Fred Elwell captured the texture of everyday life and his work is celebrated in his home town. Stephen McClarence went on an art tour of Beverley. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Looking every inch “the artist”, Fred Elwell must have cut quite a dash strolling around the streets of Beverley. Rakishly tilted broad-brimmed trilby, black cape, walking cane... he might have looked more at home on the Champs-Élysées than on Dog and Duck Lane in the East Riding market town.
Elwell, born in Beverley 150 years ago next year, is a favourite artist with visitors to the town’s Art Gallery, which has the world’s biggest collection of his paintings – more than 100. Generally featuring local people and places, they’re full of mellow charm and capture the texture of everyday life across half a century.
The artist, who died in 1958, often focused on the town’s less obvious aspects: hotel kitchens, the Police Court, a garage, a munitions factory, a wheelwright’s shop, life “below stairs”. He painted a murky cowshed as well as the soaring nave of the Minster. His pictures offer an inventory of Beverley life; he was, said The Times, “pre-eminently a painter of domesticity”.
The gallery’s current Elwell exhibition celebrates his creative partnership with his wife and fellow artist Mary Dawson Holmes. It’s counterpointed by a novel “open-air gallery”: framed reproductions of two dozen pictures dotted around the town centre on a walking trail devised by Beverley Civic Society. As the trail’s leaflet says, the Elwells’ work “has been liberated from the confines of the gallery walls”.
On a sunny afternoon, leaflet in hand, I’m weaving my picture-spotting way round the streets and back lanes with Elwell’s biographer, Wendy Loncaster. “Look at this one,” she says as we pause in front of a 1940s study of the kitchen at the bustling Beverley Arms. In the picture, mob-capped maids are preparing meals for the hotel restaurant, gutting fish and chopping vegetables. “They’re just carrying on with their work as though oblivious of him,” says Wendy. “It’s as though someone completely invisible has painted it, isn’t it?”
Wendy, a former librarian and barrister’s secretary based in Hornsea, is the leading authority on Elwell, whose work she discovered in the 1980s while studying for an Open University degree in the History of Art.
“One of the lecturers said: ‘Why don’t you take on the subject of Elwell?’” she says. “But I hadn’t heard of him at the time.” In the days before the internet made the whole world instantly accessible, artistic research was a more demanding affair. “I spent ages in the reference library in Beverley trying to trace people who owned his paintings,” says Wendy. “It was quite a challenge, but I traced about 400.”
In 1993, she researched an Elwell exhibition that was seen by 70,000 people at Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery before going on to Newcastle’s Laing Gallery. More recently she has updated a book originally linked to that exhibition.
Written in collaboration with businessman and arts patron Malcolm Shields, Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art is a sumptuously produced biography, with more than 140 large-scale illustrations. They include a powerful study of George V’s lying-in-state in the vast space of Westminster Hall. A few years earlier, Elwell had been commissioned by the Royal Family to paint the king’s portrait. They had three sittings for the resulting honest, sober study of the king, who gazes with startling directness at the viewer. Artist and subject, says the book, “got on very well together, smoking and talking continuously”.
Such grand portraits weren’t, however, typical of Elwell’s career, which revolved around Beverley, where his father, a wood carver, was twice elected mayor. Fred studied at Lincoln School of Art and in Antwerp and Paris, met Gauguin, watched Degas at work and, still in his early twenties, exhibited at the Paris Salon and at London’s Royal Academy, to which he was later elected.
But his exposure to the bright lights of the two capitals – “dizzy days immersed in his world of art”, as the book puts it – soon came to an end and he returned home to Beverley, where he spent the rest of his life.
“London didn’t work for him,” says Wendy. “He expected to stay and he didn’t – we can only speculate about why.” Maybe he preferred to be a big fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a big pond. Or maybe, Wendy speculates, he suffered a nervous breakdown.
That’s hard to prove, as no diaries or letters survive. Was this frustrating for his biographer? “Well, it was intriguing. You have to say something like: ‘This is what might have happened’,” she says.
“He liked to portray how people conducted their lives, how they worked. He wanted to capture a way of life before it disappeared. He learned about Impressionism and could paint in that style, but he knew the people of Beverley wouldn’t want it. He established a style that people liked and stuck to it. He was accessible, but a lot of modernists use that word in a derogatory way.”
The canvases sometimes featured visiting celebrities – Billy Cotton conducting his band at a morale-boosting wartime concert, Churchill speaking at a reception at Hull Guildhall. The pictures have a literal, photographic quality, with an importance that’s perhaps as much documentary as artistic. Wendy – who particularly admires Elwell’s gift for capturing evocative light – has identified 46 members of Churchill’s attentive audience.
We walk the trail, taking in North Bar, where the Elwells lived at Bar House, and passing Lairgate Galleries, run by David Elwell, Fred’s great-nephew. “I had a guy in yesterday from Hornsea who was over the moon when he discovered I was an Elwell,” he says.
David was born four years after Fred died, but he remembers visiting the artist’s former studio. “His pictures were scattered over the floor,” he says. “In the Sixties and Seventies no-one particularly valued them.” They are more collectable these days – an early sketch of artists in Bohemian Paris recently fetched over £1,200.
Fred himself didn’t need the money. His wife’s wealth funded a comfortable lifestyle, a second home in London’s Holland Park and foreign trips. The money allowed the couple to follow a circus around for six months, travelling in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan. The resulting pictures have some of the atmosphere of the circus studies by Dame Laura Knight, who drew Elwell’s portrait in around 1930.
Our trail ends with a reproduction of the self-portrait used on the book’s dust jacket. Wearing a smart suit and a trilby, the artist sits with legs crossed and brush poised, staring benignly at the viewer. The original picture dominates the exhibition at the Art Gallery, just up the road. “It’s a very ‘comfortable’ picture,” says curator Helena Cox.”He’s saying ‘I’m enjoying my fame; I’m materially fine.’”
She says she didn’t know a great deal about the Elwells before becoming curator two years ago. “But they’re known to people interested in late Victorian and early Edwardian art. They’re characterised by sticking to the Edwardian style.
“There are two ways of looking at that. You could say they were a bit retrograde, to be working in the same way for decades when the art world was changing around them. Or you could say that they took a deliberate decision to stick to their idealised vision.”
That vision is still popular with gallery visitors, especially those from Beverley. “There’s quite a lot of civic pride in the Elwells,” says Helena. “And the reaction of people who didn’t know about them is very positive.
“It’s the legacy of two people closely tied to a place where both felt at home. Beverley most definitely was Fred’s world.”
The Elwells: A Partnership in Paint is at Beverley Art Gallery (01482 392780) until late September, though Elwell pictures are generally on show. Fred Elwell RA – A Life in Art costs £19.95 (plus £3 UK postage) from firstname.lastname@example.org