Phyllis Ginger

Artist and illustrator who worked on the wartime 'Recording Britain' project
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The Independent Online

Phyllis Ginger belonged to a generation of women artists whose work is relatively unknown even though their contribution to English painting was substantial and their work survives in many museum and gallery collections. The V&A Prints and Drawings department holds 19 watercolours belonging to the "Recording Britain" scheme, her most important commission, completed for the Pilgrim Trust between 1940 and 1942. The British Museum and the Museum of London both own work mounted in solander boxes to protect them from light and there has yet to be a catalogue published to do justice to this most modest of artists.

Phyllis Ethel Ginger, artist: born New Malden, Surrey 19 October 1907; married 1940 Leslie Durbin (died 2005; one son, one daughter); died Kew, Surrey 3 May 2005.

Phyllis Ginger belonged to a generation of women artists whose work is relatively unknown even though their contribution to English painting was substantial and their work survives in many museum and gallery collections. The V&A Prints and Drawings department holds 19 watercolours belonging to the "Recording Britain" scheme, her most important commission, completed for the Pilgrim Trust between 1940 and 1942. The British Museum and the Museum of London both own work mounted in solander boxes to protect them from light and there has yet to be a catalogue published to do justice to this most modest of artists.

Ginger was born in New Malden, south-west London, in 1907, and attended the Tiffin Girls' School, Kingston upon Thames; during her later years there she went to evening classes at the nearby Kingston School of Art. Her father, Arthur Ginger, worked for the Post Office but was an amateur artist himself, regularly contributing to the Post Office art society exhibitions, and her parents persuaded her of the merits of restricting her interest in art to her spare time alone: she soon got herself a "proper" job, along with her younger sister, as a junior civil servant. In later years she could still recite every postal district in the land.

With only limited encouragement from her family she enrolled for three years in 1932 at Richmond School of Art, under Stanley Badmin, attending evening classes at the Central School of Arts and crafts, under W.P. Robins, before winning a scholarship aged 30 to become a full-time student there under John Farleigh and Clarke Hutton. Her first ambition was to become an illustrator but her interest in etching and portraiture was encouraged by Robins. In 1938 she exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy, an etching entitled Portrait of My Father Reading.

In 1939 she was elected a member of the Senefelder Club, a group of artist-lithographers, and joined the important Allied International Artists group, where she exhibited twice. At the Central she met her husband through seeking a recommendation for a metalwork student to help her mend a silver clasp on her handbag. Leslie Durbin, the silversmith, who repaired it before travelling to Europe on a Goldsmiths' Company scholarship, was himself to become a renowned craftsman and teacher. They married in October 1940, in the Church of St Marylebone, a watercolour of which became her Diploma work for election to the Royal Watercolour Society later in 1952.

Just before the outbreak of severe hostilities in London she was commissioned to paint a bridge under construction over the Thames to be presented to the retiring American ambassador who wanted to take home a souvenir of London. It was an extremely cold winter and the workmen involved in the project let Ginger share their shelter and made her tea. Around this time the Library of Congress in Washington purchased a lithograph, Show Day at St Bartholomew's Hospital, another example of which is in the British Museum.

Phyllis Ginger's skill as a topographical artist led to her involvement in the Pilgrim's Trust scheme Recording Britain, started in 1939, inviting artists to visit particular places and make their own choice of subjects to record that might be destroyed by enemy action. The secretary/editor there, Arnold Palmer, commissioned eminent artists such as John Piper, Eric Ravilious, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein and Barbara Jones. Ginger's work appears in three out of the four volumes of Recording Britain published by Oxford University Press, with some American finance, in 1946.

There was much fear of the damage that could be wreaked by the "Baedeker" raids, so called because the German bombers targeted some of Britain's most beautiful cities. However not many of the resulting pictures make overt references to the effects of war, but, as is pointed out in Recording Britain: a pictorial Domesday of pre-war Britain, published by the V&A to coincide with its 1990 exhibition, Ginger's views of Catherine Place, Bath, and the Council House, Bristol, both show scenes of bomb damage, "meticulous, delicate and overlaid with pale transparent washes, very much in the tradition of the English school of topographical watercolour".

In her pictures of Cheltenham she includes portraits of the American servicemen and she completed three works near Regent's Park, one of which shows roads closed and a distant barrage balloon. Probably inspired by Durbin's association with the Goldsmiths' Company, she produced Goldsmiths' Hall after Bombing, acquired via the War Artists' Advisory Committee by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The Recording Britain works were dispersed for display in relevant regional council departments, but fortunately the V&A has now retrieved most of them (though some have suffered considerably from over-exposure to light).

During most of the Second World War the Durbins lived in St John's Wood, London, in a studio which had once belonged to the cartoonist and illustrator Harry Furniss in Titchfield Road, and from there she could operate as an unofficial war artist, with a permit to sketch in London. One of the surviving artists from the Recording Britain scheme, Malvina Cheek, reminisced with Phyllis Ginger in 2004 about their both being approached by policemen while sketching London buildings, especially near the Houses of Parliament. When bombing became more relentless she accepted an invitation from friends to Keynsham, between Bath and Bristol, and remained there, before moving with her young son Paul (born in May 1944), to Marlow to be near where Leslie Durbin was stationed with the RAF. (In 1943 he had been seconded to assist R.M.Y. Gleadowe with the production of the "Stalingrad Sword", presented by King George V in celebration of the Russian victory to the city of Stalingrad.)

Ginger was invited in 1941 to illustrate her first book, Mrs Robert Henrey's A Farm in Normandy, instigating a collaboration lasting more than 30 years - and including two books on London, London (1948) and The Virgin of Aldermanbury: rebirth of the City of London (1958). In 1943 she was commissioned by Puffin Picture Books not only to illustrate but to write a children's story book, Alexander, the Circus Pony, which has been reprinted many times. She also illustrated Joan Lamburn's The Mushroom Pony, published by Noel Carrington, founding editor of Puffin Picture Books, in 1947.

In 1953 Ginger drew Cliff Horton of Arsenal Football Club to be made into a lithograph, which was included in the seminal "Football and the Fine Arts" exhibition that year held in Park Lane and organised by the Arts Council and the Football Association. The portrait resurfaced in JHW Fine Art's 1998 exhibition "Muddied Oafs: an exhibition of football" and was illustrated in The Footballer's Year (2002).

Portraiture became more important to Phyllis Ginger, particularly in her later years: even in the last few months at her nursing home in Kew - where Leslie Durbin, five years her junior, died in February - she was still sketching portraits of the residents and staff in pencil and pastel. Her regular contributions to the group exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the Royal Watercolour Society often included portraits of friends, Carla with Angel the Cat (Royal Academy, 1978) being a particularly fine example. London's commercial dealers including Chris Beetles and James Huntington-Whiteley have appreciated her fine style and printmakers such as Merivale Editions have made posters from her work.

Kew Gardens remained a favourite place for her. The Government Art Collection owns a watercolour, Waterlilies, Kew Gardens (1971), and she went there with her family to see the bluebells only two days before she died.

Magdalen Evans



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