As in life itself, snobbery pervades the arts. When asked what our taste in literature is, does one admit to liking romantic fiction or, do we, to save face, rattle on about our love for the novels of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. When it comes to our love in classical music, do we avoid saying we like the Strauss’ waltzes and the 1812 overture and, talk about our passion for Mahler and Schönberg so as to gain kudos, and to bolster our image as a music savant. Our taste in art and artists can be the same. I remember a collector of pre-Raphaelite paintings being somewhat apologetic about his taste in art maybe thinking that his love should be more on the lines of the great Masters or the avant-garde artists such as Pollock, Picasso and Miró. I remember being on a ship and talking to a passenger who was a well-known port wine producer and he was drinking a glass of port with a cube of ice in it and I queried whether that was the accepted way to drink the wine and he just said that he always drinks what he likes and how he likes it, so maybe we should not be backward in coming forward and saying what we like without fear of condemnation by the elitists of this world.
So why this long introduction to today’s featured artist? The artist I am looking at today produces paintings which many would dismiss as “sugary” or “chocolate-boxy” and yet there is a wonderful beauty about his depictions. Let me welcome you to the world of the English painter of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, Arthur John Elsley. During the middle of the nineteenth century, genre paintings featuring happy family life became very popular in England. The newly wealthy middle class chose in particular those genre paintings that depicted scenes of beautifully dressed young children with their pets in playful settings and this is exactly what Arthur John Elsley gave them. The paintings proved so popular that many were reproduced as prints, and others were often used in calendars, adverts, books and magazines.
Elsley was born in London on November 20th 1860. He was one of six children of John Elsley and Emily Freer. His father plied his trade as a coachman but had to give up the job and retire with the onset of tuberculosis. John Elsley was also an amateur artist and had achieved a standard which allowed him to exhibit his work, A Group of Horses, at the British Institution Exhibition of 1845. This Institution had been founded in 1804 for promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Young Arthur Elsley, like his father, developed a love of art and on family trips to the Regent’s Park Zoo he would make sketches of the animals. In 1875, aged fourteen, Arthur Elsley enrolled at the South Kensington School of Art, which later became the Royal College of Art.
In 1876 Arthur Elsley was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer. It was during his time here that he came under the influence of the historical and biblical painter, Edward Armitage, who was the Professor of Painting, Henry Bowler the Professor of Perspective and his professor of anatomy, John Marshall.
Two years later in 1878 Elsley submitted his first painting (A Portrait of an Old Pony) and had it accepted at that year’s Royal Academy Exhibition. The one setback he had to contend with at this time was a problem with his eyesight which was brought on when he contracted measles. He remained at the Academy Schools until 1882 and on leaving he began to receive portrait commissions especially for ones featuring children with dogs and horses. Many of his portrait commissions came from the Benett-Stanford family of politicians who lived at Preston Manor in Brighton. His first known published work was a line engraving entitled April Floods In Eastern Counties printed in the Young England magazine in 1885.
Elsley became friends with Solomon Joseph Solomon, a British painter, a member of the Royal Academy and founding member of the New English Art Club. He was also a friend of George Grenville Manton, and he and Elsley shared a studio in 1876. Manton specialised in portraiture but also painted genre subjects with Pre-Raphaelitesque subjects as well as large-scale religious works.
It was through Manton that Arthur Elsley met Frederick Morgan, who was an English portrait artist and painter of domestic and country scenes. He was well-known for his idyllic genre scenes of childhood. This was also the art genre favoured by Elsley and in 1889 he moved into Morgan’s studio, and the two came to an artistic arrangement in which Elsley would paint the animals in Morgan’s paintings as this was his forte and was proving problematic for Morgan.
In the summer of 1891 the Great Exhibition was held in London. It was to be the first in a series of World’s Fairs, and within it there was exhibitions of culture and industry. The Great Exhibition was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, husband of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. At this exhibition Elsley was awarded a silver medal in for his painting The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington.
The following year his painting entitled I’se Biggest was published, and it was so popular that it had to be re-engraved to cope with public demand. Elsley depicted a young girl comparing her height with that of a large St. Bernard dog. Terry Parker describes the depiction in his 1998 book, Golden Hours: Paintings of Arthur J Elsley, 1860-1952:
“…one of those simple and unaffected pictures which readily lend themselves to reproduction and has so much nature and so admirable a touch of humour in it that no doubt a great number of those who admire it at Burlington House will be delighted to have an opportunity of hanging a version of it upon their walls…”
The paintings of Elsley were so popular with the public that the Illustrated London News printed one of Elsley’s paintings, Grandfather’s Pet as their Christmas choice for 1893.
Arthur Elsley married his second cousin Emily Fusedale on November 11th 1893. Emily, who was ten years younger than Elsley, had worked for Arthur for over ten years modelling for his paintings. This role, as artist’s model, was passed down to their daughter, Marjorie, who was born in 1903 and who as a young child, would appear in many of Elsley’s paintings. After the marriage Elsley set himself up in a new studio and continued with his paintings depicting young children and animals in idyllic countryside settings.
With the death of the leading Victorian painter of this genre, Charles Burton Barber, in 1894, Elsley took up the mantle as the most revered painter of children and pets. The Illustrated London News, 25 January 1896, wrote:
“…Mr. Elsley appears more distinctly as a follower, though not an imitator, of Mr. Burton Barber, differing from him by allowing his children more than a pet at a time, and going beyond the limitations of a fox-terrier, or a collie. He has a keen sense of humour, especially in his treatment of puppies’ backs, which, as students of dog-life well know, are their most expressive features…”
The close relationship between Elsley and Morgan soured around the turn of the century when the latter accused Elsley of artistic plagiarism as he believed Elsley was using his ideas in his paintings.
The First World War broke out in 1914 and for its four-year duration Elsley contributed to the war effort by working on bomb-sights in a munition factory, which put a terrible strain on his already failing eyesight. Elsley’s output of paintings dwindled and he only managed to complete four during the first three years of the war, one of which was a portrait of his daughter, which, although he would not sell it, allowed it to be exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Marjorie Elsley featured in many of her father’s paintings and I particularly like the one entitled Never Mind which he completed in 1907. The St Bernard dog we see in the painting featured in many of Elsley’s works.
In his 1998 book, Golden Hours: Paintings of Arthur J Elsley, 1860-1952, Terry Parker, who interviewed Elsley’s only child and principal model, wrote:
“…Marjorie remembers that the St Bernard featured in Never Mind was owned by Miss Mumford, a nurse who lived at South Woodford ………..Elsley was the most popular ‘chocolate box’ artist of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. The appealing quality of his paintings were easily understood and presented a cosy, idealised world of happy, smiling children and their animals…”
In the years that followed, Elsley continued to paint mostly for pleasure and exhibited some of his works until 1927. His failing eyesight eventually curtailed his art work and by 1931 the only hobby he could still manage were his love of woodwork, metalwork and gardening.
Arthur John Elsley died at his home in Tunbridge Wells on 19 February 1952, at the age of 91. At the height of his career from 1878 to 1927, Elsley exhibited 52 works at the Royal Academy.
To capture beauty with a camera is complicated but with all the aids such as lighting, make-up and Photoshop, photographs of beautiful women are often seen in magazines and newspapers. However, to capture the same life-like beauty in a painting is solely down to the expertise of the artist. As a man, there is something utterly mesmeric when you stand in front of a painting and see before you unadulterated beauty.
I was reminded of this in a comment I received concerning the painting entitled Young Woman Drawing by the eighteenth century French artist Marie-Denise Villers, which I featured in my blog (January 21st 2011). The reader, who confessed to not being a lover of art, commented:
“…while walking through the MET this painting stopped me in my tracks. I love the thoughts that this painting invokes – Who is this woman that is examining me and what does she see? The history of this painting makes it that much intriguing to me and really sets the tone that this painting has nothing to do with the artist weather David or Villers; but more the subject – you. I would pay admission to The MET again just to enjoy this painting one more time. This painting is by far my favorite of the whole museum…”
My blog today is about a man who effortlessly brought beauty to his canvases although such a dedication had a problematic affect on his life. I want you to peruse his many paintings of beautiful women that led to his fame as a great portrait painter. Today I want to introduce you to Gerald Leslie Brockhurst.
