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by Christopher Proudlove©
At risk of sounding repetitive, regular readers of this column know how keen I am to learn more about the work of forgotten local artists and craftsmen.
With readers’ help, we have already uncovered stacks of information aboutLiverpool’s Herdman family whose watercolours documented the development of the city in the 19th century (Chapter One); Birkenhead artist Harry B. Neilson, (1861-1941) the man who painted those charming watercolours of foxes dressed as huntsmen riding foxhounds (Chapter Two) and Liverpudlian artist, George Haydock Dodgson (1811 – 1880) who remains elusive despite being a regular exhibitor at among others, the Royal Academy, The Society of British Artists, and The Liverpool Society of Fine Arts (Chapter Three).
The Search continues this week with Chapter Four: who was Wallasey-born Frances Macdonald?
The question was posed when North Wales auctioneer David Rogers Jones contacted me with information about one of his regular “Welsh Sales”, which will take place on Saturday, April 23, at his rooms in Abergele Road, Colwyn Bay.
The sale of Welsh views and work by Welsh artists shows no sign of slowing and the sale contains some exceptional lots.
But it is a remarkable painting entitled “The Welsh Singer” by Frances Macdonald that is arousing interest, even before the auction catalogue has been published.
The monumental work — it measures 6 feet wide by 4 feet deep — has astonishing wall power. It depicts the vast Penrhyn slate quarry and takes its title from a central figure, a miner who sits head tilted heavenward, singing at the top of his voice while the cacophony of mining goes on all about him.
David Rogers Jones tells me that the work was specially commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for an exhibition which toured the country, finishing at the Festival of Britain in London in 1951.
Leading artists of the era were asked to contribute a painting for the exhibition, which was called “Sixty Paintings for ’51”. Frances was among their number, as were Francis Bacon, Edward Burra, Lucien Freud, L.S. Lowry, John Nash, Victor Passmore and Ruskin Spear.
In other words, our Frances was among an illustrious gathering, la creme de la creme of Britain’s artistic community in the Fifties.
I don’t claim to have an extensive reference library, so most of my research is done on the Internet.
Had she been the Frances Macdonald who was one of the so-called Scottish Four – artist and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, furniture designer, painter, metal worker, jewellery designer and graphic artist Herbert MacNair and sisters Frances and Margaret Macdonald, the search would have been simple.
Scottish Frances married MacNair and was a renowned artist in her own right producing embroideries, gesso panels and water colour paintings, all in the unmistakable Macintosh style.
But our Frances is virtually anonymous.
However, it transpires that the Tate has two works by her in their collection: “Building the Mulberry Harbour, London Docks 1944” and “Iffley Church” 1970-1, and their excellent website gives a brief but tantalising biography.
It reads: Frances MacDonald 1914-2002. Landscape painter, particularly of scenes in Wales and the South of France. Born 12 April 1914 at Wallasey, Cheshire; her great-grandfather was a portrait painter in Dublin. Studied at Wallasey School of Art 1930-4 and the R.C.A. (Royal College of Art) under Sir William Rothenstein and Barnett Freedman 1934-8. Official War Artist 1940-6. First one-man exhibition at Wildenstein’s 1947; has also exhibited at the Alfred Brod Gallery. Married to Leonard Appelbee.
Fascinating. So, with the unusual spelling of his surname,that must be the same Leonard Appelbee whose painting “One-man Band” was also commissioned by the Arts Council and hung in the same Festival of Britain exhibition.
Fortuitously, the Tate also has works by Apelbee in their collection and his website biography shows his dates as 1914-2000. A painter of landscapes, still lifes and occasional portraits, he was born in Fulham, London, studied art at Goldsmiths’ College 1931-4, and at the R.C.A. 1935-8. He saw active service in the Army an exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy.
That would have been all I could tell you, but adding to the intrigue is a letter — to be sold with Frances’ “The Welsh Singer” — dated 1983 from Sheffield address and written by someone who was clearly an admirer of her work.
The recpient of the letter was Miss S. Davies, the headmistress of Weatherhead High School, Mount Pleasant Road, Wallasey, following a visit to the school in a few days earlier by the sender.
The letter reads: “A few days ago I received a pleasant letter from Frances MacDonald who made some interesting remarks about her painting The Welsh Singer 1951.
“She wrote: ‘I was interested to be asked to paint a large canvas, as I was already contemplating a painting of that vast Penrhyn Quarry because it was such a magical and compact shape, like a witches’ or Welsh hat and I was bewitched by its poetry and the wealth of music coming from ‘the biggest man-made hole in the world’.
“She goes on a great length about the growth of the work and then writes that ‘the person who had been music teacher at Wallasey high school bought it for the school’.
“There is a strong chance that Frances MacDonald attended either your school or one in the Wallasey area because she writes that she attended ‘the small but very good Wallasey Art School’ before going to the Royal College of Art.”
The letter concludes by giving a Devon address for Frances and Leonard Appelbee and suggests that the headmistress might well receive a letter from her.
This background information — the provenance of “The Welsh Singer” — makes the painting even more compelling. David Rogers Jones believes the work left the school and was sold without fanfare “a year or two ago”.
One of about 200 paintings by Welsh artists and Welsh subjects to be sold by him on Saturday, April 23, the work is expected to fetch in the region of £4,000. I suspect it might be more.
And, as usual, if any reader knows more about Frances MacDonald — perhaps they were a fellow pupil at Weatherhead High School, a neighbour or a friend — I’d love to hear from you.
A foreword to the catalogue for the exhibition “60 Paintings for ’51”, to be sold with “The Welsh Singer” reads: “If the Festival of Britain is to achieve its avowed aim of showing the British way of life in all its various facets it is clearly appropriate that a number of distinguished painters and sculptors should have been given an opportunity to make their contribution.
“With this very end in view — and also in the hope of handing down to posterity from our present age something tangible end of permanent value — the arts Council has commissioned 12 sculptors and invited 60 artists to paint a large work, not less than 45 x 60 inches on a subject of their own choice.
“The paintings will be exhibited in London and the Provinces as a group not only to enable visitors to the Festival to see a lively cross-section of contemporary British painting but also to encourage other public bodies, or indeed private individuals too, to celebrate the Festival by making a purchase.
“It will be said, and rightly, that today the number of private patrons who can afford either the wall-space or the cost of these large paintings must be limited and it is to the new collective patrons of the future, as well as to art galleries, that the exhibition is commended as an opportunity when they may suitably exercise their patronage”.
The same holds true, both for exhibitions and auctions, today.
Pictures show top:
“The Welsh Singer”, the imposing oil by Frances Macdonald
Below, left to right:
Two detail images showing the singer, head tilted heavenward, from whom the picture’s title is taken
Detail showing slate cutters at work