Skip to content

Dorothy Rendell, Artist

August 29, 2018
by the gentle author

Celebrating the ninth birthday of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the past year

Self portrait by Dorothy Rendell

I feel touched and privileged to have been given the eleventh hour opportunity last year to interview Artist Dorothy Rendell who died in January. It is a matter of regret that she did not receive the recognition she deserved for her painting earlier in her life, yet I take consolation that she died with a copy of my interview at her bedside and she took great delight in the many appreciative comments she received for her work, regarding this late public acknowledgement as vindication of a kind.

I enjoyed visiting Dorothy Rendell to hear her stories, admire her paintings and share her company. At ninety-four years old, Dorothy was taking her ease, relaxing in the warm with a glass of red wine and a cigarette while contemplating the winter sunlight in the garden of her tiny cottage at Mile End Place. Blessed with magnificent cheek bones and a profile worthy of Edith Sitwell, Dorothy was a natural raconteuse who possessed the hauteur of another age, tempered by an endearing, caustic sense of humour.

Studying at St Martin’s School of Art during World War Two, Dorothy began her career as an artist with a studio in Kensington where she encountered the likes of Henry Lamb, Carel Weight and Orovida Pissarro. Yet it was in Stepney working for more than forty years at Harry Gosling School that she discovered the joyful expression of her abilities and here she undertook a series of portraits of pupils that spanned her career.

Just a handful of unexhibited oil paintings bear witness to a significant talent which might have made Dorothy famous if she had received the recognition she deserved. Instead it led her to the East End – by way of Italy – and ultimately to a modest life of fulfilment as an inspirational and passionate art teacher.

“Very few people really say what they think and say it bluntly and openly regardless, they couch it round with tact, but I am not like that. At ninety-four, I do not belong to any age. When I think ‘fifty years ago today,’ it does not seem all that time ago to me.

I had to give up my art work because I had no money and I could not find anywhere to paint. I had a huge studio at the back of a house in Warwick Gardens, Kensington, which was freezing cold and falling down, the rain would drip in. It had once belonged to Jacob Epstein. It was the most romantic studio. People used to love coming round and I had constant visitors. I used to paint there but I wasted an awful lot of time working to make money when I should have been painting. I exhibited at the Leicester Gallery and at the Royal Academy, but I never had a solo show. I just put things up here and there. I muddled through life really, but I have had an interesting life.

I came to the East End because I could not get a job anywhere else, people were terribly against women artists. They still are in this country. I used to go for teaching jobs and I had very good credentials, including references from Henry Lamb, Vivian Pitchforth and Mr Dickie who was an Inspector of Schools, but I never got the job because some man would come along and swipe it. This used to infuriate me because I knew that I was better and I was better at teaching too. I never thought I would own a house and when I came to live in Mile End Place, people said, ‘You’re crazy, you’ve bought a load of rubble, but I think it’s marvellous!’ All of my life has been flukes like that.

I started drawing very early on, at ten years old. Dorothy Rushforth, my mother, came from the north of England and went to art school, she was quite advanced for her time. My father came from a long line of gentleman farmers in Devonshire and he was a bit of a villain. His family lost all their money through one of them being a gambler. So he travelled the world on luxury liners doing doubtful business deals and brought people back and my mother had to entertain them and cook for them. They just frittered away their lives.

My mother encouraged me to draw and when I was eighteen I got a prize for the best artist in the school but nobody mentioned it and nobody took me to prize giving. It is most extraordinary when I think about it now! Of course, the war was on and one was whisked from here to there.

I came up to London in wartime and I was by myself, I did not know a soul. I got one room in an attic in Pembroke Sq, Notting Hill Gate. There were lots of interesting people and a very good cinema there, with marvellous French films, I had never seen anything like them. It was exciting. Then I got into St Martin’s School of Art through doing evening classes because I had to work in the day to earn money. At art school, I met Vivian Pitchforth who was a well known draftsman and if you were taught how to draw by him, it was a great honour. Somehow, he noticed me. I do not know how because I never said a word to anyone.

The art school was in Charing Cross Rd then, it was lovely. I inhabited all those dumps in Old Compton St where you got cheap meals for tuppence ha’penny. We all used to go to them, I am quite sure we were eating horseflesh! There were lots of little cafes, it was wonderful. Robert Beulah who was a Royal Academician, his mother ran a cafe there and she quite liked me, she thought I was quiet and well behaved – so we had a little clientele there. It was very good. I loved my years in Soho, living in that awful attic in Notting Hill Gate which is probably worth a fortune now! How life changes.

