Obituary: Ray Howard-Jones

Anyone who has ever spent holidays on the Dyfed coast may have encountered a naked woman emerging from behind the rocks. The chances are this was Ray Howard-Jones, woman war artist and painter in the Romantic tradition - best known to her friends as "Ray the Paint".

She was born in Berkshire, in 1903, at her father's racing stable on the downs. At two she moved to her grandfather's home in Penarth and it was there that she spent her childhood, sketching the shores of the Bristol Channel. At 12 her guardian, "Putty" Purnell, took her to Tenby, where she made her first serious seascape study, and fell in love with the coast of west Wales.

In 1920 she was granted a place at the Slade School of Art, London. Three years later she achieved a London University Fine Art Diploma, gaining distinctions in painting, wood engraving and design. Her oil Christ on the Road to Calvary won the summer composition prize. When presenting the award the Slade Professor, Henry Tonks, turned to his colleague Philip Wilson Steer to remark, "There is only one man in the world to whose word I would defer [i.e. Steer himself] and he tells me that this painter is the finest colourist we have ever produced at the Slade." Praise from this quarter helped inspire an extraordinarily single-minded artistic career.

In the immediate pre-war years Howard-Jones worked for the National Museum of Wales producing archaeological reconstruction drawings for the published works of Sir Cyril Fox and Dr Nash-Williams. In 1942 she was determined to make her contribution to the war effort and began painting around the Cardiff and Barry docks. The following year she received a commission to record the fortified islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel, thus achieving the distinction of becoming one of a handful of women who became accredited war artists. Her paintings depicting preparations of D-Day shipping in Cardiff are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

In 1947 Ray Howard-Jones moved to Ravenscourt Park in west London. Her house there was to be her home and studio for the rest of her life. From this base she took her annual pilgrimages to the coast of Dyfed, from 1949 until 1992. For the first nine years she stayed on the deserted island of Skomer with her partner, the photographer Raymond Moore. The two Rays shared a close relationship for 20 years, and it was during their first decade together that she began her earnest exploration of the history and mysticism of the Welsh landscape.

In 1958 Howard-Jones was commissioned to design a mosaic for Thomson House, Cardiff, the offices of the Western Mail, a colourful, semi- abstract design incorporating flying newspapers. More success followed in 1959 with her first full-scale show at the Leicester Galleries in London, the first in a series of five shows over the next 10 years which brought her acclaim on the national art scene. Although an oil painter of great skill, her true artistic spirit and style came out best in her use of gouache and pastel, and it was this medium that she increasingly devoted herself to.

She could work quickly and out of doors. Many of her works depict her beloved Easter Bay (her name for Martin's Haven, close to the village of Marloes). She felt an affinity with the steep cliffs, which she was still climbing at the age of 89, and the rocks to which she gave private names - "Te Deum", "The Brother", "Cathedral of the Stac". Here too she could swim with the seals.

During her lifetime, Ray Howard-Jones's work featured in almost 30 one- man shows in British art galleries and was represented in public collections world-wide, including the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Boston City Art Gallery in the United States, and the National Gallery of Southern Australia, Adelaide. With the closure of the Leicester Galleries Howard- Jones had distanced herself from the London art scene, although the Welsh Arts Council organised two touring retrospectives of her work in 1974 and 1983-84. In 1985 the Abbot of Nashdom, outside Slough, invited her to exhibit her work with the intention of "reviving and restoring the early tradition of the Benedictine Order in their allegiance with the creative arts". Howard-Jones gained spiritual support from being made an oblate of the order.

Her annual trips to Wales had become more reclusive after her split from Moore in 1970. She appeared to revel in her isolation. Her trips down the M4, at carefree speed in a rickety Renault van, were enough to terrify fellow passengers. By 1992 she no longer used a caravan, but instead spent her summer in a tin and wooden hut, perched on the Dyfed cliff, above the roar of the Atlantic Ocean. In the local village shops she would settle her bills with drawings and paintings.

In 1993 Howard-Jones came back to the London art scene when the Rocket Press organised a retrospective of her work dating from the 1930s up until 1993 in Cork Street. The exhibition coincided with Rocket's publication of her first book of poetry, Heart of the Rock, and a new monograph about her, The Elements of an Art, by Merlin James. The show was of especial interest as Howard-Jones's most expressive work had developed since she was in her late eighties. She was exhilarated to be in the limelight once more and appeared at the opening in a boldly decorated purple outfit with full sleeves. She had taken particular care over her make-up, of which Wilson Steer would have been proud, for it more resembled her own paint palette than anything which could be conventionally regarded as cosmetics.

Many will have memories of Ray Howard-Jones seated in her west London garden, voicing her strong opinions on drawing while she fed the birds. Visitors were often invited into the garden, which could prove something of a relief since indoors one might be submerged under an avalanche of books, papers, sketches, letters and "found objects". Howard-Jones's niece Nicola was a constant support to her in these last years. Indeed, Ray Howard-Jones had always been adept at getting others to run round after her so that she, herself, was free to give everything to her art. She was a woman of great courage and indomitable spirit.

Rosemary (Ray) Howard-Jones, artist: born Lambourn, Berkshire 30 May 1903; died London 25 June 1996.

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