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illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.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.
Putting a modern face on an ancient technique: Noel Dyrenforth’s batik submissions to Pictures for SchoolsPosted: November 3, 2013
This week I spoke to a really interesting batik artist, Noel Dyrenforth, who submitted artwork to the Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the scheme’s final years in the 1960s, as well as to the Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions which were ongoing in the 1970s and 1980s [Dyrenforth has records relating to 1974-83]. He remembers it as a ‘valuable cultural scheme’ which was contributed to by top-quality artists, and that ‘original art was freely circulated and hung in corridors for the benefit of everyone to access’.
Batik is a wax-resist dye technique for fabric. Dyrenforth’s work was included in the ‘Embroideries, fabric collages and batiks’ section of the exhibitions (this is a category of works that particularly interests me, as it seems that several of the artists who exhibited were at the forefront of pioneering new techniques in areas such as machine sewing; interestingly, though, on the subject of craft, a 1965 planning meeting of Pictures for Schools considered an enquiry about whether decorative woven wall hangings could be included in the exhibition, but it was decided that they were too close to craft and it was suggested to craftspeople that they consider starting their own ‘Crafts for Schools’ exhibitions instead).
Dyrenforth recalled that he was travelling around a lot at the time and was very prolific. He used to send in five or six pieces to each Pictures for Schools exhibition, and typically sold four or five each time, particularly to Leicestershire Education Authority which has around 40 of his pieces. Dyrneforth remembers that their buyer was a ‘wily character’ who was particularly keen, and often approached artists who were in their final year or were just coming out of the Royal College and had a future in the art world, meaning that they built up a very large collection of now very valuable artworks. Dyrenforth’s work was also purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum Circulation Department.
Dyrenforth had a traditional, classical art school education, which included life drawing and ‘training the eye’, but found oil painting ‘awful’ so quickly turned to abstraction after leaving art college as it ‘leaves more to the imagination’. He saw himself as part of the 1960s counterculture, which went against all traditional aspects of technique and materials, remembering that it was a very open, easy time and a good time for art as ‘everyone was much more open to new things’. The 1960s was well-known as a time when artists were experimenting with different materials such as glass, rubber and plastic, but Dyrenforth though ‘what can I do that is different to everyone else?’ and decided to go the other way by looking back to the ancient technique of batik, which is 2,000 years old, trying to put a modern face on it and find a new approach. Although batik was more associated with fashion and had no legacy in art (although there was a craze for it in the early-1900s) he always looked on it as art, and thought the division between art and craft was superficial; there was a big tie-up between art and other forms in the 1960s, and a breaking down of traditional divisions. Dyrenforth explained that his work didn’t really look like conventional batik, and he preferred to see them as paintings. Typically, works were around 1.5 metres high, meaning they looked good on walls. At that time, there weren’t many other people working in batik, but in the early-1960s it had started to become popular and was taught in schools. In 1975, Dyrenforth wrote the popular book Batik with Noel Dyrenforth, and has since taught all over the world.
Dyrenforth, who has always been interested in politics and social change, points out that there were great changes in the sixties, and everything became political. It was a time when art seemed to have great promise, particularly American art. He remembers: “There was rebellion in the mind and in the street. We thought there was going to be a revolution in 1968 but it didn’t quite happen.” One of the artworks Dyrenforth submitted to Pictures for Schools in 1969 was called ‘Contact’, and he explains: “We thought contact with new ideas was a vital thing, to communicate ideas to change the system.”
To find out more and see examples of Dyrenforth’s work visit www.noel-dyrenforth.com.