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Dorothy Rendell, Artist

December 27, 2017
by the gentle author

Since the publication of East End Vernacular, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century, several notable artists whose work has never been seen have been brought to my attention, including Dorothy Rendell whom it is my pleasure to introduce today

Self portrait by Dorothy Rendell

At ninety-four years old, Dorothy Rendell is at 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. Over recent months, I have enjoyed visiting Dorothy to hear her stories, admire her paintings and share her company. Blessed with magnificent cheek bones and a profile worthy of Edith Sitwell, Dorothy is a natural raconteuse who possesses 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 Whitechapel working for many decades at Harry Gosling School that she discovered the joyful expression of her abilities.

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.”

Dorothy Rendell by Lucinda Douglas Menzies

Paintings copyright © Dorothy Rendell

Look out for a forthcoming feature of Dorothy Rendell’s portraits of her pupils at Harry Gosling School tomorrow

You may also like to read about

Pearl Binder, Artist

Grace Oscroft, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dorothy Bishop, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Keren permalink
    December 27, 2017

    What a wonderful piece. I’d love to see an exhibition of Dorothy’s work

  2. Judy Poleg permalink
    December 27, 2017

    Delightful atrticle! She is such a talented artist and an amazing personality!

  3. December 27, 2017

    What an inspirational story yet sadly peppered with casual injustice and discrimination. The importance of friendship shines through, as does Dorothy’s creative spirit. A wonderful post G.A.

  4. December 27, 2017

    What splendid paintings! Ms Rendell’s rooftop and river subjects, their palette and careful rendition, chime with the East London Group. Coincidentally, just the other day I was looking at Carel Weight’s portrait of Orovida Pissarro (1956), published in the Weidenfeld and Nicolson monograph with text by Mervyn Levy. She is similarly seated in a red dress, with a tea service on an adjacent table; the painting is in the Tate collection. I look forward to seeing more of Ms Rendell’s marvellous work.

  5. Delia Folkard permalink
    December 27, 2017

    What a fascinating and extraordinary woman. I particularly love the tones of colour in her paintings and look forward to news of an exhibition – at the Town House perhaps?

  6. December 27, 2017

    Thank you, Ms. Rendell — and Gentle Author. I so enjoyed discovering these evocative paintings, and was reminded of Robert Henri’s beloved quote about the “inevitability” of making art.
    Agreed: More of Dorothy Rendell’s work, please.

  7. Richard Smith permalink
    December 27, 2017

    Fascinating! Such characters seem to becoming rarer and rarer in the modern world which is so sad.

  8. Catherine Maddison permalink
    December 27, 2017

    Such an interesting article about a wonderful lady. Miss Rendell taught me at Guardian Angels Primary School in the 1970’s (I was Catherine Goldsmith then). She was inspirational, passionate and dedicated. I’ve often thought about her and feel very lucky to have had her influence my education and confidence. So lovely to see Miss Rendell again, and enjoy her beautiful work. Thank you, gentle author.

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    December 27, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, indeed Dorothy Rendell’s work is up there with the other accomplished artists that you feature in East End Vernacular.

    Really liked the portrait of Orovida Pissarro, somewhat of a Gertrude Stein figure. Great backdrop with the lovely china cabinet and the tea set in the foreground.

    Just wondering how many more of these forgotten artists you will continue to discover and share with us. Good luck!

  10. Sonia Murray permalink
    December 27, 2017

    What a shame that this gifted artist didn’t get the recognition she so truly deserved fifty years ago! Sadly, at that time the critics were in love with garish splotches of paint thrown on canvas from buckets by so-called artists with the mental capacity of toddlers. I hope the Tate is now collecting Dorothy Rendells’ brilliant paintings – as they should have in the past.

    Please show us more of Miss Rendell’s work!

