The Words and Pictures Book Club: “Angelica” by Miranda Miller

Our next Words & Pictures book club meets on

Thursday 20th January at 2pm

at The Pebbles Cafe in the old Havens building on Hamlet Court Road

to discuss (amongst other things no doubt!):

“Angelica: Paintress of Minds” by Miranda Miller [2020, Barbican Press]

There is a great article by Miranda Miller about Angelica Kauffman in Historia [here] in which she notes:

Like us, Angelica lived at a time of enormous change and was often bewildered by it. At the end of her life, still anxious to avoid scandal, she made a bonfire of most of her private papers. In my novel I’ve presumptuously tried to bring them back to life.

And a number of Kauffman’s paintings can be seen on the Royal Academy site [here] including

Kauffman, Angelica; Colour; Colouring; Painting; Credit line: (c) (c) Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer credit: John Hammond /

Happy reading, and I look forward to seeing you on Thursday!


Words and Pictures: some exciting new books for 2022!

With our “Words & Pictures” book club starting up again next week, I thought I’d highlight just some of the rather exciting art and fiction books I’ve spotted coming over the next few months.

First up in January is “Bacon in Moscow” (Cheerio Publishing) by James Birch – a fabulous memoir of setting up an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s paintings in Moscow in 1988 – as with everything at the tail end of the USSR, its success was more by luck than judgement. From the Colony Room in London to the Artists Union of Russia, the young curator finds himself in the mix of all sorts of intriguing characters including a KGB officer, a glamorous young fashion designer, and of course Francis Bacon himself!

March brings “Edith and Kim”, the new novel by Charlotte Philby (The Borough Press) and, half-way through a proof copy, I can say it is absolutely brilliant! The Kim of the title is Kim Philby; the Edith is Edith Suschitsky, better known as Edith Tudor-Hart who until now I had only thought was a rather wonderful photographer but, as the archival research that underpins the novel reveals, Edith worked secretly for the Communist Party. Indeed it was Edith who introduced Kim Philby to his Soviet handler. Charlotte Philby brings all the suspense of such a dangerous and difficult life to the fore, from the Bauhaus to the Isokon building – and, as a reader, one finds oneself looking at the world through very different eyes.

“Letters to Gwen John” by the artist Celia Paul looks equally as fascinating:

Letters to Gwen John is Paul’s imagined correspondence with Gwen John, whose life and work have loomed so large in hers. These intimate, passionate, haunting letters allow Paul to reach across eras, to weigh up the sacrifices she has made, and to explore the rich possibilities of a life apart. With illuminating insights into the life and work of Gwen John, Letters to Gwen John is a unique form of memoir and conversation, and an unforgettable insight into a life devoted to making art.

Coming in April, the publishers (Jonathan Cape) say the book will include more than fifty artworks, reproduced in colour, by both Gwen John and Celia Paul.

“Firebird (A Bloomsbury Love Story)” is Susan Sellers’ new novel (to be published by Edward Everard Root in May). With the backdrop of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the one hand and the Bloomsbury Group on the other, we are in 1921 when the ballet star Lydia Lopokova meets economist Maynard Keynes: “Vividly recreating Lydia’s journey from Tsarist St Petersburg to Jazz Age London via the Paris of Picasso, this richly imagined novel celebrates the love story of two of the twentieth century’s most dazzling original figures” – I can’t wait!

May 2022 also sees the publication of Frances Spalding’s “The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars” (Thames & Hudson) – A fresh look at a period of English art that has surged in interest and popularity in recent years, authored by one of Britain’s leading art historians and critics – which will bring a thrill to everyone who comes to our Art, Books & Culture Group discussions each month as Frances explores how the modernism of abstraction and Surrealism interweaves with British tradition and the Romantic spirit of place.

