Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things

Carol Jacobi

“We think of Isabel as … this incredibly glamourous figure … but she challenged that fundamental divide between the model and artist … in a way, when she was the subject of Giacometti, of Bacon, she was also an artist.” – Carol Jacobi

Defying expectations, Isabel Rawsthorne (1912 – 1992) made a place for herself amongst contemporaries in early 20th century visual art, ending up at the centre of the Paris avant-garde. Her ingenuity as an artists’ model won her the freedom to paint, a vocation she would pursue for 75 years. A lifelong natural historian, Rawsthorne’s ephemeral images are informed by her observations of the language of gesture and movement, from her poetic depictions of animals to her embattled self-portraits. Guided by curator Carol Jacobi, discover artist Isabel Rawsthorne, “a missing link of 20th century art”.

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Sparrowhawk was found on Isabel Rawsthorne’s easel after she died, so we think maybe it’s the last work that she ever worked on. She always used a language of animals, of living things, and the hawk for her was a bird associated with death from Egyptian times. She’s clearly thinking about the end of her life. She’s in her late 70s.

Next to the easel was found an actual sparrowhawk skeleton that she’d obviously been working from, and I think you can see that skeletal effect in the painting. And also the sort of sense of a sort of ephemeral, almost a ghostly effect. She was thinking, I think, about the hawk lying on the table, a dead thing, but at the same time she was thinking about what it was like if you were the prey of the hawk. Sparrowhawks appear above their prey very unexpectedly, and then it’s too late. And so you get this sense of the animal arcing above you.

Isabel had a lifelong admiration of JMW Turner, and this painting was inspired by one of Turner’s own paintings from the end of his life, ‘The Angel Standing in the Sun’. You can see that the hawk’s wings actually echo the rainbow of Turner’s. Where Turner put figures representing the vicissitudes of love underneath the angel, Isabel has put the names of the people that represented the vicissitudes of love for her, the people who she loved and loved her. Underneath the wings of the sparrowhawk, she’s written them, almost buried them, in the paint.

And the sketchbooks around this time are full of names, just lists and lists of names that we couldn’t make any sense of until we connected them to this painting. So you can see names like Louis, which refers to the poet Louis MacNeice, I think you can see Alberto there, Alberto Giacometti, Tristan, that’s Tristan Tzara, of many many people that she loved and who loved her. Isabel often included her own hand in her works of art, as though referring to her sort of actual making the work of art. And this is the most ephemeral of those hands, you can see it almost flutters over the painting on the left-hand side. It’s almost like it’s the last trace of her, in charcoal.

I do tend to call her Isabel because she had five surnames in her life, although now she is known as Isabel Rawsthorne, mainly because that’s the name that Francis Bacon gave her in the many paintings he did of her, she exhibited as Isabel Lambert. So it’s just easier to call her by the most consistent name she had through her life which is Isabel. Isabel was born in the East End of London in 1912 but she was brought up near Liverpool. She never liked going to school, she much preferred to go sketching, swimming in the sea, just running wild.

She was very much part of a period where a lot of people were trying to work out not just art but life from first principles. She always questioned everything; she was always a rebel. So, for example, even at 16 at Liverpool College of Art, she challenged the rule against women being able to draw from the undraped model by becoming part of a group of men and women who posed for each other at nighttime. I think this might be something to do with why she managed to get the life drawing scholarship to the Royal Academy.

Then she went to be the studio assistant of Jacob Epstein and a couple of years later she went to Paris. And she was at the centre of the Paris avant-garde for 12 years, apart from a gap during World War II when she worked for British Intelligence as part of the special operations executive, making black propaganda.

We think of Isabel as this, you know, incredibly glamorous figure, this is how other people saw her. She challenged that fundamental divide between the model and the artist. So, in a way when she was the subject of Giacometti, of Bacon, she was also an artist at the same time. She was kind of the model who looked back. She refused to play the roles that were expected of her. And I think she did this, partly, just to win the independence, the freedom to paint, which was always her priority. But, at the same time it was the vivacity, the sort of singularity of the persona she took on in order to do this, which so fascinated the people around her, and which led them to make images of her, fall in love with her.

It’s very interesting to see how she saw herself. Artists from a poorer background, artists who are women, often used to draw and paint themselves, because they had less access to models. But if Isabel represented herself it tended to be her hands. And there are very very few images of her face. So in this room we actually have two. One that she made when she was just 24, she’s wearing some kind of Japanese kimono, and it’s just a quick sketch, possibly done in the studio of Alberto Giacometti. And another, which she made when she was 44, and exhibited, so it’s clearly very important to her.

It’s both brutal and very evasive. It’s called ‘Head with a Rose’, and you can see her cow lick, and a mantel shelf with a white rose which, she would have understood, referred to ideas about love. But I think it’s interesting to remember that, by this time, by the age of 44, she’d seen her face represented by so many leading artists of the age. Sir Jacob Epstein, André Derain, three portraits by Picasso, and dozens, if not hundreds, by Giacometti. And I think this portrait is very defiant. It’s very much about her gestures, you can see that her face somehow comes into view through these movements and swipes of three-dimensional paint. It’s a kind of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ effect. It’s a quite embattled, stern, self-image.