Brockhurst was born in the Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston, on October 31st, 1890. He was the youngest of four sons. His father, Arthur, a coal merchant, deserted the family and sought his fortune in America. Gerald attended a number of local schools but found it hard to settle down to school life. He struggled with his writing but excelled in sketching. Problems at school were exacerbated by recurring ear infections he frequently suffered from and which often left him bedridden. As a young boy, he showed a talent for drawing and having an aunt who lived in India, it gave him the opportunity to send her illustrated letters and this really fired-up his interest in art and soon his goal for the future was to become a painter. In 1901, just before his twelfth birthday, he was accepted into the Birmingham School of Art where he remained for five years. He prospered at the academy and the then headmaster of the Birmingham School of Art even announced he had discovered “a young Botticelli”.
During this five-year period, he developed a love for portraiture. Testament to this fact was his self-portrait which he completed in 1905 when he was just fifteen years of age. The portrait is now housed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Gerald Brockhurst won many awards at the Birmingham School of Art and later in 1907 he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools, which was the oldest art school in the country, founded through a personal act of King George III in 1768. In 1912 Brockhurst gained the esteemed Gold Medal for General Excellence and a travelling scholarship.
In 1913 Brockhurst met a young French woman, Anais Melisande Folin. She was an amateur artist and it is thought the two met at the home of Ambrose and Mary McEvoy, with whom she was very close. Anais, besides being an artist, sat for many of his early portraits. During his lifetime, Brockhurst made many portraits of celebrities and royalty, but his main sitters were his family and his wife. The couple married in 1913 and a year later Brockhurst took up his travelling scholarship award and set off with Anais to France and Italy to study the paintings of the old Masters, in particular the work of Leonardo Da Vinci and Piero della Francesco whose stylistic and compositional ideas had a lasting effect on his career.
In 1915, Gerald and Anais moved to Ireland where they remained until 1919. Brockhurst painted a number of pictures on the west coast of Ireland. Whilst in Ireland the couple became friends with some established painters such as Augustus John and it is his influence which can be seen in Brockhurst’s 1916 work entitled Ireland, 1916 which is housed in the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. In this work his wife Anais is depicted in local costume against the Connemara mountains.
It was during those years in Ireland that Brockhurst created many etched and painted portraits of his wife. From those works, we can see that he was truly in love with her and was fascinated by her beauty. His meeting with the Welsh artist, Augustus John proved very fortuitous as he introduced Brockhurst to his circle of friends. In fact, it was Augustus John who persuaded him to stage two major exhibitions of his works at Chelsea’s Chenil Gallery, in 1916 and again in 1919. These were the launchpad to Brockhurst’s artistic career and he and his wife left Ireland and went to live in London in 1920. Once in London he began to enter some of his etchings and drawings to the Royal Academy. In London, Brockhurst became one of the most successful and highly sought-after portrait painters, but he was also a highly skilled draughtsman and etcher.
During the twenties and thirties, there was a voracious market for contemporary etching and Brockhurst quickly mastered the technique publishing his first prints in 1920. In 1921, Brockhurst was elected to membership in the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. One of his first etchings was of his friend and fellow Artist Henry Rushbury. Both had studied at the Birmingham School of Art and when Rushbury left Birmingham to live in London, he first shared a flat with Brockhurst who had already been living in the capital for five years. The etching on the left is entitled Yolande (Mrs Rushbury) and is a portrait of his friend’s wife. Although entitled Yolande, which was a “fancy” name made up by Brockhurst, her name was actually Florence! This etching with its minimal use of lines was described by critics as “a piece of the purest etching in the strictest sense of the word”.
During the next decade Brockhurst established himself as an outstanding and flourishing portrait painter, and also strengthened his reputation as one of the exceptional printmakers of his generation.
By 1930 Brockhurst’s artwork was becoming increasingly popular and his reputation as a portrait artist was in the ascendancy, especially for his portraits of glamorous and beautiful women. Most of his portraiture was depictions in half-length format solely depicting the head, shoulders, and torso of the sitter. One of his most famous portraits, which can be found in Tate Britain, was that of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. This smaller than life-size portrait(76 x 64cms) by Brockhurst depicts the socialite Margaret Whigham the only child of Helen Mann Hannay and George Hay Whigham, a Scottish millionaire. She would later become the Duchess of Argyll after her second marriage to Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll in 1951. When she sat for the painting around 1931, Margaret was nineteen years of age. She was leading a charmed life having been presented at Court in London in 1930 and was known as the debutante of the year. The background of the portrait is comprised of a dark sky and a landscape of mountains and lakes. Margaret was known to be passionately proud of her Scottish heritage, and Brockhurst has reflected this in the way he has painted the scenic backdrop, which evokes the lochs and mountains of Scotland. Margaret faces us, with her face, shoulders, and torso in view. She is wearing a dark dress, and Brockhurst has depicted the golden, floral embroidery in great detail using small brushstrokes. Look at the contrast between her pale, porcelain-like skin with its muted tones with the rest of her face such as her very dark eyes and eyebrows, which are so different in comparison with the whiteness of her face.
Teaching in the Royal Academy Schools, at that time, was undertaken by a system of lectures delivered by Professors and Royal Academician Visitors, and in 1928, when Brockhurst was thirty-eight years old, he was appointed a Visitor to the Royal Academy Schools. It was at this time that he met the sixteen-year-old artist’s life model Kathleen Woodward. Brockhurst was immediately besotted by this youthful and exuberant beauty and she was to become his lifelong model and even though she, his muse, was just sixteen years of age and he was thirty-eight, the two soon became lovers. He renamed her Dorette. which is of Greek origin and means “gift”. This renaming of one’s muse was similar to what his fellow artist and friend, Augustus John had done, when he named his lover and muse, Dorothy McNeil, Dorelia.
His new muse Dorette appeared in many paintings and etchings by Brockhurst but the one people remember the most was his audacious, some would say salacious, while others postulated that it was his greatest print masterpiece – Adolescence, which he completed in 1932. In the depiction we see his mistress, Kathleen Woodward, then nineteen years of age, sitting on a stool in front of her dressing table mirror. From the mirrored reflection we can see that Kathleen is studying her naked body. She seems unhappy with what she sees. It is the personification of teenage angst. It is a study of vulnerability. It is a kind of body dysmorphia in which, although the viewer sees a perfect body, the young woman is disappointed in what the mirror has revealed. The darkly lit depiction adds to the intense scene. It is a depiction which tip-toes along the narrow line separating art and erotica. What we see before us is undoubtedly the artist’s talent in his portrayal of a variety of surfaces, textures, and tones. To some, it is simply a study of beauty to others it is a disturbing, even distasteful depiction but it simply comes down to individual taste.
This brings me back to my opening lines when I talked about being mesmerised by beauty depicted in a painting. I first caught sight of the 1934 painting by Gerald Brockhurst entitled Jeunesse Dorée when I visited the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight, Merseyside, back in May 2011. In a way the painting was hidden away, hanging on the wall of the narrow mezzanine corridor above the main gallery. The title of the work comes from the French meaning “gilded youth” and the term is often applied to wealthy and fashionable society people. It was painted by Gerald Brockhurst in 1934 and exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It was subsequently purchased for £1000 by Lord Leverhume, for his Lady Lever Gallery on the very first day of the show.