I can’t resist also adding in a novel from last year which will come out in paperback in June and which I think is absolutely tremendous: Michele Roberts’s “Cut Out” (Sandstone Press). It tells the tale of Denis – whose mother kept a highly significant secret from him – and Clemence who, now elderly, remembers the time she worked with Matisse. The story cuts between the two characters and past and present time-frames – eventually unfolding to reveal the secret – as, in-between, Michele Roberts positions word-pictures based on photographs taken of the elderly Matisse as he made his now famous cut-outs. What’s especially extraordinary is how, without missing a beat or making it feel forced, Roberts subtly uses language and description to conjure almost unconsciously so many of Matisse’s paintings in the mind’s eye.

It’s going to be a great year for us arty-booky folk methinks!


Art, Activism and Remembrance: Salvo for Russia (1942)

A few weeks ago, as part of my research on Nancy Cunard as an uncommon viewer – early research sorties into the art worlds in which she moved, lived and worked – the Librarian at Washington State University sent me some reproductions of items in their archive: namely correspondence between Nancy Cunard and Nina Hamnett. One, a postcard to Hamnett written in 1942 when Cunard was living in London is an invitation for them to meet up, go for a drink, and discuss working together on a project that would combine Hamnett’s illustrations with Cunard’s poetry – a project that seems not to have ever come off. However, the postcard also mentions “Salvo for Russia” which Cunard calls a ‘circular’ that had come out earlier in the year [April, 1942]. All had sold, but Cunard writes: “In case you’ve not seen it will bring Thursday, a lovely work of etchings at 2 guineas per copy… Mary Wykeham and John [Banting], and others”.

In her biography of Nancy Cunard, Anne Chisholm notes that Salvo for Russia

“contained poems, etchings and engravings to be sold to help the Soviet war effort.”

The Imperial War Museum records:

This portfolio of 10 prints was produced to provide aid to Soviet Russia, which in 1942 was fighting against the invasion by Nazi Germany. John Piper explores the impact of the Second World War on the British landscape and architecture in a characteristic Neo-Romantic work. John Buckland Wright contributes a quintessentially Surrealist print. The portfolio demonstrates the importance and variety of printmaking in the mid-twentieth century British art scene.

But it is to the Ashton Rare Books website we must go for more interesting information:

Cunard, Nancy and John Banting (Eds.) ~ Salvo for Russia : A Limited Edition of New Poems, Etchings and Engravings Produced in Aid of the Comforts Fund for Women and Children of Soviet Russia.

Privately Printed, London : 1942

and they describe it as:

Nancy Cunard’s very scarce portfolio ‘Salvo for Russia’ and one of the few major works of English Surrealism.

emphasising further:

Published by Nancy Cunard as ‘a limited edition of new poems, etchings and engravings’ to raise money for the ‘Comforts Fund for Women and Children of Soviet Russia’ after the invasion by the Germans, this is one of the very few British purely Surrealist publications.

Another Rare Books shop, Maggs of Bloomsbury, tell that only 100 copies of the ‘circular’ were published, and that it included:

…four poems by Cecily Mackworth, James Law Forsyth, J. F. Hendry and Nancy Cunard, along with ten etched and engraved plates by some of the leading British surrealists of the mid-20th century, including John Banting, Ithell Colquhoun, Roland Penrose, John Piper and John Buckland Wright, along with others by Mary Wykeham, C. Salisbury, Julian Trevelyan, Geza Szobel and Dolf Reiser.

John Banting’s “The Spirit of Appeasement” (other versions are called “Janus” and “The Eye of the World”).

In “Surrealism in Britain”, Michel Remy describes Janus as: “the two-faced divinity of war and peace… a monument to indifference.” The image shows the two forces of war and peace, bony and skeletal, as “inextricably entangled” – the world trapped within. Moreover, Remy says that Salvo for Russia, published just after Hitler’s surprise invasion of the USSR, was the “only instance of actual collaboration between surrealists and Marxists”.

Certainly Nancy Cunard’s poem “Russia – USSR” calls on the mighty strength of the Soviet Union; the first part reads:

“I see a man standing sharp against skyline, a woman on the horizon,

Born in a vast October, guarding the East and West of life.”

What is fascinating is that such a unique collaboration of artists and poets came about in London 1942.

The Ashton Rare Books website includes all the various mages, including “Attack” by Mary Wykeham, who Nancy Cunard mentions in the postcard and of whom very little – at least that I can find online – seems to be known.

