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Thursday 12 August 2010

Forgotten Artists - Part 1

Two or three weeks ago Jim at The Truth About Lies was kind enough to send me a DVD which he thought might interest me and might even form the basis of a post. He was correct on both counts. The DVD was a BBC Wales production, a recording of a documentary put out on the life and work of Mildred (Elsi[e]) Eldridge. Who? Well, exactly, that was the point of it. I have always had more than a passing interest in the question of how it is that poets, artists and others who were highly regarded in their day, were even thought to be important, can come to be disregarded, neglected even, by later generations. Sometimes they bounce back, but not always. There are many reasons, of course why they fall into disfavour. Sometimes it will be that they were simply over-rated and couldn't stand the test of time. At least, that's the explanation most often given. Sometimes they just become unfashionable. But saying that begs the question of why some are then reinstated when the new fashion has passed, but others are not. Mildred Eldridge hasn't so much been neglected as completely forgotten. It is incredibly difficult to turn up any information on her. Pop Mildred Elsie Eldridge into Wikipedia and it will ask you if you meant Mildred Eddie Eldridge. Try reducing it to Mildred Eldridge and it will offer you other Eldridges, but not Mildred. The BBC Wales production relied very heavily on the memories of her son, Gwydion, and various friends and neighbours.

So who was she, this mysterious person? She was a painter and illustrator. The title of the documentary was Mrs R. S. Thomas. That's right, she was the wife of R.S.Thomas, the Welsh Priest and Poet. Try Mildred Elsie Eldridge in Google and you will be offered a few references, mostly in Welsh, to do with the BBC documentary or the odd book reference, the majority of which are books that she illustrated. Some of these illustrations were to be found on the web, but what I have been unable to find so far (with one exception - more of that later), are any usable images of any of her paintings - of which it is said she produced over one thousand. Google Mrs Thomas and you will get her husband by the page load.

Let's begin again, back at the beginning: she lived and went to school in Wimbledon, South London, was utterly miserable at school, and eventually escaped to The Wimbledon School of Art. I could find very little about her childhood and early student days (R.S. Thomas's autobiography is about him, not her), but we find her a few years later, one of the most successful students at The Royal College of Art. She is something of a work-a-holic - at least that is probably how she would be described these days - working until 9.o'clock every night. Which seems to have paid off, for when it came to her final exhibition, she was the first student to sell all of her exhibits. Move on a bit and she is a successful artist, critically, financially and socially. She has a series of one-man shows, the most notable probably being the one at London's Beaux Arts Gallery. She has travelled on a scholarship across the continent to further her studies, and you would have had to part with a small fortune to pay for one of her paintings from a London Gallery.

There was a downside. She felt she was in danger of being sucked in to the social whirl, and decided that she needed to flee the bright lights, both for that reason and to escape the clutches of an unwanted lover. Maybe it was that which was her undoing, so far as posterity is concerned. She took off for the solitude of the Welsh borders, which was where, eventually, she came to meet R.S.Thomas. He was not at that stage either a fully ordained priest or a known poet. He was just beginning to make his way. They found themselves in the same lodging house, Bryn Coed, though his account merely says, rather ambiguously and somewhat disingenuously that she was lodging fairly close by. In fact, she was teaching at the Oswestry Grammar School. It must be true to say that her world was very different from his and that her horizons were far broader than his. She dressed very much in the Bohemian style, in stark contrast to Thomas, who was from a Bourgeois family from Holyhead. R. S. and Elsi (she would henceforth be known as Elsi) Eldridge were married in Llanycil, on the shore of Bala Lake on 5 July 1940. Many years later he would write the following, recalling their life together.

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed,
love's moment
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
partner for
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.

So now I have fallen into the trap. Time after time, looking up a reference to her, I would find information on, or work by, not her, but R.S.Thomas. Gwydion recalls that as a boy he used to wonder which of his parents would eventually be the more famous. People are always remarking to him, he says, on how prolific was his father, with over 2000 poems, though her 1,000 paintings must have compared very favourably. It seems to me there are two main reasons for her neglect: one I have mentioned, her self-contrived isolation from the centre of things, from other artists and critics and from the social whirl that might have kept her work before the public eye; and, not unrelated to that, the fact that her work was (and is) mainly in private hands and not in important collections or public galleries. There was one exception. A commission to paint a mural, The Dance of Life, for the staff canteen in the Gobowen Orthopaedic Hospital. It was a huge undertaking for someone who had no studio, being composed of six panels and in all a hundred and twenty feet long. Physically this would have been a daunting task at the best of times, but to make it more so, the family moved house when the work was half way through. Gwydion maintains that the mural can be compared to the Whistler panels. Alas, they are not still in situ but were taken down in 1950 to facilitate alterations to the hospital, and have been in store since then.

