Frances Macdonald

Click to follow

Frances Macdonald, artist and teacher: born Wallasey, Cheshire 12 April 1914; married 1939 Leonard Appelbee (died 2000; one daughter); died Aberdeen 5 March 2002.

Later in her life, it was hard to believe that Frances Macdonald, a small, apparently frail woman, had been one of the longest-serving official war artists of the Second World War. Like that of her painter husband, Leonard Appelbee, Macdonald's work has suffered neglect. In their prime, they were mainstream painters and fine teachers, contributing to important exhibitions such as the Arts Council-Festival of Britain "Sixty Paintings for '51".

In 1940, with Appelbee in the Army and herself planning to volunteer for nursing, Macdonald was "amazed" to be commissioned as a war artist. She had only recently finished her studies:

It came about because Oliver Simon had asked me to draw a portrait of the typographer Stanley Morison for Signature magazine. I was painting a picture of the wounded being taken to an air-raid shelter at Queen Alexandra military hospital, Millbank, when the Blitz began.

She served as a war artist throughout hostilities and up until 1946, producing notable works. Her painting of St Paul's Cathedral surrounded by streets of twisted, blackened timbers was sent for exhibition to America, but was lost when the returning ship was torpedoed. "I was sad when I received the telegram, as I felt it was my best effort so far, but then was ashamed to mourn it when I thought of the lives lost." Building the Mulberry Harbour, London Docks, which depicts of one of the huge structures being prepared for the 1944 invasion of France, was shown in "National War Pictures", at the Royal Academy in 1945, and is now owned by the Tate Gallery.

Macdonald also contributed to the record of historic buildings vulnerable to war, sponsored by the Pilgrim Trust. The results were published in the four volumes of Recording Britain (1946-49).

Frances Macdonald was born in 1914, the younger of two daughters of Francis Macdonald, a Martin's Bank manager in Wallasey, Cheshire, and his wife Jessie. Her sister Lesley later married Hellmuth Weissenborn and ran the Acorn Press, a private imprint of the post-war period.

Frances attended Wallasey Art School, 1930-34, under William Green and Gordon MacPherson, then the Royal College of Art, 1934-38, where she met Leonard Appelbee. Although she had entered the design school there, above all she wished to paint. Astutely, Gilbert Spencer sent her to Barnett Freedman's Friday still-life class for second-year students. After that, the Appelbees revered the memory of the eccentric East Ender:

His was the best kind of teaching – not how to paint but how to see – so practical, wise, humorous, genuine and helpful in explaining his criticism. "Let me lend you my eyes," he said, pointing out the colour values.

Macdonald's work for Recording Britain led to other commissions after the war. Her watercolours appeared in Londoner's England (1947), with notes by Alan Bott; she wrote a charmingly illustrated essay on Chelsea, where she and Appelbee lived, for Flower of Cities (1949), and she was commissioned by the London County Council to draw the South Bank before it was cleared for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

She showed in the Leicester Galleries' "Artists of Fame and Promise" exhibitions and at Wildenstein's, in Bond Street, and was given a solo exhibition at the Alfred Brod Gallery in 1961. She was noted for her landscapes, often of North Wales, using a dark palette, but over a long career produced a range of work of Renaissance versatility. It was acquired by major public collections in Britain and abroad, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the London Museum and the Melbourne Art Gallery.

Sound draughtsmanship was the core of Macdonald's teaching. She taught drawing part-time at Goldsmiths' College School of Art, 1946-48; took the Thursday still-life class at Beckenham, 1957-69; taught at the Byam Shaw School, 1963-64; and was a visitor at the Ruskin School of Drawing, 1964.

Leonard Appelbee became head of fine art at Bournemouth College of Art, but realism and the old crafts of painting and the life class were falling out of fashion under the impact of such movements as Abstract Expressionism. "One of the Bauhaus types took over and immediately the gimmicks started," Macdonald recalled later. Eventually, the outspoken Appelbee was "sacked without an interview". For Macdonald, the Bauhaus meant "the rule of the ruler", a symbol of all that was evil in the modern system. She amassed a huge archive of material on its alleged deficiencies. "Denying the past, we are ignorant and arrogant," she asserted.

Macdonald and Appelbee continued to paint: in Devon, where they lived for many years; and in Scotland from 1989, where they moved to be near their daughter Jane, an environmental scientist. However, after Appelbee's last solo show, in 1977 at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, they did not seek to exhibit.

David Buckman