Self Portrait Mildred Elsi Eldridge. Photo: Glyndwr University www.glyndwr.ac.uk
It has to be asked, this burning, niggling question, but why on earth do we forget women artists so readily? Why is it that their work is less exhibited, less revered or, if noticed at all, only grudgingly accorded a modicum of the status enjoyed by male artists?
I leave it to you to supply the answers to these questions. I only note that this same enquiry was the driving force behind Professor Amanda Vickery’s recent BBC2 series The Story of Women and Art. In this too brief historical exploration of forgotten/hidden/suppressed and otherwise invisible women artists, Professor Vickery introduced us to the breath-taking creativity of (among others) Sofonisba Anguissola, Berthe Morisot, Johanna Koerten, Properzia de Rossi and Artemisia Gentileschi. I will be forever grateful for the introduction.
Now, though, I have a very particular question. It relates to the work you are about to see – details from a great mural that, until fairly recently, was hidden from view.
All photos: Glyndwr University www.glyndwr.ac.uk
So my question is this. What was in the minds of the people when they took down and concealed from sight this work of lucent genius by Mildred Elsi Eldridge; how did they feel when they stowed away the Dance of Life?
Sorely deflated? Bereft? As if the light had gone out?
The work was originally commissioned in the early 1950s by the Hospital Management Committee of the Robert Jones Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital, Gobowen near Oswestry in Shropshire. A new nurse’s home had been built and the mural was to hang in the dining hall. The hospital’s Doctors Menzies and Salt had recently been to Sweden and seen how art was being introduced to hospitals to enhance the healing process.
The fee for the commission was £500 and the work took M E Eldridge around five years to complete (Gwydion Thomas in Life and Times of M E Eldridge). In 1999, after being on display for forty years, the mural was put into storage. The hospital was undergoing development. But once consigned to custodial care, it was over a decade before moves were made to restore the panels and find them a new home.
Elsi’s son, Gwydion Thomas, was a child when the panels were being painted (see the boy with the monkey above). He says the work was created in their home, in the drawing room of Manafon Rectory, Montgomery. He says that, as there was not enough wall space to hang the work in progress, Elsi rolled up completed portions as she went along, hanging others over doors as she was painting. He says the work wound many times around the room. It is a sharp glimpse into this woman’s focus, vision and determination.
The mural’s overarching theme explores how we industrialized human beings have become detached from the natural cycles of life and death. There are depictions of alienation and loss. Yet the work inspires hope, too, through the reclaiming of forgotten wisdom and traditional ways of living and healing. And so, despite the dark undercurrents, the work is hugely elevating. Joyous. Transcendent. Full of verve. When fellow artist, Stanley Spencer, saw it in 1958 he wrote to Elsi: “Just one look at the heavenly sheep panel would remove all fear and gloom.”
Art Historian, Peter Lord, has described the work as “a masterpiece on so many levels”, while pointing out not only the technical ambitiousness of so large a project, but also the fact that Elsi completed the work without a suitable studio.
It is good news, then, that Dance of Life has now been released from custody, restored and put on permanent view at Glyndŵr University’s Centre for the Creative Industries in Wrexham. It can be viewed by visiting the main University Reception (tel: 01978 293950).
Restoration by Vanessa Andrew in progress at Glyndwr University www.glyndwr.ac.uk
Gwydion Thomas speaking at a private view of the restored panels
Photos: Glyndwr University www.glyndwr.ac.uk
So: you have seen some of her work, including that self-assured self-portrait at the start of this post, but what of the artist M E Eldridge? Why isn’t she better known?
She was born in Wimbledon in 1909, the daughter of a pawn- broker turned jeweller. She studied at Wimbledon College of Art and then at the Royal College of Art, where her teachers included Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and William Rothenstein. She was one of the RCA’s star pupils. In her autobiography she says of this time:
A free studentship in 1931 took me to the RCA which in those days was attached to the Victoria and Albert Museum. There were huge doors from the V&A into the College which were kept securely locked but as there was always one of the museum keepers on duty on the other side of the doors, special signs and knocks could be made so that after signing on at the RCA entrance desk it was possible to escape into the V&A and make drawings of the splendid treasures in the museum, or experimental drawings of one’s own which would probably have received severe criticism from the RCA staff. From there, sallies could be made to the Science Museum across Exhibition Road or to the Natural History Museum to make studies of animals, plants and fungus.
In 1934 The Rome Scholarship competition was held – the subject Music. I submitted the 5′ x 5′ Telling the Bees which later became the central part of the first panel in the mural in the Dining Hall of theNurses’ Home at the Gobowen Orthopaedic Hospital.