It has proved extremely difficult to uncover any images, even of the mural, which must be considered her major work. Gwydion maintains that the time has come for her to be given her long over-due notice and critical acclaim. For that to happen, it might not be a bad idea for those who have access to her works to make them known on the web. It seems to me that would be a good place to start.
I have been able to find only three tiny details (more accurately, one tiny detail - shown above - and two microscopic ones) from the mural and a couple of her illustrations,shown further down. They are illustrations to Walter de la Mare's Journey Round My Skull. Many commentators seem to suggest that the reason for her eclipse was R.S., that she lived in his shadow. It's true that she did, though it was from choice. Gwydion says she chose not to go her original route, and that is true. Furthermore, in many ways she facilitated Thomas's poetry - but that's another story, and not one, I would think, that impinges on our neglect of her..

I had intended this post to be a look at forgotten painters and sculptors in general, but I have found Elsi compelling enough to have devoted the whole of it to her. Maybe I will fulfil my original intention at a later date.

Haiku #231

Breathe easier now -
the swine 'flu pandemic is
history, my friend


Jim Murdoch said...

I’m exactly the same, Dave. I even subscribe to a site called Art Inconnu which features the work of works by artists who are forgotten, underappreciated, or little known to the mainstream. I’m the same when it comes to composers. Do you have any idea just how many composers there are out there you have never even heard of let alone heard, people who have hundreds of compositions to their names that have simply fallen through the cracks in time? Just out of curiosity I looked up Baroque Composers in Wikipedia. There’s a chart at the top which features the most well-known 40-odd of which 16 were known to me (most people I expect would only know Bach, Handel and Vivaldi) and I probably have something by them all and then you look at the huge list below. It’s scary. The thing is, there will be that number and more composers alive and working today and how many could you name? The same goes across all the arts. I subscribe to Ron Silliman’s blog and he puts up obituaries on an alarmingly regular basis it feels and I hardly ever know any of them and if I don’t know them then I don’t know their work either. And, typical me, that makes me feel guilty.

Jinksy said...

Maybe this is where Blogland can help bring some future 'inconnu' artist to the attention of an audience who will always be able to look back on their works via computer technology...

Rachel Fenton said...

It's astounding that someone so talented can leave so little trail.

This was such an enjoyable read, Dave, thank you for going to the trouble.

I remember going to a small gallery in Sheffield, as a teen, and asking to look in the store and there were hundreds of amazing paintings in there which weren't important enough to put on show or were too important to risk damage by having on exhibition - a real treasure trove - and that was just a small gallery - makes you wonder just what is hidden away.

Would love to see more of Elsi's works.

Karen said...

Fascinating peek at a situation that I suspect has existed from the beginning of relationships. I hope to see and hear more of Elsi here and in popular culture.

Eryl said...

I guess we just haven't had the resources to keep every talented artist in the public spere. So those who take themselves out of view, or don't relentlessly keep themselves in view, disappear from sight. Up until now, with the internet and its seemingly infinite space, the question of which artists are seen and heard has been in the hands of a very few establishment figures (and I have heard some convincing arguments that modern art in this country is all filtered through Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi, so that may still be the case to a large extent) which means all the public ever got to see was what these people chose to show. And those people could only chose to show what they could see. Any artist who didn't work hard to be, and stay, seen by the few have all but vanished.

Lucky for us there are traces and trails that people like you can follow, and now thanks to the internet all sorts of work can be brought back into view.

Dave King said...

Yes, you have rightly mentioned the three streams that are often confused: the forgotten, the underappreciated and the little known. They are significantly different, I think, though of course they overlap, the underappreciated being more likely to become the fogotten, for example.

So far as painters go, I can recall an alarming number who well well known when I was a student, artists we were all certain had booked their places among the great, but who are now mere footnotes or not even that. Most would be known to the cogniscenti, I suppose, but maybe not to the ordinary gallery-goer. As you say, it is alarming.

It should help, certainly, though maybe only a partial answer.

It is astounding, I agree. And as Jim has so rightly pointed out it is true of all the other arts as well. There are poets who have contributed enormously to the the history of poetry through their influence on the familiar names, but who are not known at all to most poetry lovers.

I have no doubt but that you are right: it has always been so.

