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.

Fred Elwell. Part 2. Portraiture

In my second look at the life and works of Fred Elwell I want to concentrate on his masterful portraiture.

In the last blog I left Fred Elwell studying in Paris with his friend Claude Rivas.  The year was 1892.   They had found themselves some rooms and had enrolled at the Académie Julian under the tutorship of William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  Bouguereau was far more than just a teacher of art at the Academy, he was a fierce defender of the academic method of teaching art.  He was also the chairman of the selection panel of the Paris Salon and thus had, with the other jurists, the power to accept or refuse submitted entries for the annual exhibitions and the jurists’ refusal to accept non-academic art angered many such as Paul Cézanne, Manet and Whistler.

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)
Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)

Life at Académie Julian was an exciting time for aspiring artists and many travelled great distances to be part of the Academy’s chosen few.  The artists were made to work hard and it also developed their competitive nature by offering a number of annual prizes.  Fred Elwell blossomed under this heavy workload and managed to win a number of these prizes during his stay.  Friendships were born at this Paris academy and Fred developed long term and special friendships with two other English artists, Richard Jack and the Lincoln-born, William Tom Warrener.  Warrener was nine years old than Elwell and had already established himself as a painter.   He was also a great social animal and spent much time in the bars of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge nightclub which had come into being in October 1889, in the Jardin de Paris, at the foot of the Montmartre hill.  Warrener had become friends with Toulouse-Lautrec and, like Lautrec, had been commissioned to design a number of advertising posters for the Moulin Rouge.

Elwell would often visit Warrener at his apartment on rue Ravignon and would see the walls of his rooms covered with paintings he had done of the nightlife of the Moulin Rouge.  It was during one of those visits that Elwell was introduced to the actress, Léonie, who was one of Warrener’s models and Elwell managed to persuade her to also become his model (see Part 1 of my Fred Elwell blog where I have included Elwell’s painting of her, Léonie’s Toilet).

Elwell’s stay in Paris coincided with La Belle Époque.  This period from the late 1870’s to the start of World War I was one of optimism.  It was the golden age.  For France, this was a period of stability and peace squeezed between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, quickly followed by the brutality of the Paris Commune and the Great War of 1914. It was a time of peace and prosperity.  It was time of joy and many took the opportunity to visit clubs and theatres and Elwell, who worked and studied hard during the day, managed to sample the night life in the evening and late into the night and it was during his stay in Paris that he developed the love of pipe-smoking, a habit which stayed with him for most of his life.  Another facet of Paris life which Elwell took to was what we now term as café culture which he continued to follow when he returned to England.  However, life in Paris had its downside for Elwell, as with most wannabe artists the burden of financial problems was ever present and Elwell’s financial predicament, despite the odd help from his father, was the same, so much so that he had to give his beloved portrait of Léonie to his landlord in lieu of rent.

Whilst he studied at the Académie Julian, Fred would often go back to Beverley to recharge his batteries and sample the delights of home comforts.  Elwell finally left Paris in 1895 deciding to live and work in London, although he still exhibited his works at the city’s Salon des Artistes Français (Paris Salon).  Elwell was determined to get some of his paintings excepted by the Royal Academy in London and believed he would be able to fund his London life through commissions.  Unfortunately for Elwell many artists had the same thought and the contest for painting commissions was ruthless.  Elwell realised that the streets of London were not paved with gold and soon he became very despondent with his lack of success.  It is thought his despondency led to a nervous breakdown.  His father rushed down to London to support his son and eventually convinced him to return home to Beverley

………..to be continued.

Florence by Fred Elwell (c.1902)
Florence by Fred Elwell (c.1902)

Fred Elwell was a master of many painting genres and the paintings I am featuring today deal with his skilful portraiture. The first portrait, Florence, is one Elwell completed around 1902.  It features his twelve year old niece Florence Elwell.  Florence had been brought up by Fred’s mother and father after she came to live with them at their Park Villa home, close to the racecourse in Beverley, following the death of her parents.  She looks a little moody and frustrated at having to sit for her uncle and pouts with annoyance.  There were more joyous things to do for a twelve-year old including mixing with the racing fraternity who would often congregate at her uncle’s home during Beverley horse-racing events.  It is believed that Fred Elwell completed the portrait in just one hour.

