Ethel Gabain: Portrait of a Woman

Written by Tom Edwards | 14 December 2021

Ethel Gabain was one of the few artists, man or woman, able to support themselves from the sale of lithographs in the early Twentieth Century.

Her draughtsmanship and technical expertise were built on sound training at the Slade, the Central School and years practising in Paris. She was invited to be a founding member of the Senefelder Club in 1909 and in 1911 was taken up by Harold Wright at P&D Colnaghi, the great print publisher of the age.

Ethel Gabain (1883 - 1950)
The Parrot (W209)
Edition of 28
Signed. Provenance: Artist's Estate.
13.5 x 9 in.
Image courtesy of Abbott & Holder

What made Gabain's success remarkable was not simply that she made her way in an art world dominated by men. It was that her success should come from prints that were almost exclusively concerned with 'woman-hood'. Women were her subject in the literal sense; her compositions are dominated by the single female figure in reverie. But her works are also an expression of her emotional experience of being a woman; first a struggling artist, then young mother and latterly a mature woman experiencing the loss of a son, and World War for the second time. Between 1906 and 1930, when most of her 300 lithographs were made, there is a gradual shift from a sense of enuui in her early works, to an underlying strength and determination later on.

In 1925 Gabain took her family to Alassio in Liguria so that her husband, the artist John Copley R.B.A. (1875-1950) could convalesce from a severe heart condition. Lithography had to be put aside and she turned to painting. When the family returned to England the print market was destroyed by the Wall Steet Crash, so she continued to paint. She was elected a member of the R.B.A. in 1932 and R.I. in 1933. Women remained her subject. She made portraits of many leading actresses of the time and pursued her obsession with the single female figure; the young model Carmen Watson became her muse at this time.

Ethel Gabain (1883 - 1950)
Laveuse de Vaiselle (W60)
Edition of 16
Provenance: Artist's Estate.
8.5 x 8.25 in.
Image courtesy of Abbott & Holder

When World War broke out again, and despite the loss of a son, she offered her services to the Ministry of Information. She was invited to work for the War Artists Advisory Committee and asked to record the contribution of women to the War Effort. These works are her most lasting legacy. Gabain served as Vice President of the Society of Women Artists in 1934 and President in 1940.

For further information about the artist, Abbott & Holder recommends Susan Thomson's book, The Life and Works of Ethel Gabain, published byManchester Art Press, 2008.

The exhibition Ethel Gabain (1883-1950) Portrait of a Woman: Lithographs 1908-1932 from the artist's estate is on view through 23 December 2021 at Abbott & Holder in Museum Street, Bloomsbury.

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