Take a moment and study this beautiful portrait. It is a half-length portrait with an almost two-dimensional stark and rocky idealised landscape along with an immense sky as the background. There is a lack of depth to the background of this painting, which in a way projects the young girl towards us. This setting was consistent with his many portraits of the 1930’s and 1940’s but which was in contrast to the works of other portraitist who preferred to use realistic three-dimensional settings. He has used sombre colours. The young woman stares straight at us almost as if she is daring us to blink. As you look at her you wonder what is going through her mind. Her eyes are penetrating as if she is looking into your very soul. There is no hint of a smile on her full red lips. Her expression is inscrutable. This however does not detract from her beauty and her captivating sensuality. Her plain-coloured cardigan, echoing the shades of the background, clings tightly to her body. Her full breasts strain against the material and the buttons of the cardigan which hold them captive. It is no wonder that Brockhurst was seduced by her beauty and fell in love with her. Many who have stood before this portrait have also fallen in love with her, having been lost in her enigmatic loveliness. The art critic of the Daily Mail newspaper of the day reported on the painting and its admirers writing:
“…again, I saw people yesterday standing before the picture trying to fathom the secret of those curiously haunting deep-blue eyes…”
Lord Leverhulme lent the picture to the 1934 Liverpool Autumn Exhibition held at Liverpool Walker Art Gallery and this annual exhibition was looked upon as the equivalent of the Royal Academy shows. The curator at the Walker at the time, Charles Carter, wrote in the Liverpool Evening Express that ‘Jeunesse Dorée’ was “a picture of sensuality incarnate”.
Lord Leverhume’s determination to have the painting stemmed from his frustration the year before when he tried to buy Brockhurst’s 1932 etching Dorette, but due to the hesitancy of his Gallery Trustees on whether to fund the proposed acquisition, the sale was lost and it was bought by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery of Preston.
During the thirties the market for prints had collapsed and Brockhurst reverted to painting. In his painting, Portrait of Nancy Woodward, we see a depiction of Dorette’s sister Nancy which Brockhurst completed in the 1930’s. This work is thought to be one of only two portraits that Brockhurst painted of Nancy. What looks like a domestic backdrop to the painting gives the impression of a close relationship he had with the sitter. Nancy strikes a self-confident pose at a time when her sister’s lover was suffering from public censure for his affair with his muse, Kathleen. The 1930’s proved to be a very turbulent time for Brockhurst. On the plus side Brockhurst was earning the highest income of any British portrait painter of the period and in 1937 he was elected to the Royal Academy. However on the down-side, following the publishing of his Adolescence etching a newspaper article appeared exposing his affair with his model Kathleen Woodward. The story created a scandal in England, and his wife Anais was furious and filed for divorce. Gerald Brockhurst was equally vehement with regards his wife’s action and counter-sued.
The adverse publicity in the British press from the divorce procedures which was finally granted to Anais in 1939, combined with the beginning of World War II led to Brockhurst fleeing England with his lover and emigrating to New Jersey where the two married. Brockhurst and Kathleen eventually settled in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. In New York, Brockhurst’s fame as a portrait artist blossomed and commissions from his loyal patrons flowed in making him both famous and very wealthy.
He was a prolific portraitist who completed in excess of six hundred works, many of rich and famous people such as J Paul Getty, Wallis Simpson, Merle Oberon, and Marlene Dietrich.
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst died in New Jersey on May 4th, 1978 aged 87. His second wife, Kathleen ‘Dorette’ Woodward, died in 1996.
The term genre painting relates to works depicting scenes of everyday life. Such depictions embrace scenes of ordinary people at work or enjoying their leisure time. This type of painting flourished in Protestant Northern Europe as an independent art form. The first great advocates of genre painting were the Dutch Realist artists of the 17th century, such as Adriaen Brouwer with his riotous pub scenes, Adriaen Van Ostade, who painted genre scenes depicting peasants enjoying their home life or relaxing in an inn.
My favourite has to be Jan Steen, who ran an inn and depicted people in their homes.
In France there were genre paintings by the likes of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin who depicted servants and children. The harsher realities of working life featured in genre paintings of Jean-François Millet, Daumier, Courbet, van Gogh, and Degas whilst joyous life experienced in bars and cafés featured in works by Toulouse-Lautrec.
My featured artist today is the English genre painter and portrait painter Charles Spencelayh. Genre paintings, as well as being a pleasure to observe, are an insight into everyday life before the era of cameras and television. The genre and Academic portrait paintings of Spencelayh looked at life during Victorian and Edwardian times and gives us a great insight into life and fashion in those times.
Charles Spencelayh was born in Rochester in Kent on October 27th 1865. He was the youngest of eleven children and was the son of Henry Spencelayh, an engineer and iron and brass founder who sadly died before his son was born. Charles’ first steps into the world of art came when he was given his first set of paints at the age of eight and he soon progressed to copying Old Masters. He studied art at the National Art Training School, South Kensington, which later became known as the Royal College of Art, where he won a prize for his figure drawing.
Charles Spencelayh married Elizabeth Hodson Stowe, who worked as a governess, at St. Paul’s, Penge in 1890 and the couple started married life in Chatham. According to the 1891 census Elizabeth’s occupation was given as a tobacconist. She appears in many of her husband’s paintings including My Pet which depicts Elizabeth, in profile, holding a dove.
In 1891 the couple had their one and only child, a son, Vernon who went on to become a talented artist and ivory miniaturist, having been taught by his father. Vernon served as an officer in WW1 and was held as a prisoner of war in Germany. He, like his mother, appeared in a number of portraits by his father.
Another fine portrait by Charles of his son, Vernon, in uniform is owned by The National Army Museum. This portrait by his father is a fond record of his son preparing to depart for war. This Academic-style portrait of his son has an intensity and could almost be mistaken as a photograph. Vernon Spencelayh’s regiment was the West Yorkshire Regiment, denoted by the motif of the white horse of Hanover on the cap badge. He was involved in a number of battles on the Western Front and at Gallipoli.
In 1896, Spencelayh became a founder member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers, a Society which was formed with the stated intention:
“…to esteem, protect and practice the traditional 16th Century art of miniature painting emphasising the infinite patience needed for its fine techniques…”
During his lifetime Spencelayh exhibited 129 miniatures at their exhibitions. Probably one of his most famous miniatures was a postage stamp sized portrait of King George V for his wife, Queen Mary’s celebrated Doll’s House, designed by Edwin Lutyens, which was exhibited at the Wembley Exhibition of 1924 and now housed in Windsor Castle. Queen Mary’s and Princess Marie-Louise’s thank you letter was one of Spencelayh’s most treasured possessions. Spencelayh was a favourite of Queen Mary, who was an avid collector of his work and she bought many of his paintings when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions and she even commissioned one painting, which Spencelayh titled ‘The Unexpected’ due to his surprise at receiving such a request.
The high-points of Spencelayh’s artistic career were the years between the two World Wars. He had acquired a wealthy patron, Joseph Nissim Levy, a prosperous Manchester cotton merchant and during the 1920’s completed a number of portraits of Levy’s social circle. Mr. Levy’s admiration of the talented artist went so far as to give Spencelayh and his family use of a residence in Manchester. In 1924 Spencelayh painted an intimate portrait of Joseph’s wife titled Rosie Levy taking afternoon tea at the Midland Hotel Manchester. It is a masterpiece in the way Spencelayh has captured the folds of the rich fabric backdrop and the furnishings with their reflective surfaces.
In the early 1930’s the Spencelayh’s moved south to Grove Park and Lee a suburb of south London, but sadly, his wife, Elizabeth died there in 1937 and was buried four miles away in Chislehurst Cemetery.
Spencerlayh had his work exhibited at the Paris Salon, but most of his exhibitions were in Britain. For sixty years until his death in 1958 he exhibited more than 30 paintings at the Royal Academy, with his work entitled Why War winning the 1939 Royal Academy ‘Picture of the Year’. Spencelayh had fought in the First World War and in this painting, he depicts another veteran of that war in his darkened sitting room. He blankly stares into space. He is forlornly envisaging the onset of the Second World War. The artist has added so much detail in this painting that we can build up a picture of how the man lives. We see, on the table next to him, a new gas mask issued to him by Lewisham Council and lying on a chair is a newspaper, emblazoned across the front page is the story covering Chamberlain’s abortive mission to make peace with Hitler. Spencelayh’s talent as both a genre painter and portraitist and his training as a miniaturist allowed him to build up a pictorial story by his depiction of visual clues in painstaking detail.
His 1942 painting It’s War brings home the hardship felt by many during the Second World War. Painted in his studio with a large amount of props which he accumulated during his visits to bric-a-brac shops it depicts the hard times suffered by many during the conflict. It is part portraiture, part genre and part still-life. Its is testament to the genius of the man.
