The Artistic Voice of Women in the 20th century

Laura Knight – ‘Sleeping Dancer’, monochrome drypoint etching, signed in pencil recto © Toovey’s 2021

One of the exciting aspects of modern British Art from the early 20th century was the emergence of a generation of gifted female artists. Although they faced challenges their artistic voices were increasingly celebrated.

Today there is a growing interest and demand for works by prominent women artist at auction, the prints you see here sold at Toovey’s for £1100 and £4500.
Laura Knight (1877-1970) was part of the English Impressionist movement. She worked in the figurative, realist tradition and became one of the most popular modern British artists of her generation raising the status and recognition of women artists in a male dominated arena.

Laura Knight’s subjects included studies of Gypsies, Circus performers and figures from the world of theatre and ballet in London. She worked in oil and watercolour as well as producing etchings, drypoints and engravings. She was inspired not only by the glamour of the theatre but also the domestic aspects of stage life which she depicted with intimacy and sensitivity.

The drypoint etching ‘Sleeping Dancer’ captures a young woman too tired after her performance to change asleep in a wicker chair. She is framed by her full-skirted tutu which spreads out behind her framing this unguarded scene.

Sybil Andrews – The Giant Cable, linocut, signed and editioned in pencil © Toovey’s 2021

Sybil Andrews (1898-1992) is another highly sought after modern British female artist. She began making linocuts after attending Claude Flight’s classes at The Grosvenor School of Modern Art in 1925. She had moved to London with the artist and architect Cyril Powers in 1922.

The school promoted elements of Cubism, Futurism and English Vorticism to capture the dynamism and movement of the machine age. The Vorticists lacked the romanticism of the Post Impressionists and European Cubists. Although harsher in nature it never reached the aggressive extremes of the Italian Futurists led by Marinetti. Founded in 1914 the Vorticist movement was short lived. Its main proponent Wyndham Lewis and others were profoundly affected by their experience of the Great War. Demoralised, there was a sense that the aggressive qualities of their art had, in some way, been prophetic.

Sybil Andrews’ linocut The Giant Cable illustrates the Vorticist cubist fragmentation of reality with its hard edged imagery derived from the machine and urban environment. It is typical of the way Sybil Andrews captures scenes filled with movement, both human and mechanical. It illustrates her bold use of geometric forms and vibrant flat colours in dramatic arrangements. The figures seem to rotate, caught up in the centrifugal force of the cable drum which the artist uses to create the illusion of movement.

Art so often reflects its own times giving voice to social and economic change in society. These two beautifully conceived, powerful images highlight the importance of women artists in the 20th century and their appeal to collectors today.

I am looking forward to Toovey’s next specialist sale of prints which, Covid willing, will be held on Wednesday 17th March 2021.

Virginia Woolf’s writings are an inspiration

Dame Laura Knight, The Dark Pool (1908–1918), Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE, RA, 2018. All Rights Reserved

This summer’s must see exhibition in Sussex has just opened at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. It is titled ‘Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings’.

Inspired by the writing of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), it explores women’s suffrage and the metaphors of landscape, the room and still lives; bringing together more than eighty works by leading Modern British and Contemporary women artists. The exhibition is born out of a partnership between Tate St Ives, Pallant House Gallery and The Fitzwilliam.

This visually stunning, light-filled show is beautifully curated and hung. The domestic scale of many of the paintings and objects are brought to life at Pallant House as the narrative of the exhibition cleverly unfolds in a series of rooms.
Although this is not a biographical exhibition it illustrates how Virginia Woolf constantly drew on her relationships and experiences in her writing to articulate a sense of self and place.

In her early childhood she spent every summer at Talland House in St Ives. She would recall how formative these early recollections were in A Sketch of the Past: ‘…lying half-asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery of St Ives…hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind.’ Laura Knight’s oil painting, The Dark Pool similarly captures a fascination with the sea as a young woman stands on the rocks beside a shore looking reflectively into the pool’s depths, free in her thoughts. For Woolf the Landscape would often become a metaphor for a new freedom and power for women. In contrast through the metaphor of the room she would express the ambiguity in a place of potential autonomy and liberation which also symbolised societal restraint over women at the time.

Vanessa Bell, View of the Pond at Charleston, East Sussex, c.1919, oil on canvas, Museums Sheffield © Estate of Vanessa Bell / Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa Bell’s outward facing, liberated oil of the Pond at Charleston in Sussex is filled with light, movement and hope. It combines the landscape, room and still life.

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were sisters and throughout their lives they inspired and influenced each other’s work. They gathered around them a circle of influential Modern British women artists, many of whom are represented in the show.

