Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Unseen British paintings 1900-1960

Orchard with beehive, Whiteleaf. By Clive Gardiner, c. 1914. © Channel Light Vessel

Unseen British paintings 1900-1960

 By Clive Gardiner, Lilian Lancaster, Gladys Davison

Artists die, but they live on in their work – or so conventional wisdom would have you believe. The problem with this is that the paintings that stay in the public eye tend to be those that have monetary value. These are the ones that are reproduced, exhibited, resold, and talked about. The way in which paintings acquire monetary value in the first place is a bit of a mystery to everyone outside the art world (and quite a few inside I suspect), and is not necessarily linked to quality, impact, depth or originality. The sad result is that many interesting or even excellent painters are overlooked and forgotten, along with the boring or frankly terrible, and their work is never seen again. 

Also, if we only ever see the best and most celebrated exemplars of particular periods or movements in art, the reciprocal influences connecting individual artists are lost, and our understanding of that phase or period in art is poorer. 

Artists have a harder time with immortality than writers. Writers who are highly regarded or popular (or both), in their lifetimes often fall dramatically out of favour after their deaths. But their work survives in multiple editions and formats, and reputations can revive decades later. The ideas of a painter or sculptor on the other hand are embedded - even imprisoned - in physical objects, and these objects can deteriorate or vanish, taking their creators with them and depriving the world of their unique vision. 

The point of this post is simply to show some examples of the work of three artists, Clive Gardiner, Lilian Lancaster, and Gladys Davison. The last two are almost completely forgotten. Gardiner's dramatic poster designs for London Transport and the Empire Marketing Board are still recognised and highly regarded, and he is remembered also as principal of Goldsmiths' College in London between 1929 and 1957. But his work, as a painter, designer, and illustrator, was far more extensive and varied than this, and included a large number of landscapes painted in the Isles of Scilly.

Many of the the paintings in this article have not been seen in public at all for decades or, in some cases, almost a century. 

Clive Gardiner (1891-1960)

Epping Forest. Clive Gardiner, 1928. This was one of many posters Gardiner designed for London Transport.  Channel Light Vessel

Today, Clive Gardiner is probably best remembered  for his designs for London Underground and London Transport in the 1920s and 1930s, of which the Epping Forest poster above is one. You can see the full collection of this work at the London Transport Museum, and there is a good biographical summary on the University of Brighton website. 

The posters show Cubist and Futurist influences and in one sense are very much of that period, but they are also entirely individual. To appreciate this, you have to look at them alongside other British transport posters of the time (it was something of a golden age for transport posters) - they are original and impossible to confuse with any other designer. 

Harbour with moon, Isles of Scilly. Clive Gardiner, date unknown, probably late 1940s. Oil on canvas. © Channel Light Vessel

Lyme Regis harbour (Dorset) by Clive Gardiner, date unknown, probably late 1920s or 1930s. Oil on board. © Channel Light Vessel 

After the end of World War II, Clive Gardiner started visiting the Isles of Scilly every summer after the end of term at Goldsmiths, usually staying on the tiny island of Bryher. His attachment to the islands seems to have been strong, personal, and possessive. 

The remoteness of the Isles of Scilly must have been a big part of the attraction: according to his brother-in-law, Lionel Robbins (writing in a South London Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1967), Clive Gardiner did not mix much with other artists, "could not bring himself to show his work to dealers", and found all forms of self-promotion and networking "utterly antipathetic". Gardiner's younger son, Stephen, writes (in the same catalogue) that his father was always "mysterious" about his visits to Scilly: "The islands began as a discovery and ended as an obsession. And he made it quite plain . . . that he wanted to keep the place to himself." 

Trees on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. Clive Gardiner, date unknown. Oil on board.  © Channel Light Vessel

Hughtown harbour beach, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. Clive Gardiner, date unknown. Oil. I have left the frame on this photo, as it seems to suit the painting well. © Channel Light Vessel

Harbour scene, by Clive Gardiner, oil. Date unknown. © Channel Light Vessel

Stephen Gardiner also writes that his father gave him 'permission' to go to his beloved Scilly in 1955. The place had "an eerie familiarity" because he already knew it through his father's paintings. Stephen, who did not share his father's reticence, started asking local people if they knew his father. "I thought he might have become quite well known since he had been going there for so long. I was wrong . . . I described him in detail - the glasses, the trilby hat, the grey raincoat: a fairly large man, I would say, and impossible to miss." But nobody - publicans, boatmen, hotelkeepers - knew his name or could recall him in any way. 