  11. December 27, 2017

    I too am hoping there will be a show of Miss Rendell’s art – it’s telling us the story of life in East London – fascinating, just as her story is fascinating to read. So talented, so modest –
    thank you

  12. pauline taylor permalink
    December 27, 2017

    Yet another trip down memory lane for me and thanks once again GA. Dorothy Rendell sounds a wonderful character and she could obviously paint very well, what a shame her talent was not more widely recognized. I also was taught by the lovely Carel Weight and what a character he was as well, on one occasion Hugh Cronyn was driving a group of us out to his home at Stoke by Nayland and Carel Weight came with us, as we drove through the village where I lived Carel said, in his lovely plummy voice, “wonderful paintable country this”, and when told that I lived there, he told me how very fortunate I was. He would also provide us with a large quantity of cider to drink on these days out, and on visits to London with him he would suddenly leap on a bus and we had to be quick to jump on as well telling the conductor that we were going to the same place as that gentleman wherever it was ! He also used to tell us stories of the ghosts that he said he frequently saw and that if he sold two painting a year he considered himself fortunate. Very very happy memories of a very kind and generous man. Thank you Dorothy for sharing your memories of him.

  13. Angela Stevenson (Pulver) permalink
    December 27, 2017

    I went to Harry Gosling and was taught by Miss Rendell, she did not know it but she made me love art and over the decades I have painted and sold my pictures. I have her to thank for that. I last saw her about 25 or more years ago at Bancroft hospital when my old headmistress was ill and a call had gone out for old pupils to visit her . I was at least 35 years old but like a child again when I met her. I have so much to thank her for.

  14. December 28, 2017

    I lived opposite Dorothy for a number of years. A delightful lady. Wonderful stories and a true creative spirit.
    Thank you for sharing this gentle author

  15. Colin Cohen permalink
    December 28, 2017

    Thank you for posting this. Like some of the other people who have commented, I also attended Harry Gosling School and was taught art by Miss Rendell. She was an inspirational teacher, and so was the head teacher Miss Parry. The teachers at that school in the East End gave so many of us a great start in life.

  16. John Barrett permalink
    December 28, 2017

    Dorothy is a lovely powerful person I would have liked her as my friend so much to talk about. John a bus pass poet

  17. Kitanz permalink
    December 30, 2017

    Ms. Rendell paints such Lovely pictures. I have not herd of her before and I am so Pleased to see her paintings. I am going to find more!!!Thank You!!

  18. Philippa Fairbanks permalink
    January 21, 2018

    We have known Dorothy all our lives. Our aunt Joan Kelk taught with her at the Harry Gosling school, where I was often taken to learn my tables and watch Dorothy’s art classes. As a penniless nurse in London in the 1960s, Dorothy would have me to supper in one of her amazing flats, so kind and delicious. On retirement , she and May Parry, former head of Harry Gosling, bought a cottage in Castle Hedingham where our mother Peggy Garge and aunt Joan Kelk lived, they loved Hedingham and its village characters, she painted some lovely village views, and drinks parties at Camille Cottage were frequent !
    My sister Charlotte and I visited her in Mile End Place, not as frequently as we would have wished, she loved to talk of the old times and with smoked salmon, chocolate and wine a jolly time was had by all, surrounded by her amazing art works. She always thought of others, was exceptionally kind and had a wise word to say about our lives, no dementia there! In her 90th year she visited us on Mersea Island, brought by wonderful friend Kate, and managed to walk to my beach hut for tea and a cigarette! She appeared to accept her restricted life, no complaints, just enjoying visits in a haven of peace that was Mile End Place.
    We shall miss her greatly, but have wonderful memories. Thank you Dorothy.

    Note to Gentle Author, a superb article, lovely pictures
    Philippa Fairbanks

  19. Walia Kani permalink
    August 5, 2021

    Miss Kelk was my teacher at Harry Gosling, and Miss Rendell taught us art. Some of us were taken to visit the Castle Hedingham cottage. What a broadening of horizons for Stepney children!
    I remember being fascinated by the fact that the cottage had two staircases.

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