Monday 30 March 2020

Olive Allen

I can't afford to buy the art I would like to have hanging on my wall.  I can, of course buy prints of it, but it's not quite the same, is it?  However, I indulge my love of art in a medium which is a little closer to some artists' intentions, that is through book illustrations.  As discussed in my previous post about lovely Percy Bulcock, there are oodles of wonderful artists who illustrated poetry, and today's post is about another one of them, the redoubtable Olive Allen...

The Lovely Olive Allen...
Olive was born in Lancashire in the autumn of 1879.  Her father, George Lupton Allen, was a Wesleyan minister, who had married Mary Jane Pethybridge in the late 1860s.  Little Olive was the youngest of the brood, which included three sisters and three brothers.  While her father was preaching (whenever I think of that I picture a scene from Cold Comfort Farm, where Amos goes preaching out the back of a Ford van to the Quivering Brethren), the family moved around, but finally, after George's retirement, the family settled back in Mary's native Cornwall.  It was there that the family lived in Denheved School in Launceston, in a house called North Hall.  There appears to be a North Hall Court in Launceston still, in Denheved Road, so I'm guessing that is the same building, split into smaller residences. The mother was the Principal of the girls' school and Olive's sister Margaret was a teacher.

From Tanglewood Tales (1908)

Olive was rather keen on art from an early age and wrote to James Whistler for an autograph for her scrapbook (which he duly supplied).  According to sources on the internet, her scrapbook with its many autographs, pictures and poems is still in the family.  How marvellous!

Pandora (1920s)
Olive didn't fancy going into what seems to have amounted to the family business of teaching or preaching, so took herself off to art school.  First of all she went back up north, to Liverpool School of Art and Architecture, where she was taught by James Herbert McNair and his magnificent moustache...

Well, hello there, James Herbert McNair
 McNair had been best friends with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who I must admit I mistook him for when I first saw the picture, but just to prove they were separate people, here's a picture of them together...

McNair is definitely the one with the moustache and the floppy bow...
McNair had married fellow artist Frances Macdonald (sister of Margaret, who married Mackintosh) and moved to Liverpool from his native Glasgow to work and teach.  His art is rather splendid...

From there, Olive travelled back down south, studying first at Lambeth and then at the Slade School of Art, where she was taught by the formidable Henry Tonks.  Olive was just one of the countless famous artist who had all fallen under Tonks' 'hooded eye' (according to another pupil, Paul Nash).  I love Nash's descriptions of Tonks, who sounds terrifying, and so sarcastic and derisive that the novelist F M Mayor's sister quit before she could complete her course. Olive very sensibly didn't quit but apparently drew a rude cartoon of Tonks, which is always the best plan for dealing with people.

Olive was at the Slade until 1903, but started to work as an illustrator from 1901 in magazines, children's books and annuals.  In the 1901 census, she is staying down with her sister Margaret, the teacher in Launceston, probably for the Easter holidays.  Olive's books are available to buy second hand and my own interest in Olive came when I bought her illustrated Sons of Innocence by William Blake, published in 1906.  The publisher was TC&EC Jack of London and Edinburgh, for whom Olive illustrated many projects.  How could you not fall in love with images like these...

Frontispiece of Songs of Innocence

That last one is obviously a social distancing nightmare and I shouldn't have to remind you all that no-one should be encouraging little lambs to lick anyone's white neck right now.

Anyway, Olive returned back to the school in Cornwall, now managed by her sister while she made a living as a 'painter' (as she is listed in the 1911 census).  Somehow, around this time, she met John Biller.  As her work was mostly in London, it is most likely she met him in the big city rather than the west country because Mr Biller had a rather more adventurous life than a private school in Cornwall.  He had been born in 1877 in London, the son of a prosperous wine merchant.  When John was 10, his father had died, leaving his mother with four young children to care for.  A hint of what lay ahead is in the last census that John's father appears in - a guest in their house is John's uncle who had emigrated to America.  As soon as he was old enough to do so, John emigrated to Canada, around the same time as Olive was at art school, but he obviously made frequent visits back to England, where he met and married Olive in 1912.  Olive returned with him to Canada to start their new life.  Their son John Trebarfoot Biller was born on Valentine's Day in 1914.  However, their happiness was not to be long-lived.

