Thursday, November 18, 2010

Marjorie Williams at Falmouth Art Gallery

This gem of a gallery in the centre of Falmouth hosts a variety of seasonal exhibitions on themes reflecting Cornwall’s cultural connections with the wider world. Its archive yields some surprising treasures, which include a substantial body of work by an artist little known outside Cornwall.

I first became aware of the flower paintings of Marjorie Williams at Falmouth Art Gallery’s 2010 Spring show, ‘A Mixed Bunch’. Impressed by the delicacy of her watercolours, I was intrigued to discover that since 2002, a number of etchings, wood engravings, and well over one hundred sketchbooks have been donated by her youngest daughter, Mariella. The Gallery now houses more works by Marjorie Williams than any other artist in their collection.

Exploring her sketchbooks in the archive I felt transported back in time. But as I opened the pages I was struck by an immediacy and freshness which characterises great art. Marjorie’s work reveals a curiosity of mind and independence of spirit unusual for a woman born in Victorian England. This was an artist to whom close observation and the recording of detail was second nature.

Born in 1880, Marjorie Williams (neè Murray) grew up in Surrey, the eldest of five daughters. The girls had periods of tutoring at home by a governess, interspersed with times of greater freedom when they embarked on riding or cycling trips. Accustomed to independence, Marjorie had no qualms about travelling unaccompanied to Norway at the age of 13. In 1905 she embarked on a trip to France with friends of the family, visiting and documenting a great number of cathedrals. This watercolour illustrates not only her fine draughtsmanship, but also her affinity with the natural world.

Auxerre Cathedral from the SE
Pencil and watercolour,
18.5 x 25.5 cms.

© Falmouth Art Gallery
Courtesy of Dr Mariella Fischer Williams & family

In 1908, aged 28, she spent a year in India as a guest of her uncle, who was in the Indian Army. During this formative period she developed her use of colour and became more confident in her sense of composition. Her watercolours - scenes of ordinary people tending their camels, shopping in the market or washing in the Ganges - were closely observed, empathetic portrayals of everyday life. The mountains had great appeal for Marjorie. Crossing the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan on horseback, she expressed little concern when her party encountered armed tribespeople. The intrepid traveller’s real frustration was reserved for the fact that she was refused permission to sketch in this region because of political instability. Later in life Marjorie said that Kashmir was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. In this watercolour she has captured a mood of stillness and tranquillity, with the trees on the bank beautifully reflected in the water.

Entrance to the Dhul Lake, Kashmir
Watercolour & pencil on card, 26.4 x 50.5 cms.
© Falmouth Art Gallery

Courtesy of Dr Mariella Fischer Williams & family

Marjorie had met Jack Fischer Williams, a barrister ten years her senior, some years earlier. The couple were keen to marry despite her parents’ disapproval on the grounds that he was divorced. Mr and Mrs Murray hoped that while their daughter was in India she would meet someone more suitable, but she and Jack maintained their relationship through correspondence.

In 1911, during a few months in Paris as a student at the Académie Julian, Marjorie learnt etching and gained experience in drawing from the nude. Apart from this training, and a brief stint earlier at the Slade, she was largely self-taught. A pencil drawing from this period reveals a graceful line, executed with confidence and sensitivity.
Life Studies Grande Chaumiere Paris
Mixed media, 36 x 28 cms.
© Falmouth Art Gallery
Courtesy of Dr Mariella Fischer Williams & family

Shortly after Marjorie’s return to England, she and Jack were married and, aged 30, she became stepmother to his nine-year-old daughter. Her husband had grown to love Cornwall when visiting Zennor as a young man. Having inherited some money on his father’s death, Jack bought a farm near Gorran Haven. Here he built a house on a clifftop overlooking the sea. Lamledra, built from local granite in the Art and Crafts style, remains in the possession of the family.

By 1914 two daughters, first Prue, then Jenifer, had been born to Marjorie. Jack’s work during the First World War required him to be based at the Home Office in London, leaving his wife and daughters in Cornwall. The couple exchanged letters daily. Her account of the challenges of bringing up a family in rural isolation, while war raged in Europe, forms the basis of ‘Letters from Lamledra’. This literary output is testament to Marjorie’s creative energy which flourished despite many difficulties. Inspired by the beauty of her surroundings, she continued to fill her sketchbooks with watercolours and pencil drawings (despite wartime restrictions). She also produced a number of woodcuts and etchings. Photographs from this time show her in gardening clothes, preparing vegetables with the children, or enjoying family picnics on the beach.

A Snail
Signed, relief print, 17.5 x 10 cms.
© Falmouth Art Gallery

Courtesy of Dr Mariella Fischer Williams & family

In 1917 a third daughter, Judith, was born. Marjorie’s letters to Jack were filled with news of war casualties among family and friends, and a feeling that life would never return to normal. However her children gave her great joy. Every milestone (and the occasional misdemeanour) was recorded with warmth and humour in her correspondence. This untitled pencil drawing offers an intimate glimpse into the tenderness felt by a mother towards her child. With Mariella’s birth in 1920, the family was complete.

Untitled (annotated How Jenifer always sat)
Mixed media, 30 x 24 cms.  © Falmouth Art Gallery
Courtesy of Dr Mariella Fischer Williams & family

During the inter-war years, Jack worked as a legal adviser to the War Reparations Commission. The whole family moved to Paris, from where he and Marjorie did a great deal of travelling. She was able to indulge her love of architecture by studying Europe’s cathedrals, as well as sketching well-known landmarks, such as Mont St Michel. Here the distant island is depicted in soft shades of lilac, while the stark black trunks and spidery branches of the trees which frame it lend an enigmatic note to the composition.

Mont St Michel
Watercolour and pencil, 25 x 18 cms.
© Falmouth Art Gallery
Courtesy of Dr Mariella Fischer Williams & family

The 1930s found them settled in Oxford, though they spent many summer holidays at Lamledra, where Marjorie continued to gain inspiration from natural forms including carefully observed flowers in their garden.

Watercolour, 32 x 25.5 cms.
© Falmouth Art Gallery. Courtesy of Dr Mariella Fischer Williams & family

During the Second World War Marjorie and her husband returned to Cornwall. Jack, now in his seventies, was suffering from poor health. After his death in 1947 Marjorie continued to travel, mainly to remote areas of France, making use of local buses. Though often alone, she was always accompanied by her sketchbook.

From her letters, Marjorie emerges as an artist who found fulfilment through motherhood and the creation of a family home. Her marriage to Jack provided her with the opportunity to extend the range of her abilities, particularly while living abroad in the 1920s. Prior to the First World War, her etchings were exhibited at the Paris Salon. In later life she became a member of the Guild of Embroiderers, producing pieces inspired by patterns she had come across in oriental tiles and medieval tapestries.  She continued to sketch until shortly before her death in 1961.

Copyright © 2010 Helen Hoyle

Falmouth Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, ‘A Decade of Collecting’ includes a cabinet of sketchbooks by Marjorie Williams, displaying watercolours of the Dodman headland and St Michael’s Mount, Penzance. The exhibition continues until February 2011.

Further reading: Letters from Lamledra : Cornwall 1914-1918 by Marjorie Williams, published by Truran Books

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this introduction to the artist and her work. What a remarkable woman. We have an etching by her of the Nativity after Fouquet with the text of an old Burgundian poem alongside it. We bought it for £1 at a market in Fakenham many years ago and we always wanted to know something about the artist. We have the picture on display at home during Christmas.

    Kind regards

    Brendan Flynn (