In my second look at the life and works of Fred Elwell I want to concentrate on his masterful portraiture.
In the last blog I left Fred Elwell studying in Paris with his friend Claude Rivas. The year was 1892. They had found themselves some rooms and had enrolled at the Académie Julian under the tutorship of William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Bouguereau was far more than just a teacher of art at the Academy, he was a fierce defender of the academic method of teaching art. He was also the chairman of the selection panel of the Paris Salon and thus had, with the other jurists, the power to accept or refuse submitted entries for the annual exhibitions and the jurists’ refusal to accept non-academic art angered many such as Paul Cézanne, Manet and Whistler.
Life at Académie Julian was an exciting time for aspiring artists and many travelled great distances to be part of the Academy’s chosen few. The artists were made to work hard and it also developed their competitive nature by offering a number of annual prizes. Fred Elwell blossomed under this heavy workload and managed to win a number of these prizes during his stay. Friendships were born at this Paris academy and Fred developed long term and special friendships with two other English artists, Richard Jack and the Lincoln-born, William Tom Warrener. Warrener was nine years old than Elwell and had already established himself as a painter. He was also a great social animal and spent much time in the bars of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge nightclub which had come into being in October 1889, in the Jardin de Paris, at the foot of the Montmartre hill. Warrener had become friends with Toulouse-Lautrec and, like Lautrec, had been commissioned to design a number of advertising posters for the Moulin Rouge.
Elwell would often visit Warrener at his apartment on rue Ravignon and would see the walls of his rooms covered with paintings he had done of the nightlife of the Moulin Rouge. It was during one of those visits that Elwell was introduced to the actress, Léonie, who was one of Warrener’s models and Elwell managed to persuade her to also become his model (see Part 1 of my Fred Elwell blog where I have included Elwell’s painting of her, Léonie’s Toilet).
Elwell’s stay in Paris coincided with La Belle Époque. This period from the late 1870’s to the start of World War I was one of optimism. It was the golden age. For France, this was a period of stability and peace squeezed between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, quickly followed by the brutality of the Paris Commune and the Great War of 1914. It was a time of peace and prosperity. It was time of joy and many took the opportunity to visit clubs and theatres and Elwell, who worked and studied hard during the day, managed to sample the night life in the evening and late into the night and it was during his stay in Paris that he developed the love of pipe-smoking, a habit which stayed with him for most of his life. Another facet of Paris life which Elwell took to was what we now term as café culture which he continued to follow when he returned to England. However, life in Paris had its downside for Elwell, as with most wannabe artists the burden of financial problems was ever present and Elwell’s financial predicament, despite the odd help from his father, was the same, so much so that he had to give his beloved portrait of Léonie to his landlord in lieu of rent.
Whilst he studied at the Académie Julian, Fred would often go back to Beverley to recharge his batteries and sample the delights of home comforts. Elwell finally left Paris in 1895 deciding to live and work in London, although he still exhibited his works at the city’s Salon des Artistes Français (Paris Salon). Elwell was determined to get some of his paintings excepted by the Royal Academy in London and believed he would be able to fund his London life through commissions. Unfortunately for Elwell many artists had the same thought and the contest for painting commissions was ruthless. Elwell realised that the streets of London were not paved with gold and soon he became very despondent with his lack of success. It is thought his despondency led to a nervous breakdown. His father rushed down to London to support his son and eventually convinced him to return home to Beverley
………..to be continued.
Fred Elwell was a master of many painting genres and the paintings I am featuring today deal with his skilful portraiture. The first portrait, Florence, is one Elwell completed around 1902. It features his twelve year old niece Florence Elwell. Florence had been brought up by Fred’s mother and father after she came to live with them at their Park Villa home, close to the racecourse in Beverley, following the death of her parents. She looks a little moody and frustrated at having to sit for her uncle and pouts with annoyance. There were more joyous things to do for a twelve-year old including mixing with the racing fraternity who would often congregate at her uncle’s home during Beverley horse-racing events. It is believed that Fred Elwell completed the portrait in just one hour.
My next featured work is also of a youngster and is entitled Portrait of a Small Boy which Elwell completed in 1917. Before us we see an immaculately dressed young boy in a white suit holding his hat in his right hand and his beloved yacht in the other. His short white socks show signs of falling down towards his shiny black leather sandals. The portrait must have been a challenging task for Elwell as boys of his age are reluctant to stand still and the crumpled look of his white suit is an indication of much movement. It was so challenging that after he had completed the painting, Elwell swore that he would never paint the portrait of a child again.