Simple Susan (1925)
 John joined the First Canadian Mounted Rifles (Saskatchewan Regiment), shipped off to France, and it seems that Olive had returned back to England, possibly as a way of being closer to him. Staying with family meant that if John had leave, she had the chance to see him.  She found herself pregnant again in 1916, just as her husband found himself in Ypres.

The First World War being what it was, John died.  On his 'Circumstances of Casualty' card it records his death as being in Sanctuary Wood in Ypres in June 1916.  He had been reported missing in action but his comrades made statements to the effect that John had been on duty, when the enemy entered the trench.  Despite the attack being repelled, John was killed by a shell.  Not to put too finer point on it, shells falling and being missing often do amount to the same thing.  War is just horrible.

Tanglewood Tales (1908)
 Olive returned to Canada with her children and moved the family to James Island in British Columbia.  In the 1921 census, Olive is not listed as an artist but as a stenographer, hinting that she broadened her work to support her young family as a war widow.  However, a move to Victoria in the late 1920s saw her flourish again as an artist in the burgeoning Arts and Crafts scene.  She worked until her death in October 1957 and has subsequently become known as a Canadian artist and illustrator.  It is a joy to find that the books she illustrated are available to buy via sites such as Abebooks (who own me, the amount of time and effort I spend on their site) and so you too can own a little piece of heaven, thanks to Olive.

There is a wonderful resource on Olive here and it is good to know that much useful research is being done into Olive's life so she, unlike Percy Bulcock, will not slip into anonymity.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Book Review: Nelly Erichsen, A Hidden Life

Well, here we are, all on lock-down and so there is no better time to get some reading done.  With this in mind, here is a review of a new biography sent to me recently.  You've probably not heard of the subject, and she is definitely worth our attention.  Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce you to Nelly Erichsen, A Hidden Life...

Nelly's life actually reminded me of a few other of my favourite Victorian artists, and it was interesting to see how her life and experiences differed and where her life took her, for better and worse.

Her father was an ambitious Scandinavian named Hermann Gustav Ericksen who came over from Denmark in 1848.  He settled in Newcastle Upon Tyne, in Byker (home of the lovely Grove).  As a motivated and talented young man, he was soon involved in the new business of telegraph and was involved in the laying of cables between Northumberland and Denmark.  In 1854 he married Ane (or Anna as she was known) who was from the wealthy Danish 'Suhr' family.  Their family swiftly grew...

The Ericksen family, with Nelly sat next to her mother on the bench
Nelly was the fourth child, and third daughter, born  in 1862.  When she was 8, Hermann had the opportunity to move to London and so the family relocated to Tooting in South London to one of the leafy suburbs that the middle-classes flocked to in the ever-increasing capital.  Although she was home educated, like all good middle-class daughters, Nelly showed an aptitude and enthusiasm for art.  In 1880, Nelly gained entry to the Royal Academy school.  This reminded me very much of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, who had to wait until she had grown-up before getting the chance of education in an institution.  I wonder how this affected these girls who had led quite sheltered, but perversely focused experience of education to suddenly be part of a class, not the sole focus of a teachers attention.

Golden Hair (no date)
In 1883, Nelly was one of the 64 signers of a letter in protest that the Royal Academy did not allow young ladies to attend life classes.  Despite this inequality, Nelly did rather well at the RA, winning a silver medal for a 'Drawing of a Head from Life'.  She was the only female prize winner in 1884 out of 18, which draws attention to how the lack of parity in the system at that time impacted the women's chance to advance.

 A Hard Day's Labour (no date)
I particularly enjoyed the chapter covering the 'extra woman' problem of the 1890s, when it was noted (by the sort of people who worry about these sorts of things) that there were more women than men.  I was relieved to hear that although this sort of thing is very concerning, the male brain is 5oz heavier than the female brain, therefore there was actually more man-brain than woman-brain, by the pound.  Reason would therefore prevail. Well, thank goodness for that!  However, it did mean that it was not a certainty that your lovely middle-class daughter was guaranteed a husband, so you had better educate her because no man would be along to take her off your hands...

