Enid Marx - Wally Dogs 1960, linocut with pastel colouring on paper, 355 x 520 mm Credit line: private collection, image © the Estate of Enid Marx
Artillery Row

Eight women well worth meeting

“Parallel Lives” is an unsung gem of an exhibition

You may not, perhaps, have heard about Parallel Lives: Eight Women Artists, the current exhibition at the St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery in Lymington, Hampshire. 

The reasons for this aren’t complicated. 

Lymington, for all its qualities, isn’t central London. The show, which isn’t particularly commercial, isn’t backed by a massive marketing campaign, meaning that our ever-dwindling arts media have largely ignored it. And while all the artists involved have strong reputations in their own fields of practice, none currently boasts the box-office pulling-power of a Lowry, Hockney or even, Heaven help us, the wretched Banksy.

Does it matter, too, that the artists involved are all women? This is a question we’ll revisit in due course. 

The main point, though, is that Parallel Lives is a worthwhile exhibition. Laid out across three airy spaces, it tracks the lives, careers and achievements of eight British female artists, all born within twenty years of each other, their output spanning the 20th century. 

Chronological overlap notwithstanding, the women involved are a disparate bunch. 

Prunella Clough (1919-1999), perhaps the most famous, started her career as a neo-romantic painter, before striking out very much on her own to create peopled landscapes, often urban or industrial, in muted, rather earthy, sometimes heavily-impastoed oils. 

Similarly, while Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) is often associated with the St Ives school, after about 1950 her career veered off in a very different direction. Later in life, she developed a particularly ebullient take on formal abstraction, enjoying the free play of colour and form more or less as an end in itself. 

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham – Inside Outside No.2
1999, acrylic on Arches paper, 580 x 765 mm
Credit line: private collection, image © Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust

Clough and Barns-Graham tended to work within the bounds of traditional “high art” media, which at least made their careers easier to categorise — not that this was always done with fairness. 

At the other end of the spectrum was Enid Marx (1902-1998), a hugely talented artist, designer and illustrator, best known today for the designs she created in the late 1930s for the fabric used on the seats of London’s buses and tube trains. 

Like another artist in this show, the great Barbara Jones (1912-1978), Marx was inspired, not just by fine art, but by its semi-disreputable poor relation, folk art — the happy vulgarity and vivacity of things that non-artists make for their own enjoyment, with all the freedom, eccentricity and irrepressible sense of humour that implies. 

In a world increasingly swamped with mass-manufactured goods, Marx and Jones both came to treasure the informal visual culture of previous generations and its message for the popular culture of their own times. This sensibility underpins the deft and often haunting images Jones made for the Pilgrim Trust’s wartime Recording Britain project, several of which are included in the current show. 

Barbara Jones – Fairground
1946, lithograph, 495 x 762 mm
Credit line: private collection, image © the Estate of Barbara Jones

While other artists here may have been much more adventurous in terms of media and, indeed, their domestic arrangements, Monica Poole (1921-2003) spent most of her career living very quietly in her beloved rural Kent, creating exquisite, intensely well-observed wood engravings based closely on what she knew. This sounds, I know, incredibly twee. In fact, though, her studies of pebbles or twisted trees — eg Piddock Architecture, Root — deliver all the weird monumentality and authority of Paul Nash’s surrealist-inflected biomorphic work.  

And then there’s the enigmatic Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988). A surrealist painter, author, occult practitioner and all-around flamboyant personality, she was fascinated by the use of automatic techniques, exploring gender, eroticism and magic — although she also had a notably soft spot for her adopted Cornwall, its enchanted landscapes and deep history. 

Putting together a decent group exhibition — especially one covering eight careers, some of them very long ones — is harder than it looks. On this scale, encyclopaedic thoroughness simply won’t work. The alternative — conjuring up a handful of works that somehow evoke the whole artist — requires deep understanding plus imaginative flair. 

Fortunately, Gill Clarke and Steven Marshall, curators of Parallel Lives, know their artists very well indeed. 

Take the example of Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960). Dunbar was a talented muralist and illustrator. Her chief claim to fame, though, lies in being the sole women offered a salaried role by Sir Kenneth Clark’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Her brief was to record war work done on the Home Front — work often done by women. 

