The story of Isabel Alexander is by no means an uncommon one. Born into a middle-class, educated family in Birmingham in 1910, as a daughter she was denied her first choice of an education, to train at the Slade. Instead, she attended Birmingham School of Art in the 1920s before finding employment in schools and at Saffron Walden teacher training college in order to pursue her training and practice as an artist. This determination to work and exhibit enabled self-funded studies at the Slade, and a fifty-year career as an artist, pursued at the same time as being a single mother.
After the Slade Alexander went on to work in the burgeoning British documentary film movement of the 1930s and as a commercial illustrator. She designed book tokens vividly illustrating rural life and occupations in East Anglia, Kent and the Cotswolds (1953) and undertook botanical illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.
Alexander succeeds at documentary and narrative, as in her 1944 portraits of disabled miners. She also aptly captures place: highlights include ‘Pinnacle, Thaxted Church’, a 1951 linoprint of a church spire in which natural and architectural details are intertwined and ‘Bardfield Landscape III’, a subtly abstract, yellow-hued watercolour of 1950. Both are inspired by the Essex landscape; she settled in the picturesque and historic village of Thaxted, on the border with Suffolk, before relocating to North Yorkshire for the final years of her life.
In the 1960s Alexander exhibited drawings and paintings at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, selling work to schools including Godolphin and Latymer School in London and Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire education committees. She maintained a commitment not just to exhibiting herself, but to keeping up with visits to exhibitions and maintaining an ongoing interest in contemporary and historical art movements.
A new exhibition of Alexander’s work in Harrogate, bringing together work from private collections and accompanied by a book by Janet McKenzie, aims to highlight her legacy and expose the barriers she faced as a woman seeking a career as an artist. It also traces Alexander’s journey from realism to a growing focus on abstraction and experimentation with media and form.
However, the work in the exhibition suggests Alexander’s transition between realism and abstraction was not clear-cut, and a sense of abstraction and experimentation underlies much of her apparently realistic and naturalistic work. For example, the use of an unexpectedly lurid crayon introduces an ominous element into the otherwise murkily coloured landscape of ‘Condemned Houses, Blaencwm’ (1943), as does the skewed perspective of ‘Miners’ Houses, Trealaw’ (1944).
Displayed side by side at the Mercer Art Gallery, the watercolours ‘Moorland Larches, Yorkshire’ (1983) and ‘Winter Trees I’ (1971) hint at abstraction in their use of starkly outlined shape and colour, at the same time as conveying the particulars of landscape and season in a way that is sensory and atmospheric if not quite realistic and naturalistic.
Also not quite natural, but based in observable phenomena such as the flickering shapes and suggestive shadows of twilight and the transition to darkness, is the 1958 study ‘Moonlight’.
Other highlights include her pencil studies of weather phenomena and later, more large-scale and obviously abstract work in which experiences, natural phenomena and sensations elide, as in ‘Weeds and Water’ (1984) and ‘Gannet’ (1985) in which oils on newspaper explore the bird’s movement at the same time as suggesting watery flows.
Whilst much of her work documents places, landscapes and experiences close and familiar to her, Alexander maintained a commitment to travel and observation of new places, from a series inspired by the natural and manmade landscapes of the Isle of Aran to painting trips to France and Spain. Far from following the well-trodden genre of straightforward pastoralism, beneath Alexander’s work lies a tension between nature and artifice, implying a subtle critique of ways of working, living and using the landscape that that are alienating, exploitative or unnatural.
Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 4 June.
A large number of images of Isabel Alexander’s works have been added to the Bridgeman Art Library and can be explored alongside the exhibition.
Growing up near Folkestone, I loved visiting the Metropole Art Gallery, situated in a huge, horseshoe-shaped late-Victorian pile with parquet floors, polished fireplaces and large windows overlooking the English Channel. Situated on Folkestone’s cliff-top Leas promenade, and bordered by lawns and a sweeping driveway, I thought it was incredibly glamorous – this was the only area of the town where you could imagine the rich and interesting may once have stayed, partied and relaxed in the town’s heyday as a Victorian and Edwardian resort.