Also, there is a version – titled “Zodiac” – of Ithell Colquhoun’s “Dance of the Nine Opals” [1942; private]:

inspired by the Merry Maidens, a stone circle near Penzance, and her increasing fascination with Celtic lore and magic.

The original of Julian Trevelyan’s image from Salvo for Russia is in the Tate collection and portrays the utter dehumanisation of war:

Soldier 1942 Julian Trevelyan 1910-1988 Presented by Mrs Mary Trevelyan, the artist’s widow 1989


All in all, then, Salvo for Russia, albeit barely chronicled, is an extraordinary production.


Art, Books & Culture Group (October 2021): some resources for Nancy Cunard – an uncommon viewer…


And what a marvellous meeting of the Group last Saturday for our ‘travels’ with Nancy Cunard through the art worlds of London, Paris and Harlem in the 1920s/30s. Here are a few resources that might be useful as starting points for further research.

Key biographies:

and for her poetry, there is a digital collection from the Bodleian Library online here which includes a fabulous introductory essay, Edith Sitwell’s poetry journal Wheels in which Cunard published is available online c/o the Modernist Journals Project.

The most recently published selection is:

The images on the cover of these books lead us immediately to the portraits of Nancy Cunard, the easiest to access being photographic portraits.

The Curtis Moffat photographs are at the Victoria & Albert Museum – here

Man Ray’s are in the Pompidou Archive – here – and his portraits of Henry Crowder – here

And it is very interesting to explore Barbara Ker-Seymer’s archive at Tate – here which includes photographs of Nancy Cunard, Edward Burra, John Banting and several other ‘personalities’ of the inter-war years.

The portrait paintings are slightly more difficult to track down:

Alvara Guevara’s very fashionable 1919 portrait is at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne – here – and the fabulous Eugene McCown is at the The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas archive:

As for Brancusi’s extraordinary sculpture of Nancy Cunard, there is a short essay on the Christie’s website – here.

The John Banting portraits seem only to be available as reproductions in the biographies, this one – from 1931 – is the frontispiece to Hugh Ford’s introduction in the re-published version of Negro Anthology [Continuum, 2002]:

There is much to be said, and more to explore, about Nancy Cunard’s relationship – as muse, patron and associate – with up & coming artists and photographers; as well as the global extent of her image in 1920s & 30s newspaper columns, moving from her status as glamorous debutante and fashion icon through to her trips to Harlem in 1931 and 1932 where racism and sexism are very much part of the ‘tabloid’ news agenda. There is a long and illuminating essay on all this at the Modernism/Modernity site – here.

One photograph by Man Ray [1928; Pompidou archive] that fascinates me is:

Might it have been taken in her Paris flat? Combined with the biographies, I found myself peering closely to see what paintings Nancy Cunard had on her walls. Many were lost and destroyed during WWII, but Anne Chisholm notes:

The only paintings from Nancy’s collection I’ve been able to discover (so far!) are:

“Death Watching his Family” by Yves Tanguy, which is in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the website states:

The information given on the painting’s provenance in the catalogue of the Tanguy exhibition held in Baden-Baden in 1982 stated that the work belonged for a time to Nancy Cunard. If this is true, it must have been acquired during Tanguy’s exhibition in 1927, when the writer, then Louis Aragon’s lover, visited the show.

And the second painting is:

Marie Laurencin (1883-1956): Les bergères / The Shepherdesses [1922; private; c/o Christies]

Moving to a cottage at Reanville, in the Normandy countryside, Nancy Cunard – alongside surrealist poet Louis Aragon at first – set up her Hours Press to publish poetry in limited, and very contemporary, artistic editions which would include, in 1930, music and lyrics by her lover Henry Crowder (the jacket is a collage of photographs by Man Ray).

It was through her relationship with Henry Crowder – both her experience of their relationship, and hearing his stories of being African-American – that Nancy Cunard began her life-long commitment against racism.