As I mentioned in the first part of the Fred Elwell story, the first time he was allowed to paint live nudes was when he moved to Antwerp. One of his best works of a female nude was completed in 1935 and was simply entitled Seated Nude in Studio and can be found at the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum. The lady depicted in this work is seated on a stool and is depicted in graceful semi-profile. Her blue dressing gown lies besides her. In the background there is some dark furniture which contrasts with the radiant flesh tints of the lady. It is a quirky set-up as she sits before a painting on an easel as if she is the artist admiring her own work.
Another female portrait by Elwell which I really like is entitled In a Bar which he completed in 1943 and was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. In the work we see the model sitting at the bar, cigarette in hand with a glass of gin and tonic on the bar beside her. There is an air of casual indifference about the way she poses, a somewhat challenging facial expression which challenges us to query her drinking and smoking habit. This is twenty-eight year old Muriel Fox a favourite model of Fred Elwell and believed to be the lady who posed nude for him in the previous work. Muriel was a cook at the Beverley Westwood Hospital and would often call into the Beverley Arms Hotel on her way home from work. This bar was later known as Elwell’s Bar. She was a well-known regular at this hostelry and this was “her stool”. There is great poise in her expression as she stares out at us. As was the fashion in the 1940’s her cheeks were applied with a liberal amount of rouge and her hairstyle , tightly waved, was the fashion of the day. It was rumoured that she had recently given birth to her daughter and baby and basket had been placed out of sight behind the bar.
My next offering is a male portrait and it is a real gem. The work is entitled A Man with a Pint and was completed by Elwell in 1932 and exhibited at the Royal Academy a year later. The painting depicts and elderly man tightly clasping his pint of beer whilst pointing at something in the newspaper which he had been reading. He has a red face and a bulbous nose. There is something very comical about the portrait. The public loved this portrait and the art journal, The Artist, maintained that Elwell “belonged to the School whose purpose is Life”. This portrait is a wonderful realist depiction. Elwell has chosen his sitter, not for his handsome qualities but for his down-to-earth demeanour. This is a depiction of man, like the many elderly men, who love to spend the time with their pint in a welcoming hostelry.
The next portrait is also of an elderly man but in this instance he is not an unknown character but a member of the local Beverley Council. He is the official mace bearer that the town rolls out on official occasions. His name is George Monkman and the title of the pastel painting is Portrait of George Monkman, Mace Bearer of Beverley. This was painted by the twenty-year old Elwell in July 1890 during the time he was attending the Antwerp Academy and, like many of Elwell’s works, is housed in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Museum. Before us sits a grey-haired sad-faced man in top hat and dark gold rimmed livery. He sits in a high-backed chair. Look how the light shines on both the man’s face and the gilt mace. It is a great study of character and is a testament to Elwell’s ability in the way he has depicted the demeanour of the man, who looks old and tired but still proud of his position as the mace bearer. The frailty of the man, who was eighty-four years old at the time, is brought home by the way Elwell has got him to hold the large ornamental mace with his left hand grasping on to the weighty implement as he holds it against his body. Elwell remembered the portrait well, stating that to keep the sitter happy he had to ply him with brandy. Sadly a fortnight after the portrait was completed Monkman died. Elwell completed an identical portrait in oils thirty years later in 1921.
The final work of portraiture by Fred Elwell is entitled Canon Fisher and his Wife which he completed around 1905 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1929. Before us we see an intimate dining room scene featuring the Reverend Robert Fisher and his wife Charlotte. It is thought that painting had been commissioned to mark the retirement of the Canon paid for by his loyal parishioners and was one of Elwell’s first portraiture commissions. The portrayal oozes warmth and there is an aura of affection and kind-heartedness surrounding the couple. Robert Fisher sits at the table writing which probably alludes to the fact that he wrote a number of books on subjects such as plants, flowers and Yorkshire villages. His wife sits by his side and works on her knitting. The Canon retired from his position at St Mary’s Church in Beverley in 1905.
In my next blog I will be continue with Fred Elwell’s life story and look at more of his paintings.
Most of the information for this blog was gleaned from the excellent book I bought in Harrogate, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster & Malcolm Shields. It is a beautiful book and well worth buying.