20th Century British Art Search

Clare Winsten (1894 - 1989)

Clare Winsten  came to the Slade as a student in 1910, the year when Roger Fry's "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" exhibition changed the views of many artists in London, and caused others dismay, as life-long convictions were brusquely challenged. She, showed academic and artistic talent early at school, gaining a scholarship to the Female School of Art. Because of her promise, a transfer was arranged to the Slade - into' the exacting regime of Henry Tonks, just as he was countering what he saw as the threat surrounding Fry's ideas.

Late in life Clare Winsten wrote her autobiography. Here it is clearly stated that she was recognised by Tonks as a gifted student. Yet she could share in the conversations and friendships productive of advanced "imaginative" work, which, in retrospect she saw as central to her artistic career.

Her interests were not restricted to art, but extended to how life could best be conducted. During a long and happy marriage, a partnership of concerns developed - pacifism, garden city living, vegetarianism, rethinking how children should be brought up. Some of the most cogent parts of her autobiography deal with the time when her husband was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War. All this fed back into Clare's artistic projects, and she came to divide her time between family and friends, writing plays and novels, and periods of sustained painting.

Her daughter Theodora, who also went to the Slade, writes of her parents thus: "The Winstens' life-time active involvement in social, humanitarian causes, as well as the arts, brought them into touch with likeminded people from many spheres. This affinity produced portraits of, among others, D.H.Lawrence, Montessori, Catherine Lonsdale, Mahatma Gandhi, Bernard Shaw. My parents took their interests so seriously and were such active participators, always as innovators, initiators; and had knowledge in depth, too, of everything. I feel this should be recognised, They really were an exceptional couple. Their meetings with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s when living at Hampstead led to a remarkable series of paintings and drawings. There was such an empathy between them that Clare was invited to be there at Knightsbridge whenever she  wanted. My parents first met George Bernard Shaw in 1925 and then again in the 1940s. This friendship also led to a remarkable series of drawings and paintings."

Clare Winsten did not date her drawings, and they have yet to be sorted chronologically. Taken in total, they present a wide range of psychological and formal modes. Those which appear to be early share a rhythmic simplification with the generation of Gaudier-Brzeska, and a heritage from Brancusi, Picasso of around 1908, and Matisse of the "Dance".

These represent only her more formalising moments. Other drawings show emotional tension: people whisper it would appear dark tales to each other. Sometimes their faces are distorted for some inscrutable reason. It could be argued that it is precisely this ambiguity that visual art explores: if the emotion were explicit a diagram would suffice. The drawings at times suggest the threatening social vision of Edward Burra as he explores the bleak urban scene of contemporary Germany; or of James Boswell's politically critical work of the 1930s. And from more remote history, there are reminders of Ostade's peasant victims, Rembrandt's grimacing self-portraits, or Fuseli's "head-on-hand" self-scrutiny.

The drawings often bear her initials, signifying that a public face was intended; they might be passed round, shared as an intimate art form. For long periods, Clare also painted. A good deal of the drawn work was preliminary to painted compositions but the wall spaces at' the Strang cannot accommodate these large and ambitious works. The drawings on their own have a completeness and offer sequences of artistic problems cogently worked out. Her later life was spent away from art schools and the society of artists, and she shared with many women a certain isolation; however, she retained her sense of adventurousness, producing some superb drawings - daemonic, or formally reductive, or sharply skeletal.

She remained a responsive participant in causes and movements critical of the way life was being shaped. Her oeuvre spanned from the turbulence leading to the First World War as far as the era of totalitarianism - and thence to the partition of India. The drawings, therefore, bear witness to the rarely worked interface between modernist art and the issues of early twentieth century social criticism.

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