One aspect was her support for the Scottsboro Boys, another the publication in 1933 of Negro Anthology which was dedicated to Henry Crowder; in the Foreword, she wrote: “It was necessary to make this book – and I think in this manner, an Anthology of some 150 voices of both races – for recording of the struggles and achievements, the persecutions and the revolts against them, of the Negro people.”

Part of Cunard’s research for the book was to travel to Harlem to meet poets, novelists and political writers to ask them to contribute. On her second trip, Cunard travelled with the surrealist John Banting, despite this I’ve not [yet] found any clues to her meeting with visual artists. However, she must have come across, for example, the illustrations by Aaron Douglas to the poetry of Langston Hughes whose poem “I, Too” led Cunard’s Anthology:

Paintings by Douglas encapsulate the Harlem Renaissance, including:

“Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction” [1934; New York Public Library]

Douglas painted these murals to reflect African and African American history, the African American present, and his vision of a promising future… with graphically incisive motifs and the dynamic incorporation of such influences as African sculpture, jazz music, dance, and abstract geometric forms – NYPL.

And other artists might have included:

(Left) Winold Reiss: Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I [c.1920]; (Right) Stephen Longstreet’s sketchbooks [Beinecke Library; Yale]


One aspect of visual art that Nancy Cunard did focus was that made in Africa. In Man Ray’s photographs we see her collection of bracelets, bangles and sculptures:

Some of her collection would be reproduced in Negro Anthology; a section is devoted to the variety of sculptures, masks and decorations from across Africa: Bambara Sculpture from West Africa, masks from Northern Congo and Nigerian bracelets and anklets. Indeed, Jane Marcus writes in the introduction to Nancy Cunard: Perfect Stranger that other “monumentally grand projects” lie in the archives, including: “a precise scholarly art-historical book on African ivories and a collection of notes, photographs and museum postcards from all over the world on the representation of Blacks in Western art.”

I’ve much more reading and research to do, but what is certain is that Nancy Cunard was close to art and artists and thought seriously about visual culture throughout her life.


On my reading list next:

Art, Books & Culture Group (Sept. 2021): some resources for Edward Burra

“[Edward Burra] satirizes the present with an alarming gentleness, sympathy and an abandoned feeling of nonsense. His world is not pestered by vain attempts to rationalize. It is the topsy-turvy world we somehow live in…”

John Banting (from Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered; Andre Deutsch, 1982).

Portrait of Edward Burra (1905-1976) by John Banting [1930s; National Portrait Gallery]

Greetings! What a glorious meeting we had on Saturday exploring the early paintings of Edward Burra – and indeed his world. Whether London, Paris, Marseille or Harlem, the theatre and ballet, films or illustrated magazines and paperback-thrillers, all inspired his imagination and the pictures are packed with people going about their business; with drama and humour they offer quite a perspective on the 1920s Jazz Age. The early works, certainly, deliver a fairly benign vision of the ‘underworld’ – the sex workers, sailors and dubious-looking characters – that must have represented such excitement and freedom so far were they from the respectability of Rye and, indeed, the exhaustion of illness, not to mention the cultural shadow of World War I.

The best books – and there are very few – on Edward Burra, are:

Jane Stevenson’s biography “Edward Burra: Twentieth-Century Eye” (Jonathan Cape, 2007)


Simon Martin’s Pallant House Gallery exhibition catalogue “Edward Burra” (Lund Humphries, 2011)

The Tate website has a fascinating Rothenstein Lecture by Andrew Stephenson: New Ways of Modern Bohemia’: Edward Burra in London, Paris, Marseilles and Harlem as well as some digitised archive images, such as this wonderful woodcut “Balcony” (c.1928/9):

Balcony circa 1928-29 Edward Burra 1905-1976 Presented by Redfern Gallery 1971

There is also a (rather tame) episode of Radio 4’s “Great Lives” on i-player with Jane Stevenson and Jonathan Meades, and (currently unavailable) a documentary by Andrew Graham-Dixon “I Never Tell Anybody Anything: The Life and Art of Edward Burra” (which might be found on YouTube)

For Burra’s art works, the best places are Christies and Sothebys – click on the picture and sometimes there’s a “Lot Essay” further down the individual pages.

