Sheila Fell: A Passion for Paint
Cate Haste (Lund Humphries, 2010)
This book is the first full-length retrospective study of the Cumbrian landscape painter Sheila Fell. Written by Cate Haste, wife of the art critic and novelist Melvyn Bragg, it is a comprehensive overview of the life and work of an artist who has been sadly neglected since her sudden death in 1979, and who remains a fringe figure in post-war English art. This admirable book succeeds in both informing the general reader of her biographical details and demonstrating clearly why Sheila Fell deserved the high reputation that she achieved in her own lifetime.
Fell was born in 1931 in the small Cumbrian town of Aspatria. Between 1948 and 1950 she attended Carlisle College of Art, where she was consistently encouraged to abandon any ideas of becoming a painter and concentrate instead on textile design. Despite this she persevered, and in late 1950 was accepted at the prestigious St. Martin's School of Art in London. Haste uses a telling quotation from an interview with Frank Auerbach, a contemporary of Fell's at St. Martin's.
"(The students) weren't going to take any nonsense from their teachers. And it did give a special atmosphere. There was an urgency and rebelliousness, and a certain sense that one would have to push very hard to get anywhere, a general feeling of not waiting around for somebody to give one status or a career or a chance to work, but a sort of impatient pushing, which Sheila certainly had."
This significant statement, which could equally apply to several English artists of the time, is enlightening in that it accurately describes the post-war world in which many art students moved. These were exciting times. The war had seen a return to realism, with the active encouragement of Sir Kenneth Clarke and his War Artists Advisory Committee. Abstraction could not deliver the necessary patriotic art which the war years demanded and now, post-war, the search was on for individual styles which had contemporary relevance. Although the American Abstract Expressionists were still largely unknown in Europe, young artists in London began to experiment with styles which tried to connect their subject matter with their own inner reality.
The earliest paintings reproduced in this book date from 1952, and show Fell already absorbed with the landscapes of her childhood home. Although she lived and painted in London, she would return to her parents' home both for inspiration and for a break from city life with its emotional complications. She became part of the hard-drinking Soho group of artists, writers and journalists who have now passed into London folklore, but still it was her painting which dominated her life. According to Haste, during this period Fell became involved in several relationships which were to figure largely in her life. Some of these were sexual, and in 1957 she gave birth to a daughter. She kept this a secret from her family for more than a year.
However, one relationship—Fell's friendship with L.S. Lowry— is of particular interest for obvious reasons, and Haste describes it in some detail. In November 1955 Fell had her first solo exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Bruton Place, London. According to Haste, she was the youngest artist ever to have a solo show there, overtaking artists of the calibre of Auerbach, Kossoff and Aitchison. Arriving by taxi, Lowry initially grumbled about the rain and the stairs, but then was so impressed by the work on show that he bought two of the pictures and asked to meet the artist. A meeting was arranged outside Tottenham Court Road Tube station, and a friendship began that only ended with the older artist's death in 1976.
Lowry not only purchased Fell's work, but he also gave her a small allowance of £3 a week for two years. In return Fell introduced him to her parents, and Lowry often spent time staying with them in Aspatria. Fell and Lowry would meet whenever he came to London, and he continued to offer encouragement and support. As an example of his views on his young protégée Haste quotes from a 1968 Lowry television interview, but it is worth noting how she introduces it. She writes:
"At nearly 70, his [Lowry's] enigmatic composed exterior masked a passionate man who responded instinctively to Fell's work: 'The quality is so poetic, it attracts me very much - more than anybody else today. I think she's a very sincere artist.'"
