As far as art was concerned, Fred Elwell was a master of many art genres. In my last blog I looked at his superb portraiture and in this blog I want to feature some of his landscape paintings as well as introducing you to his wife, another landscape painter.
In telling his life story I had reached the year 1896. Fred Elwell had returned from Paris and had tried to forge himself a successful career in London but it had not worked out for the twenty-six year old artist and in this year he had been rescued by his father who brought him back to the family home in the East Yorkshire town of Beverley. Although Elwell had left England and studied in Antwerp and Paris he had always made many trips back home to Beverley. He had returned for good to the beauty of Yorkshire, not as a student painter but now as an accomplished artist and he was pleased to test himself and his artistic skills by setting out to paint the magnificent local landscape and some of the fine local buildings.
One such painting, which he completed in 1900, was of Beverley Minster and was entitled Beverley Minster from the Hall Garth.
His year in London and his struggle to survive had taken a toll on him so the first thing the family had wanted him to do was to relax and enjoy the tranquillity of the Yorkshire countryside. Elwell also enjoyed the freedom offered by sailing and he would often take a small boat and cruise along Beverley Beck which joined the River Hull. Many like-minded painters would do the same as the clarity of light and the beautiful countryside including the East Riding flatlands surrounding the river was an idyllic setting for landscape artists. On occasion he would tie up the boat alongside a jetty and would welcome visitors to look at his artwork and, by so doing, would often receive commissions. Elwell’s love of landscape painting coincided with the English public’s change of attitude of what they wanted to see in a work of art. Depictions of city life were becoming less popular, displaced by depictions of the tranquillity of the countryside. This was a period when people wanted to “go back to nature”. They worked in cities but hankered for the fresh air of the countryside. They wanted to soak up country life by sailing along inland waterways or get themselves horse-drawn caravans and lose themselves in the peacefulness and serenity of the rural areas.
In 1899, Elwell set himself up in a studio in Wood Lane in the centre of Beverley. It had once been home to the local theatre and later a meeting house for the local Quakers and it was in that year that Elwell launched his first solo exhibition. It was a great success for here was the local boy making good. Locals flocked to see their “own son” and what he had achieved.
One day in 1904 Fred Elwell had a visitor to his studio. The visitor introduced himself as George Alfred Holmes. Holmes, an oil broker, was a well respected member of the Beverley community. He asked Elwell whether he could paint a portrait of his wife, Mary. Mary Dawson Bishop, the daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant, was born in Liverpool in 1874. Her father died when she was very young and the family moved to Manchester. Her late father’s wealth ensured that Mary received the best education that money could buy and she was educated at Ellerslie College, which was described as a ‘fairly exclusive school’, and the college would undoubtedly have provided instruction in painting and drawing. In 1896 she married George Holmes.
Elwell agreed and made many visits to the home of George and Mary Holmes and soon the three became good friends. Holmes and Elwell had one thing in common, they both loved boats. Holmes was a founder member of the local Humber Yawl Club and Fred Elwell owned his own boat. It was a small twenty-two foot sailing houseboat which had the strange name of Callathumpian. This too was a canoe-yawl but had been adapted with a large deckhouse. George and Mary would often visit Fred on his boat and go for days out sailing the boat along the many tributaries and canals.
Elwell completed the Portrait of Mary Dawson Holmes in 1904 and had it exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. It is an exquisite work of portraiture with the sitter depicted as a lady of gracious sophistication. Her clothes are reminiscent of the French fashion of the time. She wears a tight-fitting dress finished off with a fine white lace collar. Her head is tilted slightly to one side. She holds an upright stance. She has dark almond-shaped eyes. Look at her expression. It gives little away. What do you make of it? Is there an unwillingness, a reticence to pose or is this reserve due to her modesty or shyness?
The way she stands and the fact that she is holding a basket is the reason why many people have compared the painting with one of Renoir’s ladies depicted in his painting of 1886, Les Parapluies, which Elwell may have seen.
Mary and Fred Elwell also some had a common interest – art, for she was a talented painter and he encouraged her to submit some of her work to the Royal Academy for inclusion at their annual exhibition. She had two works accepted and Fred also had his portrait of her included at the same exhibition. It is believed that Fred, George and his wife Mary would often travel to Europe, visiting Venice and Switzerland where Fred Elwell and Mary Holmes would take the opportunity to sketch and paint the local landscapes.