I met Henry Lamb, the artist, and I thought he was marvellous, he was very quiet and very scholarly. He became my friend and he followed my work when I left art school, and he used to write to me over the years. I never earned any money as an artist, I had not got the gift of making money, I would always belittle my work. I do a picture and think, ‘That’s quite good’ but then I would think ‘That bit there needs changing.’ I remember doing a painting of lemons, I was quite pleased with it. I did it in my father’s bank which was open on Sunday, so I put all these lemons on the counter with a cauliflower and I painted them. I did not think much of it yet years after I put it in an exhibition and people said, ‘You’re brilliant!’ It means a lot when you are eighteen but there you are, what does it matter now? I enjoyed doing it.

I tried getting my work exhibited by galleries but it was an awful fag, I made a living by doing odd jobs. I travelled a lot and I read a terrific amount because I was too shy to talk to people – and that was a good thing because I got a wide vocabulary. I travelled all over Italy, you did not hitch then but I got lifts somehow and I used to draw in cafes. I found that this was terribly popular and I could draw because of my marvellous tuition. It was wonderful.

When I first went to Florence, somebody sent me there and said, ‘Try and make a go of it!’ I did not have any money, if I had a few quid I was surprised. I shared a house with extraordinary people. One or two very wealthy, one or two officers in the army, a Spanish girl, various other people, and me. I used to go out and draw in the evening because I love watching Italian life outdoors. Those drawings are scattered all over Italy. It was fun, I loved drawing ordinary people sitting around chatting. They did not mind where I came from. I loved it. I would love to be Italian.

Eventually, I came to the East End and I had to go round awful schools. I was not used to these East End types of all nationalities but I stuck it out – I think I must had a bit of character – and I eventually got a job at Harry Gosling School where they had a remarkable headmistress. She was astonishing, she became my best friend instantly. She was called Sybil Mary Parry. She got me going on life really. She got some brilliant results. She was a state scholar, which means she was the best eighteen year old taking exams in the county. She was very intelligent and she had a big clientele of boyfriends, who all played rugby for Wales. I can still hear here shrieking across the room when the television was on and Wales were playing.

The school was in a very poor part of the East End and I could see that for the children it was life or death to get a good education, and she saw to it that they did. She was very eccentric, she would talk to people all the time and even go round to the betting shop herself to put her ten bob on the Derby.  Sibyl used to keep a bottle of sherry in her filing cabinet. She was a marvellous character. She is not forgotten.

She used to publicise my children’s art and I became quite well known with the inspector. He really loved this school and he used to come every week or so just to see it. What a school! It turned out some marvellous people and I still hear from them. Old people get in touch and say, ‘You used to teach me.’

You are dropped in, and you either survive or you die – but I survived.”

Orovida Pissarro, Camille Pissarro’s granddaughter. “I met her through Carel Weight whom I encountered in Warwick Gardens, he had a studio down the road. One day, I was looking outside a junk shop in the Earl’s Court Rd and he asked me, ‘What are you wanting?’ I said, ‘I’m going out to buy a chair because I have a quartet coming to practice in my studio and I have not got four chairs.’ He said, ‘Come with me, I can give you a chair.’ So he took me to his house and we became friends.

I used to cook for Orovida at her home in Redcliffe Gardens, she was a great gourmet. She was Jewish but she loved roast pork. After the meal, she would go to sleep and I would be painting away. She had no children, she was hermaphrodite. I realised that very quickly. She had lovely things and she would get out bundles of letters from Zola. I loved going to see her but she was eccentric and very demanding, she liked daft things on the television like Doctor Finlay’s Casebook. She used to have a birthday party every year with a lot of interesting people and I went along with Carel Weight, and we would have a feast of roast pork. She was a very good painter and her paintings were quite interesting. Orovida liked being painted and it was a marvellous interior with lovely things round her. I knew her for years until she died.”

Wapping – “I got a window from a pub beside Wapping Pier Head and it took me weeks. I did drawings and squared it up. I am not one of those who does quick ones.”

Wapping, View from an upper window at Wapping Pier Head in spring

View across Mount Pleasant from Doughty St -”I had a friend who had a flat there, next door to Dickens’ House. I had many a meal there and stayed the night. She was a teacher and a writer, but she was always having affairs in Paris. With her job and boyfriends, the crises she put me through. A good friend.”

