Friday 17 November 2023

Joy, Whose Hand is Ever at His Lips, Bidding Adieu

 I am very much aware that we are around a fortnight away from Blogvent this year and I would like to fill December with more little-known lady artists, as is my wont.  However, in the meantime, here is just such a lass who I am at a bit of a loss to work out why she is not better known. Her paintings are visually exciting and modern, as well as traditionally beautiful and just a little bit utterly bonkers. She seems to have worked hard and been very popular and yet if you look under Art UK, the listing for oil paintings in public hands in the UK, there is only this one, possibly purchased from the War Relief Exhibition where it was exhibited in 1915... 

A Bunch of Flowers (1915)

…and as you will see, it’s not exactly her most exciting work, lovely though it is. So, why have we forgotten Isobel Lilian Gloag? 

Woman in Green (also known as 1860) (c.1909-16)

The fact that she had two major pieces written about her in 1902 and 1916, in The Magazine of Art and The International Studio, makes it both easier to talk about her but also puzzling as to why she has seemingly vanished.  Starting with the 1902 piece, penned by the artist and art critic James Greig (1861-1941), the piece ‘Isobel Lilian Gloag and Her Work’ was an overview of her life up to 1902 and her work.  It is also funny and inaccurate; however I am very grateful to Mr Greig for it.  I will be working in conjunction with him for Isobel’s backstory.  She was born in Kensington on 1st August 1865.  Greig writes that her parents hailed from Perthshire ‘the most picturesque county in the land of mountain and flood.’ Her father, Henry Dundas Gloag (1830-1908) was actually born in India and her mother Isobel Ogilvie Jackson (1844-1921) came from Australia, but I’m guessing their families originated from the land of Haggis and Nessie before they cleared off to the colonies. Isobel was the eldest of four children, followed by Henry Junior (1867-1929), Mary (1868-1953) and Wilfred (1873-1954). Henry Senior was a captain in the Royal Madras Artillery, and so in Isobel’s first census in 1871, she and her mother, Henry junior and Mary are staying at St Mary’s Terrace, Park Cottages in Paddington.  Henry Senior retired somewhen that decade because by 1881 the family are in their new, rather swanky home of Gloucester Terrace, along with their 2 servants, doing very nicely thank you. 

In the Garden (c.1909-16)

Greig helps out with a bit of narrative here: apparently Isobel wasn’t one of those artists who was drawing from an early age – ‘Not being born with a pencil in her hand [may I add, I bet her mother was relieved] she never defaced the nursery walls.’ Apologies for my interjection, but I winced at that.  I must also add that my daughter Lily merrily redecorated her bedroom door when she was given her first pack of felt tip pens. We wondered why she was so quiet. I digress. It was only when looking at the options for women that Isobel decided that being the artist was the best of a bad lot, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Miss Gloag did not do things by half and was determined to go to the RA School as she was very sensibly aware that attendance there would give her advantages.  She enrolled at St John’s Wood art school to prepare but, as Greig writes, she found she was ‘not in sympathy’ with the academic system of training.  That is such a marvellous euphemism that I intend to use it as often as possible.  This morning for example, I found I was not in sympathy with getting out of bed. Anyway, she found that a route that she was more in sympathy with was at the Slade… 

Portrait of a Woman (c.1909-16)

As you will know, the Slade School of Fine Art was a youngster in comparison with the established Royal Academy School.  It was established in 1871 and is a sort of keynote for a more relaxed, modern way of teaching art that continues today.  It always, sadly, reminds me of the ill-fated Miranda in John Fowles’ The Collector but past pupils and teachers include Augustus John, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer and Paul Rego. The Wikipedia page on the Alumni is a bit of a who’s who of 20th century art. Anyway, Isobel did really well there but her health was not good.  It became apparent to her that formal teaching of any sort was not going to be possible full-time, but she was not put off. She settled for part-time study at ‘Mr Ridley’s Studio’ which gained her access to the life classes at South Kensington. 

Decorated plate (c.1880) Louis-Joseph-Raphaël Collin

Greig charmingly states that with Isobel, thought led directly to action and Isobel had the thought she would like to study in Paris. Off she went, but not to the Académie Julian which she felt would be as bad as the Royal Academy.  Instead, she went to the studio of Louis-Joseph-Raphaël Collin (1850-1916).  What impressed her the most was the sheer variety of students from all corners of the earth, all bringing new and interesting perspectives on art.  She said that she received more inspiration from her fellow students than anything her teacher could ever give her. 

