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illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.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.
Next week is the second meeting of the Modern Futures network (I attended the first in Preston in January), which will take place in London with options to visit either the Southbank or Barkingside in the morning with a view to producing some kind of response. I have decided to visit Barkingside, for the following reasons:
I’ve been interested lately in the idea of the suburb and the perception and representation of suburbs, and what constitutes a place as a town, village or suburb as distinct from one another (a general observational interest grounded in my everyday experiences and encounters, not one which has led to any specific reading as yet). I’m interested in changing ideas across the last century of what types of buildings and facilities you might expect to find as a prerequisite to make somewhere an attractive place to live or work according to common understandings or definitions, and which of these were included or excluded, prioritised or passed over in new developments such as model villages and garden cities, new towns and estates, or as existing towns and outlying suburbs expanded. These might include but are not limited to schools, housing, health centres, shops, work places and transport links at a fundamental level to the optional ‘extras’ and life enhancers such as swimming pools, churches, town halls, public parks, cinemas, pubs and sports and social clubs.
I’m also interested in the relationship between the metropolis and its outlying areas; a friend recently told me that due to rising costs of living in central London more and more people were looking towards living in places like Barking. To what extent do suburbs function as places in their own right, independent of the metropolis, where one can live without ever feeling the need to venture into central London, and to what extent are they dormitories for London with the majority of people working and socialising in central London, and is this changing? I picked Barkingside as it probably isn’t somewhere I would have had reason to visit otherwise. I’m interested in what you can understand about a place as somewhere to live just by walking around or passing through it, how accurate an impression of a place you can get from its built environment, and to what extent this indicates how successful or pleasant it is as a place to live. I’m interested in how the places and facilities listed above have changed in priority or gone out of fashion as needs and interests have changed and what types of buildings have stood the test of time and what have been replaced, updated or made obsolete altogether, eg Fulwell Cross library is still functioning as a library, whereas the old Odeon is now a bingo hall (has it been replaced by a modern multiplex?). Were these places themselves updated or modernised versions of existing facilities, or were they initiatives prompted by the new needs of a growing population?
I’m also interested in how places such as Barking have changed over time to be regarded as part of Greater London as opposed to being defined by more traditional county boundaries such as Kent, Surrey, or Essex in this case, and whether there is a sense of this dual identity visible in the streetscapes of Barkingside. Do such places still retain a strong sense of separate character or identity as one small area of, or as close to but distinct from, London? This is something I have noticed in the outlying towns and suburbs around Greater Manchester, which would previously have been part of either Lancashire (to the North and West) or Cheshire (to the South and West) before local government boundary changes. Some of these towns are insistent on being identified as part of the city (for example Failsworth, officially part of Oldham, Middleton, part of the Rochdale borough, the former mill towns of Tyldesley and Atherton, formally part of the Wigan borough and separated from Manchester by the city of Salford and its outlying suburbs) – as is apparent in local business names, etc – whereas others are keen on maintaining and highlighting geographical links to their former counties, particularly the Cheshire towns (such as Sale, Altrincham and Cheadle).
I’m not sure what, if anything, this has to do with my PhD, although it could be interesting to bear in mind some popular education pamphlets I looked at earlier this year around reconstruction, published by RIBA and others during the war and in the years immediately afterwards. In this strand of reconstruction literature there was a strong emphasis not just on educating the public about the architectural styles and traditions which had made British towns, villages and cities look the way they did, and celebrating examples of ‘good’ architecture and town planning, but on encouraging the public as individuals to develop and be ready to express informed individual opinions on what they wanted from builders, architects and planners and what their needs and preferences were in terms of building styles and types, facilities and town and cityscapes. As well as looking ahead to the future and the opportunities offered by new styles of buildings and construction methods and the opportunity provided by the reconstruction process for a high degree of control over town planning, these pamphlets also provided a cautionary and provocative tale about avoiding the mistakes of the past, which were in many cases attributed to the sprawl of suburbia and inter-war ribbon development.