Although the War had ended and the Allies had been victors, Many in England had to suffer years of deprivation. Food was rationed and hardships endured as is beautifully depicted in Spencelayh’s 1946 painting, His Daily Ration in which we see an elderly man staring at his meagre meal.
One theme which appeared in many of Spencelayh’s paintings was of old men pottering around in junk shops or in cluttered rooms in their homes. These were classic Victorian genre works which were pictorial histories of the between-War days in England.
Many of his subjects were of domestic scenes, painted with such definition that they are almost photographic. In his 1935 painting The Laughing Parson, we see the parson dressed in a grey morning suit, resplendent with his “dog collar”. He is half slumped in his wing back armchair as he peruses the latest issue of the satirical Punch magazine. By the look on his face and his broad smile, something in the magazine has amused him. Once again Spencelayh has added numerous items of furniture and accessories which tell us about life in those bygone days.
In 1940, Charles remarried, and his second wife, another Elizabeth and he continued to live in Lee but after a particularly fierce German bombing raid over London, they were rendered homeless. Worse still many of his paintings were destroyed. The couple then moved north to Olney were his wife’s family lived and soon after, setting up home in the Northamptonshire village of Bozeat where they remained for the rest of their lives. It was during those years at Bozeat that Spencerlayh produced some of his best loved paintings often featuring residents of the village who were often treated to a home-cooked meal as payment for modelling for one of his paintings.
Spencelayh set up his studio with room-sized screens bedecked with patterned wallpaper and had a chest, full of props, with which he would “dress” the room. Charles ‘dressed’ the room using “props” from his collection, such as Toby jugs, stuffed birds, Windsor chairs, clocks and cheap watches as well as patriotic framed pictures of Lord Nelson and members of the Royal Family. Look at the background of his 1947 work A Lover of Dickens. The props he used to add meaning to the painting were arranged haphazardly to give a sense of everyday clutter. Maybe the man lived on his own and a regime of “tidiness” was not forced upon him !
By the late 1950’s his eyesight began to fail but that did not deter him and he continued to paint and in 1958, three of his works were accepted into the Royal Academy Summer, including a poignant work titled The Faded Rose. Sixty-six years earlier he had his first work exhibited, a miniature entitled Mrs Robins and he is considered to be one of the most prolific artists to show at the Royal Academy. Notwithstanding this, he was never made an Associate of the Academy, which baffled many including himself. He wrote to his Canadian agent, George Nuttall in 1956 about this unforgiveable omission. He commented jokingly:
“…I do not know, unless I am not old enough, or work not sufficiently good, which is my aim to yet improve although I cannot wear glasses to paint eventually this will stop my efforts I’m sure of it…”
Charles Spencelayh died, aged 92, in St Andrews Hospital, Northampton on June 25th, 1958 and after a funeral service conducted by his friend and executor the Reverend W.C. Knight in the 12th century church of St Mary the Virgin, Bozeat, he made his final journey back to Kent and was buried with his first wife in Chislehurst Cemetery.
Most of the pictures came from ARC and Art UK and Spencelayh’s biography came from a number of websites of galleries which house some of his paintings and the Chislehurst Society website:
In the “About” section of my blog I state quite categorically that I am not a painter. This has now changed in as much as I have now started to dip a paintbrush into paint and touch it to a canvas. Why? As people know my great interest is in art history but people always seem surprised that I have not rattled off a few masterpieces. They constantly ask me why I do not even try to paint. I have now started on that long artistic road and have fallen by the wayside so many times I often wonder why I persevere, but persevere I do. Having said so many times in my blog that I like detailed paintings I tried to emulate the great painters who seem to find it so easy to depict buildings but of course, as you will have guessed, I fail miserably. How artists manage to add so much detail in their work both amazes and frustrates me. Maybe I should paint a few coloured squares or a series of dots instead and then have a highfalutin reasoning behind my depiction! However, whilst I struggle on manfully with my efforts, I want to talk about and show you the work of a genius in this field of cityscape art. Let me introduce you to the English Victorian painter Louise Rayner.
Louisa Ingram Rayner was born in Matlock Bath in Derbyshire on June 21st, 1832. Her middle name, Ingram, came from her grandmother’s family. Whilst she was young she was always known as Louisa but as she grew older she preferred the name, Louise. She was the fourth of nine children. Louise had four sisters and one brother, all of whom became artists. Her father was Samuel Rayner an English landscape artist, who was known for his depictions of buildings and their interiors, including abbeys, churches and old mansions and her mother was Ann Manser Rayner who was an expert engraver of black marble.
At the age of ten, she and her family left Derbyshire and returned to London and it was here that she would spend most of her early life. It was whilst on a family holiday in Herne Bay, when she was fifteen, that she took up drawing and, soon after, she began to study painting seriously, at first with her father who played a major part in her love of art and later under guidance from her father’s artist friends such as George Cattermole, who like her father worked for John Britton, an English antiquary, author and editor, Edmund Niemann, the highly successful British landscape artist who worked mostly in oils. Another of her father’s friends was David Roberts, the Scottish painter who completed long sketching and painting tours of the near East, the Holy Land and Egypt but also specialised in architectural and topographical scenes.
His influence on Louise Rayner is very apparent when we look at the first painting she submitted to the Royal Academy in 1852 entitled The Interior of Haddon Chapel, Derbyshire.
Louise Rayner, like David Roberts, depicted cities and their often crumbling buildings as well as stately homes and their surroundings. During her most active period, Louise, like her father before her, painted a large number of church interiors, and exteriors but what she would really become known for, was her depictions of ancient streets and picturesque yet dilapidated in many of the cities and towns of Britain and Northern France, all of which she always populated by numerous figures. She was a prolific painter and her works appeared at the Royal Academy exhibitions between 1852 and 1886.
Louise Rayner first began exhibiting her watercolour paintings in 1860 at the Society of Female Artists, which was founded three years earlier and has held an annual exhibition in London of the work of women artists ever since. Louise continued to live at the family home and in the early 1860’s this was located in Brighton.
Louise is first recorded as first visiting Chester in 1869. Her paintings from this period are very detailed and charming in a chocolate-box sort of way. They encapsulate the olde worlde charm of Chester and the other towns which she depicted. Most of her works feature people going about their daily business, such as street sellers and people out shopping.
However, midway through that decade, she went on sketching journeys which resulted in beautiful paintings of historical England and Wales. One of her favourite places to visit was the Roman town of Chester (Deva) and it is recorded that Louise was living in Chester at 2 Ash Grove, off the Wrexham Road, in Chester in 1869.
What first grabbed my attention about the Rayner family was the picture above, a painting by Louise Rayner of Aberconwy House within the walled-town of Conwy. It is a place I pass a number of times each week and up until two years ago, I lived just fifty yards from this building.
..………and this is how looked this afternoon !
Another Welsh town she visited and depicted in one of her paintings was Wrexham and above we have her work entitled Street View, Wrexham which she completed in the 1880’s.
Again the local newspaper’s art critic praised her work.
Another of my favourite towns which I frequently visit is Shrewsbury and the town, as it used to be, is beautifully captured in Louise’s painting, Fish Street Shrewsbury.
Another depiction of the streets of Shrewsbury can be seen in her painting, Old Houses, Shrewsbury.
Louise and her younger brother Richard visited the area around the West Midland’s town of Dudley on one of their subject-seeking art expeditions in 1865 and five years later Louise produced this beautiful painting. The depiction is taken from Market Place and we look down Castle Street with Hall Street to the right. In the background, we can see the Church of St Edmund, locally known as the “bottom church” to differentiate from St Thomas’ parish church in High Street (not in the picture) which is known as “top church”. To the left, on the skyline, we can just make out the upper part of Dudley Castle.
Louise traveled extensively throughout Britain each summer during the 1870s and 1880s, but also took trips to northern France and in the picture above we see her depiction of a street in Rheims. The painting depicts Rheims Cathedral in the background. The beauty of this work lies in the drama of the architecture as we see the cathedral spire rising into the sky whilst below we see the street populated by locals. Look how she has used a blaze of sunlight, raking between the buildings, to highlight a man on the right trying to gain entrance to his house.
