Obituary: Eilean Pearcey

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The Independent Culture
EILEAN PEARCEY specialised in action drawings of dancers. Her work can be found in the Australian Museum of the Performing Arts, at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and in private collections, but the bulk of her output, several thousand drawings and paintings, were at her suggestion gifted to Surrey University. She admired greatly what they had done for dance and they returned the compliment by awarding her an honorary MA.

Born in Melbourne in 1901, she came from a family of soldiers and lawyers. Like many women of her generation she seemed rather more English than Australian. She was educated at the best schools and took her BA at Melbourne University before going on to study painting at what has now become the Victorian College of the Arts. She had a gift for portraiture, rather less for landscape, and it was only when she first saw Anna Pavlova and her company on tour in Australia in 1928 that she found her true subject matter.

For the next 65 years she would concentrate on trying to capture the movement of dance in impressionistic sketches none the less based on close observation. Just as her great friend Sheila Hawkins, the children's book illustrator, looked at animals, so Pearcey studied the human body and its musculature. She became a familiar figure in London, where she moved in 1931, to be seen most evenings at the theatre, at the side of the stalls or in the wings, scribbling in the near dark. Many of these quick sketches are among her best work, for she had a tendency to rework and rework to the point where the freshness of the first impression faded.

She was at her best with modern dance. She adored Martha Graham and was one of the first people to support Robin Howard and Robert Cohan when they sought to establish a Graham School in London. She did many drawings of the London Contemporary Dance company, and its first generation of dancers. Particularly successful was a series of William Louther in Peter Maxwell Davies' Vesalii Icones. A number of these were bought by the composer. She became a close friend, too, of Marcel Marceau, whose work she much admired and her many drawings of him and his famous character Bip have often been reproduced.

But her greatest enthusiasm was for Indian dance. Introduced to it by Uday Shankar and benefiting from the important work of the Asian Music Circle run by Ayana Angadi, Pearcey saw all the dancers and musicians who came through London and many, like Ritha Devi and Ram Gopal, became close friends. She visited India, gave a talk on Woman's Hour on the temples of Bhuvaneshwar, and came under the influence of the yoga teacher B.K.S. Ayengar.

Her drawings were used to illustrate his handbooks on yoga and from being an enthusiastic pupil, Pearcey, in late middle age, became an outstanding teacher. In fact she continued teaching long after any normal retirement age, claiming that the ILEA had lost her records. She was certainly well past 80 when she stopped teaching, though she still did her daily exercises, including the headstand which she was always ready to demonstrate.

Small and wiry, she kept very fit and until the last years of her life would cross London by bus or even on foot to hear a lecture at the Horniman or see a performance at the Place.

She was a hopeless businesswoman and her work was much less well known than it deserved. Despite a successful exhibition at Victor Musgrave's Gallery One in the early Fifties, she subsequently had difficulty in getting things together. She could never decide what she wanted to show and fell out with virtually everyone who tried to promote her or her work. Even when editors like Peter Williams of Dance and Dancers offered her opportunities, she missed deadlines and complained about the results when her drawings were used. She became reluctant to part with anything, even when she could have done with the money.

She lived on in her increasingly Miss-Havisham-like studio until a couple of years ago when she could no longer look after even her very simple needs. She never seemed to eat much and her fridge was a real danger zone, full of little scraps of things that might have been there for months. She just could not be bothered, preferring to spend hours a day on the telephone or writing to a wide range of friends both in this country and abroad. She kept in close touch with her niece Christine Fairhall in Perth, Western Australia, and much appreciated it when she came to London to help sort out the studio.

Her marriage to the distinguished structural engineer Ramsay Moon broke up and they were divorced shortly after the Second World War. But the central tragedy of her life was the death through meningitis of her only son, Felix, at the age of 13. He was a brilliant child, and his loss was something she felt every day of her life.

John Drummond

Eilean Blake Pearcey, artist: born Melbourne, Victoria 28 May 1901; married Ramsay Moon (one son deceased; marriage dissolved); died London 1 February 1999.