At St Barbe, the curators have pulled together five of Dunbar’s wartime oils, mostly from the Imperial War Museum’s collection, including the magnificently self-assured St Thomas’s Hospital in Evacuation Quarters. Shown alongside the smokily atmospheric Winter Garden, these provide the perfect introduction to Dunbar at her best: the combination of intense formal rigour coupled with all the engaging charm and gentle humour of the best sort of children’s book illustration. For Dunbar enthusiasts as well those new to her work, this assemblage is a tour de force

Evelyn Dunbar – Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook 1940 – oil on canvas, 49 x 75 cm Private Collection, image copyright Estate of Evelyn Dunbar, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

At this late point, I should probably declare an interest. My husband and I own one of the pictures on show in Parallel Lives. Our journey to St Barbe was motivated, in part, by the desire to see our familiar painting no longer hanging over its usual cat-scarred sofa but instead basking in some very distinguished company. 

I’m glad we made the trip. For me, the great discovery of Parallel Lives was Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983). Hermes was a sculptor, designer and wood engraver. Undercurrents shows her at her strongest. It’s an extraordinary feat of technical virtuosity, but also brilliantly evocative. There’s the faint menace of the pike, the sense of oppression from being so far under water — but also, who exactly is that shadowy third figure swimming just beyond the couple in the centre? Hermes’ Stonehenge, a big linocut, is similarly complex and compelling. As with any really good exhibition, I was left longing to find out more. 

Gertrude Hermes – Undercurrents
1938, wood engraving, 405 x 305 mm
Credit line: Julian Francis Collection, image © Estate of Gertrude Hermes

So why are these eight women not better known? 

Various explanations spring to mind. Several — Clough, Dunbar, Jones — were, by nature, private people, lacking the patience, especially in their later years, for the art world’s stupid competitive games. As we have seen, Marx and Jones were both quite relaxed about bridging the boundaries between fine art and commercial design, indifferent to the snobbish insistence that real artists don’t design seat cushions. Colquhoun, one of life’s free spirits, devoted much of her later life to writing books and poems on occult themes, and to practicing magic. Many of these women also did a lot of teaching — undoubtedly expanding their influence, but in a quiet way that probably got in the way of chasing fame. 

Their gender, though, was undoubtedly also a problem. The fact that they were women made it easier to cast them as second-rate members of various “schools”, when in fact their work was simply highly original. Their gender encouraged others to define them in terms of their teachers or associates, perhaps to regard the media in which some of them worked as less prestigious. 

To which I can only say that the past few decades have seen sharp shifts in the reputation of, inter alia, Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Kenneth Rowntree. Art historical narratives are perennially ripe for intelligent revision. Future generations may rate these eight women more highly than their contemporaries did. But the first step is meeting them and understanding their work.

If you have time over the next month or so, it’s well worth seeking out Parallel Lives

Lymington is a lively, attractive little town, full of good late Georgian and Regency buildings. Perched on the edge of the New Forest, it’s just across the Solent from the Isle of Wight. 

The St Barbe Gallery itself occupies a mid-Victorian school building near the busy High Street. In 2017, St Barbe had a major overhaul, so that the entrance now leads directly into a large, light café and shop area, with a good local history collection and an art exhibition space tucked away behind.

Those of us still scarred by the V&A’s “ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached” campaign may find ourselves wincing slightly, but in truth, this is a case where the formula actually works. 

On the Saturday morning when we visited, the café was packed with visitors, enjoying good coffee, hot soup and cheese toasties. The shop showcases work by local artisans of various sorts. In an adjoining room, a “make your own Christmas wreath” session was well underway, complete with mulled wine. It all smelled amazing. 

Increasingly, it’s our smaller, perhaps less well known galleries that offer shows that exist to expand our enthusiasms, rather than simply cashing in on them. And by that metric, at least, St Barbe is doing very well indeed. 

Parallel Lives: Eight Women Artists is showing at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire until 13 January 2024. An informative, well-illustrated exhibition catalogue is available here.

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