Other interesting websites for the 1930s more generally are: Cocktails with Elvira – all about Elvira Barney and her circle of friends, and for some great photographs and a brief history of the Harlem Renaissance period:


For an overview of the Bright Young People scene in 1920s & 30s London:

D.J. Taylor’s “Bright Young People” [Vintage, 2008] is an excellent and highly recommended read.

Drawing on the writings and reminiscences of the Bright Young People themselves, D.J. Taylor has produced an enthralling social and cultural history, a definitive portrait of a vanished age.

And for a broader social/ political history of the 1930s, Juliet Gardiner’s book “The Thirties” (2011, HarperCollins) is, to my mind, the very best.


One aspect we discussed was Burra’s admiration for Josephine Baker:

Went to the Casino de P[aris] revue, glorious my dear. Ive never enjoyed so much for years. J[osephine] Baker rose out of a gilded casket in a green evening dress to the floor trimmed with diamonte & sang ‘King for a day’ in English. Never have I heard anything so lovely.

– Letter from Edward Burra to Barbara Ker-Seymer [Tate]

And Baker is still, of course, renowned as a performer, a pioneering artist on stage and screen. She was also, through World War II, a highly skilful and successful spy. And she is about to be honoured in Paris.

In The Times (4th Sept. 2021), Ben Macintyre writes:

“It is primarily in appreciation of her work as an agent of the French Resistance… that Baker’s remains will be interred at the Pantheon in November. She will be only the sixth woman to received France’s highest honour, the first entertainer and the first black woman to be laid to rest in a national mausoleum… alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Voltaire.”

I believe this will be happening on 30th November, and they’re bound to broadcast it on the France 24 channel (streamed on the internet, in English).


The East London Group comes to Southend: hurrah!!!

Cannot wait to see all these GLORIOUS paintings!


Artists… of the Night: the Cluj School of Romania

It was through reading and discussing “Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania” (published this year by Head of Zeus) with author Paul Kenyon recently that I’ve learnt a little about Romania’s contemporary art scene.

It’s towards the end of the book – a history of catastrophic leadership in Romania throughout the 20th century – that Paul writes of the present day:

“The collective trauma of communism, followed by revolution and then a decade of near darkness, has ignited in some a rare level of drive and inspiration. Up in the Transylvanian city of Cluj, a group of pioneering painters have caught the imagination of the art world with their wild and experimental styles, their loose application of paint, and their creation of haunting, sometimes brutal images of post-communist Romania. Members of the Cluj School are in their thirties and forties, working out of an abandoned communist brush factory in the city, while their canvases are exhibited in top galleries around the world… “

There is a fascinating essay in Contemporary Art Issues that gives the broad context and highlights the key artists of the Cluj School and another overview via Christies.

So many of the paintings are immediately fascinating, but it’s “The Sunflowers in 1937” [2014] by Adrian Ghenie that really caught my attention. The photograph at the top of the page here is from Romania Insider magazine, the headline that Ghenie’s painting sold for over £3million at Sothebys in 2016.

We all know Vincent Van Gogh’s glorious series of Sunflowers paintings, such as the one at the National Gallery in London, and that familiarity is, perhaps, what makes Ghenie’s painting so shocking and, indeed, so powerful.

The Sotheby’s essay (in full here) notes: “Adrian Ghenie’s The Sunflowers in 1937 is an extraordinary and monumental reimagining of van Gogh’s masterpiece as subject to the events of twentieth-century history”. For, along with the familiarity of the image, is the shocking recognition of the date in the painting’s title: “1937 was the year in which the Nazi regime held the infamous exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ at the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten in Munich” and it is this history that haunts Ghenie’s picture. The Sotheby’s essay describes:

As though witnessing van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a state of near inferno, we imagine molten passages of oil paint shrinking to blackened welts as the canvas itself begins to disintegrate and disappear into thin air.

Adrian Ghenie, along with the other Cluj School artists, is only too aware of what fascism, totalitarianism and ‘cultural cleansing’ can do to a society and its people.


