Objects

Title: Matterhorn from Zermatt
Item Name: Painting

Maker(s):
Elwell, Mary Dawson

Description:

Alpine valley, town in centre and stream. Matterhorn rising in right background. Produced during a rather rash visit to the continent by the Elwells, which was abruptly cut short by the start of WWII. Plain gilt wood and plaster frame. One of 55 works bequeathed by Fred Elwell.


Year: 1939
Materials: oil; wood; gilt; plaster
Measurements: W:52.5/35cm, L:45/32cm
ID_Number: ERYMS (BAG) : 1997.60

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Something about Mary
A small exhibition at Beverley Art Gallery in 2009 devoted to the works of the artist Mary Elwell (1874-1952), wife of the well-known Beverley painter Frederick William Elwell. As well works from East Riding Museums own collections, the display featured an interior scene on loan from the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool and poems written by Richard Dillon (lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University) in response to the paintings. A painter of interiors and landscapes, Mary Dawson Bishop was born in 1874. Following the premature death of her father, the family moved to Manchester where Mary was educated at Ellerslie College. Described as a ‘fairly exclusive school’, the college would undoubtedly have provided instruction in painting and drawing, which were still considered desirable ‘accomplishments’ for young ladies at this time.

Although it remained difficult for women to obtain a rigorous training in fine art, by the closing decades of the nineteenth century – when Mary was embarking on her artistic career – the situation had improved. The Slade School of Fine Art opened in 1871 offering far greater opportunities for women than those presented by the Royal Academy Schools at the time. Self-help manuals remained an option, providing rudimentary instruction in painting and drawing. Alternatively, women could take lessons with a private tutor or travel to Europe in the hope of securing a position in an artist’s studio. Both options necessitated private funds and were only available to wives and daughters of the well-to-do. Nevertheless, despite improvements the artistic training available to women remained significantly inferior to that on offer to men.

Little is known of Mary’s early life or her initial artistic training. As her family was comfortably off, she may well have had a private tutor. Following her marriage to the affluent oil broker George Alfred Holmes in 1896, there were ample funds available for private instruction and foreign travel. The couple settled in Beverley and by 1904 Mary was sufficiently accomplished to exhibit her work at the Royal Academy of Arts. That same year Mary sat for her portrait to Fred Elwell.

George Alfred Holmes died in August 1913, leaving Mary a wealthy widow. The following summer, just weeks after the outbreak of the Great War, Mary married Fred Elwell. Although she was undoubtedly influenced by Fred’s work and in all probability received instruction from him, Mary maintained her own distinctive style. She is at her best when painting interiors (both inhabited or uninhabited) when her work reflects the comfortable yet confined and restricted lives generally experienced by women of her class at this time.

In 1947 Mary suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes. Having made her final appearance at the Royal Academy in 1949, she died on the 28th August 1952.
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Related People

Elwell, Mary Dawson
British
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Elwell, Mary Dawson
British
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Related Publications

Mary D. Elwell, S.W.A. Stepping from the Shadows
Loncaster, Wendy
2001
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