Saturday 16 December 2023

Saturday 16th December - Sibyl Barlow (1897-1933)

 My husband, the blessed Mr Walker, is very supportive of what I do, even with the resultant book piles and general chaos. He casually said 'I have a lady for you,' (which in our house is not as dodgy a suggestion as it sounds) 'but I don't suppose you are doing sculptors...'

Now, he right in that I don't normally tackle sculpture, which is terrible of me but also a reflection on how little space sculpture is given in traditional art history teaching.  It's like you need to take a completely separate course for that, like it doesn't really count as 'art.' In a way, sculpture can be seen as a metaphor for women in the arts, sort of seen as the same thing but not thought of when listing important artists. A sort of add on.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, say hello to Sibyl Barlow....

Now, you can't tell because you are reading this on the internet, but I also do all my work in riding gear and great big boots.  It's only sensible.

I know I was going to talk about Victorian lady artists this Blogvent and Sibyl was born in 1897, but she still counts as a Victorian (just) so she's being let in, and also she really didn't live that long so give the poor woman a break. Also, we are not going to get into what counts as Victorian art right now, let's save that for Christmas Eve when we've all had a sherry.

Sow (undated)

I warn you now that there is not a lot on Sibyl, but that leads me to a ponder on sculpture and its coverage as I have already ranted.  Add to this that Sibyl was short-lived but we have a heroic Great War death and an appalling divorce to get through, so I think we'll be okay for content. Back to the beginning...

Tiger Mask (undated)

Sibyl Margaret Lancashire Barlow was born on 17th May 1897, the 3rd of 4 siblings.  Her parents Alexander Kay Barlow (1855-1928) and Sophia Matilda (1862-1952) married in 1890 up in Lancashire, so I wondered if that was a clue to Sibyl's middle name, shared by her younger brother John (1899-1917).  Her two older siblings Joyce (1891-1966) and Alex (1893-1968) shared the middle name Lancaster, like the bomber.  I always look to see if it has links to the mother's maiden name but as Sophia's parents were recent immigrants from the Netherlands, it seems unlikely.  Maybe they really like Lancashire, and why not?

The two eldest siblings were born in Essex, then in 1896 the Barlows moved to Wivenhoe Hall.  I am eternally grateful to the creators of the history of Wivenhoe page, not least for this photo...

Alexander Barlow in the traditional Victorian minimalist interior of Wivenhoe Hall

The family stayed at Wivenhoe until 1927, so a vast amount of Sibyl's life (and that of her family) was spent in Essex.  This gave Sibyl access to London schools, although it is slightly mysterious where she went. Chris Pettey's ever-useful Dictionary of Women Artists says she studied in the Dresden Art Academy and in London. In a later newspaper article, it also suggests she attended the Southampton School of Art when her family moved there at the end of the 1920s.

Group of Three Farm Horses (undated)

It is obvious from the little information we have on Sibyl that she loved horses and rode in an almost professional capacity. I was reminded of Rosa Corder and her love of animals, without the troublesome sexy overtones.  Sibyl was all about the ponies. I'm not sure when she went to Dresden but before she did, there were a couple of family catastrophes,,,

Ring Master and Rearing Horse (undated)

You know how I am with scandal and tragedy, I absolutely love it.  If we start with the 1911 census, the Barlow family are in Wivenhoe with their 5 servants (including a page).  Joyce, aged 19, Sibyl, 14 and John, 12 have no occupation, but Alex was at Cambridge where he was an undergraduate. On 2nd February 1915, Joyce married Arthur Haines, but their honeymoon period was just that, because 2 weeks later the marriage went entirely sour when Arthur turned out to be a drinker and someone who enjoyed 'unnatural acts'. Joyce put up with it until May when she packed up and went back to Wivenhoe Hall.  Arthur seems to have backed up his awful behaviour with abuse, and while drunk, threatened Joyce with a drawn sword. She applied for a divorce that Autumn.