One of Dorothy’s pupils at Harry Gosling School

“This little boy was one of the pupils I taught. A little horror! He’d been badly behaved – so the head teacher told me, ‘Take him and make him sit for you!’ So he had to sit still for about two or three days. I think I did a painting of him too”

“This is a nice little girl who had a terrible life. She was pretty and I liked her, so I drew her. I think I probably went to her house. It was squared up for a painting but I don’t know what happened to the painting. Children are very good to draw as long as they are not commissioned, when they are commissioned they are hellish. One mother came to me and wanted a portrait of her daughter. She looked a nice kid and I didn’t charge very much. She wore jeans, but when she turned up she was all dressed up – it was awful!”

“I used to give them their drawings. They used to beg me for them and were so persuasive that I used to hand them over, until one day a boy took my drawing and folded it up in half and put it in his pocket. I nearly screamed! They never did that in Italy, they treasure their drawings there.”

“This is Harry. Miss Parry, the head teacher, she adored this drawing. Harry was really thick and he used to look at you with that blank expression, but he was marvellously funny and he made a tremendous effort. Somebody who used to work with me said, ‘I’m going to bring Harry to Miss Parry’s funeral,’ and I said, ‘But he’ll be middle aged now.’ She found him and he came to the funeral. I couldn’t believe it. He was a lorry driver for Charringtons.”

“This was a little Afghan girl, I thought she was beautiful. She was a vain little girl who would sit for hours in the art room. Miss Parry thought it was better for pupils to sit with me than to sit and do nothing, so she would send the badly behaved ones to the art room and I would draw them. They liked being drawn, they were flattered by it.”

“I never had any absentees from my art classes, they were always very keen. As my head teacher used to say, ‘They’ll always go to art with you!’ They enjoyed doing it. There were always a certain number who could not draw, who found it very difficult. I would get them started making patterns but they would think they could not do that. So I would say, ‘Yes you can.’ I would get something like an electric light bulb and say, ‘Make some patterns from what you can see with that.’ – repeating and so forth. And they would come up with some marvellous things. Then they got keen. You have to think up strange things to get children really interested.”

“This little girl, I got to know her mother and father, and she went on to grammar school. The children of immigrants always did much better than the English ones because their parents wanted them to work.”

“This was Maksut. He followed me around for years to pose, even found me when he was twenty-eight and wanted to come and see me. He used to sit for hours. His mother went off, she was kicked out I think and he missed her so much. His father wanted another wife and she was downgraded. That was why I helped him. He was lonely and he wanted a mother figure. He used to come and see me. I did one or two paintings of him. Eventually, he got a job dying furs for gloves and jackets and things.”

“This was in the doctor’s waiting room. Quite a well known doctor round here invited me to draw there.”

“When I started teaching I thought I would teach in the West End but they would not take women, so I had to move to the East End – but I don’t regret that at all because I got so wrapped up in it and there were all these places where I could go and draw.” Dorothy Rendell (1924-2018)

Paintings copyright © Estate of Dorothy Rendell

Portrait of Dorothy Rendell at ninety-four © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Anne permalink
    August 29, 2018

    A lovely reminder of Dorothy.
    Thank you GA

  2. Rick Armiger permalink
    August 29, 2018

    nice one GA.

    pleased that the post was rightfully repeated, as I’d uncharacteristically missed it.

    giving worthy attention to so many, it’s a great service you do. huge and sincere thanks.

  3. Richard Smith permalink
    August 29, 2018

    I think I may have left a comment on this the first time around but I am delighted to see it again. What a woman! What an artist! I stand in awe of her memory. Thank you GA.

  4. August 29, 2018

    Beautiful eulogy

  5. Juliet Jeater permalink
    August 29, 2018

    What wonderful, interesting work. Any chance of an exhibition?

  6. Paul Loften permalink
    August 29, 2018

    What an incredible life story ! Dorothy Rendell’s work has now got the attention it deserves. Thank you for bringing this to us. (edited)

  7. William Sovie permalink
    August 29, 2018

    These are beautiful. She was very talented.

  8. August 29, 2018

    What a remarkable lady and such an interesting life…..her paintings are a delight.
    Her love of the East End shines through especially in the drawings of her pupils.
    Thank you for sharing Dorothy’s story with us.

  9. Julia Rowntree permalink
    August 29, 2018

    How fascinating and moving to read about Dorothy Rendell’s amazing life story and glimpse a little of her work.
    Do you know if there is anywhere her beautifully observed paintings and drawings can be seen for real? Thank you for bringing her to wider attention.

  10. mlaiuppa permalink
    August 29, 2018

    I *love* those watercolor sketches of children.

  11. Roy Emmins permalink
    August 29, 2018

    What a great lady and wonderful artist. She truly deserves more recognition.

  12. donald yorke-goldney permalink
    August 30, 2018

    very touching story of a lovely lady congrats and keep up the great work
    don

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS