Mary Dawson Elwell

Bedroom, Bar House, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire by Mary Dawson Elwell (1935)

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.

The Landing in Summer by Mary Elwell (1930)

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.

The Front Door by Mary Elwell (c.1940)

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.

Portrait of Frederick William Elwell by Mary Elwell (1913)

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.

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1911)

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.

Mary Dawson Holmes by Frederick William Elwell (1904)

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.

Les Parapluies by Renoir (c.1886)

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.

In the Trossachs by Mary Elwell (c.1900)

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.

The Wreath by Mary Elwell (1909)

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.

Chamonix, France by Mary Elwell (1938)

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.

A Quiet Hour by Mary Elwell (1942)

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.

North Bar Within, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire by Mary Elwell. (1916)

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.

At the Mirror or Bedroom, Bar House by Mary Elwell

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.

Bar House Garden by Fred Elwell (1914)

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.

Interior Study by Mary Elwell (1937)

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, by Mary Elwell (1934)

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.

Matterhorn from Zermatt, Switzerland by Mary Elwell (1939)

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…”

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Frederick Elwell. Part 4 – More of his genre works

Frederick William Elwell       (1870 - 1958)
Frederick William Elwell
(1870 – 1958)

In my final look at the life of the twentieth century Yorkshire artist Frederick William Elwell I want to conclude his life story and look at some of his genre paintings.

In the last blog, when looking at his life, I had reached 1914.  It was in the August of that year that the Great War began in Europe and it was also in that year, two months later, that Fred Elwell married his close friend and fellow artist, Mary Dawson Holmes.  The newlyweds made their home at Bar House, a residence Mary and her late husband George Holmes had bought in 1910.  Mary loved the house and its garden and they were depicted in a number of paintings by both Mary and Fred.

At the Mirror by Mary Dawson Elwell
At the Mirror by Mary Dawson Elwell

In the work entitled At the Mirror by Mary Dawson Elwell we see the interior of one of the bedrooms of their house which overlooked York Road.  There are two large double beds each covered with a purple quilt.  One of the bedroom’s windows is in the central background and through it we are able to see the neighbouring house, Wyles House.  The technique of allowing viewers to catch a glimpse of the outside world, seen through the framing device of a window, had always been popular with artists.  To the right of the window a woman stands before a mirror brushing her hair totally oblivious of the outside world that we see through the window.  The large full length mirror 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.

Bar House Garden, Beverley by Fred Elwell (1914)
Bar House Garden, Beverley by Fred Elwell (1914)

Fred Elwell painted a number of depictions of the interior of the house but I particularly like the one he completed in 1914 of the garden at Bar House entitled Bar House Garden, Beverley .

The First Born by Fred Elwell (1913)
The First Born by Fred Elwell (1913)

It was also around this time that Fred Elwell developed an idea based on the blissful event for a mother,  the birth of her child.  This type of painting was not a new idea for artists but the mother/baby scene had been depicted as far back as the Renaissance period.  In 1913 Elwell completed an oil on canvas work entitled The First Born.  The setting for the work is a farm worker’s cottage in Beverley.  The furnishings are simple.  The large canopied tester bed with its old-fashioned chintz curtains and turned bed-posts takes up centre stage in the painting.  A floral-covered ottoman sits next to the end of the bed.  By the bed is a ladder-backed cane chair.   In the work we see the young father who is still wearing his gamekeeper clothing.  He has rushed home from work to be with his wife and their first baby.  The father sits on his wife’s bed, leaning slightly forward to catch a better glimpse of his child.  He grasps small bouquet of primroses as a small present for his wife.  Primroses are associated with spring which in turn is associated with new beginnings which fits in nicely with the birth of the newborn baby.   It must have been a warm spring day as the sliding window is open and the delicate lace curtains gently flutter in the breeze which penetrates the room.   The thing which strikes you when you look at this work is how light and airy it is.  This was a factor in the work of the French Impressionists and was taken on board by the artists involved with the Newlyn School in Cornwall around the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century.

The Wedding Dress by Fred Elwell (1911)
The Wedding Dress by Fred Elwell (1911)

Queen Victoria 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.  Elwell beautifully captured such a moment with his painting, The Wedding Dress, which he completed in 1911.  The setting for Elwell’s painting is the widow’s bedchamber.  The lady lies slumped against the ottoman at the end of the bed, the lid of which is open.  On the floor next to her is her wedding dress and we can see more wedding clothes in the chest.  She is grief-stricken and buries her face in her hands.  We cannot see her face.  This is a private and very sad moment for her.  It could be that although she had her wedding dress, she never had a chance to marry her fiancé or maybe she did marry and is now remembering the day her and her late husband got married and the happy life they once had.  It is a pictorial tale of two worlds.  The white of the dress and the happiness of marriage in contrast to the black mourning clothes she wears in respect of her late husband or fiancé.  It is the contrast between innocence and happiness and the darkness of sadness and loss.  One other thing which makes this depiction even more poignant is the fact that the model for this painting was a local girl, Violet Prest, a costumier of Minster Moorgate West, in Beverley, and three years after the painting was completed, her husband was killed in the Great War.

The Wreath by Mary Dawson Elwell (1908)
The Wreath by Mary Dawson Elwell (1908)

Violet Prest also modelled for Elwell’s soon-to-be-wife Mary for her painting entitled The Wreath which she completed in 1908, three years before Fred Elwell completed The Wedding Dress.

His Last Purchase by Fred Elwell (1921)
His Last Purchase by Fred Elwell (1921)

With this being the last part of my blog featuring Frederick Elwell I was in a quandary as which paintings to feature or more to the point which ones could I bear to leave out.  My next painting by Elwell was completed in 1921 and is one of my favourites.  It is entitled The Last Purchase and is housed in the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.  The painting depicts Fred’s father, James Elwell, sitting at a table in the book-lined study of Fred and Mary Elwell’s house.  We see before us a very satisfied and happy man who has just returned from an antiques auction with his purchases.  James Elwell was a great lover of ceramics and in the painting we can see him carefully eyeing the vase which was one of his purchases.  It is not in perfect condition but this master craftsman considers how best to repair the lip of the vase.  The table he sits at is covered with his beloved purchases some of which still retain their auction lot number.

The painting was originally entitled His New Purchase but on James Elwell’s death in 1926, Fred Elwell changed the title of the work to The Last Purchase in memory of his late father.  What I like about this work is that it highlights the artistic ability of the artist.  It is not just a meticulous and lifelike portrait of his father, it is an example of his ability to paint a still-life work as well as it being a beautifully crafted interior painting

 In 1931, Elwell was elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and, in 1938, he was elected as a member of the Royal Academy.  Elwell felt very honoured to have been elected to full membership of the Royal Academy.  The honour came with one drawback, which he wrote about to one of his friends – the writing of acknowledgements to all his well wishers on them hearing of this artistic honour.  He humorously wrote:

 “…Can you picture me trying to cope……with twenty suitable acknowledgements every evening?   No club, no cinemas, no dinners, no theatres until they are finished for such are the Kingdom of God…”

 Having accepted the honour of becoming a full member of the Academy, he was asked to serve on the Royal Academy Council and become a member of the selection and hanging committee, which was a group of Academicians, who decided which works of art submitted by the public should be accepted into the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition.

The Royal Academy Selection and Hanging Committee by Fred Elwell (1938)
The Royal Academy Selection and Hanging Committee by Fred Elwell (1938)

Having featured the portrait of his father in the previous work set me thinking, what could be more difficult than crafting a single recognisable portrait?  I suppose the answer is to craft a work of art which includes fourteen individual recognisable portraits and this is exactly what Fred Elwell achieved in his 1938 painting entitled The Royal Academy Selection & Hanging Committee, 1938,  which was his diploma work on being made a Royal Academician and was retained by the Academy as an example of his extraordinary artistic talent.

 The setting for this work was the assembly room of Burlington House.  This 18th century room was walled with dark wood panelling and the only light emanates from behind the artist himself as he tries to incorporate all the members of the picture selection and hanging committee who sit around the dining table.  Elwell has included himself into the group portrait.  He stands to the left with brushes and palette in hand.  Look how the light source has not only illuminated the faces of the Academicians but also lit up the tableware and napkins.