A Legend of Provence (1894)

Her absence from the 1891 census (together with that of her sister, brother Henry and father) makes me think that this is when she was in Paris, returning to triumphantly join the Royal Academy and begin her career.  I particularly love the Royal Academy catalogues (all of which are free online) because they give you information on the artist as well as their picture.  In 1893, Isobel exhibited what is widely belived to be her first picture, A Raw Recruit, and her address is listed as 9 Gloucester Walk, Campden Hill. This painting was so popular that it was awarded a medal at the re-opening of the Crystal Palace Art Rooms in 1896. This was followed in 1894 with A Legend of Provence from Adelaide Ann Procter’s poem of the same name. The painting was accompanied with the following lines of poetry: She raised her head; she saw – she seemed to know – / A face that came from long, long years ago: / Herself; yet not as when she fled away, / The young and blooming novice, fair and gay, / But a grave woman, gentle and serene: / The outcast knew it – what she might have been

Much like Procter’s verse, this image is filled with women’s concerns and frustrations at the end of the nineteenth century. In a way this reminds me of Rossetti's Found with a woman being accosted by a vision of their more optimistic (and societally acceptable) past. It is almost like this woman is being confronted by the Virgin Mary, arguably the only acceptable lifepath for a woman in the eyes of Victorian society.  

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1895)

Isabella and the Pot of Basil from 1895 came with the text ‘Love never dies, but lives, immortal Lord.’ from Keats. This has to put her in the running to be in the next volume of Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang (The Girl Gang Rides Again). As you can see by the picture, Isabella is fearfully clutching her basil pot/severed head of her lover, looking traumatised.  Given that previous versions are more wistful and romantic, I think the fear and horror in this Isabella’s face is somewhat more realistic. 

The Miracle of the Roses (1896)

Isobel was back in 1896 with another dramatic work, this time the deceptively lovely sounding The Miracle of the Roses. I was expecting some lovely gardening scene, but it is taken from a 14th century story by John Mandeville (or Syr Jean de Maundeville, depending how 14th century you are feeling).  During his (possibly fictional) travels in the Holy Lands he came across a story of a young girl who was falsely accused of fornication and condemned to be burned at the stake. She prayed to God who turned the flames to red roses and the unburned kindling to white roses and these were the first roses ever seen. Blimey.  Again, she tackles the perils of womanhood, false accusations and the fragility and importance of virginity and reputation. Also, bear this story in mind as the next painting is a mirror image of it... 

The Magic Mantle (1898)

She didn't submit a painting in 1897 (possibly for health reasons) but she submitted possibly her best-known painting the year after, The Magic Mantle. Now, this is a very interesting painting and story and I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s a great painting, worthy of Byam Shaw, who I feel she most closely resembles, but what exactly is the message? It comes from an Arthurian tale, where a little boy brings a cloak to the King’s court and declares that only virtuous and faithful wives could wear the cloak.  Well, as reported in the Gentlewoman journal, a feckless young wife who felt she could get away with it revealed her shortcomings as the cloak disintegrated: ‘mere shreds and tatters of gorgeous embroideries hanging from a band about her neck… [bringing] smiles of pleased depreciation to the faces of the surrounding courtiers.’ Is 'pleased depreciation' the same thing as Schadenfreude? Do we think that the knight is her husband or the chap sat at the back – neither look particularly impressed.  Is one of them her fancy man? According to the Westminster Gazette it was the only picture to sell in the fifth room in the exhibition, for £100. What is equally as interesting is that Isobel, professionally using her initials I L Gloag, was often referred to as a man, leading many reviews to talk about Mr Gloag’s painting. I wonder if the person purchasing her painting knew she was a woman? 