One problem with which Haste fails to convincingly deal is a recurring one in artists' biographies, and one which I have considered in previous reviews: the way the narratives of artists' lives always seem to correspond with archetypes that we instantly recognise. The themes of the outsider, the young unknown genius instantly acknowledged by the older 'master,' the new generation battling against the ignorance and hostility of the existing order, and the bohemian lifestyle are all myths with which we are familiar, and all are present in this account. Such tropes are evoked, not only in Haste's account of Fell's life, but also of her death, suggesting that her problems with alcoholism contributed to her tragic accident: the life of a significant painter sacrificed to self-abuse and tragedy. Fell died in December 1979, just a few days after being interviewed by Hunter Davies for the Sunday Times. Newspapers reported it as accidental, a fall downstairs late at night. The subsequent inquest differed, stating "accidental alcohol poisoning." Haste adds to the pathos of the description when she quotes Patrick Kinmouth, a friend of Fell's daughter Anna who went with her to identify the body. Kinmouth recalled:
"(It was) one of the most tragic things I've ever seen - with its non-finished works and the palette with paint on it and the brushes. One felt this terrible sense of loss of a person and also the loss of these works. When she died, she was really, I think, entering a magnificent phase of her work. So it was particularly brutal."
The point is cleverly made, and it leads neatly into a consideration of Fell's achievements. Here we are on much firmer ground. Besides, as we have noted, being the youngest artist ever to have a one-person show at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Fell held a further four exhibitions there, in addition to solo shows at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal and the prestigious New Grafton Gallery in London. She taught at the Chelsea College of Art and guest lectured at the Royal College of Art. In 1969 she was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy, and this was followed in 1974 by her election as a full RA. At just 43 she was one of the youngest artists ever to be elected. Lowry, for example, received the honour in his seventies.
No matter how interesting or informative the biographical details of an artist's life, it is, of course, their art which endures. This well-illustrated book contains enough of Fell's work to enable the reader to see exactly why she was so highly regarded by her fellow artists, but there are also clues as to why her reputation, while not slipping completely, has not increased. There has never been a major retrospective of her work since her death, and only two small exhibitions: one a tribute organised with Lowry at Abbott Hall in 1981, and a touring show in 1990-91.
Fell settled upon a style of working and choice of subject matter which remained quite constant. Although she did complete a commissioned portrait - that of Nobel Prize chemist Dorothy Hodgkin -her main body of work concerns the landscape of her childhood, the hills, valleys and villages of Cumbria. These are no modern Romantic renderings, however. With clear references to Cézanne in the tonal qualities that she develops, many of the landscapes are hard, forbidding places, where nature is not so much tamed or controlled as tolerated, borne with fortitude. The skies are often dark and threatening, the buildings small yet sturdy, the hills huge and powerful. Few people can be seen, their presence suggested by their dwellings, their absence a comment on human transience. Many of these works are truly beautiful, and one can easily understand why Fell attracted a core group of enthusiastic collectors and why, for those same collectors, she remains an artist whose work resonates with the spirit of the landscape with which she so identified.
The second half of the twentieth century was a period of major artistic experiments and change. American influence was everywhere, culminating in consumer-led Pop Art. Sheila Fell stood outside these modern fashions, developing a settled style which seemed out of step with her younger contemporaries. Just as her artistic mentors Cézanne and Lowry were identified with the particular locations depicted in their work, so she became associated with her own Cumbrian landscapes. Several examples of her work in this book seem to empower the landscape with natural force, Skiddaw, 1964 being one of the best. In this painting, which has similarities to Georgia O'Keefe with its folding hills and ever-darkening tones, we see Fell at her most powerful, comfortable with both subject and style.