As it is for everyone, age takes its toll and as she grew older Louise’s artistic talent began to fade probably due to her failing eyesight, unsteady hands and the ability or enthusiasm to travel to towns to seek out new views for her work. Louise exhibited for the last time at the Royal Academy in 1886, and the last time anywhere in London in 1893. She had reached her peak well before she had almost decided to lay to rest her paint brushes at the age of 76 in 1908. The Rayner family dynasty was starting to come to an end. Frances Rayner Copinger died in 1889 and Louise’s mother, Ann, the following year. In 1890 Louise and her sister Margaret set up a teaching studio in Chester but on “retiring”, she and her sister went to live in Tunbridge Wells in 1910. In 1908 the youngest Rayner sibling, Richard, dies aged 65. On August 20th, 1920 her sister and companion Margaret died and Louise Rayner moved to Southwater Road, St Leonards on Sea, a seaside town close to Hastings, where she remained until her death on October 8th, 1924, aged 92.
What surprises me the most is that despite her intricate cityscape paintings, and watercolours, Louise Rayner is not seen as one of the great artists of the nineteenth century. Maybe it is because of the similarity of her work, but can you really get tired of a good thing? I will leave the last word to Peter Watson, the art correspondent of The Observer newspaper, who wrote about Louise following his visit to the Christies Glasgow auction in November 1974. He wrote derisively about the event itself but praised Louise’s work.
“…Louise Rayner won’t be to everyone’s taste – very dense, detailed paintings-cum-drawings of Victorian streets teeming with life: cats fighting, dogs smelling, spivs spivving, washing hanging, flirts leering, babies vomiting, parents spanking. And not a give-away either (priced at several thousand) but they do have a lookatable quality which possibly justifies the price…”
I hope you have enjoyed the last three blogs charting the lives of the Rayner family. Having just completed this one on Louise Rayner and her architectural cityscapes I am going to return to my own canvas, give up my aspirations of depicting a cityscape and just spray a few colours of paint on it and maybe a few zig-zags !!!!!!!
Besides the usual sources such as Wikipedia I got most of my information about the Rayner family from an excellent and comprehensive website entitled DudleyMall.
Samuel and Ann Rayner had nine children of which six excelled artistically like their parents. Having looked at the life of the parents in my previous blog I want to focus on the talents of their children.
Their first-born child was William but he died at childbirth and so the title of eldest child fell on to the shoulders of their daughter Ann Ingram Rayner who, to save confusion with her mother, was always known as Nancy. She was born in London in 1826 during the time when the family were living at 11 Blandford Street, Portman Square, Marylebone. A year after she was born, the family moved to Museum Parade in Matlock Baths, and her early years were spent in Derbyshire.
Nancy started her artistic studies at the age of ten and soon proved to be very talented. In her teenage years she was probably influenced by contemporaries of her father such George Cattermole, a fellow draughtsman working for John Britton. Another was Octavius Oakley, who had developed into a specialist of portraits in watercolour and was, like Samuel Rayner, given commissions by the Duke of Devonshire. Oakley tutored Nancy in the art of portraiture and Nancy’s ability at painting portraits was initially down to his work with her. Other luminaries who influenced Nancy were the Scottish painter, David Roberts who had been a long-standing friend of the Rayner family. When he returned from a sketching trip to Spain he gave Nancy one of his original pencil sketches. Samuel Prout, one of the masters of British watercolour architectural painting, was also a great inspiration to Nancy.
Nancy was the first of Samuel’s children to become an Associate of the Old Watercolour Society. The Society albeit supportive of watercolourists was a male-dominated society for it was only the male Associates who could progress to become full members of the Society and share in its profits and become administrators. Female associates were barred from this transitioning. At the time of Nancy’s election as an Associate there were only three other Associate female painters, Maria Harrison, Eliza Sharp and Mary Ann Criddle who were also affected by this ruling. They were well in the minority as there were 26 male members and 17 male associates. After sustained pressure from the ladies with regards this unfair treatment the Old Watercolour Society changed the rules and appointed them Honorary Lady Members. However, they still were not allowed to share in the profits of the Society.
Nancy then had her first painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1848, at the age of twenty-two, and was elected a Member of the Old Watercolour Society two years later. The sale of her paintings went well and she received many commissions and patronage. Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester was known to be one of Nancy’s patrons.
Her 1850 painting entitled Summer Pastimes, which is also known as Portrait of the Gloucester Children depicts two young children playing. It is thought that the children are in fact the Duchess’s children or maybe her grandchildren as if you look at the window on the right you can see a flag flying over a castle tower, signifying that is part of the royal estate.
Nancy Rayner’s life came to an early end in November 1855 at the age of twenty-nine and so her artistic life was cut short. As a talented painter, maybe if she had lived longer, she would have been as famous as her father or her famous sister, Louise.
Rhoda (Rose) Rayner
The second daughter of Samuel and Ann Rayner was Rhoda, known as Rose. She was born 1828 whilst her parents were living in the small Derbyshire town of Matlock Baths. Her artistic journey began as a teenager when she was taught how to create models using clay and she began to produce jugs and vases. Her late venture into the world of painting was probably due to her love of clay modelling and pottery and she would spend much time making and decorating her pottery figures. It was not until seven years later, around 1850, when she was twenty-one, that she began to paint with watercolours like her siblings. Four years later, in 1854, some of her paintings were seen at art exhibitions. One of the great artistic influences on Rose was the rise of the pre-Raphaelite painters.
Although her interests remained in watercolour painting and pottery her great love was teaching and it is thought that throughout her life she was involved in the private tuition of children whose parents could afford to give their children a good start in life. Rose was fortunate to be able to travel widely in Europe. The fact that she travelled so much and so far from home, like her trip to Russia in 1880 would mean that she had either become very prosperous or that she travelled as part of a wealthy family’s retinue.
Rhoda Rayner exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere between 1854 and 1866, and it is thought it was during this period that she began to call herself Rose.
In the late 1870’s life changed for her. The marriage between her younger sister Frances and her husband Charles Coppinger in 1866 had come to an end. Frances left her husband and went with her daughter Annette (Netta) back to live at her parents’ home in New Windsor. It was in 1879 that Samuel Rayner died and it is thought that Rose’s share of his inheritance allowed her the independence to live on her own at 103 Dalberg Road in the London borough of Lambeth and following Frances’ return home Rose offered to look after Netta who was eleven years old.
In 1881 she completed a painting entitled Russian Balloon Seller, Streets of Petrograd. She had probably made preliminary sketches when she was visiting Russia in 1880 with her niece Netta and completed the work in her London studio.
Rose and Netta were still living together in 1891 according to the census of that year. Their home was now Hampstead in London and the census gives Rose’s occupation as Artist, Figure Painter, Sculptor and Annette’s occupation as piano music teacher.
In 1908, Rose’s younger brother Richard died, aged 65 and Rose moved to a new house and went to live next door to Richard’s family in Orpington Kent. Her niece Netta worked in a hospital during the First World War where she met a Canadian, Robert MacGregor, and when the war ended the couple were married and went to live in Canada. Rose died aged 92, in Orpington, Kent, on January 12th, 1921, just a few months after Netta and Robert sailed for Canada. Rose was the longest-lived of all her sisters.
Frances Rayner Copinger
Frances Rayner was the sixth child of Samuel and Ann Rayner. She was born in Piccadilly, London on August 19th, 1834 and along with her older brother Samuel and older sister Louise was christened at the Newman Street Apostolic Catholic Church in Marylebone the following February.
Frances’ artistic path differed to those of her elder siblings as she never exhibited any of her paintings until she was twenty-five years of age, and then only on one occasion in 1861 did she have a painting of hers, a watercolour, Church of St Andre, Antwerp, appear in a London gallery. It was exhibited in the Suffolk Street gallery in London. The one thing she had in common with her father was her love of architecture and especially the architecture of old religious buildings.
