Tasked with illuminating the forgotten art of Morwenna Thistlethwaite, art historian Sacha Llewellyn unearthed evidence of an extraordinary career. In this excerpt from our latest catalogue, she tells her story.
A mother lovingly cradles her baby in a quiet corner of a room. A man, with his back to the viewer, contemplates the wider world beyond: the open Celtic Sea, whose churning waves contrast with the delicate, spare interior within. Soft prairies of colour – blues, pale pinks and dull bluish greens – enhance the contemplative mood and saturate the composition with a feeling of detachment. This small painting, entitled Family by the Window, is a perfect introduction to the world of Morwenna Thistlethwaite, whose work (recently shown at the Goldmark Gallery) provides a valuable link to a quiet strand of art that flowered in St Ives towards the end of the 20th century.
Family by the Window, oil on board
Born Morwenna Brock in 1912 in Kew, Richmond, little is known of Morwenna’s childhood, except that she grew up in Tongue, a coastal village in Northwest Scotland, during a period when women’s lives swayed uncomfortably between the confines of patriarchal tradition and new opportunities for freedom that women’s suffrage promised.
Glass Bowl, watercolour, pen & ink
A meeting in 1924 with the St Ives artist Borlase Smart (1881-1947) while he was holidaying in Scotland proved to be a turning point in Morwenna’s life. Impressed by her drawing and painting, Smart advised her to follow her passions formally. She eventually enrolled at Leamington Spa Art College in 1934, where she soon became the star student, awarded her Painting Certificate after one, rather than two, years of study. Accolades aside, she still had to fight her corner: voted ‘Pupil of the Year’ in 1936, one dissenting tutor made clear his belief that ‘a woman shouldn’t be allowed to win it’.
The Conversation, oil on board
In 1938 Morwenna furthered her studies at the prestigious Birmingham School of Art, a leading centre for the Arts and Crafts movement that boasted many women among its famous alumni, including Marjorie Incledon (1891-1973) and Anne Constance Smedley (1876-1941). During her first year at the School, Morwenna won a competition to paint a large mural on the theme of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as part of a local initiative to decorate Birmingham Corporation Schools. A photograph shows Morwenna with her assistant, Stanley Simmonds, in front of a huge preparatory sketch composed of near-life-size figures in medieval costume, painted in the tradition of 19th century history painting.
The Storm, oil on board
As well as exhibiting locally, Morwenna also received portrait commissions, one of which, for the chartered accountant Bernard Thistlethwaite in 1944, proved to be especially significant. As Morwenna later recounted, Bernard ‘wooed her with tinned peaches’ (a wartime luxury) and artist and sitter fell in love, despite the latter being 24 years her senior and married with six children. To make a fresh start, the pair moved to Upper Colwyn Bay in Denbighshire. Unable to marry Bernard as he never divorced his wife, Morwenna changed her surname by deed poll. For the sake of posterity, this served her less well, as records of the two artists – Brock and Thistlethwaite – have not always been reconciled.
The Table, oil on board
Happily, Morwenna found work in her new location, painting a mural for the Ministry of Food, whom the Artists International Association had called upon to employ artists to decorate canteens and restaurants at a time when commissions were few and far between. Known only from a photograph, her design shows a shift from her naturalistic figure painting towards a softer-edged and more lyrical approach: a playful rural idyll filled with reapers, farm animals and women and children, far removed from the devastation of World War II.
The Open Window, oil on board
When the war ended, Morwenna and Bernard embarked on a new chapter of their lives, moving to a large house at 2 Gordon Place in Kensington – a home for their two children and a meeting place for artists and musicians, including the illustrator and costume historian Margot Hamilton Hill and her husband Alfred Daniels (1924-2015), whose colourful scenes of everyday London life have much in common with Morwenna’s paintings of nearby Kensington Gardens. In September 1960, with the death of his first wife, Bernard and Morwenna were free to marry, although, sadly, this was not to last; Bernard died the following month. After his death, Morwenna continued to work and exhibit in London, with her first solo show, aged 60, finally taking place at Ansdell Gallery in Monmouth Street in 1972.
The Railway Line, oil on board
Then, four years later, Mowenna’s life journey came full circle when she moved opposite an old family home at 18 Victoria Place in St Ives, Cornwall, where her mother had been born. Years of observation had prepared her to capture this novel world of passers-by and well-kept white cottages. With a renewed burst of creativity, Morwenna responded to her environment with expressive freedom, producing in the last decades of her life paintings characterized by bold form and strong colour. These imaginative compositions show the influence of continental modernism, with elements reminiscent of Kandinsky, Matisse and Cézanne, fused with a genuinely British sensibility: meditative interiors opening on to the outside world, rooted in narrative but imbued with an air of mystery and populated with dreamy, disengaged figures lost in thought. Clearly influenced by her exact contemporary Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) and the younger Patrick Heron (1920–1999), whose studio, above the Cornish village of Zennor, she is known to have visited, Morwenna also produced semi-abstract paintings: Morandi-like still lives and farmyard scenes, layered lovingly with veils of deliquescent colour.
Still Life, watercolour with gum arabic
Morwenna was happy in St Ives, becoming a familiar figure in the ‘Downalong’ area and a regular of the local art scene. Although she had often exhibited at the Royal Academy, she was never elected an Academician. In 1980, she had a solo show at the New Grafton Gallery (London) and in 1992 her work was included in the Royal West of England Academy’s ‘Arts from Cornwall’ exhibition. But in 1997 poor health forced Morwenna to leave St Ives for Surrey, where she died in December 2000.
Chess Game, gouache & watercolour
Over the last few decades, art history’s neglect of women artists has been challenged by feminist endeavours in writing and curation. The value of this exhibition, which highlights some 65 previously unseen works by Morwenna, is that it now ensures her legacy. As the feminist writer Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) wrote in 1972, ‘Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival’.
Sacha Llewellyn is a Paris-based art historian specialising in women artists. Working in collaboration with museums and commercial galleries, she has curated and co-curated exhibitions internationally. As well as writing for the press, she has also authored and co-authored many exhibition catalogues. In 2017, her monograph on Winifred Knights was awarded the prestigious William M B Berger Prize for British Art History. This year, Sacha launched RAW (Rediscovering Art by Women / r-a-w.net), a European platform that promotes research into women artists. Her Instagram account, @Rediscoveringartbywomen, celebrates women artists every day.