Since her death Sheila Fell's work can still be seen in our regional galleries, but she has remained on the edges of critical acclaim. Very recently a world record price of £38,000 was paid for one of her oil landscapes, a clear indication that the market for her pictures has remained fairly constant. This book is a worthy testament to her talent, and will provide an insight into the life and art of this significant English painter to those unfamiliar with her oeuvre.--Paul Flux
The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting 1848-1875
The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting 1848-1875
If ever an excuse were needed for a long weekend in Paris in the spring, this catalogue for the current exhibition on show in that fine city provides one which is almost irresistible. The creative pathways which led to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 are both well-known and well-documented. The scholarship in this field is extensive: the Pre-Raphaelites are acknowledged as the precursors of modern art in this country, while also maintaining a worldwide reputation as a significant movement in their own right. Quite how that reputation is viewed by art-historical circles can be somewhat problematic; it has been suggested, for example, that the Pre-Raphaelites were a very English cultural backwater who rejected all European art after Raphael, while others claim that these English artists laid the foundations for much of modern British art, in addition to their lasting European influence. Interestingly, this excellent exhibition contains examples which could be used to justify both viewpoints. It is thoroughly refreshing to discover a revealing new study which adds considerably to our knowledge and understanding of this movement within the context of the artists' contemporary world, and which sets out to juxtapose two distinct art forms in search of a unifying harmony.
The Pre-Raphaelites and the early Victorian photographers seem at first to make unusual bedfellows. The paintings were painstakingly slow to produce, as the artists attempted to visually record the precise details of the natural world. The photographers, of course, had new technology to deal with, but their end product resulted from a series of choices, each concerned not with the representation of the real world but with its instantaneous recall. However, when the paintings and photographs are viewed together it becomes clear just how much they have in common, and the starting point for this comparison can be found within the principles of their production.
To the Pre-Raphaelites these words of John Ruskin, delivered in an 1853 lecture, were almost their definitive creed. He claimed that the movement had "but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only." For the Brotherhood, and for those like William Morris who followed them, working from nature was a first principle. In practice, this meant long hours meticulously creating natural images which were as close as possible to what their eyes perceived. The Brotherhood also demanded a notional return to a form of painting which they believed to have existed in the time before Raphael. This was an altogether more difficult concept both to explain and justify and, more significantly, to put into practice. Often this meant no more than returning to a fictitious romantic past for subject matter which could be set in a naturalistic environment. Put this way, it is reasonably easy to understand how much the early photographers and the Pre-Raphaelite artists shared in common, in terms of their visual ambitions and artistic practices.
The curators of the exhibition have succeeded in selecting many fascinating images, some familiar, others rarely seen before. Several are linked together, a painted work shown alongside a photographic partner. One such pairing, which follows Jennifer Roberts' catalogue article Sunlight and the Decomposition of Landscape, is particularly striking in that it clearly demonstrates the naturalistic intentions of both artists within the confines of their chosen medium.
The Chapel, Bolton, 1853 was painted by John William Inchbold, an artist firmly under the influence of Ruskin. It shows the ruins of Bolton Abbey, covered with shrubbery and luxuriant growth, painted with a vivid palette which the artist clearly relishes. The shades of green range from the very darkest in the centre to the very lightest in the foreground and sides. As with many Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, the central aim seems to be the portrayal of nature as it really is, rather than a constructed artistic creation. Of course one could argue that any painted landscape is in its creation a construct of the artist's imagination, since he must make choices when translating what he sees and experiences into brushstrokes of colour on a two-dimensional canvas. However, Inchbold's painting does reflect the Pre-Raphaelite intent of displaying an evocative landscape—in this case an English abbey destroyed by the Reformation, a building therefore itself Pre-Raphaelite—in a naturalistic manner.
Shown alongside Inchbold's painting is a photograph of the same building, taken just one year later by the well-known Victorian photographer Roger Fenton. Perhaps most famous for his evocative images of the Crimean War, Fenton was primarily a landscape photographer—subject matter in part dictated by the cumbersome equipment that he used, requiring long exposure time. In 1854, just a year before his expedition to the Crimea, Fenton visited the ruined abbeys of Fountains, Tintern and Bolton, following in the footsteps of romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Tennyson. The works he produced, of which the Bolton Abbey photograph is but a single example, show the old ruins overgrown and deserted. The comparison between Inchbold and Fenton's images highlights striking similarities between the works, although they use different mediums. Taken together, they demonstrate very clearly how much they share in terms of approach to composition. The painter turns to the natural world to clothe the ancient scene in authentic colour, precisely detailing the folds of the foliage, while the photographer captures the falling light and shadow and yet creates an almost identical tonal effect. Here is perhaps their single most significant shared factor, the tonal qualities evoking a sombre scene of decay and rebirth.