You are right, I am sure: there is so much poetry, art, music, whatever, that no one could know of it all. I think you may also be correct in thinking that if not all contemporary art (though not modern), then certainly too much of it has been filtered through those two gentlemen.

Wjat alarmed me was how difficult it was to pick up the trails for Elsi, even on the web!

Gerry Snape said...

I have a collection of 1960's art magazines and it has always facinated me when looking through them for references to see the work of some artists that were obviously esteemed then and are not heard of now. But fashions change in art as everything and you only have to think of William Blake to realise this. A really interesting post...thankyou.

Carl said...

Ooh. A nice long post. I will sink my teeth into it tonight. Can't wait.

Carl said...

Ooh. A nice long post. I will sink my teeth into it tonight. Can't wait.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your post, Dave and went off to do a google search, just to see. Pity that the entry for her painting of R S, Gwydion and herself in the National Portrait Gallery has no image shown! As has been noted, there must be thousands of artists 'out there' of whom most of us will never be aware. Given the nature of Wikipedia and the internet generally, however, I would have thought Gwydion could start putting things right rather easily?

Elisabeth said...

It seems a sad story, Dave, but it's not Elsi's loss. It's ours.

It sounds as though her life was rich and full enough, but we are left without the knowledge we might have had were she better known, were she a man, were she more in the social whirl, as you say.

This is a beautiful post and a credit to the two of you, you Dave and Jim for your efforts to resurrect a forgotten female artist of such talent. Thanks.

Kass said...

I applaud your resurrection of this artist. It's an interesting phenomenon how people are encouraged and sometimes manipulated into caring about art. While directly not related, I offer the rise of my niece's band, Neon Trees. The luck of knowing the drummer from The Killers led them to opening for them, then got them introduced to their recording company and on to the financial backing of managers who create the hysteria. Now they have to depend on the fervent admiration of unbalanced fans, one of whom is selling her car to finance her 'roadie' ambition of following them on tour. While I support and admire my niece, I have to ask, "where are the backers of the finer arts?"

Linda Sue said...

Artists come Artists go- recognition is not the thing really it is just the process of being a creative artsy human- There are no horns to be tooted- everyone has a story and luckily some get written down- will any of it matter in a hundred years from now? Don't know- unless it is in hard copy and found by one such as you.

Unknown said...

I'm keenly interested in the making of "canons," be they literary or musical or artistic, so this was a fascinating read. Thanks for bringing this artist to my attention & telling her story.

Titus said...

Thank you Dave, I can really only echo what's been said at the start.
Fascinating post and a marvellous read. Oh, to get that mural back out and seen.
Love the life in the first monkey, and his wonderful coat.

Titus said...

Thank you Dave, I can really only echo what's been said at the start.
Fascinating post and a marvellous read. Oh, to get that mural back out and seen.
Love the life in the first monkey, and his wonderful coat.

Rachel Cotterill said...

Fascinating - though maybe not surprising, given the vast numbers of people producing any given art form at any given time. Fashions are fickle...

Dave King said...

You're right, Gerry, fashion plays a big part. But again, I come back to why do some go out of fashion and then bounce back, whilst others stay out in the cold?

Thanks Carl.

You would think so, I agree. There is a move to put the mural on show again, but someone seems more intent on hanging on to things the way they are than using the web to get her known.

A very true observation, if I may say so. The other aspect - which I did touch upon - is her role in the facilitating the poetry of her husband. that, too, I think would be a fascinating story.

That, too is a fascinating story in its own right, and so typical of the arts, I think.
Thanks for sharing it.

Linda Sue
It is, as they say, all in the lap pf the Gods. It always has been. Who knows if it will matter tomorrow, never mind a hundred years. I suppose it will always be so. Not sure it need be inevitable, though. But you are quite right to say that recognition is not what matters - to many artists, that is.

I agree, it's a fascinating field for study. Thanks for the comment.

Thanks for the comments - particularly the last two!

True, very true.

Christine said...

Thankyou very much for this. It's interesting how an artist's work can resonate with the culture for a time and then fade. I wonder why? I look forward to learning more of her and her work.

Anonymous said...

You will be interested to know hat the M.E.Eldridge murai is to be housed in the new Creative Arts Building at Glyndwr University

Peter said...

Good post. Try http://www.flickr.com/photos/glyndwruniversity/sets/72157625399291630/show/ for a comprehensive set of pictures of the Dance of Life mural. To think that once the NHS could even consider commissioning such a thing. Probably as well she didn't become famous afterwards or it would have been privatised and sold off to the highest bidder.