Rosamond (or Fair Rosamond) (1899)

In 1899, Isobel was back to Pre-Raphaelite subjects, with a very interesting take on Rosamond, with the text ‘The queene this thread did gette, and went where Ladye Rosamonde was like an angell sette.’ The profusion of ‘e’ should alert you to the fact this is a 16th century retelling of the tale of Fair Rosamond and Queen Eleanor. Poor Rosamond looks rather alarmed at the arrival of the Queen, signified by the shadow holding a cup. Isobel’s entry for the 1900 Royal Academy exhibition was no less Pre-Raphaelite in intent, taking the theme of Rapunzel but framed within the William Morris poem… 

Rapunzel (1900)

The use of space in this work is interesting as you are remarkably close to the action. Poor old Rapunzel was imprisoned without clothes I see. In this exhibition she had two paintings, the other being a profile and her address is given as Elm Park Gardens, a decidedly red-brick and luxurious bit of London where she would remain for the rest of her life. She was mentioned regularly in the papers, drawing attention to her paintings as being ‘problem paintings’ in the style of Byam Shaw whom she exhibited alongside. In 1901, her paintings Four Corners to My Bed was the smash of the RA, rivalling the popularity of  The Magic Mantle 

Four Corners to My Bed (1901)

The text that accompanied it was the popular children’s rhyme ‘Four corners to my bed, four angels round my head, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on.’ I love that the woman in the background can get on with some work as she has four angellic babysitters.  James Greig announced it to be ‘the kind of subject a woman can do better than any man’ as it appealed ‘to the deep maternal tenderness of her finer nature.’ It is a common compliment given to female artists when they tackle subjects to do with motherhood and it always makes me wince.  How odd that we never praise male artists with their deep paternal tenderness, for example when they paint the Virgin Mary (as one or two male artists have been known to do, I’m guessing). 

Mother Nursing a Baby (1911)

Isobel also painted an intriguing work entitled The Quick and the Dead for which I frustratingly cannot find any illustration.  It is described as a group of women at an alms-house by around them are ghosts of men and children.  If anyone can find me that painting, I would be delighted as that sounds marvellously weird. 

Mary Lowndes and Isabel Gloag windows in Sturminster Newton

Also in 1901, Isobel worked with Mary Lowndes (1857-1929) on a set of stained-glass windows for St Mary’s Church in Mary’s home town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset.  Mary also went to the Slade and I wonder if that was how they knew each other, but she had been working as assistant to Henry Holiday. Mary was obviously a prolific window artist, but this seems to have been the only foray into stained-glass that Isobel made.  Always one for variety, she also turned her hand to designing a poster for a pastille manufacturer and won £50.  Her other poster designs included a girl with a spinning wheel and a very popular one featuring Old King Cole.

Old King Cole (poster)

Art Metal Exhibition poster (1898)

The thing I like about Isobel’s art is that she is not afraid of a really long title.  After her 1902 RA piece The Daughter of Hippocrates, she brings us some corkers, such as 1903’s For There was Never Yet Fair Woman but she made Mouths in a Glass. I had not the first idea what that was going to be about until I saw the illustration… 

For there was Never Yet Fair Woman but she made Mouths in a Glass (1903)

The fool (from King Lear) is spying on a scene of vanity.  The woman practices and admires her beautiful face in her hand mirror, assisted by her elderly maid.  Themes on women’s vanity were popular at this time, most famously in Frank Cadogan Cowper’s 1907 Vanity. The artifice and ridiculousness are laid out; before too long that beautiful young woman will be the older lady behind her. In a world where women's appearance was (and is) highly prized, the mocking of women for being concerned with this seems cruel and contrary. I wonder if there is a link in Isobel's art between this and her (untraced) self portrait Portrait of a Plain Woman where she obviously didn't feel she was a 'fair woman'. 1904 followed with the equally impressive title Knowledge Putting the Garment of Sorrow on to Everyman which frankly is a tad depressing. A brief interlude in long titles came with 1906's Clytie who was transfixed with an arrow and dubbed 'unconventional' by The Graphic.  However, my absolute favourite title has to be 1909’s Joy, Whose Hand is Ever at his Lips, Bidding Adieu... 

Look at the hands reaching for the little figure of Joy - I am reminded of Anna Lea Meritt's Love Locked Out (1890) and also Joy and the Labourer by Mary Young Hunter and the litle cheeky figure of Joy was much admired.  I wonder if her continued ill health gave her a somewhat pessimistic view of life – knowledge brings sorrow, joy is fleeting.  Her adherence to the latter Pre-Raphaelite revival in colour and the problem picture meant she was a worthy contemporary to Byam Shaw, Brickdale and Cadogan Cowper.  She even turned her hand to book illustration, much like EFB...

