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

Benjamin Sullivan on ‘Connections’

What could a leading portrait painter make from the collection at the Fry Art Gallery? That’s the question raised – and answered – by the new exhibition, Connections, which runs at the Gallery from the 9th September to the 29th October 2017.

Connections is curated by Benjamin Sullivan. Benjamin has established himself as a major figurative painter. He has been elected to the New English Art Club and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and has work in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy and Parliament House, Edinburgh. As artist in residence at All Souls College, Oxford, he completed The All Souls Triptych, which is now installed at the college. He is the winner of the 2017 BP Portrait Award.

Ben Sullivan - Breech! Cropped
Detail from Benjamin Sullivan – Pencil Study for Breech!

For the Fry Art Gallery Blog, Benjamin has given his reflections on his selection of works for the show and on portraiture at the Fry Art Gallery.

“The North West Essex Art Collection, whilst not being known for its connection with portraiture, nevertheless boasts a fair number of figurative works – some familiar, others less so. Taking the term ‘portrait’ in its broadest sense, my selection draws from a wide variety of styles and media to form the basis of this show.

Detail from John Aldridge – Lucie Weaving a Rug

We start with Sir George Clausen’s gentle portrayal of Reverend Court. Stylistically incongruous compared to the rest of the Collection, this sympathetic work nonetheless demonstrates Clausen’s talent as a portraitist – capturing a young, and what we imagine to be, congenial clergyman. As we move into the 20th century, Court’s presence is nicely complemented by Duffy Ayers sensitive portrait of Kitty Wilson and John Aldridge’s penetrating self portrait of 1946. More works by Aldridge are shown on the opposite wall focused around the commanding domestic interior Lucie Weaving a Rug. Demonstrating a pleasingly free use of oils, this centrepiece is both colourful and restrained; we know this England. The same can be said of Charlotte Bawden’s post impressionistic portrayal of Eric Townsend with its stylistic association to the New English Art Club.

Rowntree - Adam with Pram Cropped
Detail from Kenneth Rowntree – Adam with Pram

A quartet of Ravilious lithographs, completed for the War Artists Advisory Committee, sets a different tone. These stylised figures do not attempt to be naturalistic portraits yet exist convincingly in their environments. Ravilious is present elsewhere in the show in the form of Thomas Hennell’s sparse and revealing pen and ink study. Other fine drawings surround Hennell’s work, revealing the depth of draughtsmanship in the collection. Watercolour is present too, with Kenneth Rowntree’s Adam with Pram making a pleasing appearance, being one of my personal favourites from the Fry Art Gallery. This tender depiction of fatherly love set against the ever present signs of war creates a tension which belies its benign execution. The contrast of loose and precise mark making aid this juxtaposition.

Ginny and Edie at the opening of ‘Connections’

A different use of watercolour is evident in John Bellany’s Self Portrait of 1986. This painting, in Bellany’s inimitable way, reaches for some inner truth in the honest portrayal of its subject. Also on display are a number of my own works, mostly drawings, made over the past few years. Chief amongst these is a pencil study for Breech!; a painting of my wife and daughter that won this year’s BP Portrait Award. The painting is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery.”

George Chapman: From Bardfield to the Rhondda – An Interview with Curator Philip Neale

With the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition of works by George Chapman, George Chapman, 1908-1993: From Bardfield to the Rhondda, running from the 2nd of April to the 21st of May 2017, the Fry Blog talked to its curator, Philip Neale, about what visitors can expect to see and the contrasting impacts of rural Essex and the Rhondda valley on Chapman and his art.

Fry Blog: What would you say to someone unfamiliar with Chapman about what to expect in the exhibition?

Philip Neale: George Chapman was an artist who found fame in a limited period of time in the 1950s and 1960s. Before then he had worked in commercial design for various companies including Shell and London Transport. He moved to North West Essex in the 1950s and became part of the thriving artist community in Great Bardfield. His work from this time shows that the other Bardfield artists did influence him, but he struggled to find his ‘own distinctive style’. In 1953, on a journey to South Wales, he discovered the Rhondda valley and the mining communities which lived and worked there. This was his ‘Eureka’ moment, as at last he had found subject matter which interested and inspired him. From then on he visited the Rhondda for sustained periods and painted and etched numerous works. This exhibition includes both paintings and etchings from his South Wales work, for which he is best known, together with some of his earlier graphic designs. There are also many photographs and artist related ephemera on display associated with both George and his second wife Kate, who was also an artist.

