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Marian Jeffares 1916-1986

9 August 2016

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My mother would be 100 today – if she hadn’t died 30 years ago. Today she is completely forgotten. I hadn’t intended to write anything until, after our recent referendum, my thoughts turned to how and why the result would have horrified her. I still take up my pen with great reluctance: I may spend my time writing the biographies of artists who are “oubliés ou dédaignés”, but I’ve never regarded my own family as a proper target for research. And anyway a child is the worst possible biographer, open to the most profound biases – and even when conscious of these, prone to overcompensating adjustments. I share neither my mother’s politics nor her view of painting as an intellectual tool, and I have retained none of the materials a biographer would normally draw upon, still less a hidden cache of her work. (I don’t even have a reproducible photograph of her, so the alleged self-portrait above will have to do.) But I am also conscious that she deserved more, and that no one else will do it. And that the story will only illuminate her work if I tell you more than I might otherwise want to.

So here is a brief and flawed account of her life and a few images of her work (mostly from ancient family snaps of lamentable quality that do the œuvre no favours, further filtered by the tendency for an artist’s worst pictures to be those that remain unsold).

Marian Bragg was born in 1916 in south London. Her father came from a Cumberland family with no social pretensions, but with some intellectual credentials: among his cousins (I have never determined the exact degree of consanguinity) were the Bragg father and son who won Nobel prize for their work on x-ray crystallography. Grandfather was however largely self-educated: a product of the late Victorian civil service examination system which secured him a position in the Post Office, and allowed him the leisure to read voraciously. He had complete sets of everything produced by Everyman or Tauchnitz (the Penguins of their day, at a time when people struggled to afford books) – and he had read them all, as one can tell from his autodidact’s annotations. Successive moves after he retired diminished his library as fast as Lear’s retainers, but a few volumes survive. His tastes included English essayists such as Hazlitt and Lamb, as well as writer–artists from Blake to Morris. A lifelong atheist, his ethics were strictly Roundhead. I have before me his Ruskin (the Routledge Universal edition, which is still better produced that many books today), and cannot help but wonder what sort of conversation he might have had with Proust about their mutual hero, seen from such radically different perspectives. But of course they never met.

Marian’s mother was from a similar family, the Collars, and although she died shortly after my mother was born, her widower – Marian’s father – soon after married her sister. There were no other children in the family, but for much of her childhood my mother was brought up with her Collar cousins (first this time), among them another mathematician, Roy Collar – who as Senior Wrangler in Cambridge had got a better degree than William Bragg, and went on to a distinguished career in aeronautics.

Despite this background my mother was not in the least mathematically inclined. From an early age she knew she would be a painter. And so she went to Blackheath School of Art, and then (in October 1935) on to the Slade, where she was trained to draw by Randolph Schwabe. Allan Gwynne-Jones taught her painting, and the legendary figure of Tancred Borenius was in charge of history of art. What sort of work was she doing then? My recollection of some of the student drawings she had kept were that they showed the characteristic assurance of line that remained throughout her work, and that they showed a receptivity to the movements of the day. Here for example are a couple of very early (possibly from Blackheath?) watercolours that come close to Edward Burra – perhaps mixed up with Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (a film which enjoyed considerable popularity in my mother’s circles at the time):

After her diploma in Fine Art (1938) she progressed to the Courtauld to study history of art, where she was taught by Anthony Blunt. At various stages of her career a fascination with old masters – from Jan van Eyck to Rembrandt and Velázquez – emerged into her own painting, though not always obviously (one of the more direct visual quotes will be found below). The influence of some modern masters is more apparent, as you will see from some of the work below. But she always had a blind spot for the French dix-huitième, regarding it as frivolous and unworthy of attention: a view she told me had been instilled in her at the Courtauld, and which she imposed upon me with equal rigour. I bought my first eighteenth century pastel soon after she died: but that is another story. And although Marian read widely I don’t recall Proust appealing to her any more than he did to her father: she would prefer Zola or Dostoyevsky.