Horrendously, such cultural violence is currently being unleashed in Afghanistan where the visual art scene had been flourishing in recent years. Now:


researching Ursula Tyrwhitt (part i)

Recent researches into the art and life of Gwen John for our Art, Books & Culture discussion group have led me to begin investigating a close friend of John’s, the artist Ursula Tyrwhitt (1872-1966) – although there is at first appearance very little to go on, despite her having a number of exhibitions.

The website does have sixteen of her paintings – mostly from the National Library of Wales, so I guess one of my next steps is to visit their archives. The painting that really stands out from this selection for me – besotted by colour and flowers as I am!) is

“Still Life with Primroses”

Tyrwhitt, Ursula; Still Life with Primroses; Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales;

That gorgeous blaze of oranges and yellows seems to vibrate, even fizz, deliciously.

That they are primroses links to Margaret Forster’s novel “Keeping the World Away” in which Ursula visits Gwen’s apartment in Paris. She had brought with her “some primroses, bought that morning from a woman selling them in the street. They were fresh, newly picked…”. She reaches the door to see that Gwen is painting, fears disturbing the concentration, whispers her name and holds out the flowers. Her friend turns, takes the flowers and puts them in water. replacing the book that is on the table and part of her still life painting.

“‘Good’, she said, ‘the flowers are just right. They say the right things’. Ursula wondered what these right things were, but Gwen was asking her if she would like tea…”

detail from Gwen John’s “A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris” [1907-9; Sheffield Museums;]

In “Portraits of Women: Gwen John and Her Forgotten Contemporaries”, Alison Thomas notes:

“Ursula possessed a great gift for painting flowers. The shapes, forms and colours of a vase of flowers on a table, perhaps in front of a window, would inspire her to paint a bold composition. Ursula favoured the larger, more brightly coloured summer flowers: it is their size and varied shapes that give structure and form to her compositions, yet despite their outward boldness there is much delicacy and subtlety, particularly in her handling of the paint.”

Flowers 1912 Ursula Tyrwhitt 1878-1966 Presented by Mrs Mary McEvoy 1935

Thomas continues:

By her use of thin, transparent and fluid washes, Ursula allows the essential structure of the flowers to act as a framework for the brilliant hues. She hints at literal appearance, but does not overstate. [In her paintings of flowers by windows] …the flowers themselves remain central in the composition, reinforcing their presence by glowing colour which captures our attention and incites our admiration.”



Only the very beginning, then, but a research project has been announced: archives, here we come!

There is a gorgeous painting by Ursula Tyrwhitt on the internet called “Nosegay” [1913] but sadly no gallery link or further information; what an inspiration to find out more though:


Art, Books and Culture Group, August 2021 – Gwen John, some resources

Greetings! Such a glorious meeting of the ABC Group last weekend; wonderful to see everyone as always.

Gwen John (1876-1939): The Student (portrait of Dorelia McNeill) [1904; Manchester Art Gallery;]

The Pictures

As always, one of the best resources to see the paintings is – click on the link and it will take you to 80 pictures by Gwen John.

The other brilliant resource for images – in particular the drawings and watercolours is Sotheby’s – again, this link will take you straight there.

Articles & Essays

The Tate website has a broad overview of Gwen John’s life and work; also a number of articles in Tate Etc. magazine including: I think if we are to do beautiful pictures, we ought to be free from family conventions and ties: Gwen and Augustus John by Virginia Ironside and David Fraser Jenkins

The National Museum of Wales has a very interesting series of articles by Neil Lebeter which look closely at Gwen John’s painting technique: it’s the tone that matters

And there is an essay on by Catherine Jamieson: Quiet Intensity.


For me, the best book on Gwen John’s art is by Cecily Langdale:

which is sadly out of print, but available at the library and there is a short article, c/o the publishers here.

My ‘highly recommended’ also goes to Alison Thomas’s “Portraits of Women: Gwen John and her forgotten contemporaries” from Polity Press, a group biography of Edna Clarke Hall, Gwen John, Ida Nettleship and Gwen Smith. Sadly again it seems to be out of print, but certainly worth tracking down.