Chapman - Looking down hill Cropped
Detail from George Chapman – Looking Downhill

FB: What part do you think North West Essex and Great Bardfield played in Chapman’s life and career?

PN: Chapman was influenced by the other more famous artists in Great Bardfield, including Edward Bawden, Bernard Cheese and John Aldridge. Michael Rothenstein introduced Chapman to etching and his first prints were made under Rothenstein’s guidance in his studio. The first etchings displayed an inventive use of texture and an experimentation in process which fitted well with the environment of decaying buildings and gloomy light Chapman found in the Rhondda valleys.

George also became involved in the famous Great Bardfield ‘Open House’ exhibitions in the 1950s and played a large part in their organisation and promotion. He used these exhibitions to show his Welsh pictures and it was at these occasions that he came to the attention of galleries in Cambridge and London, which then started to exhibit his works.

FB: Chapman said he lost interest in the Rhondda when the sun shone: did he have a miserabilist tendency?

PN: There is no evidence that he had a ‘misrerabilist’ tendency. His colleagues and friends speak very warmly of him and stories demonstrate that he possessed a love of humanity and the environment. He did suffer problems with his hearing from an early age and this made him nervous and detached at times.

The relatively dark and wet environment of the Rhondda valley was very much part of the pictures he painted. The continuous dark and brooding weather created light and dark reflections from such things as the rain washing the wet pavements, and people hurrying to find shelter and keep dry, and these aspects made his pictures even more eloquent and unique. If the sun shone and the weather was bright, his subject matter became less interesting and inspiring to him, as he felt that the harshness of the weather was needed to convey the real spirit of the area.

George Chapman - Evening in Pontyprydd Cropped
Detail From George Chapman – Evening in Pontyprydd

FB: Chapman worked in oils and as a lithographer, as well as being a prolific draftsman: do you think different media meant something different to him?

PN: I believe his use of different media and particularly his experimentation with the etching process grew his confidence as an artist. He often etched his plates outside and used scraping, polishing and burnishing techniques to add texture and tone to his pictures. These different processes allowed him to become more inventive, something he also experienced with the two dimensional space and simplification of forms in his early lithographic work as a graphic designer, in the 1930s. When he discovered the communities of the Rhondda, and the buildings and street scenes he wanted to portray, he found that both oils and etchings satisfied his ability to observe and record the inhabitants and their way of life. Both types of media were able to reflect a mood inspired by the character of the place, and people and places were recorded with much sincerity, and often a lot of humour.

FB: Where do you feel Chapman’s reputation rests now and is the 2017 exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery part of a gathering interest?

PN: Chapman’s work has always been a key part of the Collection in the Fry Art Gallery, which continues to seek out and buy works by him. Sales of his works have remained steady over the years. Putting this exhibition together has made me realise that there are a lot of people out there interested in his work, often seeking out unknown work by him. His reputation obviously rests on the South Wales pictures and he is far more famous in Wales, as evidenced by the wealth of his work in collections and exhibitions held in the Principality. His contribution is not only to the history of British post-war art and culture, but particularly to the history of contemporary art in Wales. His depiction of social history is also important as he was able to portray the South Wales mining communities, in a snapshot of time, which have almost disappeared now. I am sure that the current exhibition will gather and generate more interest in him.

FB: Do you have a favourite work in the display and, if so, which and why?

PN: One of my favourite works in the exhibition is the etching entitled The First Building. This is one of the seven etchings which made up The Rhondda Suite, a portfolio of prints published by the St George’s Gallery in 1960. The Rhondda Suite and particularly The First Building epitomises the themes that were a continual part of Chapman’s work: dark brooding streets, telegraph poles, railway signals, slag heaps in the distance, dark figures walking along the street. There is also a strange little bubble car on the road, looking like a cartoonish space craft, but very characteristic of the time.   The title of the piece refers to the first ‘open air’ gentlemen’s lavatories in the Rhondda valley, and Chapman must be the only artist ever to use public toilets as a subject matter.


