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Andrew Jenkins on ‘The Many Sides of Isabel Rawsthorne’

Ahead of the Fry Art Gallery’s re-opening on the 8th of May, Andrew Jenkins, who has curated the new exhibition, The Many Sides of Isabel Rawsthorne: the story of a local and international artist talked to Michael Clegg of the Fry Art Gallery blog.

MC: Andrew, not everyone will be familiar with Isabel Rawsthorne, could you introduce her to us?

Isabel Rawsthorne, Study of a Ballet Dancer © The estate of Warwick Llewelyn Nicholas

AJ: I think if people know Isabel at all, it’s more likely to be as a subject of painting and sculpture, or maybe as part of a bohemian milieu, than as an artist in her own right.  People don’t always know that Isabel Rawsthorne and Isabel Lambert are one and the same person, either – it was a peril for a woman artist who changed her name on marriage!

She’d been born in 1912, and her father’s work in shipping led to something of an itinerant childhood until the family finally ended up in Liverpool.  That was where Isabel first went to art school. Then at the beginning of the 1930s she moved to London, studying at the Royal Academy, while by the middle of the decade she was in Europe, in particular spending time in Paris.

It was during this time in London and Paris that she began her friendship with some of the biggest names in art at the time.  It’s a quite remarkable list: Picasso, Giacometti, Jacob Epstein, and then Francis Bacon a little later when she was back in London.  She fully inhabited this sophisticated world, and it was through these friendships that she became a subject for works by some of these big artistic names.  The relationships could be quite complex.  She had a son with Epstein and Bacon reported that she was the only woman he ever spent the night with – make of that what you will!

Isabel Rawsthorne, Design for Madame Chrysanthème © The estate of Warwick Llewelyn Nicholas

MC: What about the works in the exhibition?  How do they fit in to Isabel’s life?

AJ: After the War, Isabel was firmly established as a bonne vivante on the London scene.  She married her second husband, Constant Lambert, who was founding music director at the Royal Ballet, and with the help of his connections Isabel got commissions for costume design both for ballet and opera.  Probably the most notable commission was for Strauss’s Elektra in 1953, a production which was revived repeatedly over the next thirty years.

In many ways, the centrepiece of the show is thirteen costume designs, which make up the full set for Elektra.  Each is effectively a mini portrait with fabric swatches attached, but we’ve hung them together in a block, so they’re almost like a single work.  That said, it’s work picking out one which is signed by the young Joan Sutherland, who was part of the company. 

Isabel Rawsthorne, Alan and Barbara Rawsthorne © courtesy of the Warwick Nicholas Estate. Donated in memory of Warwick Llewelyn Nicholas.

When she was in London, Isabel would visit the National Gallery.  Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait particularly inspired her and she became almost obsessed with the notion of a double portrait.  There’s a sketch for an autobiography that she began to write and it traces her thinking about the whole idea.  There are four double portraits in exhibition, all donated by her estate.  Three are of her third husband, Alan Rawsthorne and Alan’s sister Barbara; the last is of Alan and his friend the actor, Bernard Miles.

There’s often a glass in these pictures.  I think there was a lot of drinking and a lot of laughter Isabel’s life.  In photographs she’s always in a bar, with a smile; she loved being the centre of attention.

MC: In the show’s sub-title you talk about Isabel as ‘a local and international artist’.  We’ve heard something about the international side, how does the local fit in?  What was her connection to Essex?

In many ways she led a strangely humble life.  She was quite prolific as an artist and had a lot of early success but from the mid-1960s she lived in Little Sampford and remained there for the final near-thirty years of her life.  It wasn’t necessarily something you would have expected for someone with her connections and lifestyle, though one of the attractions was that she could still get up to London quite easily.

This put her just down the road from Great Bardfield but she was completely separated from the artists who still lived there.  They just inhabited different circles.

MC: Is there something that makes an Isabel Rawsthorne show particularly relevant now?

AJ: Well, of course it shouldn’t have been now, it should have been last year or the year before!

MC: That was a delay because of the pandemic?

AJ: Yes, that’s right, but then this turns out to be the thirtieth anniversary of her death; so there’s actually an excellent reason to consider her work this year.

Interest in Isabel’s life has been growing in a number of places.  Carol Jacobi’s book was published last year [Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawsthorne, published by Thames and Hudson] while the estate of Isabel’s brother, Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas, has donated works to a range of collections, from the Fry to Tate.  There’s a small joint exhibition of Rawsthorne and Giacometti that’s being held at Tate Britain at the moment, but the Fry’s is probably the largest show of her work this year.  It marks the accession to the Gallery of a number of works which will be a part of the Fry’s collection into the future.