Portrait of a Small Boy by Fred Elwell (1917)
Portrait of a Small Boy by Fred Elwell (1917)

My next featured work is also of a youngster and is entitled Portrait of a Small Boy which Elwell completed in 1917.  Before us we see an immaculately dressed young boy in a white suit holding his hat in his right hand and his beloved yacht in the other.  His short white socks show signs of falling down towards his shiny black leather sandals.  The portrait must have been a challenging task for Elwell as boys of his age are reluctant to stand still and the crumpled look of his white suit is an indication of much movement.   It was so challenging that after he had completed the painting, Elwell swore that he would never paint the portrait of a child again.

Seated Nude in the Studio by Fred Elwell (1935)
Seated Nude in the Studio by Fred Elwell (1935)

As I mentioned in the first part of the Fred Elwell story, the first time he was allowed to paint live nudes was when he moved to Antwerp.  One of his best works of a female nude was completed in 1935 and was simply entitled Seated Nude in Studio and can be found at the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum.  The lady depicted in this work is seated on a stool and is depicted in graceful semi-profile.  Her blue dressing gown lies besides her. In the background there is some dark furniture which contrasts with the radiant flesh tints of the lady.  It is a quirky set-up as she sits before a painting on an easel as if she is the artist admiring her own work.

In a Bar by Fred Elwell (1943)
In a Bar by Fred Elwell (1943)

Another female portrait by Elwell which I really like is entitled In a Bar which he completed in 1943 and was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year.  In the work we see the model sitting at the bar, cigarette in hand with a glass of gin and tonic on the bar beside her.  There is an air of casual indifference about the way she poses, a somewhat challenging facial expression which challenges us to query her drinking and smoking habit.    This is twenty-eight year old Muriel Fox a favourite model of Fred Elwell and believed to be the lady who posed nude for him in the previous work.  Muriel was a cook at the Beverley Westwood Hospital and would often call into the Beverley Arms Hotel on her way home from work. This bar was later known as Elwell’s Bar.  She was a well-known regular at this hostelry and this was “her stool”.   There is great poise in her expression as she stares out at us.  As was the fashion in the 1940’s her cheeks were applied with  a liberal amount of rouge and her hairstyle , tightly waved, was the fashion of the day.   It was rumoured that she had recently given birth to her daughter and baby and basket had been placed out of sight behind the bar.

A Man with a Pint by Fred Elwell (1932)
A Man with a Pint by Fred Elwell (1932)

My next offering is a male portrait and it is a real gem.  The work is entitled A Man with a Pint and was completed by Elwell in 1932 and exhibited at the Royal Academy a year later.  The painting depicts and elderly man tightly clasping his pint of beer whilst pointing at something in the newspaper which he had been reading.   He has a red face and a bulbous nose.  There is something very comical about the portrait.  The public loved this portrait and the art journal, The Artist, maintained that Elwell “belonged to the School whose purpose is Life”.  This portrait is a wonderful realist depiction.  Elwell has chosen his sitter, not for his handsome qualities but for his down-to-earth demeanour.  This is a depiction of man, like the many elderly men, who love to spend the time with their pint in a welcoming hostelry.

