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So Long, Dorothy Rendell

January 19, 2018
by the gentle author

I feel touched and privileged to have been given the eleventh hour opportunity last year to interview Artist Dorothy Rendell who died yesterday. 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.

Self portrait by Dorothy Rendell

In recent months, 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 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

31 Responses leave one →
  1. January 19, 2018

    A life well lived is the impression that shines out here. She seems, forthright, formidable and clearly very talented. I am glad you helped bring her some recognition.

  2. January 19, 2018

    I am glad you were able to give her and her wonderful art recognition. Valerie

  3. January 19, 2018

    What wonderful memories of all those people she has drawn. The portraits of the children are so sensitively don.
    I was so interested to read about Orovida as I have an etching of hers that I bought at an auction, it’s of a tiger chasing a small deer, the composition is cropped rather like a Japanese print.

  4. Richard Ironside permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Such a priverlege to share this ladies art and life,thank you

  5. John Forsman permalink
    January 19, 2018

    I have a house in Italy, some years I can spend more than 6 months here. I’ll search for Rendell drawings, now.

  6. January 19, 2018

    Such beautiful work- a loss indeed but thanks to you GA for bringing her to our attention. The painting of the Sikh boy reminds me an awful lot of an untitled painting attributed to Brynhild Parker- another wonderful East End Artist!

  7. Ann Meacher permalink
    January 19, 2018

    What fabulous drawings. How tragic that Ms Rendell was not acknowledged. Yes what a privilege to have met a character of that magnitude.

  8. John Barrett permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Some nice pics from Dorothy I liked the one with two chairs and the boy. Such talent recognized at last that’s the case with many artist. Poet John loves artist they are my sort of people

  9. Jamie Surman permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Yet another fascinating and incredibly well-researched story

  10. January 19, 2018

    Could someone organise an exhibition of what paintings/drawings there are available? She looks very interesting. I’m sure you are the one who could sort it …

  11. January 19, 2018

    Exceptional warmth and draughtsmanship in the drawings of children

  12. Anthony Finerty permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Thank you for featuring and promoting so many excellent East End artists on your blog.

  13. Ruth Fleming permalink
    January 19, 2018

    What a wonderful artist, I have not seen anything she has drawn or painted and not loved it instantly. Deserved much more recognition. Also seems a very warm and lovely person. Will be sadly missed.

  14. Valerie Paynter permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Fabulous post. A great tribute to a fascinating lady. I find myself wondering when Ms Pissaro was in Redcliffe Gdns – I was in Redcliffe Rd in the ’70’s and ’80’s and that area had been where a lot of artists lived during the war and for ages after. I wonder if Rendell was known to Joan Wyndham who wrote about life in that quarter during the war too.

  15. Sue permalink
    January 19, 2018

    So many great artists who are never seen by the general public. Thanks you for bringing so many of them to our attention. RIP Dorothy.

  16. Damien Thomas permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Wonderful. Thank you. Best blog on the web.

  17. January 19, 2018

    So pleased your efforts got her some recognition in the end. Marvellous artist & human being.

  18. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Good that you showed her the recognition she deserved, and shared it with us too. RIP Dorothy Rendell

  19. Stanley Goodman permalink
    January 19, 2018

    So sad to learn of the passing away of my wonderful Art Teacher at the Harry Gosling Primary school, Henriques Street in the East End. Dorothy inspired me to appreciate art which has stayed with me throughout my life. I always remember her taking us on a visit to the National Gallery in London as a young pupil at the school. Whenever I have the opportunity, I always make a ‘pilgrimage’ to the gallery and spend a long time in front of the historic canvasses. I was fortunate to visit her recently and was amazed by her recollection of life and times at the Harry Gosling school and how she could remember details of individual pupils and how they had achieved so much in later life. She would also remind of other wonderful teachers at the school including the Head Mistress Sybil Parry and my class teacher, Joan Kelk.
    So long Dorothy. May you rest in peace.
    (Stanley Goodman)

  20. January 19, 2018

    A wonderful Artist has gone forever — Dorothy Rendell (1924-2018) — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  21. Mary permalink
    January 19, 2018

    So sad this wonderful artist did not get the recognition she deserved. I do hope her work will not now slip into obscurity. Thank you GA for bringing her to our attention.

  22. mark permalink
    January 19, 2018

    A life well lived indeed. seemed like a good person and a very good artist. So long.

  23. Leanne Teves permalink
    January 19, 2018

    Really lovely. Part of me thinks-Everyone has a story. And then my thoughts wander to-these times we are in will not give to us a story so deep and rich. Time will tell. I appreciated her art. Thank you.

  24. January 19, 2018

    Perhaps this is the start of her much deserved recognition

  25. Mike permalink
    January 20, 2018

    Thank you GA for the very interesting post. Clearly a remarkably talent lady – I love her paintings of Wapping. Much appreciated. Thank you

  26. Stephan Glover permalink
    January 24, 2018

    Truly wonderful how you bring wrongly forgotten and wrongly unheralded figures to our attention. Wonderful and very moving.

  27. stephanie permalink
    January 26, 2018

    What a tale, spirit and talent.

  28. Rebecca Rudall permalink
    February 3, 2018

    I had the privilege of meeting Dorothy whwhen she came into Bancroft library for her books and to learn how to use the internet. While doing this I had long conversations about art and people she knew and her in involvement with art education an area my father, also a painter worked in. She modestly never mentioned her own work and it was only through this blog I have been aware of her lovely work
    I hope this fascinating lady and her work is suitably remembered somewhere and her work not lost

  29. Andrea Cuunningham permalink
    March 8, 2018

    I grew up opposite Dorothy in Mile End place and I am sad to say I had no idea that she was such a gifted artist. Which is a shame since we were such a creative family we would have enjoyed seeing her work. As a child she seemed a very other worldly personality. Someone who looked and spoke like she came from another age. She was very private and very well spoken. She drew out her words in a way I had never heard anyone do. She lived in her cottage with another lady and they both had a real edwardian feel about them. I remember one day my friend Ayse and I accidentally kicked a ball into their garden. They were a bit cross and they both came out and demonstrated how to play catch which we thought was hilarious. I think she disapproved of unruly children. I wish I had spoken to ber more and asked her about her work and her life.

  30. Andy Pankhurst permalink
    March 15, 2019

    Such beautiful work….Greatly saddens me and more than frustrating the injustices of life…the art world, although of course the ‘art world’ has nothing to do with Art – Dorothy was certainly to do with Art. Thank you for her discovery.

  31. Hugh Mann permalink
    March 15, 2019

    Great interview with a fascinating subject. And pleasing that you gained some belated recognition for her work. Must be bittersweet to be praised after so long.

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