This story is particularly strange in the context of a tiny island community. Gardiner's relationship with Scilly seems to have remained mysterious, a private landscape. 
Cottages, Isles of Scilly, by Clive Gardiner, date unknown. © Channel Light Vessel

Jetty with yacht, by Clive Gardiner. Date unknown, oil. © Channel Light Vessel

Coastal landscape, by Clive Gardiner. Date unknown, oil on canvas. This painting shows Gardiner's appreciation of Cezanne, and looks like Provence, which Gardiner visited in search for Cezanne's inspirational places. But it could just as easily be a lane in Cornwall on a fine day. © Channel Light Vessel

Old Town, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. Clive Gardiner, date unknown, pencil and crayon drawing. 
© Channel Light Vessel

Sails by Clive Gardiner, date unknown. Oil. © Channel Light Vessel

Harbour by Clive Gardiner. Date unknown, oil on board. This is either Hughtown, St Mary's (Isles of Scilly), or Penzance harbour. © Channel Light Vessel

White begonia, by Clive Gardiner. Date unknown, oil on canvas.  © Channel Light Vessel

Leda and the Swan by Clive Gardiner, date unknown, probably 1930s. Oil on canvas. © Channel Light Vessel

Lilian Lancaster (1886-1973)
Lilian Lancaster was a painter of portraits, still life and flowers who studied at the Slade (1906-10) and the Royal Academy School until 1914. She also taught at Eastbourne and Brighton art schools, and was married to Clive Gardiner.

She should not be confused with her aunt, also called Lilian Lancaster (1852-1939), an artist, map-designer and actress.  

The younger Lilian Lancaster was a pupil of Walter Sickert, and remained a vocal admirer of Sickert throughout her life. Her earlier paintings show this influence, though most of her work owes more to the French impressionists, particularly Degas and Renoir. Her later work tends to be more static and occasionally over-sweet, but the best of her portraits have real impact. 
Stephen Gardiner and Cat. By Lilian Lancaster, circa 1944. Oil on canvas.  © Channel Light Vessel

This portrait (above) has a satisfyingly balanced composition, with the curves of the collar, the chair-back, the cat's stripy body, and the hands all lending movement. The barely feasible beauty of the two subjects is kept in check by the deep navy of the sailor's uniform and the subtle olive-browns of the tabby fur and the upholstery.  

Classical still life by Lilian Lancaster, circa 1906-1914. Oil on canvas This is an early painting and may have been done when she was still a student. If so, the painting of the form of the statue and the drapery behind are very confident. © Channel Light Vessel

Lilian Lancaster, self-portrait, 1920s, oil.  © Channel Light Vessel

Young girl with pearls by Lilian Lancaster. Circa 1910-1920, oil. The dark tones and the long, melancholy face of the sitter are reminiscent of a Velazquez portrait. I cannot work out what the object is that the girl is holding. © Channel Light Vessel

Gladys Davison 1849(?)-1922

I know very little about this painter (full name Gladys Dorothy Davison) other than that she was a pupil of Walter Sickert, a friend of Lilian Lancaster (above) and that she always preferred to be known simply as 'Davison', because she hated the name Gladys.

Information on Davison seems extremely scarce; I found online records for the sale of three of her paintings, one of which is a beautiful portrait of her sister Maria, sold at Christie's in 2014, but no biographical details at all. 

Given that she was a friend of Lilian Lancaster, who was born in 1886, I am doubtful about the 1849 birthdate for Davison, which is given in the Christie's catalogue. This would have made her almost 30 years older than her friend - not impossible, but surprising.  

The portrait below seems to be a self-portrait. There is no date on it, but she looks to be in her late 20s or early to mid-30s here, so if she was born in 1849 this painting must date from the 1880s, but if this birthdate is wrong, it could be from the first two decades of the 20th century.

Self-portrait by Gladys Davison, signed, oil on canvas, date unknown.  © Channel Light Vessel

The portrait is a powerful and haunting painting in which the influence of Walter Sickert seems strong, both in terms of style and atmosphere. The pallor of her face, with its intent expression, set against her bone-white collar, form an island of light in the dusky blues and golds of the room. The details of the room - a blue vase on the draped mantelpiece, a darkened mirror, a painting - are quite precise, but recede into the gathering shadows; there is a sense of fading, wintry light.

Woman in large hat near Westminster. By Gladys Davison, circa 1910-1918.  © Channel Light Vessel

This second portrait, which may be of Lilian Lancaster, is quite different: there's an exuberant springlike quality to it, partly due to the rooftop location and the strong light across the checked dress, but mostly thanks to the hat. It's the sweeping lines of this huge feathered hat that bring life and movement to the picture, for the subject is sitting quite passively, with little expression, and without the hat the whole painting would have been more static. The hat also brings the suggestion of a breeze - in the lock of hair to the right, the slight lifting of the black bow, and the billowing curves of the dress.

Note the tower of Westminster Cathedral to the left.

© Josephine Gardiner 2015 

* * *
Quotes from Lionel Robbins and Stephen Gardiner are from articles written for a South London Art Gallery catalogue, published in 1967.


  1. Wonderful - I love Epping Forest and Leda & the Swan; the Lilian Lancaster portraits. Thank you for bringing these to life.

  2. sorry the above is me, was having probs logging in

  3. These are very pretty British paintings. Thanks dear for sharing these paintings here. They are very unique. I usually attend various painting fests at local event space but have never seen theme ever. I am glad to see these unseen paintings here!!

  4. Went to David Jones exhibition at Pallant Gallery last week and thought how alike some of his early landscape work and the Clive Gardiner tree paintings were. They have some quality of their time, which is hard to define, but also their own unique lines

  5. Fascinating stuff, thanks for sharing. Some of those portraits are so captivating, I'm surprised they have remained largely unseen.