Portrait of George Monkman, Mace Bearer of Beverley by Fred Elwell (1890)
Portrait of George Monkman, Mace Bearer of Beverley by Fred Elwell (1890)

The next portrait is also of an elderly man but in this instance he is not an unknown character but a member of the local Beverley Council.  He is the official mace bearer that the town rolls out on official occasions.  His name is George Monkman and the title of the pastel painting is Portrait of George Monkman, Mace Bearer of Beverley.  This was painted by the twenty-year old Elwell in July 1890 during the time he was attending the Antwerp Academy and, like many of Elwell’s works, is housed in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum.  Before us sits a grey-haired sad-faced man in top hat and dark gold rimmed livery.  He sits in a high-backed chair. Look how the light shines on both the man’s face and the gilt mace.  It is a great study of character and is a testament to Elwell’s ability in the way he has depicted the demeanour  of the man, who looks old and tired but still proud of his position as the mace bearer.  The frailty of the man, who was eighty-four years old at the time, is brought home by the way Elwell has got him to hold the large ornamental mace with his left hand grasping on to the weighty implement as he holds it against his body.  Elwell remembered the portrait well, stating that to keep the sitter happy he had to ply him with brandy.  Sadly a fortnight after the portrait was completed Monkman died.  Elwell completed an identical portrait in oils thirty years later in 1921.

Canon Fisher and his Wife by Fred Elwell (1905)
Canon Fisher and his Wife by Fred Elwell (1905)

 The final work of portraiture by Fred Elwell is entitled Canon Fisher and his Wife which he completed around 1905 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1929.  Before us we see an intimate dining room scene featuring the Reverend Robert Fisher and his wife Charlotte.  It is thought that painting had been commissioned to mark the retirement of the Canon paid for by his loyal parishioners and was one of Elwell’s first portraiture commissions.  The portrayal oozes warmth and there is an aura of affection and kind-heartedness surrounding the couple.   Robert Fisher sits at the table writing which probably alludes to the fact that he wrote a number of books on subjects such as plants, flowers and Yorkshire villages.  His wife sits by his side and works on her knitting.  The Canon retired from his position at St Mary’s Church in Beverley in 1905.

In my next blog I will be continue with Fred Elwell’s life story and look at more of his paintings.

Most of the information for this blog was gleaned from the excellent book I bought in Harrogate, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster & Malcolm Shields.  It is a beautiful book and well worth buying.

Frederick William Elwell. Part 1. The early days.

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)
Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1933)

When I look back on the four and half years of doing this blog I see my early entries were quite short but appeared nearly three or four times a week.  Nowadays due to other commitments and my being sucked into the life of artists the blogs are longer and often in multiple parts.  My last three blogs looked at the life of the American genre painter, William Sidney Mount and today I start a multiple-part blog on a home-grown nineteenth century English painter Frederick William Elwell, who many of you, like me, may have up to now, been unheard of.  In a way you have to thank my wife for this look at Frederick Elwell as she persuaded me to go with her to Yorkshire for a big three-day cooking event in Harrogate and I managed to slide out of the culinary arena and visit some small local galleries in this beautiful town, where I came across a book on Frederick William Elwell.

Frederick William Elwell was born at St Mary’s Cottage in the small Yorkshire market town of Beverley in on June 29th 1870.  His father, James Edward Elwell, was a well-known and well-established wood carver who played a prominent role in Beverley society.  In 1900 he was a member of the town council and mayor of Beverley. And when he held the position of Chairman of the Library Committee, he organised the first exhibition of paintings in 1910. The exhibition featured a selection of art which the town had loaned from local collectors.  It also included a large selection of works by his son Fred.

Fred Elwell’s schooling began with his attendance at Beverley Grammar School but in 1878 the education establishment had to close temporarily and Fred’s parents had to decide where their son should next be schooled.  The family were already aware that their eight year old son was talented at drawing and his father trained him in draughtsmanship and so his father decided to look for some scholarly opening which would allow Fred to further train in art and maybe later architecture as well as attain an all-round education.   The decision was made to send Fred to Lincoln to live with his two aunts, and by doing so, it would allow him to attend Lincoln Grammar School and at the same time afford him the chance to enrol in evening art classes at the nearby Lincoln School of Art on Lindum Hill.  Fred’s two aunts were a formidable pair of Victorian ladies.  One was the principal of the Lincoln Training College for Women whilst the other acted as its secretary

Still Life with Fish by Fred Elwell (1897)
Still Life with Fish by Fred Elwell (1897)

Elwell proved to be a talented scholar and although his father wanted his son’s career path to head towards architecture Fred was in love with painting.  He was so good that he was awarded the Gibney Scholarship, named after Rev. J.S.Gibney the canon of Lincoln Cathedral who with others founded then Lincoln School of Art in 1863, and this allowed him to continue on with a three year course in art.  In 1887, aged seventeen, Fred Elwell won the Queen’s bronze medal in the National Art School’s competition for his painting, Still Life with Fish.  This painting by the seventeen year old Elwell shows the dawning of a great artist in the way he depicts different textures in the painting, such as the shiny reflective glass bottle in contrast to the dull matt finish of the red lobster.  On the wall in the background he has depicted fading Delft tiles. The head of the codfish, with its mouth open, is well illuminated against a dark background.  Its body is curved and the head turns to the right whilst its tale disappears into the darkness.  The curve of the fish is, in some way, countered by the dried herrings which hang in front of the tiles with their tales curving towards the left, balancing out the body position of the cod.  Elwell has used the old artist’s trick of depicting depth by incorporating the edge of the marble shelf in the foreground of the painting.  This picture is housed in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum.

  The head of the college at the time of Fred Ewell was Alfred George Webster and he was a great admirer of the French Impressionism movement which had come to being in the early 1860s in Paris and it was Webster who taught the Impressionist technique to his students.  This introduction of Impressionist techniques to students, including Ewell, was strongly opposed by the Royal Academy.

In 1889, at the age of nineteen, Fred Ewell left the Lincoln Art College and followed the path of many aspiring painters of the time and, financed by his father, Fred travelled to Belgium where he enrolled at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp which had been founded in 1663 by David Teniers the Younger.  Fred Elwell and a fellow student Claude Rivaz shared a city studio on the Rue des Aveugles.   For many this establishment was considered the most important training academy for those artists who wanted to hone their artistic skills and follow classical Academic training.  Many great artists, such as Van Gogh, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Ford Madox Brown at one time studied at this establishment.  It was here that the students would learn more about the great Masters of art and in fact the Academy itself housed many works by the old Masters.  Fred Elwell’s tutor at the Academy was the landscape and portrait painter, Piet Van Havermaert.  Havermaert pressed his students hard and would not suffer any slackers, once telling his students:

“… Always remember that for the money your father pays to keep you here, he could keep four pigs…”

Havermaert was a hard task master and pushed his students to the limit demanding more and more from them.

The Butler takes a Glass of Port by Fred Elwell (1890)
The Butler takes a Glass of Port by Fred Elwell (1890)

Elwell flourished under this strict teaching regime and during his final year at the Academy produced a genre piece which harked back to the typical type of art that was so popular in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century.  It was entitled The Butler takes a Glass of Port.  The title is a play on words, meaning, on one hand, the partaking of a drink but, on the other hand, meaning “stealing” a drink.  The scene is set in a dining room and we see the butler, emerging from the shadows.  He had just finished serving his master and guests at the dining table and has come to arrange the clearance of the plates.  However he has decided to help himself to a small glass of his Master’s port.  Look at the miscreant.  Look how his face is lit on the side by the candlelight.  This use of light was very popular with the Dutch genre painters of the past and Elwell, even at the young age of twenty, managed to master the art of dramatic lighting.  Look at the butler’s expression of anticipation as he pours himself a drink.  His nose has been given a reddish tinge suggesting that he and alcohol were old friends.  It is amusing to note that the painting’s alternative title, another double-entendre, was All Things come to the Man who Waits !  It was at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp that Elwell began to perfect his skill in portraiture and still life through  the influence of the work of 17th century Dutch and Flemish artists.