It is not just in the treatment of landscapes that the similarities shine through. Victorian photographers are quite rightly known for their portraits, and of course there are several worthy studies of the Pre-Raphaelites and their relationships with the models who posed for their 'historical' pictures. Yet one pair of portraits stands out in this study for both historical and artistic reasons: the 1864 photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron entitled Sadness, and the painting of the same year by George Frederic Watts called Choosing.
The photograph is one of the most beautiful Victorian portraits. A young girl leans against a patterned background, eyes closed, her hair falling behind her, her left hand tightly holding her necklace. Her shoulders are bare, and there are several bracelets on the wrist of her left hand. Just visible on that hand are two rings on the fourth finger - engagement and marriage, presumably. One naturally wonders who she is, and why has Cameron has called the picture Sadness. Thankfully the answers to these questions are relatively easy to find, and they also inform our understanding of the accompanying painting.
The girl, and I use that term deliberately, is the very young Ellen Terry, then aged just 16. At that age she was already an established actress, but in the year that the photograph was taken she married George Watts - considerably older, at 46, and one of the most famous artists of the period. He had many artistic friends, one of whom was Julia Cameron. The marriage was not a success. Terry did not enjoy the position of child bride to the older man, and within a year she was back with her parents. A divorce was not forthcoming until 1877, a situation which caused continuing scandal for the young woman as she bore children and lived openly with their father, Edward Godwin.
The photograph, then, can be read on at least two levels, and both are significant. First, the image is a subtle construction which, like that of Fenton before it, uses the tonal qualities of light and shade to create a powerfully realised image, in which the young girl's expression, body shape and relationship with her surroundings convey an emotional content which has been deliberately suggested by the title. Alternatively, Cameron, as a friend of Watts, would have been only too keenly aware that the marriage was a mistake and that the young bride was deeply unhappy, so the image can also be read as a testament to the female condition, in which unfortunate choices can result in deep unhappiness.
Choosing, the accompanying portrait by Watts, shows Terry at the same age. The title refers to the picture's subject matter: the young girl is shown smelling a beautiful but scentless camellia, while in her hand rests the less showy but fragrant violet. The camellia represents earthly vanities while the violet has nobler virtues; as the title tells us, the girl has to choose between the two. Like the photograph, the painting works on two levels, the purely artistic (the disciple of Ruskin painting directly from nature) and the deeply personal—Ellen Terry had given up the stage for her marriage, choosing this path for herself and her husband. That it would end so sadly, and so quickly, is information that colours our subsequent perspective on the painting.
There are several more examples of photographs and paintings which both complement and inform one another, a good example being the pairing of the 1865 John Parsons print Jane Morris and the well-known Rossetti painting of the same model in The Blue Silk Dress, 1868. Yet at the heart of this book and its multitude of fascinating images lies the enduring enigma of the Pre-Raphaelite movement itself. One the one hand we see the photographers of the age experimenting with their new technology and searching for meaning and continuity within the confines of their new art form, while their brother artists, or at least some of them, were deliberately rejecting the present in favour of their own constructed view of the past. While the end results present striking similarities, this dichotomy remains frustratingly unresolved.
