Obituary: Julia Phelps
Monday 22 February 1993
JULIA PHELPS's strain of individuality was highly prized by her teachers at the Royal College of Art, Ruskin Spear and Carel Weight. It had a depth to it few could match, for she came from remarkable stock. The Phelps family were boat-builders at Fulham and Putney, Royal Watermen, Bargemen to the Livery Companies and 10 of them winners of the Doggett's Coat and Badge. Justifiably proud of her family, she felt by winning her place at college as a painter of sculling and of the Thames she was contributing in a new way to her family's 400-year reputation.
Phelps's earlier training at Harrow School of Art suited her: Ken Howard and Charles Bartlett encouraged her to draw and paint her own environment in small tonal studies. Many of her works at her RCA Degree show revealed almost bird's-eye-like views from bridges down on the water with a pair or more scullers skimming past. This approach made of her work a painterly pattern. The freshness of this style, she said, showed 'the youthful freedom of painting at College'. In the outside world, rather than continue in this almost decorative manner, Phelps took more of the mood of change on the Thames itself to heart.
Having to earn her living and satisfy commissions which often had a rigorous topographical base, her style hardened. Maturity brought a Paul-Maitland-like tonal quality to her work. Drawing enhanced by the use of watercolour or of oil paints came to the fore. In her large canvases such as that for the Fishmongers' Company she shows decline and change on the Thames. The bulk of great structures demolished on the banks of the river, the mud banks exposed and a scattering of gulls revealed a new set of truths to her. Such works were recognised with prizes at the 'Spirit of London' exhibitions held by the GLC at the Festival Hall.
Besides private galleries, she showed at the Society of Women Artists and in the 'Open' exhibition of the Royal Watercolour Society. The many years of working on large individual pieces prevented her having one-person shows, and a certain amount of full-time teaching robbed her ultimately of too much painting time. In the limited length of an evening class she could enjoy herself and instruct freely.
Invitations from the Secretary of the Henley Royal Regatta had given Phelps freedom to paint at that event. Over the last five years it created the material for many of her later paintings, and the crisp style of her maturity regained a sense of wit and irony. The Dyers' Company Lunch break for the Swan Uppers, Henley draws together many elements in her work. Like many a landscape painter she found development in this genre a slow and meditative business.
Julia Phelps had openness and optimism, ever sympathetic, never demonstrative. The companion of the last 20 years of her life was Alan Musker.
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