Sussex, like Cornwall, played a significant part in Woolf’s life and work. Indeed Vanessa Bell only moved to Charleston in 1916 on her sister’s recommendation. The house would become a meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group.

In 1919 Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard bought Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell in East Sussex where she would live until her suicide in 1941. This 17th century cottage allowed her to write in the tranquillity of the Sussex Downs near to her elder sister Vanessa Bell who was extremely important to Woolf’s sense of her own self and wellbeing. Woolf loved to discuss art with her sister. This desire to learn was both personal and intellectual. It brought her closer to her sister and artistic friends who included Dora Carrington, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and the author Vita Sackville-West.

I am delighted that Toovey’s, together with De’Longhi and Irwin Mitchell, are amongst the headline sponsors and supporters of this exceptional exhibition. ‘Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings’ runs at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester throughout the summer until 16th September 2018.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Patron & Artist Celebrate the Triumph of Love & Hope at Easter

The St Mary Magdalene Chapel, Chichester Cathedral, with Graham Sutherland’s ‘Noli me tangere’.
The St Mary Magdalene Chapel, Chichester Cathedral, with Graham Sutherland’s ‘Noli me tangere’.

Over the centuries, it has always been the gift of great artists to reflect upon the world we all share and to allow us, through their work, to glimpse something of what lies beyond our immediate perception. The 20th century brought the shared and shocking experience of war to two generations. In 1944, the artist Hans Feibusch in his book ‘Mural Painting’ wrote, “The men who come home from the war, and all the rest of us, have seen too much horror and evil; when we close our eyes terrible sights haunt us; the world is seething with bestiality; and it is all man’s doing. Only the most profound, tragic, moving and sublime vision can redeem us. The voice of the Church should be heard loud over the thunderstorm; and the artist should be her mouth piece as of old.”

Graham Sutherland – ‘Portrait of Walter Hussey’, begun 1965, oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985).
Graham Sutherland – ‘Portrait of Walter Hussey’, begun 1965, oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985).

It has often been the role of enlightened patrons to enable artists to express their visions. In 1942, as bombs fell upon Britain, Walter Hussey, on Kenneth Clark’s recommendation, commissioned Henry Moore to carve ‘Madonna and Child’ in the warm hues of Hornton stone at St. Matthew’s, Northampton, where he was vicar. As the sculpture was nearing completion, Hussey talked to Moore about a number of artists he was considering for a large painting in the south transept, opposite ‘Madonna and Child’. Henry Moore unhesitatingly recommended Graham Sutherland.

Hussey had in mind the Agony in the Garden as a subject. Sutherland confessed his ambition “to do a Crucifixion of a significant size” and Hussey agreed. Writing of the finished work, Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery and responsible for the War Artists project, said, “Sutherland’s Crucifixion is the successor to the Crucifixion of Grünewald and the early Italians.”

Graham Sutherland – ‘The Crucifixion’, 1947, oil on board, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985)
Graham Sutherland – ‘The Crucifixion’, 1947, oil on board, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985)

In 1955, Winston Churchill’s last ecclesiastical appointment was to install Walter Hussey as Dean of Chichester Cathedral, where his influence bore much fruit. Hussey can be credited with commissioning most of the exemplary 20th century art at Chichester Cathedral. How appropriate, then, that Walter Hussey’s gift of much of his art collection to Chichester should reside at Pallant House Gallery.

Sutherland’s 1947 version of the ‘Crucifixion’ from the Hussey Bequest is displayed at Pallant House Gallery. It illustrates the artist’s obsession with thorns as metaphors for human cruelty; their jagged lines are reflected throughout the composition. The American military published a book of photographs which featured scenes of the Nazi concentration camps, including images of those held captive at Belsen, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. To Sutherland, “many of the tortured bodies looked like figures deposed from crosses” and he acknowledged the influence of these photographs on his Crucifixions. Here, Jesus Christ’s body hangs lifeless upon the cross, the shocking red of his blood accentuated by the fertile green. There is agony in the body’s posture, the weight clearly visible in the angular shoulders, chest and distorted stomach. This is a God who understands and shares in human suffering. Graham Sutherland, a Roman Catholic, was sustained by his Christian faith all his life. He commented that he was drawn to the subject of the Crucifixion because of its duality. He noted that the Crucifixion “is the most tragic of all themes yet inherent in it is the promise of salvation”.

In Sutherland’s versions, a generation united in their common story finally had depictions of the Crucifixion which reflected their experience of the world and yet spoke loudly of the triumph of hope in response to the tragedy of violence and war.

