Uncompromising portrait painter
Tuesday 13 February 2007
Edmund Hugh Nelson, painter: born London 24 January 1910; married 1939 Ruth Swanton (died 1981; one son, one daughter), 1988 Meg Wilson (died 1997); died Guildford, Surrey 22 January 2007.
Edmund Nelson was a talented painter whose portraits of leading Cambridge intellectuals, including G.M. Trevelyan and E.M. Forster, were complemented by those of cricketers (his C.B. Fry now hangs in the Committee Room at Lord's) and artists. His moving portrait of his wife won the prize for the best portrait in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1947.
Living into great old age with his faculties fully intact, he kept painting to the end, with two delightful portraits of his grandchildren done when he was well over 90.
Edmund Nelson was born in 1910 in Catford, south-east London, the middle of three brothers. His father, Lee, and his mother, Eleanor (née Trenam), were both postal workers, Lee eventually becoming the manager of Charing Cross Post Office. Reading was strongly encouraged in the family and Eleanor was a keen amateur singer. Edmund's older brother, Cyrus, won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital and Edmund went to Colfe's Grammar School in Blackheath.
The key figure in Edmund's early artistic life was his father's brother, Harold Nelson, an engraver and illustrator. Harold, the designer of one of the classic postal stamps, the £1 Postal Union Congress stamp of 1929, was the Secretary of the Art Workers' Guild, the William Morris-inspired brotherhood of artists and craftsmen. He often took Edmund to meetings, where he heard the likes of Arthur Rackham and Sir Edwin Lutyens in earnest artistic debate. Edmund was later to be a Brother in his own right.
Trained at Goldsmiths' College in London, Edmund Nelson became a limner - one skilled with his hands. Early jobs included painting scenic backcloths for the theatre, bookbinding and book illustration. Dark and strikingly handsome, at Goldsmiths' he met a vivacious fellow art student, Ruth Swanton, whom he married in 1939. Their first home was in Norfolk, in the village of South Wootton, near King's Lynn, where Nelson taught after qualifying as a teacher at night school at the London Day Training College - now the Central School of Art and Design.
A daughter, Jane, was born in 1941; but, with Edmund in the RAF and posted to Egypt, the family were mostly apart during the Second World War. Ruth's brother, E.W. Swanton, known as Jim, a Japanese prisoner of war on Burma Railway, later became a celebrated cricket writer and commentator.
After the war, the family lived first in a gypsy caravan at Detling on the North Downs. In 1946 they moved to a bomb-damaged flat in Hampstead, then still a Bohemian stronghold. A son, Martin, was born in 1949, and it was here, over the next decade, that Edmund Nelson's career as a portrait painter flourished.
He was commissioned by Trinity College, Cambridge, to paint their Master, the most celebrated historian of the day, G.M. Trevelyan, and other portraits of intellectuals followed, including C.E. Raven, the Master of Christ's, and Sir George Thompson, the Master of Corpus Christi. For King's College, Edmund painted E.M. Forster and the economist Arthur Pigou. There can be no doubt about the outstanding quality of these portraits; they are technically fluent, truthful and with a sharp insight into character. Nelson, widely read, charming and highly intelligent, got on extremely well with his subjects.
By 1956, however, the main phase of his career as a portraitist had come to an end. In a time of austerity, when the society photographic portraits of Cecil Beaton were the rage, and when traditional portraits were seen as old-fashioned, Nelson's commissions dried up. Contemptuous of modern art, he had no intention of attempting to change his style. His refusal to compromise in artistic terms was coupled with an unwillingness to promote himself or to respond to the demands of the marketplace. It was therefore a mixture of external circumstances and his own character and values that led to a highly promising career's coming to a premature end.
A fluent and amusing writer, he reflected ironically on his art and predicament in "The Portrait Painter's Prayer", written at this time:
Give me skill, O Lord, I pray
To ply my art and make it pay.
Guide my hand, support my arm!
("Head this way a little, Ma'am.")
Prevent me, Lord, lest I consort
With any of the "Modern" sort,
Who hold that portrait painters are
Inferior to the camera.
Let the facile brushwork flow!
Make the speaking likeness grow!
Grant me all the social graces,
Sitters rich with noble faces.
All with ample time to spare,
And brow serene unmarked by care,
Indifferent quite what art may be,
Content to leave the job to me.
And if all this avails me not,
Though I be ne'er so wise and witty,
Then let me have, O fail me not!
A friend to sit on the committee.
Giving up the hope of becoming a successful society portraitist, Nelson took up a career in teaching, in Hammersmith, Willesden and, finally, Watford as Head of Art in Technical High Schools. He proved versatile and successful, being skilled in wood-carving, engraving and pottery, as well as drawing and painting. He had always had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, the natural world, and his own painting moved away from portraits and towards landscapes.
He also painted the sea, stimulated by a lifelong enjoyment of sailing and the acquisition of a bungalow in Selsey in Sussex. He and Ruth moved there full-time on his retirement in 1970, enjoying the proximity of the sea and life in a friendly, if quirky, community. After Ruth's death in 1981, Edmund took himself off for months to a remote part of Languedoc, both to grieve and to draw solace from the natural world. In 1988, at the age of 78, he married Meg Wilson, and nine years of happiness and companionship followed - with renewed painting (Edmund adding deft touches to Meg's work) - before Meg's death in 1997.
Edmund Nelson's final years were spent in Cranleigh in Surrey. A man of natural dignity, he was little bent even in extreme old age. He kept his independence to the end, driving (safely) until a minor accident last November decided him to sell his car, living simply but contentedly, and drawing comfort from what he saw from his window or in the surrounding countryside.
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