Other books we mentioned include, Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson which is a wonderful read; Rebecca Birrell’s brand new book This Dark Country which looks at a number of artists from intriguing perspectives and has an essay on Gwen John and you just can’t get better in terms of a fictional portrait than in Margaret Forster’s Keeping the World Away!


There is also an archived documentary programme (BBC, 1975) on both Gwen and Augustus John available on i-player: The Fire and the Fountain.


As always: Happy Researching! and do let me know what else you come across, and I’ll add it in!

In the meantime: one of Gwen John’s beautiful flower paintings,

“Vase of Flowers” [1910s; National Library of Wales;]

John, Gwen; Vase of Flowers; Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales;

All best wishes, The Common Viewer


Words and Pictures: The Art of Brett

I’ve been meaning to write a short post about the artist Brett since reading Frances Wilson’s brilliant new biography

Wilson’s discussion of Lawrence’s life is extraordinary in that she weaves in all of his writing (not just the obvious novels) along with his friendships, travels and, let’s face it, his contradictions and eccentricities. Even aside from her subject, however, this is a biography like no other and Wilson’s determinedly creates a narrative – following Dante’s ascent through the circles of Hell – that unfolds in such a way as to portray Lawrence more in his own unique terms, his particular vision and understanding of life, than any straightforward this-happened-then-this-and-then-that. As such it is worth reading as much for an appreciation of the art of biography as for Lawrence’s life story.

Be that as it may, one of the most interesting aspects of Lawrence’s life for me – from the perspective of visual art – is his time in New Mexico. Lawrence had always wanted to set up a community of like-minded souls and when the American socialite and patron of the Taos Art Colony, Mabel Dodge Luhan, invited him, he went, along with his wife Frieda and the artist Brett (he had asked all his other friends to join him, they all said no!).

Brett is hardly known here now, except perhaps among the devotees of all things Bloomsbury. Her ‘full name’ was The Right Honourable Dorothy Eugenie Brett; her dates 1883-1977.

Born into a very well-to-do and actually quite eccentric family, Brett was seen as the most eccentric of them all when she began studying to be an artist at the Slade. It was there – alongside Carrington – that she not only cut off her hair (becoming what Virginia Woolf called “one of the cropheads”) but also cut off most of her names to become, simply, Brett. Despite suffering hearing problems – she used a trumpet she called Toby – she flourished, associating with Augustus John, Katherine Mansfield, the Lawrences, Mark Gertler and, especially during the years of the First World War, Ottoline Morrell at her house in Garsington which became a sanctuary for pacifists and conscientious objectors.

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie; Umbrellas; Manchester Art Gallery;

I have to copy & paste Manchester Art Gallery’s description of Brett’s painting “Umbrellas” which goes as follows:

Stylised figure composition in an outdoor park setting. Group of figures in the foreground, comprising bearded man to the right beneath an ivory coloured umbrella, limply holding a book in his right hand. There is a woman in a pale pink dress and yellow hat in the centre beneath a green umbrella, seated in deckchair facing a young man in a grey suit crouching to the left. There are more figures in the background beneath coloured umbrellas to the left and right.

They seem not to be fans of Bloomsbury! The “woman in a pale pink dress” is in fact the great Ottoline Morrell herself, the limp-handed bearded man is Lytton Strachey and the “crouching” young man is Aldous Huxley. The woman leaning on his shoulders is Ottoline’s daughter Julian. Of the “background” figures, the two to the right are Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray, the single figure under the yellow umbrella to the left is Mark Gertler and the person under the blue umbrella is the artist, Brett, herself. The “outdoor setting” is, of course, Garsington Manor.

Painted through the summer of 1917, Brett took Virginia Woolf to see it. Woolf notes in her diary: Brett is a queer imp. She took me to her studio and is evidently very proud of a great picture full of blue umbrellas.

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie; D. H. Lawrence; National Portrait Gallery, London;

Brett painted Lawrence’s portrait in New Mexico in 1925. The ‘colony’ was an endless drama of comings and goings, but Brett would stay in Taos for the rest of her days. The Sotheby’s website records: [Brett] was immediately enamoured by the new environment, remarking, “I like it better than England. O, for the bigness of it! …Here I’m free from the old conventions …Here I’m truly free” (as quoted in Cassidy, New Mexico Highway Journal, March 1933).