This Academy was also a stopping off place for art students who headed for the artistic academies of Paris, a route that Fred Elwell and his friend Claude Riaz, followed in 1892.  The two young artist found themselves some rooms in rue de Campagne Première, on the left-bank, in the city’s 14th arrondissement of Montparnasse.  Elwell was fascinated with the French capital and soon built up a large collection of sketches of all that he saw of Paris life.  Elwell enrolled at the Académie Julian and was fortunate to be tutored by a giant among artists, William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  It was whilst study at the Academy that Fred Elwell started his training in life drawing using living models .  He was never given the opportunity to sketch nude men and women whilst studying at Lincoln, probably because of the presence of the cathedral in the city, the Academy thought life classes were somewhat inappropriate.  Out of this training came one of Elwell’s finest early paintings entitled Dolls or Léonie’s Toilet.

Leonie's Toilet by Fred Elwell (1894)
Leonie’s Toilet by Fred Elwell (1894)

Léonie’s Toilet was completed by Elwell in 1894.   Fred Elwell was introduced to the sitter of this painting, Léonie, by Thomas Warrener who was a friend of his from Lincoln, who, like Elwell, had studied at the Lincoln Art College.  Warrener then attended the Slade School of Art before moving to Paris and the Académie Julian where the two friends met up once again.  Léonie was also a model for some of Warrener’s paintings.   To the left of the painting in the foreground is the washbasin, draped over which is the newspaper famed for its gossip, Gil Blas, which leads us to believe Elwell was interested in the comings and goings in French society.  The periodical often serialised French novels as well as being known for its opinionated arts and theatre criticism.  Another hint of Parisian life in the 1890’s is the two Japanese dolls hanging from the mirror. Japonisme was sweeping through Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century.  It was the term used to describe the influence of Japanese art and fashion on Western culture, and was particularly used to refer to Japanese influence on European Art and Impressionism.  This painting’s original title was Dolls, referring to the dolls seen in the work.  Sibylle Cole in her 1980 book, FREDERICK  W. ELWELL, R.A. 1879-1958.  A Monograph with eight selected prints in colour  describes the skill of Elwell in the way he has painted the naked back of Léonie.  She highlighted the way in which he used a wide range of whites and lovely soft edges where she says “the light leaks into the background”.  There is an interesting story behind this work.  Elwell, like all struggling artists, had to part with his beloved depiction of Léonie, giving it to his landlord as payment for his rent.  Fifty years later the artist James Bateman R.A. was walking down Kings Road in Chelsea when he saw the painting of Léonie in an antiques shop.  He bought it and gave it to the seventy year old painter.   Elwell was delighted to have Léonie back with him !

Young Woman Powdering Herself by Georges Seurat (1890)
Young Woman Powdering Herself by Georges Seurat (1890)

The subject, a girl powdering her face, may have come to Elwell after seeing Georges Seurat’s 1890 work, Young Woman Powdering Herself, a painting depicting Seurat’s secret lover, a working-class woman, Madeleine Knobloch.  The painting was exhibited at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1892, the year Elwell arrived in the French capital.

Man with a Pipe by Paul Cezanne (1892)
Man with a Pipe by Paul Cezanne (1892)

My final offering in today’s blog could well have derived from a Cezanne painting Elwell may have seen, one which was painted by Cezanne in 1892 entitled Man with a Pipe, a depiction of a peasant relaxing, staring out at us with his pipe in his mouth.  

Old Man with a Pipe by Fred Elwell (1898)
Old Man with a Pipe by Fred Elwell (1898)

Fred Elwell completed a work in 1898 which was entitled Old Man with a Pipe and depicts a gardener, with pipe in mouth, which projects towards us.  It is a somewhat cut-off painting with the man’s right fist which grasps the handle of the rake and his left elbow, almost cut out of the lower part of the composition

 In my next blog I will continue with Elwell’s life story and look at some more of his beautiful works of art.

 Most of the information for this blog was gleaned from the excellent book I bought in Harrogate, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster & Malcolm Shields.  It is a beautiful book and well worth buying.