Blunt had nothing to do with my mother’s interest in politics. That came not only from her family background, but also from her affair with a man I shall call T, whose parents were important members of the Fabian Society. T was also a Cambridge mathematician, and in the world he (and Blunt) inhabited, left wing ideas were the blindingly obvious necessary response to the growing threat of Fascism. My mother took part in the Battle of Cable Street, and the scenes were permanently etched in her mind as a reminder of the dangers and horrors of right-wing populism. For the rest of her life she would be committed to that struggle, one way or another.

Her painting continued meanwhile.  Of course the war dominated everyone’s lives, but there is no doubt that for many – my mother included – the febrile atmosphere was immensely stimulating. With the Blitz came Myra Hess concerts at the National Gallery, and both had a powerful effect on my mother’s imagination. Here’s an architectural study of wartime destruction (1944), with echoes of Graham Sutherland:

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I don’t need to spell out the imagery of the straight-edged stone and the molten lead guttering. It was not until much later that she began to incorporate images from the Holocaust into some of her paintings: these are too dark to show here.

Things with T did not however develop as she had expected: they did not marry, but the understanding was broken off abruptly for reasons that must remain secret (but were far from the common story). This left Marian greatly shaken; and soon after she made a hasty and unwise marriage to E. This was in 1940. She didn’t see her husband for the rest of the war, but realised her mistake when he returned in 1947. The following year my half-sister Clare was born. They were living in Devon in 1949 at a time when a strong wave of anti-communism took hold. E lost his job in the civil service; and at a public meeting arranged to seek E’s reinstatement, George Jeffares – bravely or foolishly – spoke in E’s favour, thus revealing his own political affiliations.

This had calamitous consequences. My father-to-be, who was then a lecturer at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth with a promising academic future, was in turn dismissed (the circumstances ensured that he would never again hold proper employment). My mother decided to leave E and run off with George. A divorce ensued: but English family law then was cruel, and Marian was denied access to her daughter for the rest of Clare’s minority. Until recently I neither understood nor even thought about just how painful this must have been for mother and daughter. I can remember once a year Clare was allowed to write to her. But the girl had a deeply troubled childhood, and, despite a level of IQ that promised as much as her brainiest cousins, never realised her potential. I met her only twice, many years later, when eccentricity had developed to an extreme level. Her travels in Afghanistan and Tibet in her youth led to a volume of poetry and, just a few years ago, a play on Radio 4 (in which her part was taken by Harriet Walter) which might have been interesting had I not been furious at what I saw as the misrepresentation of my mother’s role in the account of an understandably unreliable witness.

But back to Devon in 1949, with a lot of people suddenly out of a job and with nowhere to hide. Since my father was Irish, that seemed the only direction to turn; and with a grim inevitability of the choices she had taken, a woman who had been brought up in a vibrant London ended up in the country which she disliked but where she would spend virtually the rest of her life.

But not before one further adventure, which was crucial for the development both of her politics and of her art. In 1952 my parents decided to go to China. The communist revolution had very recently taken place, and this was long before the cultural revolution. My parents saw China as an exciting place with enormous potential, and they were happy to contribute to its reconstruction. My father taught languages while my mother worked with great intensity, capturing everything she could of Chinese culture on canvas and in sketchbook. She painted Chinese buildings and drew an impressive series of Chinese workers and engaged in traditional occupations. Here for example: a craftsmen applying a lacquer, a girl folding laundry and a child in traditional clothing:

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Such exquisite drawings reveal just how talented she was, and how successful her work was when its object was direct representation. The politics were confined to the fact of her being there, not what she then put on the sheet.

But after two years it was time to come back – probably the thought of giving birth to me in primitive conditions was a hint. So armed with a portfolio of exotic canvases and drawings she returned to Dublin.