MC: Will regular visitors to the Fry see any familiar works?  Should they expect any surprises?

AJ: Regular visitors will recognise one or two pieces.  There are two studies of ballet dancers which were among the earliest pieces in the Fry collection, with accession numbers to match!  These were given by Isobel herself who visited the Gallery and was friends with Iris and Nigel Weaver.  They come from a period when she would sit in a corner of the Royal Ballet rehearsal room and sketch.  All her work is very much about movement.

Isabel Rawsthorne, Designs for Tiresias © The estate of Warwick Llewelyn Nicholas

Isabel’s stage designs for Constant Lambert’s Tiresias are something that’s been shown in the Gallery many times before too, but everything else is new, so there’s a lot of fresh things for people to see.

On a first viewing the oils can be a little difficult.  I find a way into the pictures is just to see them as expressions of Isobel’s life: late nights with friends, talking and drinking.  I can’t help but see Francis Bacon there, in the way they’re painted, but the big question is who was influencing whom?

MC: Were there any particular challenges in putting the exhibition together?

AJ: Well, it took eighteen months, though some of that was down to the pandemic!

We had to do quite a bit of negotiation with the lenders, including the Royal Opera House for the Elektra designs.  Those all had to be framed, for which we’re grateful for funding from the Garfield Weston Trust and the Art Fund.  The double portraits had to be framed and restored too, and again we were lucky enough to get support for that, from the Association of Independent Museums and the Pilgrim Trust – and that’s an investment for the long term as these are now part of the collection.  Transport and insurance added to costs!

But I’m delighted with the way things have worked out.  I feel we’ve been able to give the oil paintings space, which was important to me.  I didn’t want to crowd them.  And then the whole thing is such an effective counterpoint to Regeneration the exhibition next door in the main gallery.

Given that Isabel is going to be unknown to a lot of visitors, I wanted to set things out as a bit of a story, and I hope we’ve succeeded in that.  There’s a chronology on the wall which will help people orient the pictures to her life.

MC: Not to give too much away, but I understand there’s going to be a Giacometti portrait head of Isabel in the exhibition.  What part is that playing in the exhibition?

AJ: That’s right.  It’s a loan from the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich and, really, when else would we have an opportunity to have a Giacometti at the Fry!  The exhibition is all about re-establishing Isabel’s own place as an artist, but at the same time that doesn’t mean we can forget her biography and her astonishing artistic connections.  The Giacometti is a way to just bring that home.

The Many Sides of Isabel Rawsthorne: the story of a local and international artist

8th May – 30th October 2022.

Opening times: Tuesdays to Fridays, Sundays and bank holidays 2 – 5, Saturdays 11 – 5.

Supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund and sponsored by Shirley Parish in memory of Dorothy Staples.

Isabel Rawsthorne, Svetlana Beriosova, study of ballet dancer © The estate of Warwick Llewelyn Nicholas

Robert Erskine: The Quiet Revolutionary of Prints

The current exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery Too, Lithographic Fever (to 31st October 2021), features several works published by St George’s Gallery Prints.  This was a small firm owned by Robert Erskine or, to use his rightful title, the Honourable Robert Erskine.  Nor are lithographs the only publications by St George’s Gallery Prints in the Fry’s collection, others include the etchings of George Chapman’s Rhondda Suite and Michael Rothenstein’s linocuts of sailing boats.

Robert Erskine in St George’s Gallery Prints, from the Studio, May 1962

Robert Erskine himself has been credited with a revival in British printmaking, taking it out of the shabby 1950s and setting it on the road for the Pop Art boom of the 1960s.  Matching this reputation, there’s a picture of him taken in the St George’s Gallery Prints shop, for a 1962 profile in the Studio magazine, in which he looks every inch the beat impresario, from his trimmed beard to his pointed shoes.  So who was Erskine and what’s a fair assessment of his achievement?

Erskine opened St George’s Gallery Prints in 1954.  His shop was a tiny space, tucked at the back of an art bookshop in Cork Street.  But though small, it was significant – the only dedicated print retailer to have opened in the West End of London since the war.

Starting the gallery was Erskine’s first professional project.  He had only just graduated from Cambridge, where he had studied archaeology.  Before Cambridge, his school days had been spent at Eton, a reflection of his aristocratic background.  Indeed, he claimed descent from Scottish kings as well as the Hervey family, owners of Ickworth House in Suffolk.  As far as St George’s Gallery Prints was concerned, such family circumstances were more than just coincidental.  It was Erskine’s private income that allowed the firm to ride out a financial situation that was never less than challenging.

