Erlund Hudson: Artist best known for chronicling the lives of ordinary women in the Second World War

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The Independent Online

Despite her long life Erlund Hudson's career as an artist lasted less than 20 years. Much of her work dates from the Second World War; rejected for war service because of her health, she drove a mobile canteen, taking tea and sandwiches to the Kensington rescue services as they dug out bombing victims. Exhausted from working two or three shifts without a break, she still found time to draw: Kentish women drying herbs in barns for medicines; middle-class ladies in white overalls cutting up sheets for bandages and pyjamas; scenes from the Naafi canteen. After the National Gallery sent its pictures for safety to a disused quarry in Wales, temporary exhibitions, often of living artists, occupied the empty walls. The War Artists Advisory Committee paid Hudson 25 guineas for six of her works to hang in the War Artists' shows; these are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Eleanor Erlund Hudson was born in St Marychurch outside Torquay in Devon in 1912. Her father, Henry Hudson, was from Liverpool and worked in the import and export trade. He had been a bachelor until his 40s when, in the south of France, he met Helen Ingeborg Olsen, a young Norwegian-American from Boston. Henry made a remarkably rapid recovery and Helen wrote home pleading to be allowed to marry. Between them they had seven children of whom Eleanor was the youngest (she used the name Erlund only professionally).

Confined to bed for a year by a spinal injury at the age of 10, Hudson spent much of her time drawing. Her first training was at the tiny Torquay School of Art. Wanting to train further – but innocent of proper procedures – she took her portfolio to the Royal College of Art and asked if she could be a student. The principal, Sir William Rothenstein agreed to look at her work and, although bemused by her drawings of models in bathing suits (country models did not pose nude), he was impressed, and told her there was a spare stool available in the school of engraving. At the RCA she studied under Professor Malcolm Osborne and his successor Robert Austin; they both became friends and great influences.

After a couple of years of study Hudson won a travelling scholarship to Italy. Ignorant of the political situation, and despite her mother's frantic letters, she only returned to England when an Italian naval officer told her to go home. She avoided internment by days.

On the outbreak of war she went first to look after her family in Leicestershire and then to Kent (where she delivered her sister-in-law's baby when it was born prematurely during a thunderstorm). Back in London she took a fourth-floor flat in Earls Court, running all the way down to the air-raid shelter when necessary.

Both in London and Torquay she saw the horrors of war. When the Troy Court flats were bombed, bodies and limbs were strewn around. Afterwards a shocked young American serviceman insisted on spending the day with Hudson in her van because it reminded him of home. Although outwardly calm everyone was terrified, but Hudson could not bring herself to paint any of this: art, she insisted, was for life, not death. She remembered how Kensington Square in September suddenly turned to winter when all its leaves were shed during a bombing raid, and then the branches were softened by a fog of plaster from the ruined houses like the blossom growing in spring. It gave one hope, she said.

At the end of the war Hudson bought an 18th-century house in Hammersmith Terrace beside the Thames. She was surrounded by a community which included the artists Raymond Coxon and Robert Austin, Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan, and the writer AP Herbert. Through her interest in ballet, Hudson met Nesta Brooking, who ran a ballet school in Primrose Hill. The first time she visited, to make studies, she found herself so enthralled by the great Tamara Karsavina that she was unable to draw a line.

Hudson and Brooking became colleagues and companions and they shared their lives for nearly 50 years until Brooking's death at the age of 99 in 2006. Hudson also became the Brooking School of Ballet's artistic director and designed costumes and scenery for Sadler's Wells and Ballet Rambert. Among the School's pupils were Monica Mason, now director of the Royal School of Ballet, and Ken Russell, before he became a film director.

Most of Hudson's pictures were scenes of women working or of the intimacies of female life; her subjects included women pulling on stockings or peeling potatoes, often drawn from unexpected angles. She brought to them an acute sense of observation and a feeling for atmosphere, and cited Degas as an influence.

She was also a fine portraitist. One of her models was a Czech lawyer called Bella, who she met in an air-raid shelter. At the war's end the woman, full of enthusiasm for the new Communist regime, returned home but was soon disillusioned. She resisted and was shot. Hudson said that on seeing her drawings her husband covered them with kisses, crying, "It's her, it's her".

In 1937, while still a student, Eleanor was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, and to the Royal Watercolour Society in 1939. She was also a member of the Chicago Print Society. In the postwar period it was difficult to find art materials, particularly for etching, and afterwards she worked primarily in watercolour. Her work was exhibited all over the UK, in Scandinavia, the US and Canada and is held in the collections of the British Museum, the Wellcome Library, the National Gallery of Canada, the Paul Mellon Center at Yale University, and Dudley Art Gallery, as well as the Imperial War Museum.

By the 1960s, however, her talents were being directed elsewhere. She resigned her membership of the various artistic societies and worked as a restorer for The Rocking Horse, an antique shop in St John's Wood. The specialities of the shop were French dolls and doll houses and rocking horses which Hudson repaired with new gesso and refurbished with horse hair from stables and abattoirs.

A chance conversation in a coffee shop led to her buying a cottage overlooking the sea at Old Bosham in West Sussex. The cottage was rebuilt by the architect Wendy Harris as Meadow House, a sizeable, white-painted house full of light and space where she entertained. Eleanor and Nesta spent as much of the year there as they could. When in 2009 she had to sell Meadow House in order to meet her increasing care costs, she said it broke her heart.

Eleanor was a follower of the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff. Although her health was in decline – for 13 years Nesta and she were looked after by their nurse, Ellen – she retained a tremendous interest in life and a strong sense of humour, as well as her bright eyes and beautiful bone structure. In 2007 the Imperial War Museum held a birthday party in her honour in the company of two of her other contemporaries, Phyllis Dimond and Malvina Cheek; their conversation was broadcast on Woman's Hour. A large family party was held for Hudson's 99th birthday; she died a few days later.

Simon Fenwick

Eleanor Erlund Hudson, artist: born St Marychurch, Devon 18 February 1912; died London 9 March 2011.