Graham Sutherland’s vibrant oil on canvas ‘Noli me tangere’ of 1961 was commissioned by Walter Hussey for the St Mary Magdalene Chapel in Chichester Cathedral.

The painting depicts the moment on that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene becomes aware that she is in the presence of her risen Lord who has just spoken her name. As she reaches out to touch him his gesture stops her. The angular composition of the figures, plants and staircase allude to the Passion narratives which lead up to and include Jesus’ crucifixion. At the centre of the painting is Jesus Christ dressed in white symbolising his holiness and purity. Christ’s finger points towards God the Father symbolising His presence. Graham Sutherland invites us into the narrative at this liminal moment so that we, like Mary, might acknowledge Jesus, our creator, teacher and friend, as advocate and redeemer of the whole world.

Here we witness the triumph of hope and love over evil and hatred.

There are a number of special services and concerts at Chichester Cathedral in the coming days to mark Holy Week and Easter. For more information and times go to To find out more about Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 1TJ, its collections, exhibitions and opening times go to or telephone 01243 774557.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 1st April 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Terry Frost and the Poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca

Katy Norris, Assistant Curator at Pallant House Gallery, with Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías by Sir Terry Frost
Katy Norris, Assistant Curator at Pallant House Gallery, with Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías by Sir Terry Frost

A dramatic exhibition of Terry Frost’s prints from his Lorca Suite is currently on show in the De’Longhi Print Room at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex.

It focuses on the British abstract artist Terry Frost and his engagement with the poetry of the Spanish poet, playwright and theatre director Federico García Lorca. Lorca became one of the first martyrs of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War when he was killed by fascist Nationalist rebels in 1936. Assistant Curator Katy Norris explains, “Lorca’s death has come to epitomise the violent suppression of the intellectual left by right-wing partisans.” When General Franco seized power in 1939, at the end of the conflict, he banned Lorca’s work from publication in Spain.

During the Second World War Terry Frost was a prisoner of war under the Nazis and a victim of fascism. Katy keenly describes how this loss of freedom awakened his political and artistic consciousness, an experience which would inform his life and work, saying: “Frost exercised a lifelong pursuit of his artistic right to freedom of expression.”

Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003, The Moon Rising, 1989, etching with hand colour on Somerset Satin paper, Austin / Desmond Fine Art © The Estate of Sir Terry Frost
Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003, The Moon Rising, 1989, etching with hand colour on Somerset Satin paper, Austin / Desmond Fine Art © The Estate of Sir Terry Frost

Frost would later acknowledge how, as a prisoner, his hunger and suffering gifted him with “a tremendous spiritual experience [and] a more heightened perception”. The artist described this formative experience as “an awakening”. Katy adds: “Frost discovered his profound sense of connection with nature and landscape at this time.”

The liberal society in which Terry Frost was working in the 1970s and 1980s was certainly in complete contrast to Franco’s earlier repressive regime. Frost would return to Lorca’s work over a fifteen-year period, creating paper collages, drawings and prints in response to the writer’s work. It culminated in the portfolio of coloured etchings on display here. Produced in 1989 and titled Eleven Poems by Federico García Lorca, they have become known as the Lorca Suite. Together these images, each based on a specific poem, provide a visual window illuminating Lorca’s writing.

Lorca’s writing employs an economy of vocabulary. In these poems life is stripped back, allowing clarity of vision expressive of the author’s heightened perception. This writing is filled with ambiguity and a lack of fulfilment, which gifts it with space and nobility.

Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003, The Spinster at Mass, 1989, etching with hand colour on Somerset Satin paper, Austin / Desmond Fine Art © The Estate of Sir Terry Frost
Sir Terry Frost 1915–2003, The Spinster at Mass, 1989, etching with hand colour on Somerset Satin paper, Austin / Desmond Fine Art © The Estate of Sir Terry Frost

This distance between the artistic representation and the reality of the subject would give Frost space for freedom of expression. Terry Frost, like Lorca, also distilled the world around him. He, too, used a carefully conceived vocabulary, though Frost’s was one of colour, light and form in the abstract.

I remark on the dramatic hues of black, white and red which are apparent in many of these works. Katy responds, “Lorca used black, white and red to describe the blazing light and heat of the Mediterranean sun. In the 1960s Frost had begun to use these colours in relation to the Spanish landscape, years before engaging with Lorca’s writing. However, it is in the Lorca Suite that we perhaps see his most sophisticated use of this colour scheme.”

This is clearly illustrated in The Spinster at Mass and The Moon Rising. I am drawn to the emblematic etching Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías. Sánchez and Lorca were friends. The matador Sánchez died in the bullring. Lorca’s awareness of death informed his creative spontaneity in this poem; its repetitive rhythm informs this lament. Take, for example, these lines:

“Oh white wall of Spain!

