on the 28th August 1952, aged a fortnight before her seventy-eighth birthday. She was buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Beverley and according to her husband’s wish her gravestone was carved with an artist’s palette.. Her second husband, Fred Elwell died in January 1958 and was laid to rest in the same grave.
Fred Elwell gave a number of her paintings away to people who had cared for her, inscribing them:
“…in grateful remembrance of Mary D. Elwell…”