Armstrong's Garage by Fred Elwell (1921)
Armstrong’s Garage by Fred Elwell (1921)

The next two paintings I am showcasing show how war changes every facet of daily life.   The first work is entitled Armstrong’s Garage which Elwell painted in 1921 and features the interior of the Elizabethan timber-framed building which was a garage and workshop in Beverley, owned by Gordon Armstrong since 1907.  It was close to Fred and Mary’s Bar House.  Fred Elwell was fascinated by motor engineering and the innovative skill of the owner who designed and built his own car, known as The Gordon.  Gordon Armstrong also patented the Armstrong shock absorber which made motoring much more comfortable.   In the foreground of the painting we see two mechanics working at a bench and behind them we see the vast empty expanse of the workshop.  The timber “A” frames and beams play a prominent role in the depiction and are lit up by the light streaming through the skylights.  The work is now part of the permanent collection of the Williamson Art Gallery at Birkenhead.

A Munitions Factory by Fred Elwell (1944)
A Munitions Factory by Fred Elwell (1944)

 Fast forward twenty three years and Elwell painted another picture featuring Armstrong’s Garage but it could not be more different.  Armstrong’s business boomed and he eventually moved to a larger premises on the other side of town in the late 1930’s.  However with the onset of the Second World War, his garage was taken over by the government and turned into a munitions factory.  The painting which Elwell completed in 1944 and was entitled A Munitions Factory.  In the left foreground   of the painting we see a table on which lay tracer bullets and other munitions which had been produced in the factory.  This is not just a beautiful work of art but forms a pictorial record of the time.  The factory employees will be almost all women who helped the war effort whilst their male partners had gone off to fight the war.  This will be a daytime scene as we can see windows in the roof which would have been covered with black-out curtains had this been a night shift.  Despite it being the day shift there is a lack of natural light which would have added to the difficulty in working conditions.

Maids with Pigeons by Feed Elwell (1916)
Maids with Pigeons by Feed Elwell (1916)

I have reluctantly come to the last painting I am featuring by Elwell.  There are so many and yet far too many for me to feature so I will choose another of my favourites.  When Fred and Mary married in 1914 they went to live in Mary’s Bar House.  Mary, on the death of her husband George Holmes, had been left financially well off.  So much so they were able to employ staff to help run the house.  In his 1916 painting, Maids with Pigeons, two years after their marriage, Fred Elwell depicted their kitchen maids in the houses’ kitchen.  This was just one of many Elwell’s depictions of domestic life at Bar House.  The realism of the paintings was well loved by both public and critics alike.  This work is a fine example of naturalism.  The two maids pay no attention to us but focus on two pigeons who have braved their way through the open window in search of food.  One holds out the palm of her hand on which there is some food for the hungry birds.  On the sink we see a bowl of water, the wetness of which has been skilfully depicted by Elwell using coloured highlights.  On the window sill is a plate and a colander.  To the left of the window we can just make out a wooden casing which highlights the water pump.

Married in 1914, Fred and Mary lived a long and happy life.  In 1945 Mary suffered a series of strokes which meant that she had to have round the clock nursing.  She died in 1952.  Fred Elwell continued to paint finding his art very theraputic.  He was his own tough taskmaster and even in his eightieth year would rise early to work on his canvases.  In 1953, the Ferens Gallery in Kingston upon Hull and the Beverley Art Gallery held a retrospective exhibition featuring ninety of his painting and a small selection of his wife’s work.

Frederick William Elwell died in January 1958, aged eighty-seven.

It has given me great pleasure over the last four blogs to look at the life and work of Fred Elwell.  He was a truly talented painter.  I will certainly make the effort to visit Beverley and Kingston upon Hull and visit the galleries which house so many of his paintings.  In the meantime I will satisfy myself with the excellent book, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster and Malcolm Shields.  It is well written and has 141 colour plates of Elwell’s art.  It inspired me to write these four blogs and I do recommend you buy it.