M. E. Eldridge Autobiography
This was the piece that won her the prestigious Travelling Scholarship to Italy and opened the doors to the art world. When she returned to London she soon established herself, being the only artist to sell all her work at 1936 Royal Academy exhibition. The next year she had a one-woman show at the Beaux Arts Gallery, and with the proceeds of the sales, including several to major collectors and large metropolitan art galleries, she bought herself a Bentley car. And then –
She turned her back on the glitter, and headed off in her Bentley for the Shropshire-Wales borderlands to teach at Oswestry High School and Moreton Hall School for Girls in Shropshire. She lodged just over the border in Wales, in Chirk near Wrexham, and it was in the house where she was staying that she met the fellow lodger, a young curate, who was to become known to the world as poet, R.S. Thomas. She made this portrait of him in 1940, the year of their marriage.
It would be easy to say that the growing fame of RS eclipsed or stunted Elsi’s talent. He apparently took no interest in her work or did anything to encourage her. There is a revealing interview in the New Welsh Review issue 64 in which Gwydion Thomas says that after Elsi’s death in 1991, his father wondered if Elsi would have “gone on painting properly” if, as they moved from rectory to rectory across Wales, he had ever bothered to arrange for a house with suitable work space for her. RS admitted, too, that he should never have expected her to live at Sarn y Plas in Rhiw (see the previous post) after he retired from the priesthood, and the church authorities would not allow them to buy the Aberdaron rectory with its pleasant rooms and fine views.
Gwydion describes her room at the house in Rhiw: so dark with two tiny windows, and damp too. She had to keep her paintings in black plastic refuse bags to protect them from the water that dripped through the walls. It was so cold, that as she painted, she kept her feet inside a cardboard box, along with a two-bar electric heater, and so was frequently burned. The room also had a low loft which she reached by means of a ladder. Here, with the company of mice, she both slept and worked. Tellingly, the new room that the Thomases built at Sarn y Plas served RS as bed-sitting room.
Elsewhere, Gwydion describes Elsi as
a remarkable and talented woman. She painted, and sold, some 2,000 finished pictures and produced innumerable studies…She was a weaver, a sculptor, a clothes maker – she made me clothes out of rabbit and mole skins – and a knitter, a teacher, a writer and illustrator of children’s books…She designed altar cloths, stained glass windows and wrought-iron chandeliers. She designed and planted four gardens, raised a child, cooked for my father: four meals a day, every day, for 50 years.
He did not know why she stopped painting landscapes, and took to churning out what he calls ‘pretty’ paintings and illustrations. But he does say something that is perhaps illuminating. He says that when his parents first met, RS was writing “dreadful imitations of soppy Georgian poetry”, and full of dreams of Celtic romance. Then along comes this vibrant, shining, well read, well travelled and sophisticated young woman who can introduce him to other kinds of literature, and to the wider world besides.
When it comes to Elsi’s influence on the poet, R S Thomas scholar, Jason Walford Davies, calls her a catalyst, a promoter, the one who made things possible, and helped RS realize a career as poet. She certainly inspired him to write some of his most humane and moving poems.
under a shower
Fifty years passed,
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
‘Come,’ said death,
choosing her as his
the last dance, And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.
R S Thomas
And so perhaps, in a sense, R S Thomas was also one of Elsi’s creations, a co-creation certainly. She gave him the gift of possibility, and that is a great gift indeed. Her artist self may indeed have been diminished by the marriage, although she strikes me as a woman who knew her own mind and made her choices accordingly. Perhaps she had painted out all her best thoughts, and felt she had nothing more to add in terms of ‘great works’. She anyway never stopped creating, making paintings for Medici greetings cards for instance, and she was working still when she could barely see.
There seems to be no single explanation, then, as to why M E Eldridge, after such a glittering start, is not better known today. Clearly she had some hand in this when she decided to drive away from her London career, and head for the Welsh Marches. But then to leave in a Bentley, that most self-aggrandizing of vehicles? It is all so playfully enigmatic.
And so instead of answers, I leave you, in like vein, with this alluring abstract study called ‘Gwydion’s treasures 1952’. I love the shining light in the marbles: what a heart-felt evocation of childhood freedom, and not a shred of sentiment. Only wonder at the cycle of life and death to be observed upon the sea shore, and seen through the endlessly enquiring eyes of a child. Her child.
For further discussion of overlooked women artists:
Jeanne de Montbaston Women, Art and Authority: The Language of Exclusion
Text © 2014 Tish Farrell