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Edna Clarke-Hall – letters from Augustus John

Portrait of
Edna by John

The exhibition catalogue recently posted on Jot 101 just scratches the surface of Edna Clarke-Hall’s remarkable career. A gifted artist, whose work in many media has always been in demand, was the friend of so many colourful artists in the early years of the twentieth century—notably Gwen and Augustus John. She died in 1978 aged one hundred and may have lived even longer had the shock of being moved from Upminster Common, where she had lived for more than seventy years, to a retirement home, not played its part.

Some unpublished letters addressed to her from Augustus John just before the First World War, which a friend who knew her well, managed to acquire, reveal much about her relationship with the older artist who, like many other men, was captivated by her beauty. They also reveal John to be a deep thinker on art and society whose was capable of decidedly Lawrentian rants against convention. Two of these letters are worth quoting in full:-

8, Fitzroy St, W.

Thanks for your letter. I am sorry for the boys’ sake you can’t have them longer. As for us, we have only one room available still—hardly big enough for seven children ! We have only Pyramus and Robin with us. The rest are planted about elsewhere. Why on Earth is there not some sane communal nursery farm one could send them to.  They only want fresh air, good food and play—nothing else till they find something else on their own account—except that those who look after then should be unsentimental, unprejudiced, uncorrupted beings, with eyes in their heads and not conscious-ridden , perverted, lachrymose & frivolous tools. Conventions are useful disguises, but the Soul observes none: your quotation is a psychological observation put into terms of poetic theology. I would like you to come and pose as soon as you like. Let me know what day and I’ll be sure to have the room warmed well.
I would like to be in the country. This town disgusts me. We surely have reached the lowest point of the most abject of all ages: what’s to be done—flee from the wrath to come, or what (no, welcome anything so definite, so respectable, so rare , as wrath !)

I look to hear from you soon about posing
Au revoir,
Gus.


131, Cheyne Walk

Dear Edna,

You might well use my studio. I have had the Flu and want to go away for a little time. I would willingly give painting 'lessons'. My studio costs £60 a year. I am conceited enough to think I could help some people to find a means of pictorial expression. I think, acting upon a simple theory, you for instance could do much more with your gifts; and I too hope to with mine. We have been compromising with 'realities' and dishonourable traditions. Modern painting is in general an insignificant imitation of perfection seen with a temporal and fashion-blinded eye. Art symbolises the essential & unprovable principles of life in the form of a pattern—that is ideography--& painting should not be essentially any different from a piece of embroidery, or, say, Stonehenge.
And if you put a figure or two, a tree, a rock, a piece of water, and  all together inextricably. I think I can show you how to carry it out, reducing it to the simplest & most lasting terms—fixing the thought inviolate for ever. If you would like to use my studio sometime, let me know when. It would do you much good to exercise you creative faculties again for a time. If you can pay me for my share of it I shall be all the better pleased, as lack of money continually stalks me—

Yours,
Gus.

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