The Old Synagogue from The Story of Prague (1907) Count Lutzow
Luckily, Nelly was  rather talented and resourceful, so rather like Brickdale, she turned her hand to book illustration, such as the above image from The Story of Prague (1907), starting with We Four (1881) by Mrs Reginald Bray.  Nelly travelled in Europe and continued to exhibit widely with Royal Society of British Artists and the Society of Women Artists.

Going Home (no date)
A very enjoyable section was about Nelly's interactions with George Bernard Shaw.  He was a tad git-weasel-ish on the whole, whatever you think of his writing.  It seems that while he was not getting married to May Morris, he was also not getting married to one of Nelly's friends, Bertha Newcombe, whilst pursuing Nelly.  Nelly, being smart to his sort, made sure she had a friend over whenever Shaw invited himself round for tea, much to Shaw's dismay.  Really, when I get my time machine, GBS's name has been added to the list of people who I need to visit and have a bit of a chat with.  For heaven's sake.

The Magic Crystal (no date)
The biography is stuffed full of lovely images which is brilliant as it is hard to find illustrations of Nelly's work online, certainly not of the same quality as appear in A Hidden Life.  Nelly's art has a lot in common with both Pre-Raphaelite works, in such pieces as The Magic Crystal, and a sort of realist/idealist rural school in works like The Orchard...

The Orchard (no date)
Sadly Nelly did not have the long and successful life she possibly deserved.  Remaining unmarried meant she continued to work, unfettered by a husband, but the First World War intervened and she travelled with friends to help refugees in Bagni di Lucca in Italy, establishing a school for children displaced by war.  When the Spanish flu hit the region in 1918, Nelly was one of the casualties, just as the Armistice was called. She died at only 55 years old.

This is a charming book, full of detail and interest.  Nelly's story is fascinating and typical in part of many of the young women of her age, educated and independent, in a fast-changing world.  She was not only a thoroughly modern woman, but responsible for some interesting images of these bright and brave young ladies, taking on the expectations of society and achieving so much.

Nelly Erichsen, A Hidden Life by Sarah Harkness is available now from Encanta Publishing, from Amazon (UK) and selected bookshops.

Wednesday 18 March 2020

The Brief, Bright Star of Percy Bulcock

Today's post is about a new obsession of mine, the new man in my life.  It's not often I end up writing about men, but I've absolutely fallen in love with today's subject and he has a marvellously tragic life so here we go.  Say hello to the wonderful Percy Bulcock...

 When Percy Bulcock died in 1914 (sorry, spoiler alert), the local newspapers chorused their desperate sadness of the loss of such a bright and promising young man. He was called ‘exceptionally gifted’ by the Burnley Express, a man whose work was characterised by its ‘perfect neatness’. Even though he was barely at the end of his own studies, he had managed to create a wealth of beautiful art and inspire his students, for whom he was ‘held in esteem both for his personal and his artistic qualities’.  To Percy, a man renowned for his modesty, that fact he has been lost in time would have possibly seemed only right, but it is time that his Pre-Raphaelite inspired art is celebrated once more and that Percy Bulcock assumes his position as one of the most beautiful illustrators of the early twentieth century. Behold the majesty of his work...

Illustration from A Dream of Fair Women (1902)
 He was born the second son of John Bulcock from Burnley in Lancashire.  Despite a humble background in farming, John Bulcock had gained an apprenticeship to a printer and developed a love of the classics and astronomy. Like his elder brother Charles, Percy dreamed of becoming an artist.  The family were not privileged and there were many little Bulcocks to support, so Percy and Charles attended their local school, moving on to the Burnley School of Art, which was run in connection with the Mechanics Institute.  He was remembered as an artist in his soul, even as a boy, with talent flowing to his fingertips.  Whilst there, it was this talent and sheer hard work that brought in a fair amount of prize money, including several Queen’s Prizes and gold medals for high marks .  Finally in 1898 he was awarded a scholarship for a total of 8 years at the Royal Academy of Art in London, a far cry from Burnley and its cotton mills, where Percy’s siblings worked.

