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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.