Stories of William Tell (1907)

1909 saw not only her election to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Watercolour Society, but also a change in her work, commented on in an article in 1916 by Arthur Reddie, published in the International Studio magazine.  This earlier, Pre-Raphaelite phase ended when Isobel turned largely to modernity in subject and treatment.  Her delight in the antique and beautiful found a new form of expression in pieces such as The Choice in 1913… 

The Choice (1913)

Goodness, I love a problem painting! The papers praised its 'early Victorian Atmosphere' and in one way it is a very simple image of two girls trying on dresses, with their mother/grandmother seen in the reflection, however it was referred to as one of the 'query pictures of the year' byThe Sketch so what is the problem? Is it something about the dresses, their colour and frothy nature that says something about the chooser? Isobel was always one for a painting that inspires thought but it was also noted how her style had changed. 

The Yellow Coat (c.1913)

I find it interesting that the difference was seen as so marked, although it is clear from works such as The Yellow Coat, there is a difference in the way the figure is handled and unlike her fellow late Pre-Raphaelites, Isobel made her dramas about her contemporaries, not the past. In defence of Byam Shaw, there are examples of him doing similar in pieces such as The Lure but always with fantastical elements.  I wonder also how much John Collier’s paintings were an influence, with pieces such as The Prodigal Daughter (1903). 

Bacchante and Fauns (c.1909-11)

It isn’t as if all of Isobel’s pieces from 1909 are strictly modern as there were still pieces such as Bacchante and Fauns which were praised for the echoes of Rubens, and Diana Protected by her Nymphs When Disturbed by Actaeon While Bathing from 1911, but amongst these are some striking and very modern pieces including East and West, a nude featuring a woman of colour and a bulldog. 

East and West (c.1915)

This piece was praised in the 1916 article with Reddie commenting on the ‘clever and amusing’ contrast of the brown skin of the girl and the white dog, with highlights of red and yellow behind them. I would dearly like to see a colour version of this image too as the flowers on her head obviously are echoed in the flowers behind and in itself, the work is no worse in tone than the Nymphs, but there is something about the pairing of the girl and the dog which makes me very Colonially uncomfortable, especially when critics apply the adjective ‘amusing’ to it. What is the message? That the British bulldog is protecting the lovely maidens from over the seas? That a white dog and a black lady are tonally interesting together? Is it a call back to Manet's 1863 Olympia or even The Rokeby Venus? If it was painted in 1914 or 1915, this could have been inspired by the suffragette attack on the latter or a comment on the complication of sex in our attitude to colonialism through Orientalism. Or she might have thought the colours would look good together. I wish I knew more... 

He and She (c.1916)

Amongst the last of her paintings, I particularly like He and She, a painting described in Reddie’s article as being of a ‘coster girl’ and her ‘bloke’ ‘as he holds the reins of the barrow in which they drive out apleasuring.’ (I can’t tell you the last time I went apleasuring, it’s such a shame). I had to remind myself what a costermonger is (it’s someone who sells things off a barrow) but it is definitely a piece on class but it is hard to get the definite meaning. The girl is looking away from her ‘bloke’ and the hand she has raised is her ringless left. Is that a flower coming out of her mouth? Is He looking at She? Is He a pearly king? I can’t tell, it’s all very mysterious and I’m not sure exactly how much ‘apleasuring’ will be taking place. 

Woman With Puppets (1915)

I should mention this piece from 1915 which still intrigues people today - it seems to have been used in an exhibition in 2016.  There is a distinct commentary about the power of naked women over the little puppet men.  I think that's all fairly obvious, but it is very interesting that when Isobel uses nudity in her work it is almost always to do with power either taken or exerted.

The Kiss of the Enchantress or Lamia or Knight and Mermaid

The piece I am most frustrated with is this one, which is probably her most famous work on the internet.  The date given with it is 1890 which seems unlikely as her first RA picture was in 1893 and this work is definitely of RA quality, yet I can't find an RA listing that would match it.  It also has so many different titles that people don't quite know what exactly it is but countless searches have born no fruit as to its current location or any other information.  What gives me hope is that it is in colour, so someone must have it in order to make a good colour picture of it.