In 1910 George and Mary bought their dream home in Beverley. It was known as Bar House. It was a house that afforded the occupants beautiful views of the surrounding areas. It even had its own tower from where one could watch the local racehorses training on the Gallop around Westwood, close to Beverley racecourse. Sadly the joy of moving to their beautiful home was tinged with sadness as shortly after taking up residence her husband George became ill, so much so, he had to retire from his Hull shipping business. As his health deteriorated he had to give up his beloved sailing. Mary and Fred’s became more distressed with George’s health as he became more and more incapacitated. His illness eventually was diagnosed as being terminal. Knowing he was dying George spoke privately to Fred and asked him to look after his wife once he had died. George Holmes died in August 1913, aged just 58.
Fred Elwell and Mary Dawson Holmes married on October 1st 1914, two months after the start of World War I.
……………………… to be continued
Fred Elwell was a multi-talented painter and in this blog I want to feature some of his landscape works and those of his wife, Mary.
One of his early landscape works was Upper Reaches of the River Hull which he painted in 1905. The work now hangs in the Beverley Art Gallery. Its original owner was John Brown of Beverley who was a local tailor and provided suits for Elwell and could well have taken the painting in part payment for tailored clothing. It is a beautiful work of art and features Elwell’s favourite area, the flatlands on either side of the River Hull, which he would have seen so many times from his boat. Harvest is over and the stooks of corn sit up proudly in the newly harvested cornfield.
The next painting was completed by Fred in 1927 and entitled, Corsican Landscape. This landscape work, which has a distinct feel of Impressionism, depicts a farm in the centre ground along with grazing cattle and a few figures, all of which are surrounded by a mountain range which, on the left hand side, have been partially lost in shadow. I particularly like the colours Elwell has given to his tall trees ranging from green and golds to the black-shaded ones which have lost the light of the sun.
Mary Elwell completed a painting, around the same time depicting and probably during the same holiday, of the Corsican landscape, entitled Corte, Corsica. It is a depiction of the hillside town of Corte, in northern Corsica. Again, like Elwell’s Corsican landscape, the town is in the centre ground, surrounded by mountains. The buildings are painted white and yellow with red terracotta roofs. In the foreground we see a river cascading down a shallow waterfall. The contrast between the blue of the water and the whiteness of the boulders it flows over adds to the beauty of the work.
Another foreign landscape work by Fred Elwell was completed in 1937, entitled Zermatt. The oil on wood panel painting is a typical Swiss-style landscape dominated by the church and its tower on the right, with the clock showing seven o’clock. On the left we can see some chalets which disappear down the hillside. In the background we have mountains, some in full sunlight others in full shade. Fred and Mary Elwell loved this Swiss Alpine region and spent many happy journeys between 1937 and 1939 in the surrounding region completing a number of works in the region of Zermatt and the Matterhorn. On the outbreak of World War II they had to make a hasty retreat back to England.
One amusing anecdote accompanies this work. Elwell did not sell it to a dealer or art lover for a vast sum of money. He sold it to a neighbouring pig farmer, a Mr Symmons and all Elwell wanted in return was a number of photographs of the Symmons’ pigs !! These he used in another work he completed that year, entitled Pigs in Barn.
The next work by Fred Elwell probably brought back fond memories of his childhood. It is entitled Brick Bridge and features a brick-built bridge which straddles the Barmston Drain. In Fred Elwell’s days this was a favourite place for Beverley folks to come and enjoy a swim on a hot summer’s day. The picture was painted in 1943 during the Second World War and was the only place the people from Beverley could go for a swim as troops had commandeered the local swimming pool. Again there is a hint of Elwell’s use of Impressionistic techniques with dabs of various colour representing reflections on rippled water and also the blurring effect of some of the features as if we are looking at the scene through the hazy atmosphere of a summer afternoon.
The painting by Elwell could well have been influenced by the work of the French artist, Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières which like Elwell’s work has people relaxing on the riverbank as well as in the water and in the background is the horizontal structure of a bridge crossing the water which in both paintings creates a horizontal axis. In the case of Elwell’s work the bridge almost hides the horizon from our view whereas in Seurat’s work our eyes leave the bathers in the foreground and follow the river towards the bridge and the industry on the far side of it.
In my next blog I will be complete the life story of Fred Elwell and take a look at some of his genre paintings.
Once again let me recommend an excellent book on the life and works of Fred Elwell. Most of the information for this blog was gleaned from this book which I bought in Harrogate. It is entitled Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art by Wendy Loncaster & Malcolm Shields.