Lover, muse, artist

The aim of this new biography is to re-establish this undeservedly overlooked artist


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The life of Isabel Rawsthorne (1912 – 1992) reads a little bit like romantic fiction; a girl from a humble background sets out on an adventure and meets a cast of fascinating and influential characters with whom she has dalliances and a few marriages. However, unlike Amber St. Clare in Forever Amber or Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, whose chosen fields of operation were the aristocracy and the army, Rawsthorne found herself amongst some of the twentieth century’s greatest artists.

Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawsthorne by Carol Jacobi, The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, £30

She was a model for Jacob Epstein and the mother of his son. She was a muse to Giacometti. She married the composer, Constant Lambert. In her fifties, she was the subject of a number of Francis Bacon portraits.

But in Carol Jacobi’s Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawsthorne, this remarkable woman certainly doesn’t come across as a calculating and ruthless heroine, nor does the author regard her as an opportunist. At the head of the opening chapter she quotes Paul Valéry: “A man’s life, after all, is nothing but a series of chance events and the way in which he, more or less precisely, responds to them.” Jacobi’s aim is to re-establish Rawsthorne, whom she regards as undeservedly overlooked.

Rawsthorne certainly responded to artistic people and they to her. Her appearance was striking. She stood out with her sharp chin, hooded eyes, athletic gait and expansive gestures. She was imperious and exotic. Although she had no Asian lineage, the description was used of her. Epstein cast her in bronze and his friend Arnold Haskell felt she had the Nefertiti look. Epstein’s sculpture influenced Picasso’s painting Le Chapeau a Fleurs.

Rawsthorne was more inquisitive autodidact than foolish ingénue. Her relationship with Giacometti (she claimed they were just friends) was intellectual. They discussed art and learned from each other. Her celebrity fans included the British journalist Sefton Delmer who picked her up in a Paris bar, citing his love of the Epstein image of her. Delmer appointed her as his secretarial assistant before marrying her in 1937.

As a committed socialist, Rawsthorne travelled to Spain with Delmer during the civil war and provided support for members of the International Brigade passing through Paris to fight the fascists. Jacobi casts her as the perfect Ian Fleming heroine — “wilfully clever, travelled with the tastes of a connoisseur, athletic, a perfect shot and sexually insouciant”.

Constant Lambert regarded her as a free-thinking intellectual and married her after her divorce from Delmer. She designed costumes for his score for a ballet about the Greek prophet, Tiresias. But in 1951, Lambert died aged only 47, leaving her no money.

Rawsthorne was more inquisitive autodidact than foolish ingénue

Another composer, Alan Rawsthorne, came to the rescue and for the next 40 years the couple lived in Suffolk, in a cottage which had a studio for Isabel. She achieved success exhibiting in London, including at Bacon’s Hanover Gallery. The art critic David Sylvester ranked her alongside Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Craxton and Peter Lanyon. Her subject matter was the natural world, landscapes, animals and nature morte.

Born Isabel Nicholas to parents sympathetic to her ambition to become an artist. She won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools in London. But her father, a master mariner, couldn’t afford to set her up in a studio and she wasn’t suited to teaching. Her only option was to become a model at a time when the roles of model and artist were strongly demarcated.

Jacobi offers some explanation for Rawsthorne’s relative obscurity today. She was Isabel Lambert for a time, monogramming her work with “IAL”. In the 14 images of her by Francis Bacon, she was titled Isabel Rawsthorne. In 1930s, she painted as Isabel Nicholas.

Little survives of her work from that period — mostly drawings not associated with her colourful, dreamy post-war landscapes. Out of the Cage is illustrated with work from the 1950s and 1960s, which Jacobi says has a more French than English sensibility.

When she was showing and selling her work, she seems to have been dismissed by male peers as a model, lover and muse rather than regarded as an artist. For example, although she worked in his studio, Paolozzi never mentions her in a professional context.

This book uses Rawsthorne’s unpublished autobiography as a primary source, and Jacobi brings a depth of scholarship in relation to her work and the artists with whom she was associated. She is portrayed, rightly, not just as a liberated habitué of London’s post-war Bohemian world, but as a key figure in the passing on of intellectual and artistic ideas from Paris’s Left Bank.

Daniel Farson wrote in her obituary that she wore the surprised expression of someone who had just heard a marvellous joke and wished to share it. Maybe she was just too much fun to be taken seriously?

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