Isobel's final RA pice in 1916 was Sleep and she died in the January of 1917 leaving much of her work to her sister Mary who seemingly gave some pieces to the V&A in the 1920s. There are a few others dotted around the globe but the fact that she has never been given the sort of attention that someone like Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale has been given over the last few years is criminal.  What is so sad is that she was chiefly known as a colourist yet so many of her images are only available in black and white, and only then because of those journal articles. Whilst I am obviously calling for a retrospective (when am I not?) I think Isobel Gloag is such an inspiration, working through her chronic illness and chanelling so much fire and feeling into her modern works of art.  In the International Studio article it was quoted that the medium she worked in was "vitality, Sir, vitality" - "In all her work one conceives her to be moved by a distinct purpose, and animated by such fervour and energy that the natural result is the achievement of something extreme, either good or bad, in art." 

In her 24 year career, you could never accuse her of being dull and can you image all that colour, all that fury, on a gallery wall? Isobel needs her moment, so if you know of any Gloags, give me a shout.

Saturday 4 November 2023

Review: D'Annunzio. Connections Across the Chanel

Apologies for the delay in this review - it has been a very hectic time at Chez Walker but I'm aware that Blogvent is approaching fast so I have some posts I want to liberate before December is upon us.  For starters, I was very kindly sent this book...

 Written in both Italian and English, it explores the life, loves, reputation and influence of writer, lover, dog owner and political figure Gabriele D'Annunzio, who I must admit I knew nothing about.  What surprised me even more is that when I mentioned this book online it drew some very strong opinions about the gentleman and his politics, but this book offers an insight into some unexpected areas of his life, together with interviews that show how much cross-pollination the artistic environment offered.

D'Anunzio and his Dogs

Okay, let's start with the greyhounds - whilst I was prepared to read about Ruskin and Pre-Raphaelitism, not to mention fascism, I was not prepared for greyhounds.  The average person on the street in early 20th century Britain would have known D'Annunzio for his long-muzzled companions who he not only 'coarsed' (simulated hunting) but also had a great affection for.  He planned to write a book entitled Lives of Illustrious Dogs, although that never materialised, and described his beloved dog Fullerton, four-time waterloo cup winner and 'kidnapped by gipsies' although that is a bit dubious. His elevation of greyhounds from working dogs to aesthetic masterpieces is very interesting and reminded me of paintings by fellow Italian Boldini, like the portrait of Luisa Casati...

Marchesa Luisa Casati, with a greyhound (1908) Giovanni Boldini

As fascinating as his connection to the popularity of greyhounds is, I was fascinated by the threads that connected D'Annunzio to art in Britain during the latter end of the twentieth century. He expressed a love of the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema.  He wrote poetically of the art he saw in the 1883 Roman Fine Art Exhibition, describing Alma-Tadema's 'gem-like painting' and superb handing of colour. It was from Alma-Tadema that D'Annunzio moved under the spell of the Pre-Raphaelites.  A year after Rossetti died, D'Annunzio wrote 'We demand something truly youthful, something truly new' and that something turned out to be the spread of Pre-Raphaelitism through Italy. It is argued that without the shadow of Rossetti, the Italian writer would not have become the figure he created, formed through the writings of Ruskins and the visuals of the generations of Pre-Raphaelites.

Poster for La Figlia di Lorio (libretti by d'Annunzio)

An aspect of the book I really enjoyed were the interviews with the subject of each chapter explored with an expert on the subject, for example Rebecca Lipkin on Ruskin.  This enables you to see not only how D'Annunzio would have seen the subject, but explore the connections across the Channel. This is especially interesting in the role of place as biography - d'Annunzio created and donated his home Vittoriale degli Italiani, 'the shrine of victories of the Italians'...

Prioria main entrance - gloriously yellow

The interview for this section was with Daniel Robbins of Leighton House, which I found fascinating - as you know Mr Walker curates the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth, a house created and left to the people of Bournemouth by Sir Merton and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes.  The idea of leaving a monument to your personal idea of how you should be remembered is a subject I never tire of, especially when you read comments on the internet that it is 'a fascist lunapark' (a phrase I will definitely use again) but with such a grandiose title, you get a very clear idea of how d'Annunzio felt he should be remembered.  Also, the house is a good opportunity to use one of my favour words - defenestrated.  He moved to the house after his defenestration which is a lovely way of saying someone lobbed him out of a window.

The utterly stupendous Eleonora Duse

Being a man of the theatre, it is unsurprising that d'Annunzio was attached to some of the most famous actresses of his generation including Eleonora Duse who he met at the turn of the century and remained linked to for around a decade.  She appeared in his play Francesca da Rimini (1901) and their relationship was scandalously revealed in his novel The Flame of Life (1900). His life, his art and his lovers all contribute to his reputation as a decadent figure.