Design for Armorial Stained Glass Window, Old Bailey, London (1902-6)

It was in London that Percy was taught by Professor Gerald Edward Moira, a famous muralist, and Percy arrived just at the moment Professor Moira needed a talented lad to assist with the decoration of some of London’s best known and prestigious buildings.  

Ceiling Decoration in the Board Room , Lloyd's Register, London (1900)
In 1900 they painted ceiling murals in the Board Room of the Lloyd’s Register new building in Fenchurch Street, London.  A year later, they painted murals on the ceiling of the United Kingdom Temperance and General Provident Institution offices.  Possibly Percy’s most impressive work could be seen in the lunettes at the Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey.   

Justice, Lunette in the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), London (1902-6)
The current building, with the golden figure of Justice on the dome, was decorated throughout by Moira and Percy with both murals and stained glass, which was then opened by King Edward VII in 1907.

During this time Percy also cultivated his exquisite illustration style.  Aged only 22, Percy provided a delicate frontispiece for Kathleen Haydn Green’s Twelve Allegories (1901).  The popularity of this led to further commissions from the young art student. Channeling the spirit of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his contribution to the ‘Flowers of Parnassus’ series of poetry books were moody, pouting maidens with great swirls of hair.   

A Dream of Fair Women (1902)

A Dream of Fair Women (1902)
A Dream of Fair Women (1902)

Firstly in 1902, he illustrated Alfred Lord Tennyson’s A Dream of Fair Women, followed by 1904’s The Blessed Damozel where Percy’s illustrations conjured Jane Morris in all her sorrowful, dark-eyed glory.

The Blessed Damozel (1904)
The Blessed Damozel (1904)
The Blessed Damozel (1904)
In 1907, Percy returned to Burnley, wishing not only to settle down but also to inspire a generation of young men like himself to produce great art.  He married Dinah Isabella Benson, a servant for a manufacturer of cotton bobbins used in the mills.  The couple settled in Aigburth, a suburb of Liverpool, where Percy became Design Master at the Liverpool Art School, where many years later John Lennon would attend.   

The New Year (c.1901)
Their house, a small, mid-terrace red-brick family home, had wide bay windows and attractive fireplaces, perfect for the couple’s young son, John, born in the June of 1911.  Percy, driven to work hard to provide for his young family, won a Daily Mail competition to design a medal for the 1911 Colonial Exhibition, and took on commissions for banners for the Pageant of Liverpool.  He also won a trophy for designing a stained-glass window for Pittsburgh,  He also continued to sell his art, all while teaching.

Cyril Goldie, Scholar and Deer (no date)
His ambition as an artist never made him turn his back on inspiring young artists and designers.  In early 1914 he decided to move his family to the south coast of England when he applied to become the headmaster of the Hastings School of Art.  An extremely rainy March, even by English standards, had led to a chilly April and Percy developed the flu which within a week became full pneumonia and he died, aged only 36.   

Knight illustration from the Pall Mall Magazine (1901)
His sudden and tragic death hit the local art scene hard.  In the outpourings of grief in the local newspaper, it was felt that with the loss of this blessed son of Burnley had gone beautiful art and a great example to any young man born in the humble industrial mill town in the north of England.  As the Burnley Express wrote in his obituary Percy showed what could be accomplished by a ‘Burnley lad’ who was ‘full of grit and determination’.  The Liverpool Academy exhibition in June 1914, the Lord Mayor opened a special room showing a collection of 70 of Percy’s tempera, watercolour and etching work.   

Ganymede (1909)
This moved to the Townley Museum in Burnley, in the Mechanic’s Institute which had been so instrumental in Percy’s first steps as an artist.  The works were offered for sale in order to support newly widowed Dinah and baby John, who must have been comforted by the warm words in the press about Percy.   

The people of Burnley should be proud, the Burnley Express declared, that they produced such a man who at only 36 was capable of such a versatile and talented man – ‘only thirty-six years of age; he must have been a genius’.