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The Legacy Of Dorothy Rendell

March 8, 2019
by Stephen Watts

Just a handful of unexhibited oil paintings and three boxes of sketchbooks bear witness to the significant talent of Dorothy Rendell (1923-2018), which might have made her famous if she had received the recognition she deserved. Instead it led her to a job in Harry Gosling School and ultimately to a modest life of fulfilment as an inspirational and passionate art teacher in the East End.

Poet & Novelist Stephen Watts who knew Dorothy writes an appreciation of her work today on the occasion of the creation an archive of her drawings at Bishopsgate Institute. Dorothy’s drawings accompanying this feature are seen publicly for the first time.

Dorothy Rendell first solo show opens at 2pm on Saturday 16th March and closes at 6pm on Saturday 23rd March at Abbott & Holder, Museum St, WC1A 1LH

In advance of the exhibition, I shall be giving an illustrated lecture on The Life and Works of Dorothy Rendell at 6pm next Thursday 14th March at Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts. Click here for tickets.

Self portrait by Dorothy Rendell, c.1960

The Bishopsgate Institute holds three green boxes containing drawings by the artist Dorothy Rendell who died in 2018 at the age of ninety-five. For much of her life she lived at 12 Mile End Place, a short street of old terraces hidden through an archway off the Mile End Rd, a quiet enclave. Mile End Place – fittingly it seems to me – abuts the Jewish Cemetery on Alderney Rd that W. G. Sebald evoked in his novel Austerlitz.

Dorothy studied at St Martin’s School of Art during the Second World War and might have made a name from her art in her lifetime if she had not fallen foul of  the institutionalised prejudice and discrimination against women that pervaded the British art world in the post-war years.

Later, when her superb evocations of the daily and quotidian lives of ordinary people might have brought her recognition, she suffered from not being remotely a part of the New-Brit Conceptualist movements that came to dominate art in the East End and beyond. She was – quite simply – painted out of the history of East End (and other) art, as a number of artists and writers always are painted out of their rightful places.

If The Gentle Author had not chanced upon Dorothy and her work very late in her long life and not had the intuition to recognise the glimmer of it, and had Bishopsgate Institute not existed in the form and spirit it does, we might have lost all possibility of any awareness of Dorothy Rendell’s great art forever.

Perhaps it is better not to talk of her life’s art as a ‘career,’ for she was no career artist and it was this which gives her work quality. She was an outsider, though not at all an ‘outsider artist.’ She saw people’s ordinary lives and observed them at close quarters. What she did was to place herself outside the bounds of the art world and draw and paint for the whole of her life. The sadness is that almost certainly much of her art is, at least for the moment and quite possibly for longer, lost or misplaced, or unplaced.

In the interview conducted in her last months, she describes her years in Italy where her drawings were ‘scattered everywhere.’ And she tells us that she would often give portrait sketches to the children at Harry Gosling School, where she taught art for many years. Where are those sketches or the children, now?

Her art undoubtedly suffered – not in quality or the courage she showed throughout her life – but from not being given an audience. Yet how much did she suffer? Dorothy Rendell developed an astonishing degree of inurement to the lack of recognition and she made of that a strength. Perhaps it was a canny and life-affirming form of self-preservation learnt early on of necessity and practiced with calm enjoyment right through to the end? In amidst the drawings, for instance, are recipes for meals that she loved.

Let us be glad of the three boxes at Bishopsgate Institute and other holdings as yet unexamined. In the first smaller box are seven artist’s notebooks. Sometimes in the same notebook are drawings in pencil, ink and water colour wash of roughly A4 size and mostly undated.

Many of the drawings in these notebooks are sketches, often of people, often done quickly yet with great accuracy, evoking individuals with a deep objective sympathy. It is an art of silent participation, even when single figures are portrayed – they are isolated but they are part of a community. These sketches have a quickened deft simplicity such that lives are held still and ‘taken’ or ‘kept’ while the people themselves then move on.

I knew Dorothy from around 1974 and saw her all too sporadically thereafter until I lost touch with her maybe fifteen year ago. I would sometimes see her, stopped by Altab Ali Park or outside Whitechapel Bell Foundry or on the Mile End Road, on her way somewhere.  She stopped and was feeling what was around her. One of her favourite words was ‘marvellous,’ but she said it with real verve, and to her it meant the unexpected miracle of survival, the way things win through when every logic and oppression seeks to erase them.

The second green box is larger but also contains notebooks: early ones from Italy and France, from the fifties and the sixties. Some are dated and a few are named: Mantova, for instance, and a number of French villages. They have a carefree quality, of a young woman’s perception of where she was. Then there is a file marked ‘Doctor’s Clinic, Bow Road’ dated 2003 or 2004: here the names seem to matter more: Fakia & Huba, Jameel & Mum, Aisha, Raheda Begum, Jyotsna, Tahida. Delicate but strong portraits and all of women, either alone or with their children, waiting but not with a doctor or nurse. These women are mostly British Bangladeshi or Somali: strong and lovely portraits of held calm. Some of the women and their children, grown now, will still be living with their families locally. Will any of them be able to see their lives in these drawings ? Will they see these drawings ever, as would be so right and fitting.

The third box contains larger files of single, sleeved drawings, of carefully worked portraits, sometimes developed from earlier sketches. Rarely signed or dated, many are of children at school and we can fairly guess that these are from Harry Gosling School, just off the Commercial Rd at Aldgate. Dorothy Rendell taught art there for many years until her retirement around 1980.

Most of the children are ten or eleven years old and, assuming they were born around 1960, would be approaching retirement themselves right now. Harry Gosling’s head teacher was Sybil Parry, who became a close friend of Dorothy’s. It was through this school that I came to know Dorothy, because my partner taught children newly arrived after the Bangladesh 1971 War of Independence at the ESL Unit that was based at Harry Gosling School.

I know pupils remember their strong teachers, the East End had many such examples and their lives need telling. How many of those now old children would be moved to see Dorothy Rendell’s art! What happened to Maureen Castle, to Trevor and Mohamed and Denise?

There is a third file with sixty drawings from Rowton House and various drop-in centres, or of other friends and acquaintances. But what happened to Dorothy Rendell’s other notebooks, to all her finished paintings, her life’s work? How fitting that she lived so many years adjacent to the cemetery evoked by W. G. Sebald – the writer of the disappearing world.

Drawings from The Dorothy Rendell Archive at Bishopsgate Institute

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. March 8, 2019

    What a pity that she never got the recognition she deserved, she had so much talent. Valerie

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 8, 2019

    Absolutely stunning drawings – so much character evoked with such simple lines…

  3. John Barrett permalink
    March 8, 2019

    Top artist yes its all in the boxes for all time I hope, she put more into life than she got out of it. Bless her for that. Poet John from Shirehampton Bristol.

  4. March 8, 2019

    Grateful thanks to The Gentle Author for bringing Dorothy’s amazing work and an insight into her life to our attention, she was remarkable woman.
    Her Zest for life shines through in her paintings and sketches.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    March 8, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of the subjects of these beautiful portraits recognized their “old selves” and shared their stories about Dorothy? Thankfully, Bishopgate is able to accomadate her work for posterity …

  6. Vancouver Barbara permalink
    March 8, 2019

    Thank you. It’s wonderful to read about this talented and persevering artist. Such beautiful, tender and evocative portraits.

  7. Eric Forward permalink
    March 9, 2019

    We can be sad that she never got the recognition she deserved during her life, or grateful she is getting some of that now. I choose the latter, and look forward to the exhibition.

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