One of her great loves was travel and she journeyed throughout Europe on a number of occasions and from these travels was born a number of paintings featuring places in Europe. Frances Rayner married Charles Copinger in February 1867. It was Copinger’s second wife, his first wife Mary had died in 1866. From his first marriage Charles had five children and with Frances he had a daughter Annette Frances who was born on October 26th, 1867 and a son Ernest Edwin born in 1871. Following her marriage, Frances and her husband lived in Brussels for some years, but by the time of the census in 1871 she and the family had returned to England and were living in the London borough of Islington. The census reports her occupation as an artist and her husband’s occupation stated as being a clergyman of the Catholic Apostolic Church. There was one other occupant of their household, Copinger’s sister Clara, who acted as a governess for the children.
The marriage between Frances Rayner and Charles Copinger ended shortly after the birth of their son but there is no record of a divorce, which was very difficult to procure in those days. Notwithstanding that, Charles simply left Frances and went off to America and in Baltimore in 1878, with or without divorce, he married his third wife Mary Margaret May. They went on to have two daughters and a son. Charles Copinger died on May 9th, 1913.
After the breakdown of her marriage in the late 1870s, Frances left her husband and took the children to live with her mother and father but probably because of the problems of space in her family’s house, her daughter Annette went to live with Frances’ sister Rose. In the 1881 census Frances is noted as living with her son Ernest as a lodger in a house belonging to the Sevenoakes family in New Windsor on the outskirts of London.
Frances Rayner died in 1889, a year before the death of her mother, Ann. She was 55. At the time of his mother’s death, her son Ernest was about eighteen years of age. When Frances died Ernest went to live in Camberwell with his Aunt Grace who had married Frederick Catty in 1869 and the couple had five children of their own. Ernest became a merchant’s clerk when he was nineteen. He died in 1904
Of all the Rayner children the most talented was Louise and I will dedicate my final blog to her life and her beautiful works of art.
The artist I am showcasing today, Mary Adshead, was an exceptionally gifted person. She was an artist who moved seamlessly between easel painting and murals. She was a portrait painter. She painted on furniture and glass. She was a postage stamp designer. She was a book illustrator and devised and designed advertisements and stage sets but will probably be best remembered as a muralist.
Mary was born in Bloomsbury, London, on February 14th, 1904. She was the daughter and only child of Stanley Davenport Adshead and Annie Adshead. Her father was a well-known neo-Georgian architect and talented amateur watercolourist, who trained in Manchester and London and for four years was clerk of works for the vast mansion at Rosehaugh, Argyll, during which time he met his wife, Annie, who was the village school mistress. In 1909, Stanley became Associate Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool, and in 1912 became the Lever Professor of Civic Design. He moved back to London in 1914 and became the first Professor of Town Planning at University College, London, and remained there until his retirement in 1935.
From the age of six, Mary was determined to become an artist and spent much of her time drawing and she produced many sketchbooks of cartoons and illustrations to stories. The family would spend their summer holidays in the New Forest. Her mother and father’s relationship was often stormy and Mary found herself acting as a go-between, passing messages from one parent to the other. At the age of twelve, she attended Putney High School and remained there for three years. At the age of fifteen she went to Paris with her mother and both lived in a hotel in the French capital for six months whilst Mary attended the Lycée Victor Dury.
Whilst in Paris she visited many of the famous art galleries and was greatly influenced by the murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. In the Autumn of 1921, when she was seventeen years old, her father took her to meet Henry Tonks the principal at the Slade School of Art, which was part of the University College, London, where Stanley Adshead was a professor. Henry Tonks, a former surgeon, had a reputation for being very harsh with his students and a fierce taskmaster. Mary brought along a portfolio of work which she had put together whilst in Paris but Tonks was not impressed. However through a lot of arm-twisting by her father Tonks agreed to allow her to enrol on his art course. This was a great relief to Mary and her father who, because he was a professor at the UCL, would not have to pay for his daughter’s tuition.
During the early phase of her course Mary did not work as hard as she should and was happy to hang out with a set of wealthy girls who looked on the art and course as simply a pleasant hobby. Soon she realised that she was wasting valuable time and began to knuckle down and Tonks began to be very impressed with her work. Mary and fellow student, Rex Whistler won the joint first prize in the Slade’s Summer painting competition in 1924 and as a result, when their time at the Slade came to an end, Henry Tonks arranged for them to undertake a joint mural commission at the Highway Boys’ Club in London’s East End.
Once she had completed that commission, more followed and her next one, in 1924, was to create a mural based on a desert island theme, which became known as A Tropical Fantasy. It was commissioned by Charles Reilly, the professor of architecture at Liverpool University, and one-time colleague of Mary’s father. It is now housed at the Liverpool University Victoria Art Gallery. It is one of just a few of her murals to survive. That same year she completed a large mural entitled The Housing of the People, which was exhibited at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.
She designed posters for the Underground Group and London Transport in the period 1927-37 and also carried out decorative works at Bank and Piccadilly Circus Underground Stations.
One of her most lauded and often considered as her finest work was a commission she received in 1928 from Lord Beaverbrook, the millionaire Canadian-British newspaper publisher and politician, for a mural to cover the walls of his dining room at his Newmarket House, Calvin Lodge. He had decided that the mural should depict scenes of Newmarket life such as the horse racing and the fair and should depict his well-known and famous friends and it was that last instruction which was to be the stumbling-block to this project.
The resultant panels, collectively titled An English Holiday, were true masterpieces combining humour with an insight into a life of privilege and elegance. They were described at the time as being in ‘the manner of English 18th-century sporting prints and acquatints. The paintings were packed with activity.
In Village Inn, a gentleman cyclist flirts with a country maid. In another one we see Arnold Bennett playing the harmonium for a crowd of gypsies. In another we see Lady Louis Mountbatten waiting by her car, the tyre of which had punctured and is being offered assistance by a swaggering, bearded character who looks very much like the painter Augustus John. More bizarrely Churchill is depicted astride an elephant. All of the characters are making their way to the Newmarket racecourse to meet Lord Beaverbrook.
However, Lady Diana Cooper, a good friend of Lord Beaverbrook and who also appeared picnicking in one of paintings persuaded him not to install the murals. Her argument being that as he was so cantankerous and quarrelsome, he was bound to, sooner or later, argue with one or more of the people depicted in the murals and then he would be forced to look at their depictions every time he dined. He listened to her advice and returned the panels to Adshead and paid the two-thirds rejection fee.
The panels were reassembled and exhibited at the large Peter Jones Department store in Central London in 1930 before being rolled up and relegated to a cupboard in the Adshead’s house where years later all but three were destroyed by fire.
In 1929 Mary Adshead married the painter Stephen Bone, the son of the artist and etcher Sir Muirhead Bone. Stephen and Mary had been students together at the Slade. The couple went on to have three children, two sons, Quentin and Sylvester and a daughter, Christina. Mary and Stephen collaborated on a couple of children’s books, namely The Little Boy and His House in 1936, The Silly Snail and Other Stories in 1942 and The Little Boys and Their Boats in 1953 in which Mary provided the illustrations.
During their early married life, the couple made many painting and sketching tours during their travels through Europe. Mary received many commissions through her architect father and also through the good auspices of her father-in-law who was always singing her praises in his circle of artist friends. Her father-in-law, Muirhead Bone was well known for helping young aspiring artists such as Stanley Spencer, Gwen John and Cristopher Nevinson.
Mary Adshead’s first solo exhibition was held in 1930 at the Goupil Gallery and included the painting The Morning after the Flood which is now part of the Tate collection. This decorative painting by Mary Adshead was characteristic of the style taught at the Slade Art School when she was a student. The tutors at the Slade had students set out figurative compositions that had connections with Biblical tales. This work was set the day after the Great Flood when Noah’s boat with his family and animals had come to rest on dry land. One art critic wrote that her figure painting combined a fashionable primitivism, loosely derived from Stanley Spencer with a fluency and humour rarely found among her contemporaries.
Her talent as a portrait artist can be seen in her 1931 self-portrait.
Other portraits she completed include one of Daphne Charlton, the painter who studied at the Slade and who was a close friend of Stanley Spencer.
One of her favourites was one she did of her three children.