D'Annunzio, reading (probably something decadent)

His reputation, politically, is problematic enough to probably cause someone to assist him out of a window, but this is a book that explores where d'Annunzio's inspiration for his art came from and the links to England, Pre-Raphaelitism and notable figures is enlightening.  As I have said before, I grew up being told that the Pre-Raphaelites were a cul-de-sac of art that led nowhere, so the research here reveals the inspiration others took from their works and ethos.  I can heartily recommend this book as it is fascinating, easy to dip in and out of, lushly illustrated and the interviews bring new light on both their own subject and d'Annunzio.

The book is available now, and further information can be found here.

Monday 9 October 2023

Pitched in the Key of Jewels

 Last night, I dreamt I went to Ditchling again.  Well, actually I didn't but I intended to go last week in search of a grave.  However, and I know I shouldn't feel like this, going to Ditchling does rather spook me due to Eric Gill.  It is ridiculous as it is a really gorgeous village with an absolutely spanking museum (and shop) and so it shouldn't bother me. I really should make an effort as I would very much like to visit the last resting place of the subject of today's post, Miss Amy Sawyer...

I'm disappointed to say that Anne Parfitt-King's book is out of print so I was unable to find a copy in time to do this post, however it seems to be available second-hand, if you have the money.  By all accounts it is a cracking read and so far the only biography of such an unexpectedly important woman, as we will see...

I think it is a bit of a testament to the patriarchy, not to mention the power of juicy scandal, that when you hear about Ditchling, the name on everyone's lips is Gill rather than Sawyer. That is deeply unfair, primarily because Amy was absolutely marvellous artist and author, but also she managed to not molest her family and livestock. I mean, for goodness sake. Sorry, I digress. Hopefully, by the end of this post, we will all think of Amy Sawyer is the most famous and marvellous person to come out of Ditchling.  Let's start at the beginning...

East Grinstead High Street 1864

Amy was born in 1863 in East Grinstead, the eldest child of seven, to Charles and Eliza. Charles owned a draper and grocer's business of the High Street, a family business that he seems to have developed from his father, and by the look of things was doing very nicely indeed. Charles and Eliza had married in 1861 and named their first born after his mother, Amy. Amy Senior had died in 1860, and actually Charles' father (also named Charles) died in 1863, leaving Charles (son) the business. Just to make life extra confusing, Charles (junior) and Eliza's second child was a son whom they names Charles. He was followed fairly swiftly by George (1867-1917), William (1868-1945), Frederick (1869-1965), Harry (1873-1950) and finally Mabel (1875-1956), who I will come back to. The shop was flourishing and they employed staff who lived on the premises with them including Louisa Eames, a draper's assistant and Mary Murphy, a milliner, together with four other members of staff and three servants.

Bushey Art School

Being a fairly affluent family, the Sawyers had no problem sending young Amy off to be an artist.  She won a scholarship to Herkomer's school and was admitted to the Bushey School of Art around 1885.  To facilitate this, her mother and sister Mabel lived with her in Bushey, as recorded in the 1891 census. Bushey was the school of many well-known artists of her generation and the artist Hubert von Herkomer welcomed female artists as long as they were unmarried.  There is a jolly fine page for Herkomer's school here, but it had been established in 1883 and saw artists such as Lucy Kemp-Welch together with other female artists pass through the doors (LKW went on to create her own art school connected to Bushey in 1905).  

An Old World Love Tale (1891)

Mum and Mabel lived at Elstree Road in Bushey, around a mile and a half from Herkomer's home and school at Lululaund on Melbourne Road. Her debut at the RA seems to have been in 1887, with A Mystery, followed in  1891 by An Old World Love Tale. Her picture Evoe! Io Bacche! from the year later received mention in the Illustrated London News which praised its 'clever composition and some of the faces are cleverly drawn but the flesh-tints are opaque and yellow.'

She also had success with The Valley of the Dragon in the 1894 exhibition of pictures by a joint committee of the Southwark Borough Polytechnic, the Moreley College and the Women's University Settlement, which Herkomer opened at the Borough Poly. It might have been this exhibition that caused a critic to comment 'Miss Amy Sawyer is a woman of imagination, but she is better in black and white than in colour,' which is a little rude.  Similarly, The Witch's Goose Girl from 1893 showed her ability to blend the mystical with the rural...

