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