There is actually connection between Mary Adshead and her father and a place near where I live. The connection is the Victoria Pier Pavilion at Colwyn Bay, North Wales. The original pier was started in 1899 and was completed two years later. A 600-seat ‘Bijou’ theatre was built at the pier head in 1917 for the purposes of light entertainment. This original pavilion was completely destroyed by fire in 1922. This disaster forced the owners, the Victoria Pier Company, into bankruptcy and the pier was taken over by Colwyn Bay Urban District Council which arranged to re-build the structure. Eleven years later this second pavilion was destroyed by fire and a second blaze a few months later destroyed the theatre.
Not to be deterred by these two disasters, the Colwyn Bay Urban District Council set about rebuilding, and the third pavilion was opened on Tuesday 8 May 1934 at a cost of £16,000. Now to the connection !
The third pavilion was designed by architect Stanley Davenport Adshead, Mary’s father, and Mary and Eric Ravilious were commissioned to paint some Art Deco murals for the interior of the pier building. The pier was badly damaged by the gales and sea in 2017 and started to collapse and it was decided to dismantle the whole structure.
The Art Deco murals created by Eric Ravilious and Mary Adshead, back in 1934, from inside the pavilion, have all been successfully removed and are currently awaiting restoration.
Stephen Bone, Mary’s husband, was a landscape painter and for a while was very successful but later the market for his work dried up and he became depressed and began to look upon himself as a failure. Stephen Bone died of bowel and liver cancer on 15 September 1958 at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. He was just fifty-three years old.
After the death of her husband, and with her children all grown up, Mary embarked on a tour of America. During the adventure she carried her sketchbook and filled it with drawings of her journey. When she returned to England she published a book about her travels entitled Travelling with a Sketchbook.
Between 1948 and 1963 she submitted designs for a number of Post Office stamp issues including the Universal Postal Union stamps of 1949, the Festival of Britain stamp of 1951 and four denominations of the Wilding definitive stamps of 1952, which featured the Dorothy Wilding photographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II . Adshead’s design for the 8d, 9d, 10d and 11d were chosen.
In her latter years, lameness caused by painting off ladders hampered her work and life, but, ever purposeful, she would crawl where she could not walk with a stick, curious glances notwithstanding. Despite this affliction Mary Adshead remained an active working artist until the end of her life. She died in London on September 3rd 1995, aged 91.
World War II started on September 3rd, 1939 and, by the end of that month Gluck’s Bolton House home had been commandeered by the Auxiliary Fire Service, but she was allowed to keep and occasionally stay at the studio. Whilst looking for a house to rent she went to stay with Nesta’s mother, Mrs Sawyer. These were troubled times for Gluck as witnessed by a passage from a letter she wrote to her mother on September 24th, 1939:
“…My looks say I am well, my spirit is a mess at the moment and my body and nerves almost at the end of their tether…”
The thing which was causing Gluck’s despondency was not the perils of the war but her finances. Not just her finances, but the control of her finances, which had been denied her and put in the hands of The Family trustees, her younger brother Louis, her mother, and her cousin Sir Samuel Gluckstein. This rankled with her for the persona she had adopted was that of a man, a person of competency, influence, and potency, but to The Family, it was all a pretence, for in their eyes she was just a woman and thus, in their social classification, she was a person with no authority. Her father, who had looked upon his daughter as somewhat wayward and rebellious, had made sure that level-headed and wise people would control her finances thus avoiding the possibility that she would squander her money and become poverty stricken and eventually destitute.
Gluck was paid rent by the Auxiliary Fire Service for Bolton House and her trustees agreed for her to rent a small house, Millers Mead, which was in Plumpton just two minutes away from Nesta’s home. In the small garden there was a simple outhouse which she used as her studio. She employed a married couple to act as her servants. The annual rental cost was £218. In July 1941 the Auxiliary Fire Service vacated Bolton House and stopped paying the rent and so the financial burden fell back on Gluck and as Bolton House was left empty because Gluck remained at Millers Mead, it started to suffer through lack of occupancy and there was a cost to carry out expensive repairs. Her money was slowly but surely trickling away. She had the high cost of running three places, her Letter Studio in Lamorna, Bolton House and Millers Mead. In a letter to her on July 30th, 1941, one of the trustees, Sir Samuel Gluckstein wrote that she needed to limit her expenditure:
“…I am not endeavouring to read you a lecture but I am endeavouring to help you to avoid getting into financial distress…”
Gluck sent numerous letters to her trustees pleading for more money and more control of it but it was to no avail. Her mother, a trustee, seems to have been annoyed at these constant missives as can be seen in a very terse letter she sent to her daughter on May 25th, 1942:
“…I cannot either understand or cope with this continual correspondence with copy letters to Louis and Mr Dyer but I would like to make this perfectly clear…..Today everybody’s income has been reduced to exactly half….if you were to write a thousand letters you would not alter this, and I do think, in these very strenuous, nerve racking days, the less correspondence you and anyone has the better…..I do not get younger and these things make me very unhappy…”
The two other trustees were less tactful and did not hold back in their condemnation of her moaning about money, and her brother warned her that her attitude would finally break their brother/sister relationship. She met with Louis and her mother in August at the Trocadero but the meeting collapsed due to violent rowing between the participants. In a letter to her mother four months later Gluck wrote:
“…This talk was of a nature so disgusting and shocking to me that it became clear that I cannot discuss any matters connected with my Trust affairs without a witness and a shorthand writer…”
An impasse between her and her three trustees had reached an impasse. Her income was important to her and whilst living in Millers Mead she received several portrait commissions including one from Nesta who wanted Gluck to paint a portrait of her elderly mother, Ethel Sawyer. The result was a depiction of an English gentlewoman with her veiled hat, no-nonsense smile, pearls, mayoral collar and bright, if somewhat watery, eyes. Gluck would paint a second portrait of Nesta’s mother in 1943 as she lay dying. This period of war and the death of loved ones was a time when people wanted portraits of their relatives, some of which would prove to be consoling images.
Gluck also carried on with her floral paintings and in 1943 produced a work entitled Pleiades depicting a tangle of pink convolvulus and grasses. This work was a real labour of love for Gluck spent hours in the garden crouching over the same patch of weeds despite suffering painful backache and the onset of arthritis in her hands. The details in the painting are remarkable, such as the drops of dew on the web. Can you see the grasshopper on the leaf? She worked on the painting on and off for two years and it became a burden. She wrote about it to her mother on August 16th, 1942:
“…if I don’t get it done before September is over I am dished – and there are two waiting prospective purchasers. Anyway I am not anxious to face it again a third year and the work in it is terrific. I can only do very little every day and it is a strain on the yes. It is certainly going to be worth it when finished, but when will it ever be finished?…”
The painting was finally finished in August 1943.
Gluck’s relationship with Nesta started to unravel during the war years. Nesta sent fewer letters to her lover when they were apart and when home with her husband Seymour. Nesta’s visits to Gluck became fewer and shorter in duration. Gluck’s diary entries noted when Nesta came and how long she stayed. Cracks were beginning to appear in her relationship with Nesta. Gluck had moved to Plumpton to be near Nesta but with her time with Nesta diminishing rapidly she began to feel isolated in comparison to her former social life when she lived in Hampstead. One of the few people who visited her was her old friend Craig who stayed for a month in November 1943 but Craig noticed how Gluck seemed depressed. The depression was brought on by her deteriorating liaison with Nesta and the wrangling with the Family Trust who controlled her money and believed that she had to be more frugal. She was desperately unhappy and for her, life was all gloom.
It was in 1942 that Gluck completed a self portrait and the way she has depicted herself is not one of happiness. There is no softness of expression. There is no expression of warmth or love in her eyes. She has depicted herself with her head tilted slightly backwards looking cheerlessly down on the viewer with a mutinous and antagonistic expression.