Ultimately, the book graphically captures the age-old dilemma of the contemporary visual artist. To merely repeat the art of the past is to ignore the challenges and demands of the present day, but to completely reject what has gone before demands an arrogance and confidence that few artists can command. Thus, compromises are made: artists borrow from the past while adding their own new contemporary perspectives. Advocates of the Pre-Raphaelite movement face the burden of justifying the almost arbitrary benchmark of Raphael as the point beyond which European art deteriorated, while also arguing that these artists were engaged and successful in producing art relevant to their own age and to the artistic culture of which they were a part. While this book and the exhibition that it describes are genuinely fascinating, full of images which reward long study, they fail to answer the fundamental question of whether the Pre-Raphaelites were, in the words of one American reviewer, "a funny little cul-de-sac in the history of modernism," or a genuinely significant movement within art-historical chronology.--Paul Flux
This new book, published by the Tate to coincide with a major exhibition opening at the Imperial War museum on April 9th and running until January 2012, is a fascinating study of a subject which has received little critical attention until now. Artists have always recorded their impressions of man's inhumanity to man, but in this country we usually associate such works with male artists; Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Henry Moore are popular and influential examples. Since the 1970's the subject of feminism within the history of European art has been a lively and much debated issue. Therefore this book is a timely reminder that war and its deadly effects were never just the domain of male artists. The female perspective is equally valid, and in some ways more interesting, since access and acceptance were much more problematic for women artists during periods of armed conflict.
The format of the book is chronological, beginning with the First World War and concluding with contemporary images from the Afghanistan conflict. Beginning in 1916, artists were commissioned to produce art, mainly for propaganda purposes but with also the desired side effect of keeping the most talented artists away from the front line. Thus of the fifty or so artists who received commissions, only four were women, and three had their work rejected while the fourth refused the offer. In spite of no official backing, and excluded from the male experience of horrific trench warfare, women produced work in this period that is not only interesting historically, but also provides strong evidence that female artists were more than capable of accurately recording their personal experience of the conflict.
Olive Mudie-Cooke was one such artist. Working behind the front line as an ambulance driver, she produced a visual record of her experience which neither over-dramatises nor trivialises its subject. One picture, In an Ambulance: VAD Lighting a Cigarette for a Patient (1917-1919), is an admirable work of quiet dignity. The simple act of lighting a cigarette for a wounded soldier is frozen, the bright light of the match exposing the hands of the soldier and the nurse, almost touching in the darkness. Unlike the great art of, say, Paul Nash, such as We are Making a New World, this work reminds us that much of the war experience of both men and women was mundane, and that such subjects are just as relevant as the monumental and universal themes often present in the works of better-known male artists of this period.
Moving on to the Second World War, the role of women changed, and the book thus explores a far wider range of art and artists. Of the female artists included here, Dame Laura Knight is not only the most distinguished (she was the first woman since 1768 to become a full RA), but three of her works demonstrate the issues which challenged not just female artists, but all who received commissions for 'official' war art from the WAAC. In 1943 she produced one of the most iconic images of the war, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring. Loftus was a factory machinist at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport. She had been nominated for the portrait as an example of a young woman who had succeeded within a male dominated environment, having mastered the highly skilled task of making the breech ring for the Bofors gun, an occupation usually only given to workers with eight or nine years' experience. Knight has portrayed the young woman in a highly romanticised manner, showing her concentrating on her difficult work on the machine. The painting's style owes much to Soviet art of the 1920s and was an immediate propaganda success, turning Ruby into something of a celebrity. Yet there are issues which remain unresolved, the most obvious being the accuracy of the portrayal. The propagandistic intent seems to overwhelm the image. The girl is neat and tidy, her hands clean despite what would have been a dirty work environment. In the background are other female workers, all equally busy with their machinery, and all similarly clean and tidy. As Kathleen Palmer writes in the book, "Knight excels in presenting Loftus as an exceptional and glamorous role model, but the painting does not reflect the gritty reality of women's war work."
However, just a few years later, the same artist produced the powerful and evocative The Nuremberg Trial (1946), a very different kind of picture. Commissioned to record the trial of German war criminals—part show trial and part political justification of the democratic process over fascist excess—the end result is one of Knight's most important pictures. The figures are arranged in ranks seen from the side, the white-helmeted guards at the back, then the two sets of defendants with sheaves of paper and headphones, then a line of lawyers, and finally, in the first row, another group of lawyers, who dissolve into the bomb-damaged and burning city of Nuremberg. Thus the foreground is a study of the men responsible for crimes which we still struggle to comprehend, some interested in the whole process, some obviously contemptuous of it, while the background shows the city burning, with destroyed buildings smouldering at the edges of the court scene. In a letter to the WAAC explaining the picture's composition Laura Knight wrote:
"In that ruined city death and destruction are ever present. They had to come into the picture, without them it would not be the Nuremberg as it now is during the trial, when the death of millions and utter devastation are the sole topic of conversation..."
