Isabel Alexander: Creative spirit in Harrogate

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The latest exhibition at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate explores the work of artist and illustrator Isabel Alexander. Yvette Huddleston reports.

The latest exhibition at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate, which opens this weekend, has a particular personal significance for retired former University of Leeds Professor of Education Robin Alexander.

The artwork being showcased was created by his late mother the artist and illustrator Isabel Alexander, who died in 1996 and has been described by her admirers as ‘the English Georgia O’Keefe.’

Robin, who taught at Leeds between 1977-1995 before moving on to the Universities of Warwick and then Cambridge, has been working in collaboration with the Mercer Gallery’s curator Jane Sellars on a major retrospective which explores Isabel’s diverse creative output over sixty years. She was a very versatile artist, working across a range of genres and media, something which Robin attributes to her rigorous training in the 1930s first at Birmingham School of Art and then at the Slade in London. “She had an incredible facility for drawing, which lots of people have remarked on, and that was at the root of all her work.” She continued to draw every day for most of her life and it was this ability that allowed her to move easily from one artform to another.

Born in Birmingham in 1910, Isabel travelled extensively around the UK and in Europe and lived for the last 20 years of her life in Yorkshire, where she attracted a strong following. Alongside the exhibition – which will feature over fifty prints, paintings and drawings – there will be an accompanying book by artist and writer Janet McKenzie on Isabel Alexander’s life and work.

“She had a lot of exhibitions and was very successful in her lifetime – but she is not as well known as she should be,” says Robin. “I’m hoping that the exhibition and the book will bring her work to the attention of more people.”

In the early part of her career Isabel worked as an art director on documentary, information and educational films with her then husband the documentary filmmaker Donald Alexander, to whom she was married between 1939 and 1941. When their marriage broke up, with a young son to look after Isabel continued working in film for a while, encouraged by her friend Paul Rotha, a director and producer. Rotha also encouraged her to go to the Rhondda Valley in Wales in 1943 to document in drawing and painting the lives of the mining community. “She stayed with a mining family and she did portraits of the miners and their wives and children. It was an artistic project but there is a strong documentary feel about it.” It is a fascinating body of work, well represented in the exhibition, and the images are at once powerful and poignant, serving as a very striking social document. After the war Isabel illustrated The Story of Plant Life, a Puffin Picturebook and so began her successful phase as an illustrator working on a variety of topics – a special interest was botany. “She spent a lot of time at Kew Gardens,” says Robin. “And she produced these very vibrant small paintings and lithographs – they have tremendous vitality.”

In the early 1950s she turned to painting, producing portraits, landscapes, stunning abstract works and a series of haunting Hebridean seascapes. Throughout this time, Isabel was teaching in art colleges and schools and once she retired, moving to Ilkley in 1977 to be near her family, she spent much of her time, when not in her studio, travelling. “She liked remote places,” says Robin. “And she particularly loved the coast, she visited Dorset and Northumberland and most of the inhabited Scottish islands – it is that work which tends to be known in Yorkshire.” Robin says that he has vivid memories of his mother working when he was a child. “They come flooding back whenever I go into a school of art and there is that smell of oil paint and turpentine. The 1940s were very tough, with no permanent job and a young son, but she worked all the time. She was totally dedicated and incredibly single-minded about her work.”

At the Mercer Gallery Harrogate January 14-June 4.

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