Isabel was a lifelong natural historian. Her first drawings were done in Kew Gardens of the birds, or in London Zoo at the age of three. Her father was a merchant seaman. He used to bring home and trade animals to supply zoos. And she didn’t really see any difference between human beings and animals. For her, she was always interested in the body, so she would either be drawing in the life class, or she would be drawing animals that she collected, or was studying in zoos.

An awful lot of Isabel’s work from the early part of her life has not survived, partly because she had such an itinerant lifestyle. She didn’t have a permanent studio, partly because things were lost or destroyed during the war. But we can see hints from publicity around her first exhibition, which was entirely animals, from her sketchbooks, and from a very rare work that she didn’t destroy – she was very terrible for destroying her work – ‘The Hare’. We can see the development of the way she was thinking about animals, and particular her interest in finding, collecting, not just looking at but touching animals. And the hare was actually given to her by the butcher, this rationing was still going on during this period, and you can see she’s arranged it on this white cloth, in a position that, it haunts it really, with the way the hare would have been when it was living. Its eye somehow looks alive, and so you get this very poignant sense of the living presence of the hare in the dead hare that she’s painting. This is of course, she would have known, a very old subject that goes back to Chardin and to 17th century paintings, and this is her addressing that.

You can see in her animals how her style, her thinking, evolved through them. So, if we look at the baboons, for example, two paintings of a baboon and a child and another baboon. You can see that the animals are much more abridged. You need much less to see them, which is something she was really interested in, what was necessary to make a viewer see something. And you can also see that she’s introduced texture, so you’ve got again, as in her self-portrait, these swipes and touches and gestures, her own gestures are in the painting.

Isabel was very interested in the language of gesture, the language of movement in humans and animals. She read a great deal about this. And I think one of the reasons she was pleased with the baboons was that the way the white baboon is sort of protective around the child, the way the strokes of paint all go into the body, so you get this sense of containment within that. And if you look at the brown baboon, again you can see the scratches going through the paint, it’s almost as though he’s withdrawing his elbows into himself. So you get this tremendous feeling of embattlement. And although it’s clear that these animals probably are caged, you don’t need to see the cage. You get a sense of their containment in the way they’re painted, in their body language.

For me, the white baboon is particularly poignant because we know that Isabel had a child when she was just 22 but was not able to bring up that child. The child was brought up by its father, Jacob Epstein, and his wife Margaret Epstein. Isabel was always well-known for her verve, for her gaiety, that was her public persona. But she did have private sadnesses and these you tend to see in her art. Her art tends to be much more austere. She was very proud of its austerity. Have a sense of transience and sadness and the beauty of things that are transient. I think that when we look at the baboon and child, there is this layer to it as well.

One of the things that really interested Isabel was whether you could capture the movement of a living thing, in a static medium like painting. And Isabel took a very literal approach to this, she simply found a way of painting the life model moving. And the way she did was to go to the practice rooms at the Royal Ballet. What you have there is people doing the same movement over and over and over again, so she could sketch and sketch and sketch and she could get to understand how to find an equivalent on her page for those movements. So, quite often you have more than one movement signified in one figure and you can see this actually. Also, this translated to her baboons – the male baboon appears to be sort of staring into the distance – but when you look a bit more closely you can see he’s actually turned his head and he’s looking straight at you.

In 1968 Isabel moved to the Marlborough gallery and she had a large solo show of portraits and dancers. And you can see her exploration of movement in the portraits, just as much as the dancers. You get the sense of the head not just turning now, but animated by talk, by banter. She often painted her then husband, Alan Rawsthorne, and you get a sense of him smoking and his gestures. That’s been obviously very important of her to capture, but also gives the figures an ephemeral quality, but also a kind of skull-like quality – a sense of them as transient beings. I think what Isabel was doing in her work was, always her work was based on something real, but what she was finding was the poetry of things. So, for example, just a simple wine glass could have a poetry about it according to a few sprigs of flowers that might have a meaning, is the wine glass empty, is it full, is it convivial, is it sad, and in this portrait of Alan Rawsthorne, you can see that the wine glass is reflected and that the flower only exists in the reflection, not in the real glass.

Isabel’s paintings are very hard to reproduce. They’ve got a kind of sculptural quality and in a photograph, you just see a scatter of shadows according to how the picture was lit for that photograph. But when you’re standing in front of them, you sort of sense the three-dimensionality with your skin, as well as your eyes and that’s when they really come alive.