The Metropole regularly hosted exhibitions of emerging and established artists, from the visceral paintings of Derek Jarman to the inventive and eclectic experiments of local Foundation degree students. I was sad, therefore, that it closed in 2008, with the town’s Creative Foundation focusing instead on the new Folkestone Triennial, held for the first time that year. Although the Triennial places new commissions across the town every three years, with a small number being retained as permanent exhibits, the town now lacks a major contemporary art gallery bringing changing exhibitions to the town.
Whilst I’d always known that the politician and diarist Alan Clark lived in the secluded Saltwood Castle, just up the hill from my hometown of Hythe, it was only later that I learned more about his father, the art critic and broadcaster Kenneth Clark.
Clark supported the establishment of the New Metropole Art Centre in the 1960s, and the development of a town collection of modern art in the 1960s and 1970s. This collection contains a lot of names familiar from the Pictures for Schools exhibitions – the Surrealist print-makers Michael Rothenstein and Julian Trevelyan, the Kitchen Sink painter John Bratby, the print-makers Gertrude Hermes, Valerie Thornton and Anthony Gross, Kent-based painter Fred Cuming, who was featured in Pictures for Schools as a young artist and continues to work and take an interest in the collection today, and the sculptor and print-maker Elisabeth Frink, along with Sandra Blow and Michael Stokoe.
Among the most notable is the Royal Academician Carel Weight, who was a friend of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman and helped organise and select work for the exhibitions. Like Youngman, Weight was active in the Artists International Association. As well as being professor of painting at the Royal College of Art in London, Weight periodically taught at the Adult Education Centre at the Metropole.
When the Metropole closed, it looked likely that Folkestone’s collection of modern art – which had been placed in Kent County Council storage – would be sold too, but fortunately it’s been retained by a Trust. Several paintings by Weight are now on display across the road at another huge Victorian complex – the Grand (a network of tunnels, predating both the Metropole and the Grand, linked the two buildings, and apparently treasures from the British Museum were stored for safekeeping in a tunnel underneath the Grand during the Second World War).
The Grand, with its shabby-eccentric chic, has certainly seen better days, declining in the second half of the twentieth century as Folkestone lost its status as a holiday destination for the royal and well-connected. Today, five of Weight’s works hang in the drawing room, a formal room just off the main reception and palm court restaurant with neoclassical columns, chandeliers and William Morris block-printed wallpaper featuring green-tinged birds.
Much of Weight’s work which I have seen has, like many of the artworks exhibited in Pictures for Schools, depicted very everyday places and activities, such as the small-scale excitement of a village football match. At the Grand two green-dominated country scenes, ‘Young Lovers’ and ‘Old Lovers’, offer an intimate and almost intrusive glimpse of two unassuming, guarded figures and convey the vicissitudes and tensions of a relationship at different stages of its development. ‘Portrait of a Poet’, which apparently depicts the artist in his studio, foregrounds a serious man in an overcoat. In the background are stacked paintings offering a glance of the backs of yellow-brick Georgian townhouses, viewed from their gardens.
The most interesting picture, however, is the large ‘Battersea Park Tragedy’, painted in the 1970s, split between a dark and dusky scene and a large, brushed sky sunset. Whilst at first sight portraying the mundane – the skeletal outlines of winter trees, the high fence of a tennis court, a small passageway overhung with trees and the excitement/fear-inducing twists of a deserted rollercoaster in the background – the painting introduces an element of the mystical. In one corner, an angel rises above a figure with a bowed head, blank face and clasped hands: the painting is named after the Battersea funfair disaster of 1972, in which children were killed in a fairground accident.
A small, tucked away room in a vast hotel might not be the most prominent place for these paintings, but at least they are still in a semi-public, accessible place. The paintings, created over forty years ago, and not particularly artistically adventurous or striking in their quiet realism, nevertheless form a thoughtful response, observation and reflection on then-contemporary events, public and private, as well as a document of artistic patronage and collecting at the time.
For more information about the Folkestone art collection, and to see details of upcoming exhibitions, visit http://folkestonearttrust.org.uk.