When painter L.S. Lowry died in 1976, his young protégée Sheila Fell confessed to Lowry’s biographer Shelley Rohde: ‘I miss his wit; I miss his humour; I miss him. He was a great humanist and no-one ever seems to mention that. To be a humanist one has to be slightly detached from human beings after having had great love for them; which is exactly what he was.’
Three years later, Sheila Fell herself was dead, aged just 48, and the burgeoning artistic career of a painter with huge promise was tragically cut short.
Lowry had been a vital force in her life, and theirs is an interesting story. He is a central character in her artistic biography, as brilliantly told by Cate Haste in Sheila Fell: A Passion for Paint, my Book of the Week. Sheila Fell clearly became an important figure for Lowry too, but only in the final chapter of his life, when he was already well established as an artist. They had met in November 1955 at the opening of her first exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery, when she was 24 and he was approaching 70. He was so impressed with her work that he bought two paintings from the exhibition and asked to meet the artist. It was the start of what she described as a ‘long and very enriching friendship’. But he also offered patronage, providing her with a weekly allowance of £3 for two years and continuing to buy her work. He praised her, in private and in public, as the finest landscape painter of the century.
In the Tate’s new exhibition Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life the focus is on Lowry and the modern city. Yet after 1955 Lowry and Sheila Fell regularly went on painting exhibitions to the Cumbrian fells and to the coast, Lowry holidaying with Sheila’s parents at their family home in the small town of Aspatria, west Cumberland, each summer. In the catalogue to Lowry’s memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy, Fell wrote: ‘I used to paint or draw and he would, most of the time, just watch or stroll around, although when we went to the coast he drew’.
History is full of what-ifs. It is tantalising to speculate what Sheila Fell, already recognised at her death as a significant force in 20th-century painting, might have gone on to achieve. And where might she have been without Lowry? Fell denied that Lowry had influenced her (‘I was set in my pattern before I met him’, she said in a radio interview in 1979), but she recognised that he changed her life. In the metropolitan, male-dominated British art world of the 1950s and 1960s, in which she was one of the very few women artists to achieve national recognition, his patronage surely did her no harm.
Lucy Myers, Managing Director
Sheila Fell: A Passion for Paint by Cate Haste, with a Foreword by Frank Auerbach. 2010. Hardback. 136 pages. Includes 80 colour and 30 b&w illustrations. £35/$70.