However, it was Robert Erskine’s energy – as much as his money – that was plentiful.  He was soon publishing as well as retailing prints and he introduced the idea of the ‘suite’, a set of prints on a particular subject and in a particular medium (the concept borrowed from Picasso’s etchings for the dealer Ambroise Vollard).  His roster of printmakers quickly included some of the leading names in British art, such as John Piper, Joseph Herman, Ceri Richards and Julian Trevelyan.  Two years after opening the gallery – and to encourage people to see prints as original works rather than reproductions – he commissioned a film, Artist’s Proof, in which six artists each demonstrated the creation of a picture using a different print technique.  The film was shown alongside the main feature at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, though sadly it is now unavailable in the UK.

Erskine also played a key role in the formation of the Curwen Studio, as a facility dedicated to artists’ lithography, though he had no formal role there.  In particular, he lured Stanley Jones from Paris to act as the Studio’s director.

Anthony Harrison signing prints during filming of Artist’s Proof, the director, John Gibbon is holding Harrison’s head out of the camera’s view, the Times Educational Supplement, 12th April 1957

Yet Erskine’s exit from the world of prints was as rapid as his entry.  His real passion always seems to have been for prehistoric civilisations, and when an opportunity arose to combine that with the glamour of television then his interests shifted.  From late 1962, he was introducing a slot called Collector’s Piece on ITV, though his career in front of the cameras never really took off.

In its later years, the main focus of activity for St George’s Gallery Prints was a large annual show held in an external venue and each time under the title the Graven Image.  The last of these was held in 1963, after which Erskine sold his remaining stock to the new publisher Editions Alecto where he became, in his own words, a ‘very sleepy director’. 

There was one last twist to Erskine’s influence on British art, though.  Student prizes were offered at the Graven Image exhibitions in the early 1960s and one winner was an RCA student named David Hockney.  The prize money paid for Hockney’s first trip to America and started the infatuation with that country so evident in the pictures that made him famous.

Contemporary critics were quick to praise Erskine as a ‘tireless champion of printmaking’, in the words of a 1957 article in the Times, or even as the leader of a ‘Quiet Revolution’ in prints’ popularity, according the to the title of a 1962 piece in the Tatler.  Not everything about St George’s Gallery Prints emphasised the new, however.  The choice of artists, in particular, tended to look back to a generation that had established its reputation during or just after the war.  Erskine’s insistence on high standards of production, on the other hand, was a marked change, banishing the grubby margins and poor paper that had marked some post-war production.

Michael Ayrton, Goat Carrier, Crete, 1958, lithograph, published by St George’s Gallery Prints

Perhaps Erskine’s most ambiguous legacy was in relation to prints’ reputation as an affordable art form, an art for the people.  When this idea offered a potential for sales, he praised prints as the ‘democratic media of art’ and expressed a desire to reach the ‘Mums and Dads of Pinner and Wigan’.  But on other occasions he complained that low prices meant prints were underappreciated and condemned the search for ‘a wider and more plebeian market’.  Perhaps his least impressive moment was offering tips on prints as an investment in the Daily Mail in 1964, after St George’s Gallery Prints had shut but when he was still a director at Editions Alecto.

However, such a lapse in judgement can’t detract from Erskine’s achievement during his brief moment at the centre of British printmaking.  St George’s Gallery Prints wasn’t simply a stepping stone towards the art world of the 1960s, as it has sometimes been subsequently seen.  Rather it published a substantive body of prints in its own right.  One from which the collection at the Fry Art Gallery benefits enormously.

Ceramics by Charlotte Epton (later Charlotte Bawden)

To mark the Fry Art Gallery’s acquisition of a jug by Charlotte Epton, we are publishing a blog post from Helen Brown. Helen is an independent curator and expert on British studio pottery who has been researching Charlotte Epton’s work as a potter.


I was thrilled to hear that the Fry had acquired a jug by Charlotte Epton. I enjoyed doing some research on her work as a potter for an essay in 2019[i]. Charlotte was to marry Edward Bawden but before her marriage became an accomplished potter training with Bernard Leach at St. Ives. Although she did not set up a studio she continued to be involved with pottery in some form for much of her life.

She was born in 1902, brought up in Lincoln and went to the Royal College of Art where she studied Design (including pottery) before becoming an art teacher at Cheltenham Ladies College in 1925. Working at Winchcombe, eight miles away, was the potter Michael Cardew. The two became good friends and possibly influenced by him she left the College in summer 1929 to become a student at Bernard Leach’s pottery at St Ives. She works as Leach’s secretary being allowed to do her own work in her free time.

