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.