Equally powerful, and painted around the same time, is Human Laundry, Belsen by the Scottish artist Doris Zinkeisen. The discovery of the extermination camps was a traumatic event which deeply affected those concerned. Responses included horror, anger, pity, and deep sadness that man was capable of such activity. How to cope with the reality of such inhumanity is a theme which dominates the art and literature of the Holocaust: the victims, perpetrators and later witnesses have all struggled to adequately deal with both the 'ordinariness' of the camp organisation and the savage reality of mass murder. This admirable painting not only records an historical event, the washing of emaciated survivors before they were sent to hospital for treatment, but it also captures precisely that conflict between the ordinary and extraordinary. The setting is an old stable containing high tables on which lie the figures of the surviving prisoners, incredibly thin, obviously close to death, while the nurses are, in contrast, in good health and going about their work with care. Here lies the dichotomy: the seemingly quotidian portrayal of an event which was the result of human activity beyond explanation or understanding. This painting must rank as one of the most moving works of art produced at this time.
The book contains several examples of work which has rarely been seen in public before. One striking example, by Priscilla Thorneycroft, is a painting which was not completed until 1955, but which recalls an incident that the artist witnessed early in the war: Runaway Horse in an Air Raid Alarm 1939. Set in a barren urban landscape, devoid of human activity, a horse is shown impaled on broken and twisted railings, suggesting that the animal had bolted in fear of the air-raid sirens. A bright red stream flows from the horse's neck, while the head is raised in both terror and pain. There is more than a suggestion of Picasso's Guernica in the figure of the dying horse, but it is no less powerful for that. The death of an innocent animal, frightened by a terrifying noise that it does not understand and suffering an unkind and unnecessary death, becomes a metaphor for all the human suffering that the war unleashed.
During the Second World War female artists were very much the minority when the WAAC were handing out commissions. However, when the Falklands conflict began it was a woman, Linda Kitson, who was offered the opportunity to travel with the troops and record their experiences. Originally meant to disembark at Ascension Island, Kitson accompanied the troops to the Falklands and her simple line drawings have an immediacy suggestive of frozen moments in time. The two examples of work here, produced on the 16th and 17th of June 1982 at Fitzroy in the Falklands, respectively show tired soldiers at rest, and the burning wreck of Sir Galahad, a troop ship which had been bombed with the loss of forty-eight Welsh Guards. This second image is particularly striking, since it shows the burning ship prior being towed out to sea and sunk as a war grave. The drawing has a simple honesty which is in keeping with the subject and its purpose as both record and memorial of a tragic event.
The place of the female artist within the conventions of the art world is constantly being revised and updated. From the time of Artemisia Gentileschi up until today, commentators have been genuinely surprised that women can compete with men in producing serious and innovative art. This book convincingly demonstrates the obvious point that not only are female artists more than capable of standing alongside their male counterparts when it comes to war art, but also offers the less obvious insight that female artists can often access perspectives seemingly closed off to men.
Warfare and its accompanying human dilemmas has an artistic history as long at the medium itself. However, until comparatively recent times this has been viewed as the domain of the male artist, the feminine voice supposedly either completely absent, or primarily concerned with the effect of war on home life. This study proves that perception wrong, showing that women artists in the last hundred years have confronted the often terrible realities that they have witnessed and then, like all good artists, turned their personal experiences into something universal, communicated directly to the viewer. Although intended as an introduction to the subject of women and war art, the book is more than that. It is full of moving and communicative works which transcend gender and are deserving of our attention in their own right.--Paul Flux