Nancy Mona Higgins, painter: born London 30 November 1909; married 1950 Richard Carline (died 1980; one son, one daughter); died Wallingford, Oxfordshire 18 October 2004.
The quiet intensity of Nancy Carline's painting enriched the contribution of the Carlines to British art through three generations. Its human warmth reflected her life in the family and in her wide circle of friends.
She was born Nancy Higgins in London in 1909. Her father, a son of the founder of Jones & Higgins, the well-known Peckham store, was killed in action in 1917. Her Australian mother's wide-ranging response to art, music and literature was a formative influence, extended by education at Wycombe Abbey.
Early talent led to her entering the Slade School of Art in 1929. During the last two years of the powerful professorship of Henry Tonks, she responded positively to the seriousness and technical discipline of his approach. Grounded in drawing, it would later form the basis of her own teaching. It was, however, individual demonstration by Philip Wilson Steer, who remarked on her promise, that she felt launched her as a painter. Allan Gwynne-Jones, who joined the Slade staff in 1930, became a key influence on the combination of keen observation with painterly touch that would mark her mature work.
From 1933 Nancy Higgins worked for two seasons for Sadler's Wells Ballet, where she admired the leadership of Lilian Baylis. Unpaid, and undertaking whatever applied tasks were required (chiefly on costume), she nevertheless found great inspiration in the music and in the exacting requirements of Ninette de Valois, in whose ability to draw forth effective work she found affinities with Tonks (she got on well with both).
Among those who praised her work at Sadler's Wells was Vladimir Polunin, who was designing operas there. He urged Nancy to return to the Slade, this time to his classes in stage design. By contrast with the established fine art tuition she had received earlier, Polunin's classes were seen at the Slade as being "below stairs". In part this was because they fostered keen interest in modern art. As a scene painter for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, Polunin had known Picasso and other innovative artists and commended their work.
This expansion of Higgins's visual awareness had the paradoxical result that her work with Polunin proved crucial in the conviction she now reached that painting, rather than theatre arts, must be her calling.
Traditional Slade teaching had encouraged a subdued palette and correct figuration. Polunin's backcloths were painted tacked to the floor in the old way and his student assistants, in carpet slippers, used brushes on long sticks. When Higgins resumed her own painting, the greater breadth of scene painting and its freer accompanying influences had helped liberate her fine art technique. In the late 1930s she attended briefly the Euston Road School.
In Polunin's class Higgins met those who would become her closest friends, notably Rosemary Allan (who married Allan Gwynne-Jones), Annette Scott, Anthony Baynes, Elizabeth Stephen and Aelred Bartlett (the latter two marrying in 1941). Though not studying at the Slade, Aelred's brothers Francis (later Administrator of Westminster Cathedral) and Anthony and his sister Josephine Paterson were part of this close-knit group, which over the years came, along with its many children, almost to resemble a family.
In 1934, she had met the painter Richard Carline, known to his friends as Dick. They became increasingly close, marrying in 1950. The Carline family home in Hampstead had long been the centre of a wide circle of artists, including Mark Gertler, Gilbert Spencer and his brother Stanley, the latter an admirer of Carline's painting and, from 1925, husband of his painter sister, Hilda.
The breadth of Richard Carline's engagement with art greatly exceeded that in Nancy's background. He worked to spread appreciation of African art, as well as that of child and naive artists and of the picture postcard, and had close friendships with inter-war American realist painters. From the mid-1930s his own output as a painter was increasingly displaced by his leading role in local, national and international artists' organisations, work closely integrated with his strong anti-Fascism.
The Hampstead Artists Council (co-founded by Dick and in which Nancy was prominent) was strongly supportive of refugees from Nazism. Herself apolitical, Nancy was nevertheless keenly interested in the worlds opened for her by Dick's contacts. She described him as not Communist but a fellow traveller. Some friends were shocked when the Carlines, with their young children, visited East Germany in 1963 as guests of the artist John Heartfield, whom they had befriended in London. Nancy renewed the love for German Expressionist painting, especially by Macke and Schmidt-Rottluff, that she had found a revelation in the Nazis' Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937.
