LS Lowry's brilliant but tragic protégé gets her day in the sun

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The Independent Online

In the words of L S Lowry, her friend and mentor for more than 20 years, she was the finest landscape artist of the mid-20th century. Sheila Fell's tragic accidental death at 48, just as her creative powers were reaching their peak, has made retrospectives of Fell's work hard to stage.

But now a gallery in Fell's native west Cumbria, which has spent 17 years collecting her work, is showing the first solo collection of her art to be hung in more than a decade.

The exhibition, at the Castlegate House Gallery in Cockermouth, shows how Fell, a miner's daughter from the small Cumbrian town of Aspatria, was born into grinding poverty. Her father, Jack, was injured and made redundant several times and was forced to travel to find work, leaving Fell and her seamstress mother, Annie, to a life of struggle.

Her obvious talent won her a place at art school in Carlisle - only for her tutors to despatch her to a fabric design firm. In frustration she left for London's St Martin's School of Art, never to live in Cumbria again and, in her words "bitterly homesick ... drawing, reading, living on nothing but little food and grandiose ideas".

She left her garret flat, at Redcliffe Square in Chelsea, to tour Europe on a scholarship but her big break came in 1955 when she was offered a solo show at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London. Lowry bought two paintings and a drawing.

At his request, the gallery owner arranged a first rendezvous (outside Tottenham Court Tube station) and so began a lifelong friendship.

"Lowry didn't influence my painting," Fell told Radio Cumbria shortly before her death in 1979. "I was set in my ways ... I wasn't really interested in the industrial landscape." But the Castlegate exhibition illustrates one of the more prosaic ways in which Lowry was able to lend assistance. Since her parents didn't own a car, she had always painted scenes within walking distance of her home - but when Lowry arrived in her life, he would hire a car and take her into countryside to paint. One story has Lowry arriving in carpet slippers in a taxi that he had hired all the way from Manchester.

While the two artists were very close, there was never a sexual relationship and it seems Lowry was more interested in Fell as a painter - though, according to one of her friends, he became upset at one stage after wrongly convincing himself that she had married.

In 1974 Fell became a member of the Royal Academy, a formidable achievement for a woman at that time. Lowry is understood to have counselled her over membership thus: "Now Miss Fell if ever you are asked to become an RA take my advice. They are very nice chaps and they make a very nice cup of tea." The great artist finally got round to a less formal manner of addressing his friend and colleague, asking her "Do you mind if I call you Sheila?" before Lowry died, within eight days of her father, in 1976.

Britain's appreciation of Fell's works - which are influenced by Van Gogh, Permeke and Cezanne - is increasing substantially, along with their value, the auctioneers Bonhams recently observed.

The works should be celebrated for her "honesty and sincerity", said Chris Wadsworth, of the Castlegate gallery. "She [also] understood the structure of the landscape and its rhythm and gave it life and movement."

Fell was interviewed by the writer and journalist Hunter Davies on 16 December 1979 and told him, in addition to her landscapes, she also aspired to write poetry. "I also intend to live till 104," she told Davies. "I've promised myself I will. It's what keeps me going when I worry if I'll ever have time to do all the paintings in my head."

The day before the article was to be published, in The Sunday Times, she fell down the steep staircase at Redcliffe Square and died. A prodigious talent was snuffed out.