There’s an intriguing Self-Portrait (c/o Addison Rowe Gallery) from this time, 1925, and it looks as if Brett is holding “Toby”, her hearing trumpet:

Many of her paintings took their subjects from the Pueblo Indians’ lives. In Sean Hignett’s biography “Brett – from Bloomsbury to New Mexico” (1984), he recognises how difficult this was, especially for an outsider, alien to the community’s beliefs. However, making friends, Brett soon found a guide to the local religious ceremonies, Trinidad, who was “a discreet mediator and protector in [Brett’s] dealings with the Pueblo”.

It meant that she could attend – though not directly paint, sketch or photograph – the calendar of dances and ceremonies tied to the agricultural seasons and religious feast-days. The only ceremonial painting by Brett in a UK collection is at the Tate, and painted later in 1948:

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie; Ceremonial Indian Dance: The Matachinas; Tate;

Tate Catalogue notes:

The artist wrote (17 September 1959) that the dance is almost entirely Spanish in costume, music, etc.: ‘A variation of the old Spanish Folk Dance “Los Christianos y Tor Moros” celebrating the battle which recovered Spain from the Moors in the 15th Century. Brought to Mexico soon after the Conquest, it added “Matinche” (Cortez’ Mistress and Interpreter) as a character, but retained the Spanish El Toro (the bull). It was then brought up into New Mexico where it took on Indian characteristics. [see more on Tate website]

The costumes and masks are fascinating in their detail, the dancers and the two musicians with people looking on from all around; the symmetry and the colours reflect the ritual importance of the dance. It’s quite breath-takingly beautiful.

Hignett writes that the dance often developed “a deep psychic intensity, building up through the long sun-baked day, through hours of non-stop rhythmic shuffling and swaying, low throat-throbbing chanting and the continual rapid pound of drums. The dance grows until quite suddenly it stops and one feels the silence…”

The other extraordinary painting by Brett on the website (again at the Tate) is terrifyingly tragic:

Massacre in the Canyon of Death: Vision of the Sun God

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie; Massacre in the Canyon of Death: Vision of the Sun God; Tate;

The artist wrote (17 September 1959):

‘The Navajo men before leaving for a hunting expedition placed their women and children in a high cave on the side of the towering cliff…. Soon after they left the Spanish soldiers rode through the Canyon. An old woman … jeered and spat, thus giving away their hiding place. The soldiers then climbed up the opposite side of the Canyon and fired into the cave until all the women and children were killed. My painting shows the dying women seeing a vision of the Sun God as they die.’ [Tate website]

The tragedy is there in the red walls of the canyon, the smallness of the figures – but that vision of the Sun God seems to have such strength: at the moment of death the women and children pass beyond earthly life under the Sun God’s gaze. To me, at least, as a cultural outsider, it would seem Brett had a remarkable understanding of local beliefs and was able to convey/translate the meaning and power of them in paint. I wonder about the balance between the documentary aspect, the story-telling and the artistic vision of the paintings. Brett certainly did not paint for foreign/western eyes, indeed it seems many of her paintings were bought by the local community, but one does wonder about their reception and whether the Pueblo Indians recognised themselves, their lives, legends and beliefs in Brett’s imagery.

Of course, through the magic of the digital age, we are also able to “visit” some of the Taos galleries and auction houses to see more of Brett’s art:

This is “Women’s Dance” (1932), one of a number at showing again Brett’s glorious use of colour.

And for her sense of design:

Bareback Riders [1955; c/o Sothebys]

That DH Lawrence, who died in 1930, was such an influence on her life – the invitation to New Mexico was a complete liberation – is recalled in a 1958 painting:

called “My Three Fates” [Albuquerque Museum], it shows Mabel (left), Frieda (centre) and Brett (right) apparently remembering Lawrence who we see through the doorway sitting writing under a tree, as was his habit.