Sybil riding one of her models

If that wasn't enough, with the advent of the Great War, Alex joined the Royal Engineers.  I have to admit, when I saw how old he was, I was very concerned, but he wasn't the one I should have worried about.  John was only 15 when war was declared, but his enthusiasm seemed palpable.  He immediately joined the Essex Cyclist Corp as a despatch rider.  At 16, still too young to enlist but fascinated with the new technology of aeroplanes, John got his pilot's licence at the Bournemouth aviation school and went to work in the Wells Aviation Factory.  The moment he turned 18, he got his commission with the Royal Flying Corp and received his month's training.  One whole month, blimey.  After fighting in Messines and other battles he was shot down and killed, six months after getting his wings. He was 19 years old.

Sybil would have been 21 when John died and in theory pursuing her training as a sculptor.  Whether she was that way inclined or not, her chances of marrying were not great after all the men died.  You can see why she dedicated her life to horses. By 1926 she had started exhibiting, in time for the family's move to Southampton.  At the Royal Academy, she showed Bulger, a bronze statuette and Crossing the Flood Ford, a statuette group.  She also exhibited with the Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Salon de la Societe des Artistes Français up until 1929.

Sibyl and her bust of jockey Freddie Fox, 1931

In 1930, Sybil appeared at the Southampton Art Society's 44th annual show at the art gallery. Alongside P. Wilson Steer's Digging for Bait, Shoreham, there was a 'splendidly modelled group of horses by Sibyl Barlow who studied at the local art school.'  Finally, at the 1931 Royal Academy exhibition, Sibyl exhibited her head of Freddie Fox, Champion Jockey.  The Birmingham Mail described the piece as a beautiful bronze bust, and the Sheffield Daily Telegraph felt the piece would attract many people, not just those who appreciate art. The Belfast Newsletter were taken with how well Sibyl had captured his thoughtful and whimsical expression, but also, because of how busy Fox was, she had to complete it with very few sittings.

Calf (undated)

There seems to have been no notice of Sibyl's death in January 1933.  Less than two years before, she had been the toast of the Royal Academy, but I wonder if it was the subject rather than her that caused the interest. Her father had died at the end of the 1920s and so she left her money, over £6K, to her mother. It is thanks to Sophia that we have the beautiful images in this post as when she died in 1952, she left these pieces to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery.  The three cart horses were out recently in support of the Lucy Kemp-Welch exhibition earlier this year.

Nude Study (undated)

I think there a couple of issues at work here - firstly, our idea of fine art is very 2D.  Very few people can name sculptures let alone sculptors beyond Michelangelo's David. It's just not the first thing mentioned when we talk about art.  Also, exhibitions that are sculptural are very few - I absolutely loved Sculpture Victorious at the Tate in 2015 but I can't think of another purely sculptural exhibition I have ever been too.  Mr Walker also pointed out that lending and borrowing sculpture is a damn sight harder than a painting.  Our appreciation of sculpture is really hampered by the fact that day to day, we see art either on a screen or in a book.  That's not the best way to appreciate something that is 3D.  Maybe virtual reality is waiting for sculpture. All this goes to explain why sculptors don't, on the whole, get to be the stars that painters do.  However, I'm guessing we all see far more sculpture in real life, every day, than we do fine art. How many statues (contested though they are) do we walk by without knowing who they were created by? That is sometimes the reason that they are preserved, even though the figure is now reviled. My sister-in-law is descended from the models lending their forms to some of the wonderful figures decorating the buildings of London, including Selfridges, but how many of us look up and see exactly how gorgeous they are? Sculpture works much harder on a daily basis to make our world a little more beautiful, so I think we now owe it and the people who create it a bit more love.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Kirsty. I agree completely. I have a huge respect for sculptors as working in 3D is such challenging discipline. I am in awe of the way sculptors can make stone or marble or bronze look like skin or fur. Greek or Roman sculptors, Bernini, Rodin or Camille Claudel or many, many others - they are incredible and enhance our world. Sibyl really captures the spirit of the animals she created. I wonder whether her choice of clothes was to give her a more masculine appearance (and so to be more accepted by the male dominated art world?) as well as to show her love of riding?
    Best wishes


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx