Painting in the Mall

BETWEEN HAMPSTEAD AND Belsize Park, there is a narrow footpath running north from Tasker Road. One side of it is lined with a terrace of low buildings known as Mall Studios. Built in 1872 by Thomas Battersby, they were designed as artists’ studios. Each of them contained small waiting rooms; costume rooms; and a lobby. Each studio had three skylights and large north facing windows to capture the kind of light favoured by many artists. Following the advice of the artist Walter Sickert, who had lived there, the artist John Cecil Stephenson (1889-1965) settled into number 6, Mall Studios in March 1919.  It was to remain his home until he died. In 1927, Barbara Hepworth became his neighbour in number 7, and at around that time, the influential art critic and writer Herbert Read moved into number 3. Nearby, Parkhill Road became home (for various lengths of time) to other artists including Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, Hans Erni, and other artists who have since become famous.

By John Cecil Stephenson

Whether it was the proximity of his artistic neighbours, who were pioneers of 20th century modernist art, or something else in his artistic evolution, Stephenson departed from his previous ‘straightforward’ portraiture and landscape painting and created works characteristic of what is now known as the ‘Modernist’ style. Although some of his works created after the late 1920s are to some extent figurative, most of his output was mainly abstract and constructivist. During WW1, Stephenson left London’s Slade School of Art temporarily to work in munition factories in Bishop Auckland (County Durham), the town where he was born. His experiences of working with industrial machinery and observing the efficiency and speed of the mechanised production processes is reflected in some of the paintings he produced later.

Stephenson, son of a grocer, was less well known than his neighbours. He produced art that bears favourable comparison to the works produced by them. Until the 18th of September 2022, there is a wonderful small exhibition of his works in a gallery within Hampstead’s charming Burgh House. The catalogue, edited by Sacha Llewellyn, Paul Liss, and George Richards, not only contains a fine collection of photographs of the exhibits but also provides a superb introduction – better than others I have seen – to the story of the pioneering role of Hampstead in the evolution of modern art in England. Burgh House, which contains several rooms comprising a museum of the history of Hampstead, also hosts excellent exhibitions such as the current survey of Stephenson’s works. Its well illuminated Peggy Jay Gallery provides a space for contemporary artists, many of them local, to display their works. Beneath the two storeys of cultural experiences, the basement of Burgh House is home to a pleasant café where anything from a cup of coffee to a wholesome meal can be obtained. And amongst the interesting range of books in the small bookshop, you can find copies of my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” on sale (if they have run out, tell them to ask me for more, and then get your copy from Amazon).

Images of my mother’s sculptures rediscovered

MY LATE MOTHER (Helen Yamey: 1920-1980) trained as a commercial artist in Cape Town (South Africa) before WW2. In 1948, she came to London to marry my father. In London, she painted and, according to my father, took lessons from the great Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Around the time when I was born (1952), my mother began making sculptures. The first of these was a terracotta mother and child. Maybe, she was depicting herself with me in her arms.  By the 1960s, she was working in the sculpture studios of St Martins School of Art, which was then near Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. There, she was in the company of artists such as Anthony Caro, William Tucker, Philip King, and William Turnbull. At least one of these now famous artists taught my mother how to weld and solder.

My mother exhibited her works in important art galleries at least twice. In late 1961, she exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a show called “26 young Sculptors”. In 1962, she exhibited sculptures at the Grabowski Gallery, along side works by Maurice Agis and David Annesley. Although she sold a few of her creations, she did them more for pleasure than for profit.

My mother was a perfectionist. She destroyed much of what she created. However, at some time during the 1960s, she had a series of professional photographs taken of some of her mainly abstract works. These were kept in a yellow Kodak photographic paper box in a drawer in our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. As a teenager, I used to look at them occasionally and wonder what became of some of the creations recorded in these photos.

My mother died in 1980 and my father remarried 11 years later. After remarrying, he and my stepmother moved from our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to another house (near Primrose Hill). After the move, I used to ask him what had happened to the photographs of my mother’s sculptures and other family photos. Each time I asked, he would say that they were stored somewhere, possibly in the garage of his new home. After a while, I gave up hope of ever seeing these pictures again because it was clear to me that Dad had little or no interest in these photographs and in addition he could not imagine why anyone else would find them interesting. My father died, aged 101 and 6 months, in 2020. What with covid19 and its associated problems, we did not see his widow, my stepmother, again until recently this year (2022).

When, at last, we met her, she arrived carrying a plastic carrier bag, which she handed to me. To my great delight, it contained the box of photographs described above and another filled with family photographs taken mainly in the late 1950s. My stepmother told me that she had found them when she was sorting things in the garage of the house where she and my father had lived.