It is impossible to exaggerate just how grim Ireland was in the 1950s. Local colour was no doubt provided by the likes of Brendan Behan, whom my parents knew well; but a culture based on drink, Celtic mysticism and peasant ignorance was dominated by an institution of which my mother had a life-long abhorrence: the Catholic church. In particular, my mother, who was a feminist to her core, objected to their role in the subjugation of woman: by imposing the views of the Catholic hierarchy on all citizens, divorce, abortion and even contraception were illegal in Ireland, and astonishingly have remained so until very recently. Today we read of the scandal of the religiously run Mother and Baby programme, and the appalling treatment meted out to unmarried Irish women whose illegitimate children were the consequences of these laws. But it was my mother who sought to expose this in letters to The Irish Times, which were simply ignored. I think she viewed the hierarchy as equivalent to Mosley, the difference being that they enjoyed the support of 95% of the population.

Meanwhile she continued painting. She had already shown in the annual Irish Exhibition of Living Art (from 1950 on), and from 1957 she was included in the Oireachtas Art Exhibitions, with paintings with titles like “An Bhean i Sráid Sheáin Mhic Dhiarmada” or “Vótaí do Mhná”. These titles must have been provided for her (perhaps by my father) as my mother spoke not a word of Irish: yet this was the language in which her strident feminism had to be described to appear in Dublin’s equivalent of the Royal Academy summer exhibitions.

Her Peking Courtyard was shown at the Leicester Galleries in their 1957 exhibition of Artists of Fame and Promise, alongside work by artists who are now far better known, among them Louis Le Brocquy, Keith Vaughan and Ivon Hitchens:

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Soon however she was taken up by one of the leading Dublin dealers, the Ritchie Hendriks Gallery. She held a number of solo exhibitions there (1956, 1958, 1960 &c.), and participated in a group exhibition in San Francisco in 1960: the reviews were largely favourable, if occasionally baffled. For example, The Irish Times critic (December 1960) praised one of her heads:

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which “had the sculptural force of a Chinese Buddha achieved by the use of surface tones which suggest stone rather than flesh”, noting that she “pursues her simplified cubist course through a number of landscapes and still lifes”; but then added “surprisingly she makes little concession to the misty atmosphere of Ireland”.

But her work did not sell to a conservative audience that largely wanted just such views of Galway or Connemara.

The difficulty my mother faced – with commendable perseverance – was what she felt as a complete cultural vacuum in Dublin in the visual arts. Most of the practitioners were content to produce exactly what the market wanted; my mother would not do this. She found herself increasingly isolated, and even her closest friend – Anne Yeats – while supporting her in some ways, nevertheless had a quite different idea of what it meant to be a painter (Anne’s uncle Jack, for example, produced  paintings which were and remain very popular). It’s easy to see both sides of this, particularly since my mother’s concept of art as part of the class struggle had become bogged down in a version of what can only be described as Socialist Realism. What had worked in China ceased to have any real interest when applied to drab 1950s Dublin.

Curiously the old lady in Sean MacDermott Street (1958) turned up at auction a few years ago (I had never seen it); it’s her Burra-type surrealism recast in the style of Harry Kernoff (an execrable painter who was highly regarded in Dublin at the time), and it’s so bad I’m not going to reproduce it. Most of her work was better than this example.

She turned with some interest to lithography which she practised at the Graphic Studio in Dublin, run by the talented printmaker Patrick Hickey. Here, as an hommage à Picasso, she worked up The Cock in wax crayons, and printed a simpler, less angry version in an edition of 70:

Out of this struggle – in which she drew heavily on inner resources – emerged a more sophisticated art in which the bleaker aspects of modern life, and in particular the predicament of women, emerged:

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There are hints perhaps of R. B. Kitaj and Richard Hamilton in some of these canvases:

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While she was very familiar with Bacon’s work and admired what he did with Velázquez, she never set out to follow him directly. Rather, taking Piero della Francesca as her model, she recast the Flagellation of Christ in a picture called Two Worlds expressing how she thought women were treated at the time:

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Others use the vocabulary of Otto Dix, updated to 1970s Ireland:

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Who knows how she might have developed had she still been working in London? She started to exhibit again in the 1970s: again the critical response was more favourable than the market’s. Her final solo show, at the Lincoln Gallery, took place in 1981: it was a broad retrospective including early, transitional and recent canvases. The critic in The Irish Times was not unfair in noting that the middle period work was “intricate ad heavily symbolic with echoes of Rivera-type realism and surrealism”, concluding that this section was “confused and rather laboured.” She was more positive about the new direction shown in “far stronger” recent pieces: a girl looking into a mirror with a blank face, and a man in a dead, featureless room: they “amount to a careful study of anomie”.

The word I have consciously avoided so far is alienation, and if you wanted to pursue the intellectual roots of her world-view, you should start with Antonio Gramsci and his Prison Notebooks. But I think these paintings should be left to speak for themselves: you know the themes by now.

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A few years after this last show, a lifetime of smoking and drinking caught up with her, and she died of cancer, just short of her 70th birthday. I don’t know how many marks out of ten she would have given her life, to reduce this account to the lowest type of journalism. She knew she had made bad choices, and had paid the price; but she was never one for the easy path. Whatever you may think of her views, her sincerity was not in question, and you may even feel that there was something noble in her sacrifices. Her background ensured that she would have made the same choices again; events which were not within her control defined a fate which was neither inevitable nor inescapable, but was nevertheless for her unavoidable.

She had lived to see her socialist ideals disintegrate: first as China fell into the darkest abyss; then as Russia too revealed its ugliness by invading Hungary – for which the Left tried to find excuses – and then Czechoslovakia – for which it couldn’t. Although she wasn’t around to see the fall of the Berlin wall, she would by then have welcomed it. She probably thought the world had been rid of fascism as well, and would have regarded that as a fair trade-off (which is why she would have been so distressed by the resurgence of populism today). For much of her early life she would probably have been appalled to learn that her son would give up mathematics and become a merchant banker: but she bore this, when it came, with equanimity.

But she would never have been happy with the developments taken by contemporary art: not so much its vacuity and continued divorce from serious content, although this would not surprise her; but its reduction to trophies for the superwealthy at prices puffed by a small cadre of élite dealers (all artists hate dealers). Many of her attitudes to these developments were echoed in the articles of Brian Sewell (he was 15 years younger), although not of course his views on women artists. Of my mother’s pictures however no one could say (in Reynolds’s phrase) that they “are just what ladies do when they paint for amusement”.

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From → Art history

9 Comments
  1. Diana Kostyrko permalink

    Hi Neil,

    A sensitive, thoughtful piece — and it causes me to think about my own mother (d. 1980) and her times.

    Diana.

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  2. Diana Kostyrko permalink

    PS: a touch of Max Weber’s Iron Cage of rationality in there as well?

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  3. Neil Very belatedly I’ve managed to sit down and read your post about your mother’s work. I don’t know what I expected, but I was completely engrossed. Thank you for it. I thought it was a rigorous and fitting tribute. Probably all past lives deserve more attention than we give them, but her life certainly merited it – and her work even more so. How I envy you owning this collection of pictures (if you do have them). Of course the Chinese works particularly appeal to me, and especially the Peking Courtyard. But the views of contemporary life are remarkable. I don’t think you should have apologised so much at the outset for writing this piece. The discipline you’ve brought to it is sufficient. Thank you, and congratulations. Jenny x

    Jennifer Stevenson | Communication.Sorted | +44 (0)7985 055 828 | +44 (0)1761 463 563 Date: Tue, 9 Aug 2016 10:02:43 +0000 To: jenniferstevenson100@hotmail.com

  4. Lynda mason permalink

    An interesting and informative piece which has left me wanting to know much more about your mother, her life and most of all, her artwork

  5. A gripping and informative tale of both a woman’s life and work, and the times and places in which she lived. I for one was never aware of the level of McCarthyism in Britain at the time. No wonder her work was so grey. She must truly have felt like a voice in the wilderness.

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