As you can see, this also appeared in the Illustrated London News and proved very popular. I wondered where the inspiration came from and am utterly clueless as to the origin - if you know, give me a shout. Are witch's especially fond of geese?  Geese are rather violent and malevolent, so might make good familiars if you don't mind the honking.

The Seasons (1895)

The Telegraph and Courier of March 1895 declared her four panel work The Seasons to be 'brimful of fancy and [the panels] have a tender, poetical, even humorous charm which is quite their own'. The Studio journal wrote 'its harmony of colour is exceedingly sumptuous; pitched in the key of jewels, enamels or stained glass, it almost succeeds in deluding you into believing the oil paint can rival crystals, or the plumage of humming birds.' It's a shame it is unavailable to be seen in colour after such glowing praise.

 She also illustrated H. Rider Haggard book in the same year, Heart of the World. I was impressed to see her frontispiece image was still being used as a cover image in 1965...

What was really frustrating when researching Amy is that only two of her paintings ended up in public collections.  One predictably ended up in Bushey, the other going to the Russell-Cotes.  The one that ended up in Bournemouth is a corker, entitled Gentle Spring Brings Her Garden Stuff to Market...

Gentle Spring Brings Her Garden Stuff to Market (1896)

Like many of Amy's works, it is really delightfully odd but the colour enables you to see the delicate, impressionistic beauty. The Truth newspaper called it 'a really odd and original rendering of a hackneyed subject', while the Echo praised 'a daring composition, splendid in colour and skillful in grouping, shows promise of great things.' However, I notice none of the reviews, no matter how glowing, attempted to explain the whole Spring-Cupid-Pig-Dove of it all.

A line drawing of The Love that Flies Away from the Royal Academy Catalogue

At Christmas 1897, the same year as her painting The Love that Flies Away appeared at the Royal Academy, her family moved to Ditchling and thither went Amy, unknowingly starting one of the most famous artist colonies of the 20th century. Around this time her art was included in the first number of the Windmill magazine. She also founded the Ditchling Players, for whom she wrote a volume of Sussex Plays in the local dialect. It is tempting from this point to think of her as a local artist with very local interests (which she very much was and proud of it) but she also continued to exhibit nationally and in Paris, extending her art from merely canvas to Arts and Crafts, which she encouraged in Ditchling.  In that way I am very much reminded of Mary Seton Watts and her work in Compton, less than 50 miles away. 

In the meantime, her 1901 painting Fantasy Queen Seated in a Throne with Attendants continued her love of the magical and fairytale. The same year, Frank Cadogan Cowper exhibited a portrait of her which I have not managed to locate.  The Mid Sussex Times in 1903 reported 'Miss Amy Sawyer of Ditchling is a clever artist and the pictures she has on view at the exhibition organised by the Society of Women Artists...have attracted considerable attention and won warm praise.' In the 1901 census, she was visiting fellow artist and Bushey student Annie Spong, who seems to done a decent line in bearded old chaps...

Frederick Redman, Mayor of Southwark (1901-2) Annie Eliza Spong

I wonder if she stayed with friends while up in London as she travelled back and forth regularly to exhibit, for example in 1904 at the Grafton Gallery, for an international exhibition of female artists.  She bought Russell House in North End in Ditchling, renaming it The Blue House (the Frida Kahlo of Sussex), restoring and decorating the interior and building a studio on the first floor.  She continued to exhibit at the RA, for example in 1909 with The Sea Hath Its Pearls. Then she met Eric Gill.

Gill moved to Ditchling in 1907 and is very much regarded as the father of the artistic community which is interesting as he himself said 'we were not the first of the horrid Arts and Crafts people to corrupt the ancient village - it was Amy Sawyer who lived there first.' Now, I don't want to read too much into that (I really do) but I find the language he uses there to be rather interesting - horrid Arts and Crafts people.  The pair were friends to start with, leading Gill to carve the Gladys panel which was fixed in her studio. A rubbing exists in the British Museum and the panel is apparently still in the house.

Rubbing of the Gladys Panel (1912) Eric Gill

Gladys was Gill sister who also lived in Ditchling and was presumably known to Amy. By the time of the panel, Gladys had also been the model for his infamous sculpture Ecstasy and was also his lover.  I find it interesting that the relationship between Amy and Gill cooled considerably in 1913 and although both of them continued to be very strong artistic leads in the village, they had absolutely nothing to do with each other. I wonder why?

