Another late-twentieth century woman artist who more than merits greater acclaim (see recent posts entitled Passionate Rendering and A Knocking in the Cupboard for Joan Eardley and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham respectively).
I first came across Sheila Fell’s paintings in the excellent Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal. Her work is to landscape painting what Beethoven’s Late Quartets are to classical music, or prime period Dylan is to the song lyric, or Becket is to drama. Her Cumbrian landscapes are intense, profound and full of elemental energy.
There is also a swirling, breathing beauty that makes them accessible and aesthetically glorious in their voluptuous deployment of natural colours and shapes.
The screen and the printed page are poor substitutes for the real thing, so please do seek out the originals where possible.
Sheila Fell was born into a poverty-ridden mining community in Cumbria in 1931 and she died at the age of 48, from alcoholic poisoning. Her artistic talent took her to St. Martin’s College in London and a degree of minor fame. She was championed by L.S. Lowry (see my post of 4th June 2014 Lowry Cowrie Dowry).
Recognition of her work has steadily grown over the last 10 years, partly via the efforts of Cumbrians like Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies. She mainly lived and worked in London but returned to her family in Aspatria regularly.
The land and sea between the northern hills of the Lake District and the Solway Firth are her constant subject matter, an obsessive quest to communicate an essence of place that, counter-intuitively, makes her work universal.
Fell’s paintings deal in nuances of light, and the resulting transformation of land and sea. Turbulence and tranquillity often co-exist within the same canvas. Nothing is picturesque; instead there is an emotional, passionate understanding of the precarious relationship between humanity and all four elements. She made her own supreme atheistic poetry of vision.
The texture of the paint is rich and sensuously tough.
She paints a natural world that is not inhospitable, just indifferent…a complexity of forces that simply get on with their motion and their being. People and their works are a temporary, patient feature: a relationship that will not always be there is presented and honoured.
At St. Martins, and afterwards, Fell had links with Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. There are similarities in the use of thick, impasto oils applied sumptuously with fingers and spatulas as well as brushes. What Auerbach was to Camden, Fell was to Cumbria. Perhaps there is London-bias as well as gender-bias in their relative fame? The excellence of another Cumbrian artist, Percy Kelly, has also taken a long time to percolate through the world of curators and critics.
Sheila Fell was teaching at Chelsea Art College at the time of her tragically early death. She is described as “a vivid, charismatic presence…a dramatic vision in black…long hair, huge dark eyes, a flash of bright red lipstick” (Cate Haste). She was a single parent with one daughter, who was aged 21 when Fell died.
Fell rarely agreed to be interviewed, but shortly before her death she gave an interview to The Times. Her parting words were: “I want to live to be 104, it’s the only way I can possibly complete all the paintings I have in my head”.
There are Sheila Fell paintings in many UK galleries from the Tate collection onwards. The ones most displayed are in the Abbot Hall, Kendal, in the Catlegate Gallery in Cockermouth, and in Tullie House, Carlisle. A full retrospective exhibition is planned for Tate Britain in 2019.