Gluck was working on several paintings during 1943, including one entitled Jerusalem and the floral painting Pleiades as well as two small landscapes and a triptych for Sussex Council of Churches. It was during the commission for the Sussex Council that she made several trips to the small West Sussex town of Steyning to see the council chairman, Bertram Nicholls. Whilst there she visited the Heald sisters, Nora Heald and Edith Shackleton Heald, at their home at Chantry House, in the town of Steyning, and would often stay their overnight or for a weekend break. Both Heald sisters were journalists. Nora was editor of The Lady and spent most of the week in a flat above the newspaper’s offices in London. Edith, the younger of the two sisters, was a correspondent for the London Evening Standard and tended to work from home. Gluck became a great friend of Edith, possibly due to a common issue, desolation. Gluck was deeply despondent due to her failing relationship with Nesta and Edith was very unhappy when her lover, the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats, died in January 1939. Gluck and Edith were able to console each other and Gluck spent the Christmas of 1943 with Edith at Chantry House – the first time in eight years that Gluck had not spent Christmas with “her darling wife” Nesta. Edith Heald tried to help Gluck through this distressing period and the two would often take trips along the south coast visiting the various English seaside towns. Soon Gluck was spending most of her days and nights at Chantry House although she never lost contact with Nesta.
Gluck received a commission from Wilfrid Greene to paint his portrait. Greene was resigning as Principal of the Working Men’s College and had been asked to present a drawing of himself to the College and he decided that Gluck should be the artist. On 16 July 1941 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Greene, of Holmbury St Mary in the County of Surrey. Gluck stayed at his Dorset home, The Wilderness, for a few days whilst working on the portrait.
Gluck’s doomed love affair with Nesta ended in 1944. Gluck had almost seen the break-up coming. What she wanted from Nesta was the sole access to her heart, her total commitment to the relationship. Sadly, she latterly realised that this was never going to happen. Their love for each other was not equal. Nesta was never going to leave her husband who supplied the finances for her lavish lifestyle and this upset Gluck. To Gluck, their love for each other was one sided and although they corresponded and met in the following years, the “marriage” was over.
Gluck could not bear to be alone and, after the break-up of her relationship with Nesta Obermer, she accepted Edith Heald’s invitation to come join her and her sister (plus the sisters’ servants!) and live in Chantry House. Gluck accepted and on October 6th, 1944 she moved in. Edith Weald was delighted with the decision, her sister less so. For Gluck the move and new home took away some of the disappointment with Nesta’s attitude. It solved her financial problems and the relationship with her trustees, as her Hampstead home, Bolton House, was sold in 1945 and the money reverted to the Gluck’s Trust fund. She did however keep the studio but had a wall built separating it from Bolton House. In some ways she looked up to the sisters and the way they had both made their own way in a male-dominated industry without the reliance on someone else’s money. Gluck was now away from her mother and away from the temptations of London’s West End. It was the perfect working environment. What was once known as the Yeats’ Room in Chantry House became her study and a cottage in the grounds of Chantry House became her studio.
Raynard Goddard the Lord Chief Justice approached Gluck with a commission. He had seen the sketch she had done of Wilfrid Greene and he wanted Gluck to produce a similar work but this time in oils to present to the Inner Temple. She agreed but because of illness she did not complete the painting until 1949.
Gluck and Edith Heald’s relationship changed from friendship to a lesbian affair and this did not please Nora Heald. It was not just Nora that viewed her sister’s relationship with Gluck as distasteful, some of her sister’s erstwhile friends found the situation unbearable and began to distance themselves. The living arrangements at Chantry House were becoming problematic and far from harmonious and there were frequent excruciating tensions and shrieking matches between the three residents. Gluck always sided with Edith against Nora and the latter felt betrayed. With all this turmoil Gluck only completed one painting in 1946, and to escape from the cauldron Edith and Gluck went to Lamorna for a month that summer. On returning home they found Nora no easier to live with. Nora did not dare invite her friends and work colleagues to Chantry House, after all, she was the editor of The Lady which did not countenance ladies being in lesbian relationships. Something had to give. Nora wanted Gluck out and Edith and Gluck wanted Nora out. Gluck wanted a home and Edith was determined to provide her with one. Add to this the fact that Nesta still called on Gluck and became jealous of her relationship with Edith.
In 1947, after some pressure from her trustees Gluck sold her Lamorna studio. The situation with the Chantry House ménage à trois was finally sorted with Nora reluctantly leaving. Gluck’s trustees agreed to pay Nora half the value of Chantry House and the linen, tableware and ornaments were equally divided between the two sisters. The ménage à trois became a ménage à deux.
Even though many years had passed since her break-up with Nesta, Gluck never recovered from losing her or from the upheaval to her life caused by the war. Add to that the permanent estrangement between her and her brother Louis who managed her trust fund after her mother died in 1958. In addition, both Edith and Gluck were getting older and began to suffer from a variety of illnesses in their latter years. Gluck’s periods of depression became longer and she painted very little. Whether it was a cause she wanted to focus her mind back on art, we will never know, but she had a love of quality painting materials and was unhappy with the standard of paints and canvases on offer and so she began a dogged decade-long battle with the British Board of Trade and commercial paint manufacturers, who, in her mind, were producing inferior products that threatened to deteriorate over time. Fortunately for her, this cause had the backing of the Arts Council of Great Britain, British Colour Manufacturers Association, and two important museums. After a long battle she succeeded and the British Standards Institution Technical Committee on Artists’ Materials was formed and this meant that for the first time, there were published standards regarding the naming and defining of pigments, cold-pressed linseed oil, and canvas.
After the victory, Gluck returned to painting using the special handmade paints supplied by a manufacturer who had taken Gluck’s standards as a challenge. In all, fifty-three of these pieces were exhibited in a solo show at the Fine Art Society in 1973, and they were very well-received. The exhibition was her first since 1937. She was buoyed by the success of the exhibition and optimistic about the future. However, the directors of the Fine Art Society did not concur. For them the future of Gluck and her work were not as she saw it. She was now eighty years of age, was not in good health, suffering from arthritis and heart problems, painted slowly and they believed that her optimism about her future was simply her antidote to counter her depression. However, some of her older paintings were later shown by the Fine Art Society in their mixed exhibitions.
In 1973, Gluck completed her last painting and it was one with an unusual title, Rage, Rage against the Dying Light which comes from the lines of a poem by Dylan Thomas:
“…Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”
Edith Heald’s health deteriorated rapidly and it was agreed by her doctor that Gluck could not safely look after her and she was admitted to the Homelands nursing home in January 1975, aged ninety. Edith felt abandoned and betrayed. Gluck, who was not able to drive anymore, was chauffeured to the nursing home twice a week, to visit Edith, who according to Gluck seemed very sad and forlorn. Gluck was now living alone, albeit with her servants, and found the upkeep of Chantry House almost impossible. In the Autumn of 1975 Gluck returned to her cottage at St Buryan in Cornwall for the last time.
On October 11th, 1976, Gluck had Edith transferred from her Homelands nursing home she had been in for two years, to one close to Chantry House which would make it easier for her visiting her erstwhile friend but the move proved disastrous as within five weeks of the transfer Edith Heald died on November 5th, 1976. Gluck was in total shock on hearing of Edith’s death and blamed herself for having Edith transferred to her new nursing home. Two weeks after the funeral Gluck suffered another heart attack.
Gluck’s cousin Julia Samson visited her in January 1978 and recalls the event:
“…We talked and had tea. She thought of me as young and her sensibility wouldn’t have let her make a young person sad. I said I’ll come and see you next week. She didn’t say anything, just looked at me and her eyes were very very sad. There was a passion there inside. Perpetual liveliness…”
That next-week visit never came to fruition as Gluck died the next day, January 10th, 1978. She was 82. Her brother Louis broke off his Swiss holiday to attend the funeral of his sister and it was reported that his youngest son witnessed his father crying for the first time.
Nesta Obermer outlived Gluck by six years, dying at her French home in Vaud on October 3rd 1984 aged 91.
Most of the information for this blog came from two excellent books – Gluck: Her biography by Diana Souhami.
Gluck Art and Identity by Amy De La Haye (Author), Martin Pel (Author), Gill Clarke (Author), Jeffrey Horsley (Author), Andrew Macintos Patrick (Author)
Both are excellent reads and fill in all the gaps in the life of Gluck which I have passed over.