Apart from Gill, Amy continued to dominate the artistic life in Ditchling, if the local papers are believed. She organised for local rural buildings to be sympathetically restored through local crafts people, ensuring the continuation of the original and very beautiful buildings you can see as you walk around Ditchling.  There is no doubt that the arrival of Amy and then the Gill contingent brought a level of gentrification to the area (no matter how many smocks they wore) but I am impressed by Amy's enthusiasm for the preservation of the local vernacular architecture. I am guessing this was also connected to her preservation of the dialect through her plays and short stories, such as the short story 'The Cat, A Fairy Story in Dialect', published in the Worthing Herald in 1926. She also organised the Ditchling Artists and Craftsmen exhibition, which she was elected President of in 1936. This was a group that arranged yearly exhibitions of local work to encourage local people to develop their crafting skills.

Down in the Valley Where the Daisies Grow (undated)

In 1926, she developed an infection after paint trapped under the nails of her right hand turned septic.  This meant the loss of her right hand and an abrupt and painful halt in her painting.  She lived with her youngest sister Mabel who had become a wood-carver. Mabel had been on her own adventure to Australia, where she had been married and then widowed and had returned to Ditchling possibly to aid Amy. Amy needed new outlets for her art.  Her writing continued but she was never satisfied with only one outlet...

Wallpaper collage (1927)

The Sketch reported on the exhibition of Amy's innovative new work, a collage made from 'snippets' of wallpaper, based on Eve in the Garden of Eden. She had two other pieces made of 'old paper' displayed at the Sussex Downsmen Art Exhibition, and it was seen as both creative and modern.  Likewise, her patchwork pictures, made in conjunction with Mrs Newman caused quite a stir when reported in the Sussex Agricultural Express in 1935.

Peacock (patchwork panel) (c.1920)

It's interesting that everywhere I looked online for her patchwork, it was listed as being c.1920, yet the newspaper reviews of it were from the 1930s.  There is a very strong narrative that she did art, lost the use of her arm, then did writing, but it does not seem to be so.  She might well have done needlecraft and collage before the loss of the use of her arm but she continued to do them afterwards.  Even breaking her leg after falling over a foot-bath in 1929 didn't seem to slow her down.  Amy Sawyer was unstoppable...

Amy Sawyer (1924) Louis Ginnett

Amy's very active nature was obviously known because one review of Louis Ginnett's 1924 portrait mentioned that it 'secured a rare restfulness together with keen characterisation.' Yes, she's sitting still for once, but you know she is ready to get up and get on with something. Louis was staying with Amy and her now widowed sister Mabel at the Blue House during the 1939 census (my favourite). Not content with two portraits, Amy also sat for Rose Cobban in 1936, who went on to exhibit a three-quarter length portrait of the now elderly artist.

Amy published her 24 plays in 1934 so that other local drama societies, Women's Institutes and Boy Scouts and Girl Guides would be able to perform her plays.  One newspaper praised her as the 'only author in the county who has devoted her talents chiefly to the writing of local drama...the plays preserve vestiges of a dialect and idiom now practically vanished.' There were instructions to apply to Amy at the Blue House for her permission to perform the plays.

Queen Seated In a Throne with Attendants (1901)

The yearly exhibition of local art and craft continued, even the Second World War could not stop it and her life was celebrated locally on her 80th birthday in 1943. Alan Gill, cousin of Eric, wrote her a special poem and Ditchling praised one of its most active and determined residents.  She died there in October 1945 and is buried in the graveyard with many of her family. Mabel returned to Australia and is buried with her husband.

So, why do we not know more about Amy Sawyer?  Why on earth is she not the most famous person from Ditchling?  I really want to know more about the cooling in her friendship with Gill -if they were such good friends to begin with, why is she only a footnote in everything written about him?  By the accounts of local newspapers, Amy Sawyer was a really big deal in Sussex. I think, and I know I say this a lot, it is time for a revival.  Amy was so versitile an artist, so fantastic and then so modern.  She also had a very modern view of preserving the village and restoring it.  These days she'd have a programme on BBC2 in the afternoon (or Channel 4 if Gill got to have a role).  She really does seem to be a bit of a national treasure and we really need to value her.