Isabel never actually managed to get a permanent studio until she was in her 40s. Her work that we know – the work that survived – is from that last 40 years of her life. But, paradoxically, around that time, she fell out of sight. So that a lot of people didn’t know she was working after her Marlborough show in 1968. It’s also very typical of Isabel that she didn’t tend to repeat a successful formula. If she felt she’d had a success, she would move onto something else. And what she moved on to in her last years was she went back to the animals. The animals she was finding in the fields around her cottage. And she made most startingly seven large paintings, which looked at these sort of themes of transience and life and death, but in an environmental context.  This is where she started regularly introducing her own hand holding a swallow that she’s just caught for a moment, quite often against the disk of the sun, which is a kind of, I think, a metaphor for inspiration.

Isabel was a very influential artist in the 40s and the 50s. When Tate acquired a portrait of her by Francis Bacon that he made in 1966, they described her as a well-known painter and designer. The reason that people are still actually surprised to find out she was an artist, which, considering she actually was an artist for 75 years and she made this really important body of work, I think it’s to do with several things. I think it’s partly to do with the prejudices of history, the expectations of artists who are women, which has hindered the appreciation, the survival of her art.  I think it’s to do with her own reluctance to publicise her art. But I think it’s also to do with the fact that she was part of a circle which included artists who were very successful, and they eclipsed her. And in particular in the 80s when their biographies were written, they describe the Isabel that we’ve known until recently, which is an Isabel who is a subject for their protagonists, rather than Isabel the artist.

Isabel was part of the major developments of the art of her time, an intrinsic part of them. And we can’t really appreciate 20th century art of her circle without putting her back into the picture. She’s kind of like a missing link of 20th century art. Through looking at the art of her contemporaries – such as Giacometti, Picasso, Bacon through her work, through her eyes, I understand so much more about them. I think she was also incredibly courageous in defying the expectations of her class, of her gender, insisting on working as an artist, identifying herself as an artist. Her passports always identify herself as an artist. Her whole life, against expectations.

With thanks to

Tate Britain

 

 

Artworks

Sparrowhawk

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1990

Private collection © Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Isabel Rawsthorne

John Blake, c. 1990

 

Bird skeleton in Isabel’s studio

Edward Cockburn, 1993

 

The Bird Eurasian Sparrowhawk Hovers Over The Meadow And Looks Out For Prey

Pond 5

 

The Angel Standing in the Sun, exhibited 1846

Joseph Mallord William Turner

Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Photo: Tate

 

Isabel Rawsthorne

John Everard, 1933

 

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho

Francis Bacon, 1967

Staatilche Museen zu Berlin

© The Estate of Francis Bacon, 67-14

All rights reserved. (DACS)

 

Isabel Delmer, Spain, 1938

Courtesy Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate

 

Isabel on the Beach, c. 1926,

Courtesy Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate

 

Isabel with fellow students

Wallasey High School, c. 1928

Courtesy Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate

 

Standing Figure 1 (from sketchbook)

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1935

Tate

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Standing Figure 2 (from sketchbook)

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1935

Tate

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Standing Figure with Folded Arms (from sketchbook)

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1935

Tate

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Isabel Nicholas and Jacob Epstein attending the first night of Eisenstein’s Thunder over Mexico, Marble Arch Pavilion

8 January 1934

 

Isabel Nicholas arriving for a private viewing of the Royal Academy Summer Show

Burlington House London, 28 April 1933

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Study for Portrait (Isabel Rawsthorne)

Francis Bacon, 1964

© The Estate of Francis Bacon, 64-12

All rights reserved. (DACS)

 

Seated Figure (from sketchbook)

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1935

Tate

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Head with Rose

Isabel Rawsthorne, 1945

Private collection

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Two Birds and a Fish

Isabel Rawsthorne, 1947-8

Private collection

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Epstein’s model artist and her beasts

The Sketch, 17 May 1933

 

Hare

Isabel Rawsthorne, 1951

Private collection

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Still Life with a Hare

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, c. 1730

Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

Baboon

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1962

Tate, © Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Baboon and Child

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1962

Tate

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Isabel in Venice, 1937

 

Isabel, c. 1937

 

Three Dancers

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1967

New Art Gallery, Walsall

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Dancer

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1967

New Art Gallery, Walsall

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Francis Bacon and George Dyer at the Private view of the Isabel Lambert exhibition at Marlborough Gallery, 1968

 

Figure in a Landscape

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1965

Private collection

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

View through a Window II

Isabel Rawsthorne, 1967

Tate

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Head and Reflected Glass

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1967

Private collection

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Isabel Rawsthorne in her studio

c. 1961

 

Migration VI

Isabel Rawsthorne, c. 1970s

Private collection

© Warwick Llewellyn Nicholas Estate.

All rights reserved, DACS 2022

 

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne

Francis Bacon, 1966

© The Estate of Francis Bacon, 66-10.

All rights reserved. (DACS)

 

 

Music

Music Vine

 

Arbic Tallow

Blue Dot Sessions, 2017

(CC BY-NC 4.0)

 

Cold Summer Landscape

Blear Moon, 2011

(CC BY-NC 4.0)

 

Deep Peace

M33 Project, 2022

(CC BY-NC 4.0)

 

Last Light

Nul Tiel Records, 2022

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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