3243
Jug made by Charlotte Epton at St. Ives, 1929-31, earthenware with incised decoration through slip

This jug comes from her time at the Leach Pottery and it is an exciting find. Although examples of her work in stoneware and porcelain are known this is the first piece of slipware that can definitely be attributed to her time at St Ives. It is impressed with her mark and that of the Leach Pottery. Its rounded forms, incised design showing the brown clay through a yellow/brown slip covered surface, and coiled handle reveal the influence of her friendship with Michael Cardew. Cardew was inspired by earthenware jugs in the North Devon tradition of which these features are typical.

At the end of her time at St Ives in 1931 she showed with The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society at the Royal Academy. Here she exhibited nine pots, in slipware, stoneware and porcelain, including the skilfully made lidded tea caddies and powder bowls with subtle glazes and minimal decoration of which examples survive. It is tempting to speculate that the Fry’s jug may have been the slipware jug recorded for sale for 4/- in the exhibition. The exhibition was successful for her with one of the tea caddies bought by the V&A[ii] and two other pots bought by the Contemporary Arts Society’s new craft scheme and given to museums in Exeter and Leicester. Despite this Charlotte was discouraged from continuing at St.Ives, distressed after some of her work was destroyed following a fire at the pottery.

CE - Marbled Paper
Marbled paper by Charlotte Bawden, 1932-33

She began working at the influential Little Gallery, set up in London by Muriel Rose to promote contemporary craft, continuing for a while after her marriage to Edward Bawden in 1932 when she went to live at Great Bardfield. During this time she also pursues other artistic interests, forming a short-lived creative partnership with Tirzah Garwood (1932-33) to make marbled papers, sold by the Little Gallery and commercially printed by the Curwen Press for use in bookbinding and lampshade making. She also continues her painting with her fine portrait of Eric Sawbridge  in the Fry’s collection painted in 1931. Her children Joanna and Richard are born in 1935 and 1936 and in the subsequent decade the Second World War disrupts the family’s life. In 1940 Edward becomes a war artist and Charlotte returns to Cheltenham to teach art at the girl’s Grammar School remaining until 1946. She has little time for pottery although helps Michael Cardew at Winchcombe with his last firings there in 1942.

Eric Sawbridge
Eric Sawbridge by Charlotte Bawden, 1932 Oil on canvas

In the early 1950s Charlotte becomes involved in making pottery more seriously again with Joanna Constantinidis who was teaching at nearby Chelmsford School of Art. It seems likely that Charlotte used the wheels and kilns there as Joanna herself did for her own work. She gives occasional pottery lessons at a local school and is an examiner in pottery for the training colleges in the Cambridge area. A group of her pots from this time exists showing her working in a looser style with bolder decoration. Later she becomes more Involved with her magistrate work, school governorships, and particularly with founding of the Women’s Institute’s Denman College in Oxfordshire. Here she uses her knowledge of the art and craft world to widen the college’s cultural programme, as well as organising pottery courses with the pottery workshop at the College named after her. She dies relatively young, aged 67 in 1970.

B_28 copy 2 (2)
Charlotte at the wheel – date unknown (private collection, reproduced with permission)

I am still finding more about Charlotte, not least details of her first exhibiting at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum where I used to work. Please do add a comment below if you know of any pots by her or have further information.

© Helen Brown


[i] Charlotte Epton, potter, artist and teacher, essay in Cardew’s Craft Circle, essays on Cotswolds Art and Crafts on the 1920s and 1930s, Winchcombe Archive Collection, 2019

[ii] See http://collections.vam.ac.uk/search/?q=Charlotte%20Epton&page=1

Walter Hoyle: a versatile artist

The Fry Art Gallery’s retrospective of work by Walter Hoyle, Walter Hoyle: a versatile artist has been extended into the autumn of 2020 [the exhibition closed in November 2020 due to national COVID-19 restrictions].  The show is a rare chance to appreciate the full achievement of an artist who was central to the Great Bardfield scene during its 1950s heyday, became an influential teacher in Cambridge and, as a committed Francophile, spent an increasing amount of time in Dieppe.

Walter Hoyle, Cemetery at Enna, Sicily, 1951, watercolour

Hoyle - Enna

Many themes ran throughout Hoyle’s career, including a love of watercolour and of linocut, but the exhibition falls naturally into a chronological sequence.  After examples of his early works, created at the time when Hoyle’s studies at the RCA were interrupted by National Service, come a set of watercolours from a painting trip to Sicily that he made with Edward Bawden, formerly one of his RCA tutors, in 1951.