In 1936 the Carline family had moved from Downshire Hill to nearby 17 Pond Street. Nancy's Supper on the Terrace (1946) is set there and represents four painters. Seated to the left is Dick's mother Ann Carline (who had just died) and to the right his sister Hilda (who lived there with her children after the break-up of her marriage to Stanley Spencer and during the later substantial resumption of their relationship before her own death).
In Rosemary Gwynne-Jones's words, the picture was painted "in a spirit of blazing love for the family". Behind Dick (the central figure), the sky and long sloping garden are richly lit by the evening sun, while from the left Nancy herself enters the scene (and, symbolically, the family). At the house in Pond Street, its rooms hung thickly with paintings by numerous artists, friends of all generations continued till Richard's death to receive - not least from Nancy, who made this life possible - the warmest welcome at parties and in lively discussion.
An enthusiastic art teacher at a school in Purley during the Second World War, Nancy argued passionately for the retention of art in the school curriculum. For over 25 years both Carlines worked for several months a year as examiners for the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, assessing work in various media from Britain, Africa, India and South East Asia and helping establish more liberal criteria. But the heart of her work was her own painting. Greatly encouraged by Dick she, in turn, stimulated both the renewal of his art and its increased painterliness, often in motifs seen on their travels abroad. A key location was Venice, for Titian and Tintoretto were major inspirations of Nancy's, while light, water, architecture and the heightened observation of daily life were vital to her art.
Most of Nancy Carline's pictures are land- or townscapes. In almost all, one or more people or animals can be seen. Her pictures fuse intuition of the spirit of a place, in all its long continuity, with unaffected observation of everyday activity occurring within it. It is as though each of her pictures represents simultaneously both a specific moment and extended time.
Her art recalls her deep admiration for Claude, in whose canvases unity between landscape and its inhabitants is established on every level. She, too, was inspired by both literature and myth, enriched by love of music. Figures from Virgil, of classical gods and in a moonlit Annunciation to the Shepherds combine persuasive immediacy with mysterious other-worldly light, while in late works scenes from opera and carnival reappear.
Carline was needlessly anxious about the progress of each of the larger easel paintings she produced at intervals, in which well-structured composition united rich pictorial incident and a controlled freedom of touch. Most of her works, however, have a modesty of scale and increasingly a directness and economy of statement that combine to be both expressive and sustaining. Tender and elegiac in mood, and having affinities with early Corot and with Bonnard, they are meditations at once on particular scenes (frequently including the family) and on the nourishment of art itself. It was Rosemary Gwynne-Jones, again, who observed that Nancy Carline was a poet.
She showed often, both locally and at the New English Art Club and the Royal Academy. After Dick's death in 1980 she moved to Oxford and in 1985 had a retrospective at Camden Arts Centre. She resumed painting from the model and, with close Slade friends, beside the sea (often at Portland in Dorset). Eventually too frail to travel, she made images from great masters her own, in small, concentrated drawn transcriptions. These were shown in the personal retrospective that formed part of the National Theatre's large exhibition in 1997 of work by Dick, Nancy and their circle. A chief joy of her last years was the developing talent of her seven grandchildren.
Nancy Carline had a deep interest in human behaviour and a keen sense of fun. Great caution over her often imperfect health belied an inner toughness and endurance. Firmness, sometimes even astringency, of view was combined with eagerness for experience of art both new and old. One typical letter praises Hogarth and Gabo, while another links Sickert's drawings with those of Claude.
The inner theme of her work is continuity - in art, in family, in compelling myth, in human activities and pleasures. Characteristically, while in her work she is not the centre of attention, her affirmative nature is insistently present.
Richard MorphetReuse content