The photographs of my mother’s sculptures all bear the name of the photographer: Joseph McKenzie, ARPS (95 Blenheim Gardens, Wallington, Surrey). According to Wikipedia, Joseph McKenzie (1929-2015) is regarded as “father of modern Scottish photography”. More relevantly in the context of my mother’s works, he taught photography at the St martins School of Art.

Some of the photographs have notes written on their backs. The handwriting is my mother’s. One of the pictures, that of the mother and child has the words: “my first ever sculpture, terracotta, mother and child, 24””. Some of the other photos have information about the size and the material of the work depicted.

About 10 years before she died, my mother became disillusioned and practically gave up making sculptures. Although she made a few abstract images in pen and ink and a few carvings in alabaster, her abandonment of sculpture making as a full-time activity left a great hole in her life.

I have taken pictures of the photographs, and they can be seen on:

http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/album/1323344

The hole story: Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield

I VISITED BARCELONA in the late 1960s. One of the sights I saw was a museum dedicated to Pablo Picasso. Before entering that place, the artist’s works somewhat puzzled me. In the museum, there were some of Picasso’s earliest paintings. They were straightforward rather than abstract, and extremely well executed. The artist’s talents were immediately obvious. As I moved from room to room, the works on display became increasingly abstract. By seeing his progression from figurative to abstract, I began to appreciate his greatness as an artist, and I began to understand why he is regarded as a brilliant creator by many people. By the time I had finished looking around the museum, I had been converted from being sceptical about Picasso to becoming yet one more of his fans. More recently, I saw an exhibition showing the artistic development of Roy Lichtenstein from his earliest to his latest creations. No longer was he just a creator of entertaining pictures based on American comic strips, but I could see that he was an artist of great competence. Like the foregoing examples, a visit to the Cartwright Hall Museum in Bradford and seeing some of David Hockney’s earliest works also enhanced my appreciation of this highly prolific visual artist.

Bradford in Yorkshire is not far from the city of Wakefield, where Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) was born. She was baptised in the city’s fine cathedral. Until today, I had mixed feelings about Hepworth’s works. There are some that I like very much, including a Mondrian-like crucifix at Salisbury Cathedral and a Naum Gabo inspired work attached to the eastern side of the John Lewis shop on London’s Oxford Street. Also, I have enjoyed visits to Hepworth’s studio and garden in Cornwall’s St Ives. However, as beautifully executed as her works are, I did not become terribly keen on her artistic output until today, the 18th of September 2021.

What converted me and increased my appreciation of Hepworth as an artist was today’s visit to the Hepworth Wakefield Museum. We arrived to discover that for the time being the whole museum is filled with works by Hepworth, beginning with her earliest and ending with her latest. The temporary exhibition, “Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life”, continues until the 27th of February 2022, and should not be missed.

As with other abstract artists, such as Picasso, Hepworth began learning the basics of figurative representation. Her earliest carvings and drawings were created superbly competently but give no hint of which directions her creative output was soon to follow. Had she not developed any further, she would have been regarded as a skilled, if not too exciting, sculptor. However, Hepworth soon became involved artistically, and in one case maritally, with leading artists of the twentieth century. Contact with them and their ideas  can be detected in some of the works she created as she moved from purely representational to highly abstract. It was particularly interesting to see a small carving with a hole in it, the first of her many works to have holes in them. The idea of the holes is to allow light to flow through her sculptures. It was not only other artists who inspired Hepworth’s creation but also the forces of nature, which unconsciously sculpt rocks, trees, and other natural features in the landscape.

It was interesting to see the life-size prototypes of some of Hepworth’s works I have admired in the past. It was wonderful, for example, to be able to get close to the full-size model sculpture which is now high up on the wall of John Lewis in Oxford Street.

Once again, seeing a collection of works illustrating the progression of an artist’s output from student days until the achievement of fame and beyond has helped me to increase my appreciation of an artist about whom I had some reservations. Today’s visit to the Hepworth Wakefield has moved Barbara Hepworth a long way up my ladder of great artists and removed any doubts I had about her works.

Finally, here is something that intrigues me. Hepworth, like Picasso and also my late mother, had what might be described as traditional basic artistic training, just like the European and western artists who created during the many centuries before the 20th, yet all three of them (and many others) moved from expressing themselves with figurative works to abstract creations. However, unlike the artists who flourished before the latter parts of the 19th century and never strayed into the world of artistic abstraction, those who created during after the late 19th century (including the Impressionists) strayed away from the purely figurative/representational. Why this happened is no doubt the subject matter of much art historical literature, which I have yet to read. As I wrote the previous sentence, it occurred to me that the move towards abstraction (and other forms of art that do not appear to give the viewer a straightforward recreation of nature) coincided with the advent of photography. The photograph can give the illusion of being a true image of the world, leaving the artist to explore other more imaginative representations of what he or she has seen.