Clare Atwood - Billingsgate Fish Market

Clare Atwood
Billingsgate Fish Market, 1910

The Fine Art Society is showing this remarkable painting, which had been in a private US collection until it was shown for the first time at the Tate Britain as part of Queer British Art 1861-1967 (5 April - 1 October 2017).

EARLY ONE MORNING IN 1910, from high in the rafters at London's Billingsgate Fish Market, Clare Atwood painted the breaking of dawn. The sun rises in the top left-hand corner of the picture plane, bathing the crowd below in a gold and crimson light which reflects off the sea of melted ice below. The intensity of the sun's rays cause the most distant forms to evaporate into an abstract haze of white, yellow and violet hues, whilst the dazzling effect of the light is picked out in thick daubs of impasto paint.

Further forward in the picture, Atwood has used thinly scumbled layers of green and black to create forms shrouded in almost complete darkness. Here, the smudgy mass of porters or 'Bommeree', with their heavy, flat-topped hats (known as 'Bobbins') go about their early morning rituals. Atwood deftly captures the feverish movement of these men, who tussle in half-light, at close-quarters, beneath the towering industrial architecture and monumental fluted columns that soar above the melee. Like actors waiting in the wings of the stage for their grand entrance, the vendors are busily preparing in the darkness, before stepping out into the dazzling sunlight of the main concourse.

Such allusions to Billingsgate market as a place of urban theatre abound in this work. The vertiginous perspective and the vista created by the steel columns and transverse beams around it, form a metaphorical 'proscenium arch' that frames the drama as if we are watching a play unfold from 'the Gods'. Indeed, this viewpoint is similar to that used in Atwood's painting of 'Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree rehearsing 'Henry VIII' at His Majesty's Theatre (Victoria and Albert Museum), which was completed in the same year as the present work.

Who was Clare Atwood?
Regarded highly by her peers, her shy character, gender and unconventional social life as a queer, polyamorous woman perhaps cost her the critical acclaim she deserves. In addition to the unfavourable historical conditions for a woman such as Atwood to have found fame, much of her work was destroyed during the First World War when her Bankside studio was destroyed during German bombing. Of the relatively few major works that survive, most are housed in Museums, making the present canvas a particularly rare example on the market.

Clara Atwood was born on 14 May 1866 in Richmond, Surrey. She received a rigorous arts education at the Westminster School of Art where she was taught by L. C. Nightingale and the Slade Schools of Fine Art under Professor Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks. After leaving the Slade Atwood moved briefly to Kew, before settling in central London in 1895, taking a studio on Bankside looking onto St Paul's.

Atwood exhibited regularly with the New English Art Club, where she became a member in 1912. She was later awarded honorary life membership of this prestigious group and regarded it as 'her spiritual home'. On the occasion of private views 'she would journey well up to the age of 90, wearing her black cloak and broad-brimmed hat and the silver shoe buckles that once belonged to Henry Irving'.

Founders of the club included James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Walter Sickert and Philip Steer, with other notable early members including George Clausen, Stanhope Forbes and John Singer Sargent. The group was established in 1886 for artists influenced by impressionism and whose work was largely rejected by the conservative Royal Academy. Unusually, however, Atwood's work was also accepted by the R A, where she exhibited in 1907, 1908 and 1909.

In 1919, during the First World War, Atwood was commissioned to undertake several paintings by the Canadian Government for their War Memorials Fund, founded by Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, which culminated in an exhibition at Burlington House. She was one of the few women artists to receive official commissions during the First World War. This was followed in 1919 by a commission from the Imperial War Museum of 'Victoria Station' and 'Devonshire House'.

After the war, Atwood took residence at 31 Bedford Street, Covent Garden, where she lived in a same sex ménage à trois with the actress and theatre director Edith 'Edy' Craig and Christabel Marshall, the suffragette, playwright and author, who took the name 'Chris St. John'. George Bernard Shaw was later to remark that St John should write a history of their relationship, as it was so unusual for the time.

Living in the heart of the West End theatre scene, Atwood, Craig and Marshall were highly social and culturally engaged. They hosted the first gatherings of The Pioneer Players, a Suffragist theatre troop and socialised with the literary Bloomsbury Group, especially Vita Sackville-West. In 1928, the trio inherited Smallhythe Place in Kent from Craig's late mother, the famous actress Ellen Terry. The cottage, now a National Trust site, was connected to the Barn Theatre, which became the permanent theatre for the Pioneer Players. From then on the trio dedicated their lives to the upkeep of the site as a memorial to the late actress, and a haven for queer creatives.

Atwood was 'always the practical one; making props, painting scenery and coping enthusiastically with every eventuality', wrote Margaret Thomas in her obituary for The Times in 1962. Her close circle remembered her as 'indomitable' and Sackville-West described her as "brave, she has a grit for drollery, she is a peacemaker...Tony is a person on her own." Atwood died on 2 August 1962.