Philip went to college in South Wales and subsequently worked in various scientific roles, mainly in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. He has a longstanding interest in Twentieth Century art and design, and has been a volunteer at the Fry Art Gallery since 2000.

George Chapman in the Rhondda

The Fry Art Gallery’s first exhibition for 2017, opening on the 2nd of April and running to the 21st of May, features the work of George Chapman: George Chapman, 1908-1993: From Bardfield to the Rhondda. Chapman moved to Great Bardfield in 1950 with his wife Katy and stayed for ten years. It was only at the end of this time, however, that he found real success as an artist and then in association with a very different place.

On Chapman’s own account, he first went to the coal mining valleys of Wales by accident in the mid-1950s. He was forty seven and had just dropped off a picture for exhibition in Cardiff despite increasing doubts about his future as an artist. To get home in time he needed to take a short cut and that meant an unwanted trip through the industrial villages. However what he found there was a landscape unlike anything he had seen before and which he believed could be the basis for finally establishing him as a painter. Chapman’s instincts weren’t wrong. His 1960 exhibition of Welsh paintings at the Zwemmer gallery, along with the Rhondda Suite of etchings produced by the St George’s Press in the same year, transformed his reputation. In January 1961 the BBC broadcast George Chapman in the Rhondda Valley as part of an edition of Monitor. Though brief, the film gives a fascinating insight into the artist’s thinking and it will be shown alongside the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition; the autobiographical voiceover Chapman recorded is also preserved in a Monitor anthology which was published the following year.

Chapman - Terraced Houses Cropped
Detail from George Chapman – Terraced Houses

Chapman is open and eloquent in talking about what he is trying to do in the Rhondda pictures. What first attracted him to the mining valleys was, he says, the romantic combination of old industrial buildings and dramatic landscape: ‘I don’t suppose everybody feels these valleys are beautiful, but I agree with Constable that time and the weather makes everything beautiful’. However that soon gave way to a feeling that it was the present and the people, intimately connected to their place and past, which really interested him; a humanised landscape where repeated television aerials structure the steep rise of a hill. His aim became to create a ‘visual novel of the mining valleys’, as full and encompassing as William Faulkner’s writing on the American south, ‘describing everything the people are doing’.

In this way, Chapman’s project was not so much about making individual pictures as the stories told by their combination. This was reflected in the way he worked. When he was in the valleys he sketched with concentrated productivity to create twenty or thirty drawings; back in the studio these would be worked up in parallel, with up to a dozen paintings in progress at any one time. Alternatively he might take etching plates and draw on them directly en plein air, combining the results into a ‘suite’ of prints.

In his Monitor recording Chapman is fully aware that the idea of story-telling through art had been deprecated since English formalism first made its attack from Bloomsbury, let alone following the triumph of American Abstract Expressionism, but he is unembarrassed, or perhaps more accurately uninterested, by this: ‘Of course narrative painting is supposed to be out of date and very dangerous ground for an Englishman, but so far as I am concerned it gives me an object and a purpose’.

He is also adamant, however, that despite his realism and his subject matter he is not a political painter. Across the 1950s the socialist critic John Berger, who died in January this year, had attempted to marshal realist artists under a political banner, as one side in a ‘battle for realism’ (in the phrase coined by art historian James Hyman). Chapman explicitly denies that there are any overt political messages within his work, but that’s not to say there might not be some social meaning to be found in the scenes depicted. He saw his job as an artist as to portray reality with veracity and sympathy, ‘to take things as they are’, and if he did his job properly ‘the social comment, if such a thing is needed, will come over by itself’.

Certainly there’s a moral quality in Chapman’s determination to look at and record every aspect of the mining village’s self-sufficient world. The Monitor anthology includes a still of him, sketchbook in hand, eyeing the scene in front of a pebble-dash wall, the oracle of the valleys.


All quotations are from Huw Wheldon, ed., Monitor: An Anthology, London: Macdonald, 1962.