GRACE GOLDEN was born in London and lived and worked there as a painter and illustrator all her industrious life. Because in much of her work she made the teeming life of the city her subject, recording countless details of the place and its people with an insider's empathy and understanding, it is appropriate and reassuring that a considerable collection, including hundreds of the remarkable pencil sketches she made 'just for reference', is now cared for at the Museum of London.
I first met Grace some 15 years ago at the South London Art Gallery, where a mutual friend, the then curator Kenneth Sharpe, had organised a large retrospective exhibition of her pictures. This show was timely because it achieved for Grace at the end of her career something of the critical recognition that had been denied her during the decades during which she had laboured as a poorly paid illustrator for some of the general-interest magazines that flourished in the days before television.
Such work must have been hard and demanding, often requiring, at little notice, hours of research into an historical period to ensure accuracy of detail, or lengthy attendance at a particular event with the purpose of producing a line illustration of a full-colour cover picture within a few hours. It did, however, somehow accord with Grace's intense curiosity, fascination with the factual details of the past and the present, and her wonderfully direct way of transcribing what she saw into fine, near-calligraphic drawings.
If sometimes, not surprisingly, the printed result looks contrived and overworked, the preliminary sketches are usually little miracles of sharp observation. Looking, for instance, at a random selection of the notebook sketches acquired for the Museum of London, one can vividly recapture the dancers' gyrations on the floor of a night club, sometime in the 1930s; the high-stepping action of a draught horse, paraded for sale at the old Agricultural Hall; the practised movements of a girl lathe-operator in a wartime factory, her 'snood'-dressed hair, as well as the intricacies of the machine, carefully noted; or the weariness of two shoppers, 'up West' for the day, resting their feet whild refreshing themselves with tea and toast at a Lyon's Corner House.
Grace Golden's draughtsmanship, honed to immediate practical purposes, is both informative and evocative. No stock-in-trade manner or affectation of style obtrudes to prevent us from seeing what she saw or being interested in what interested her. We must be grateful that she saw and was interested in so much.
Because Golden's enthusiasms (and, it must be said, her dislikes) were numerous and energetically followed, she developed a wide circle of like-minded friends. A member of the Society of Theatre Research for many years, she was also, during its less certain days, an honorary archivist for the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre project, now nearing completion on the South Bank. More recently, she was a knowledgeable 'regular' at the 'Made in London' film seasons at the Museum of London, where her jaunty beret became a familiar feature of the third row. As we became better acquainted, she took to searching through her immense, overflowing, files of notes and cuttings for anything that might help me in my own researches - dismissing her thoughtfulness and generosity with 'Don't suppose I'll need that again, will I?'
Had she been born into a later generation, who knows how Grace Golden's remarkable talent might have developed and what opportunities might have come her way? As it is, to many who knew her whe was an unforgettable personality, and a bit of a heroine.
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