Oh black bull of sorrow!

Oh hard blood of Ignacio!”

Katy Norris reflects on the economy of colour, shapes and form used to the same dramatic effect in Terry Frost’s etching of the same title. She says: “The black of the bull’s horn and the red blood of Ignacio against the white ground echo the description in Lorca’s poem. The action takes place beneath a setting sun represented by a pulsating yellow disc in the etching.”

The drama and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and the life and death of Lorca are captured with real intensity in Terry Frost: Eleven Poems by Federico García Lorca. Entrance to this exhibition is free but it is worth treating yourself to tickets for Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War. Both exhibitions run until 15th February 2015 at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 1TJ. For more information go to or telephone 01243 774557. You must add them to your 2015 New Year’s must-see list!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 28th December 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

The Nativity Painted at Berwick, Sussex

The decorative painted scheme in the Renaissance style at Berwick parish church

With Christmas approaching, I have come to see the remarkable painted interior at St Michael and All Angels church at Berwick in East Sussex. I want to reflect once again upon Vanessa Bell’s beautiful depiction of the Nativity.

The fine decorative scheme was commissioned by Bishop George Bell of Chichester. Bell was a great patron of the arts. He wished to see churches once more filled with colour and beauty. Eternal truths would be proclaimed anew in modern art, poetry and music. More people would be drawn into the Christian community by the revival of this old alliance and renewed vitality. Bell founded the Sussex Churches Art Council. Relying on generous patrons, like the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, he began to commission work. Keynes was a frequent visitor to Charleston, where Duncan Grant had a great influence on his artistic sensibilities. Visitors to the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester included Gustav Holst, Vaughan Williams, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and T.S. Eliot.

The Revd. Rupert Toovey admiring Vanessa Bell’s Nativity at St Michael and All Angels church, Berwick, East Sussex

During the summer and autumn of 1940 the Battle of Britain was fought over the skies of Sussex. The Luftwaffe failed to defeat the R.A.F. but the Germans continued the Blitz into the May of 1941. Against this backdrop, Bishop Bell commissioned Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to paint St Michael and All Angels. The parish church at Berwick is just a few miles from the artists’ home at Charleston.

Writing to Angelica Bell in 1941, Vanessa Bell proclaimed that Charleston was “all a-dither with Christianity”. Large panels were prepared to be painted on in the barn at Charleston. Family, friends and neighbours were used as models.

Initially the project met with local opposition but Kenneth Clark and Frederick Etchells acted as expert witnesses and the scheme was accepted. At the time Kenneth Clark was director of the National Gallery in London and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.

The visitor today is met with a scheme of paintings in the Renaissance style. They depict scenes from the New Testament, which include the Annunciation, Christ Crucified and Christ in Majesty.

Vanessa Bell’s Nativity sets the familiar Christmas story of the birth of Christ in the folds of the Sussex Downs. The scene is painted in a barn beneath the Firle Beacon. Local shepherds posed for the panel. Their distinctive shepherds’ crooks are typical of those made at Pyecombe since medieval times. Vanessa’s daughter, Angelica, is depicted as Mary. St Luke writes: “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Here Mary looks on, preoccupied with her thoughts. Many people have suggested that the baby Jesus is reminiscent of Vanessa’s son Quentin, but I have often wondered if she was thinking of her older son, Julian. Julian Bell, a poet, had been killed in the Spanish Civil War. Peter Durrant, a local farm worker, is painted as Joseph. He lost his left arm as the result of an accident in which he fell from a wagon. To his right are three children, who worship at the crib in their school uniforms. They are Ray and Bill West, sons of the Charleston gardener, and John Higgens, son of Grace, the housekeeper. The stable is lit by a lamp at the foot of the composition. The lamb below is a symbol for Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Berwick’s Nativity brings to life this timeless, much-loved and familiar story, placing it in the heart of Sussex. It also remembers the joys and sorrows, and the hopes and fears of this community of people. Like the first Christmas, the season remains a time of gathering, reflection and remembrance. A time of shared memories and stories.

The Rector, the Revd. Peter Blee, will be celebrating a candlelit Midnight Mass, which starts at 11.30pm on Christmas Eve, and a Family Holy Communion at 11.00am on Christmas Day. St Michael and All Angels is one of my favourite places to stop and pray when I am in the east of our county. My thanks go to the Revd. Peter Blee and his congregation, who make this a living, prayerful place of pilgrimage for us all.

I wish you all a very happy and blessed Christmas!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 24th December 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.