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Lucy Harwood: A painter at the heart of bohemian Benton End

By Hugh St Clair

When researching my biography of Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett Haines, Lucy Harwood (1893-1972) appeared frequently. So, an invitation to curate an exhibition of her work at Firstsite in Colchester was a wonderful excuse to find out more about her.

Having met Cedric Morris in the 1930s, she was integral part of bohemian Benton End life for the next three decades, the only member of the community with a car, ancient and full of paint brushes and rags. Former students recalled her erratic driving and never changing out of first gear therefore burning out a lot of clutches, but always with a smile on her face. Such were her garage repair bills that she swapped paintings in lieu of payment. She was in charge of the teas at the annual Iris Open Days at Benton End, serving strawberries in egg cups. She was the quasi-gate keeper at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, encouraging Hadleigh locals who wished to paint, one of whom was Maggi Hambling, who recalls sitting in a ditch, too shy to knock at the blue front door and being grateful to see Lucy who welcomed her in.

Installation view, Lucy Harwood, Bold Impressions, Firstsite, 2023. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd

But Lucy Harwood was much more than a Woman Friday. She was a hard-working painter who produced a huge volume of still lifes, landscapes and a few piercing portraits. A pupil at The Slade just before the First World War, the only London art school to admit women at the time, she became an accomplished draughtswoman, complimented by the artist Augustus John. However, in the late 1920s she was forced to change how she painted. A botched appendectomy caused paralysis on her right side, forcing her to work exclusively with her left hand. Her style became looser and more free, brilliantly colourful splashy and impressionistic, full of life and energy. Fellow artist Matthew Smith called it ‘flamboyant impasto.’

Lucy credited Cedric for giving her the confidence to paint and Lett ‘for his gentle kindness natural genius and skilled teaching.’ She often paid him Cedric or Lett a fifth part of her sold pictures in gratitude. Lucy showed both men every painting she made, and there was often a difference of opinion in regard to the merit of her efforts, add more cloud, take out cloud, for example. She tended to ignore the conflicting advice and just carry on regardless. In the introduction to an exhibition of her work, Lett Haines wrote, ‘she developed a unique colour sense as much as her own as everything else in her paintings springing from a normal spontaneity and enjoyment of life. The enthusiasm of colour could always be seen in her unconventional clothes.’

Born to a Suffolk landowning and farming family in 1893, Lucy Harwood was encouraged to follow artistic pursuits, first enjoying the piano before deciding to become a visual artist. Before her operation she travelled the world, from India to North Africa, often accompanied only by a box of watercolours and letters of introduction to local notables. After joining the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, she concentrated on European trips, often with fellow Benton End students. Back in Suffolk she was out in all weathers painting landscapes. As Lett Haines said, ‘She would describe herself as a dedicated Post Impressionist and as such felt affinity to Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.’

At Benton End she painted a few garden panoramas which at a casual glance may appear influenced by Morris, a comparison she would repudiate. On closer inspection she has certainly departed from the carefully thought-out compositions of Cedric to embrace the wildness of the garden described by Beth Chatto as ‘eye widening, bewildering and mind stretching’.

Lucy Harwood, Jug & Flowers, Firstsite Collection. Courtesy Estate of Lucy Harwood

From the garden of her house in the neighbouring village of Upper Layham, much admired by Cedric Morris for the interesting selection of plants, she would put together cut flowers, a China bird, a Staffordshire dog, a wine bottle even occasionally a dead fish to create fantastical still lifes. She loved to walk round her garden by day and sometimes by night, marvelling at the natural world, believing it to be almost divine. She wrote in her diary in the 1950s, ‘I seem to walk where the holy laurels talk and sing with much music of moonshine bringing peace and love… First comes the idea of a picture falling straight from heaven. It’s accomplishment may be outdoors with the wild wonders of trees and birds, flowers, clouds, ponds, and rivers, and boats the sea, strange mountains and streets. Standing silent in one place on a still or windy morning one breathes the textures of the miraculous Heaven and Earth.’

Lucy Harwood, Pig amongst Flowers, Firstsite Collection. Courtesy Estate of Lucy Harwood

Lucy Harwood never dated or titled her pictures and often didn’t sign them, so when pulling together the exhibition at Firstsite in Colchester I had to match up her paintings with her diary entries, which were often honest and revealing. She talks about her relationship with her easel. ‘When I was painting in Colonel Hitchcock’s celery field my beloved easel, which is a most intimate and time worn friend suddenly collapsed. I felt as if I had lost a sister, It had accompanied me and stood up to every kind of wind and weather that no other easel could accomplish and travelled to different counties and countries. I felt broken hearted and grovelled on the ground to continue painting the picture and tied up the easel with lots of string, but it was no use.’

Painting was a serious business for Lucy and sometimes she felt vulnerable as a single woman travelling alone. ‘I slept at the Crown and Mitre. It seemed to me to be terrible at first. The way everyone looked at me, saying obviously in an undertone. There is a young woman alone! but now these critics strike me as fools, firstly, because they are tied up with husbands or wives or too many daughters, it is so silly of them to sniff when God has ordained that I walk by myself.’

She knew what made her happy. ‘Perhaps it was very fair of Providence not to allow painters to be known and acclaimed, even if then they merit such success, until after they are dead. For the joy of painting, the delight which artists experience in their work is so much greater than that obtained from all other pursuits.’

Lucy Harwood: Bold Impressions is open at First Site Colchester until April 14 2024
Petals and Palettes: Lucy Harwood’s Love of Nature, a panel talk hosted by Hugh St Clair will take place on Friday 8 March

A Lesson in Art and Life, The Colourful World of Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett Haines by Hugh St Clair is published by Pimpernel Press.