Obituary: Isobel Morton-Sale
Tuesday 08 December 1992
ISOBEL MORTON-SALE was an artist and illustrator of singular delicacy. She was co-founder with her husband, John, of the Parnassus Gallery, well-known in their time for outstanding reproductions of great and lesser-known works of art.
She was born Isobel Lucas, into a Chelsea family which moved in literary and artistic circles where the Rossettis and their friends were still remembered. Isobel recalled meeting the writer Theodore Watts-Dunton in her uncle's house and, at a very early age, having a door politely held open for her by Algernon Swinburne.
She wrote that when she was seven 'the family moved to Kew, where this loveliest of gardens became a place of enchantment through the whole of my childhood'. Her love of drawing was already apparent and she confessed that all through her schooldays she 'scribbled drawings on books when I should have been doing other things'.
She went to the Central School of Art, where she studied with AS Hartrick, Spencer Pryce (for lithography) and Noel Rook. There she met John Morton-Sale, whom she married in 1924. They were perfectly suited, above all in creative feeling. Each was an inspiration to the other, although their work was quite distinct (they always had separate studios). Their mutuality of interest in other works of art later made it possible for them to publish their favourites with a committed concern for perfection.
Isobel's delicacy of style and sensitivity to colour was matched by an acuteness of observation which she transmitted in the fine lines of her own drawing. Early on she had illustrated JM Barrie's Shall We Join the Ladies? and other one-act plays. For the first five years after the birth of her daughter she did few illustrations for publication, but 'devoted all painting time to making studies of her'.
In 1937 the Morton-Sales went permanently to live on the edge of Dartmoor and there Isobel both painted and illustrated busily. Her most characteristic paintings from this period capture the innocent joys of childhood - a little girl listening to the 'Voice of the Seashell', or sitting on a ladder under a fruit-net, or clutching an apple in a fat hand. Her Flower-sellers - three children standing barefoot on a moorland roadside - shows her feeling for composition, line and colour.
In their London years the Morton-Sales enjoyed the world of theatre and the arts in the circle of the Farjeons. Eleanor Farjeon became a dear friend and the three collaborated then and later in five, by now classic, books of children's stories and poetry, including Cherrystones (1942), The Mulberry Bush (1945) and The Starry Floor (1949). Another friend was the novelist Elizabeth Goudge; so delighted was she by some of Isobel's paintings that she wrote stories round them, four of which - Serena the Hen, Maria or the Good Little Girl, Arabella or The Bad Little Girl and The Shufflewing - were published as charming children's booklets by the Parnassus Gallery in 1964.
In over 20 years devoted to publishing (the Morton-Sales retired from the Parnassus Gallery in 1977), Isobel had an unerring sense of what was appropriate for reproduction in a small format, though both she and John used their creative talents in the choice of subjects and settings. Isobel made a particular contribution in writing interesting and vivid texts about the works. The Parnassus Gallery brought out many beautiful works - paintings, enamels and stained glass from the Victoria and Albert Museum; early works from the National Gallery including Simon Marmion, Memling and Botticelli; Avercamp and others from the Royal Collection and hidden masterpieces from private houses in Britain, and churches in Tuscany, an area which became familiar after the Morton-Sales' daughter went to live there.
Isobel continued to draw and paint; her work was exhibited from 1979 to 1983 at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and a retrospective exhibition of paintings by both John and Isobel was held at the Maas Gallery, in London, in 1984.
Isobel Morton-Sale was small, elegant and gentle, with a delicate fairness; she had about her an aura of dignity and strength. Of women of her time she admired greatly the quiet art of Gwen John and Winifred Nicholson. Her distaste for anything false, degrading or subversive left her free to pursue her work with an innocent delight, and in her paintings a sense of enchantment pervades the realism of the captured moment.
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