Continue reading “Walter Hoyle: a versatile artist”

Mr and Mrs Ravilious

The story of the artist who sacrifices her own career to support a more famous husband is clichéd, but all too often accurate. There’s something in the clear-eyed take on domestic life in Tirzah Garwood’s early prints, however, that suggests her marriage to Eric Ravilious would offer something richer and more complicated. The Fry Art Gallery’s 2019 exhibition, Mr and Mrs Ravilious, is the first time significant work from across the lives of both Tirzah and Eric has been used to map their artistic life together, and to suggest how we might think about each artist in relation to the other. (Mr and Mrs Ravilious is at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, from 7th April to 27th October 2019, accompanied by a changing series of smaller exhibitions in the Gibson Room.)

Continue reading “Mr and Mrs Ravilious”

Edward Bawden: from lino to litho

This is the fifth and final post in a series coinciding with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018. Each of the posts looks at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.

The prints in Edward Bawden’s series ‘Six London Markets’, which date from 1967, are some of his best known and most popular. There’s a set held at Tate, and I once saw a copy of ‘Covent Garden: Foreign Fruit Market’ on the wall of a Minister (admittedly rather a junior Minister) in the House of Lords.

Covent Garden
Edward Bawden, ‘Covent Garden: Foreign Fruit Market’

Another of the prints, ‘Borough Market’, is currently on show in the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life. It’s a beautiful treatment of enfolded spaces: the canopy of an invitingly lit fruit and veg store juts under the powerful brick and iron of a railway bridge, with both overlooked by the tower of Southwark Cathedral. And, of course, the blocky shapes and flat patches of colour give away that this is one of Bawden’s celebrated linocuts. Except that it isn’t, it’s a lithograph, or at least it’s a ‘lithograph after linocut’. What’s going on? Continue reading “Edward Bawden: from lino to litho”

Edward Bawden’s Late Watercolours

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018.  Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.

Early in his career, in the 1930s, Edward Bawden produced a significant body of work in watercolour. Along with Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious, he introduced a new, modern style of clean lines and precise brush strokes which banished the prevalent tendency for watery atmospheric effects. The story of these early paintings was recently told in the Mainstone Press’s The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden. The pictures were ‘lost’ in the sense that they were dispersed in private collections, as well as being cast into shadow by Bawden’s later reputation as a printmaker and illustrator. Continue reading “Edward Bawden’s Late Watercolours”

Edward Bawden on Television

This is the third in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018.  Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.

For a notoriously private man, Edward Bawden doesn’t seem to have minded being in front of a television camera.

In his book Under Moonlight, Silas Clifford-Smith describes the unlikely pairing of the taciturn Bawden with a young and garrulous Alan Whicker, when Whicker was conducting interviews for a BBC story on the Great Bardfield artists. The piece was broadcast ahead of the 1958 ‘open house’ exhibition, the fourth and final time that the professional artists in the village organised a group show based around their homes. Continue reading “Edward Bawden on Television”

Edward Bawden’s Visitors

This is the second in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018.  Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.

It could be a crush in Brick House when Edward Bawden invited in the public. During the first of the Great Bardfield ‘Open House’ exhibitions in 1951, he wrote to his son Richard of how when ‘a school arrives or a party of WI people I nearly get pushed out of the house by the crush of bosoms’. He continued, ‘The last person to sign the book came from Madrid and others from [the] Falkland Islands, Denmark, France, Malaya and Canada’. The ‘book’, here, was a visitors’ book which Bawden kept during the Bardfield exhibitions, and which now forms part of the Bawden Estate.

As a document of the exhibitions, the visitors’ book is both evocative and revealing. Inside its maroon covers are rows of names in neat, if sometimes challenging, handwriting, interspersed with the occasional inky splodge. At the start, Bawden has diligently written in headings for date, name and address, but it was a habit he later dropped, to the detriment of neatness. Continue reading “Edward Bawden’s Visitors”

Edward Bawden at the Tate

This is the first in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018.  Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.

There is no evidence as to why Edward Bawden was appointed as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in 1951. His work in the preparations for the Festival of Britain, alongside, perhaps, a certain down-to-earth reputation, seem to have commended him to someone in Government. At all events, the Tate’s constitution required that four of its Trustees were practising artists and, with the Camden Town painter Henry Lamb retiring, the invitation to Bawden was made. As a result, he served until 1958, his tenure coinciding with those of figures such as Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, John Piper and William Coldstream.

Continue reading “Edward Bawden at the Tate”