As beautiful as they could be

If you are familiar with British painting of the 1920s and 1930s, you may well be familiar with Eileen Mayo’s yellow blonde hair, her dark-browed and hooded eyes, and her sharp, straight nose. She was there, twice, in the recent Laura Knight retrospective at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes: all supple solidity in “Dressing” (1929), and as a ballerina in “No. 1 Dressing Room” (1947). Dod Procter painted her as a monumental modern woman; Mayo also sat for their husbands, Harold Knight and Ernest Proctor, and for Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and others.

You might be less familiar with Mayo’s own work. Though she is represented in public galleries in Australia and New Zealand, to which she emigrated in 1953 and 1962 respectively, Eileen Mayo: A natural history, at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne (curated by Sara Cooper), is the first solo exhibition of her work in the UK. It reveals the artist behind the model, an artist endlessly inspired by the natural world and liberated by her mastery of printmaking.

“I don’t think I shall ever have the heart to have a model myself”, she declared in 1930. “I know only too well the difficulties and strain of posing.” As an art student in London in her teens and early twenties, Mayo needed the money. Her father, a teacher, had died young of meningitis, and in 1926 her mother took her younger sisters to New Zealand, leaving Eileen, aged twenty, to fend for herself. But there was another benefit to the long hours of posing: the proximity to other artists. “All the time… I have been studying their methods and listening to their talk”, she said in the same interview. “In this way I have learned far more than I have ever learned in an art school.” Which is not to say she didn’t keep trying art school and various other types of training. Learning was an urge – perhaps a self-preserving instinct – that never seems to have left her. She’d spent two years at the Slade before her mother left, studying under Henry Tonks, a training she with three years of evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts followed. She trained and retrained throughout her life, tackling illustration and costume design, linocuts and lithographs, murals and books for children, painting and cartoons for tapestries: looking for ways to turn her talents into a living.

Her breakthrough came with the vogue for linocuts. Claude Flight, champion of the form at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art (where Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power – subjects of Jenny Uglow’s biography Sybil and Cyril: Cutting through time – were among the students), supposedly instructed her in the method over the phone. “Turkish Bath”, her brash, modern entry to the “Second Exhibition of British Lino-Cuts” at the Redfern Gallery in 1930, had to be prised away from her (that drive to improve was coupled with intense self-criticism), but it was one of the most highly praised works at the exhibition. You can see its highlighter-pink women at the Towner, lolling against the art-deco patterns of the bath.

The bustle and sophistication of Mayo’s 1930s prints give little impression of an artist spending her days immobile and sequestered in other people’s studios, and indeed she was soon on the move, funding a trip to Germany by working as a nanny before setting off to visit relatives In South Africa, seeing several African ports along the way. She left Cape Town appalled by apartheid, but with her sketchbooks full. From then on Mayo tended to put flora and fauna center stage. There are leaves everywhere you turn in this exhibition. “African Forest” is a lush, suggestive gouache painting, saturated with creamy white and velvet blue-greens. Across the room, a fig tree’s vivid foliage exudes marvelous health. “The Squirrel”, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1945, is an almost furry black-and-white lithograph neatly balanced with branches.

Marriage in the mid-1930s brought Mayo financial stability and a move to the Sussex countryside, giving her more scope to focus on her first love, painting. But the main achievements of these years are the books she wrote and illustrated for children: The Story of Living Things and Their Evolution, Shells and How They Live, Little Animals of the Countryside and Larger Animals of the Countryside. Their images benefit from the same intellectual precision Mayo brought to all of her art.

It was a talent and a discipline that stood her in good stead in Australia, where she fled after her marriage failed. Designs for tourist posters and stamps celebrating the native wildlife brought her acclaim and helped to pay the bills. “Humpback and Bottlenose”, a 1980 screenprint, was her contribution to the Save the Whales campaign. It is a good example of her command of printmaking, her determination to fully exploit its potential: the humpback is not transposed against the tossing waves, but leaping through them.

It wasn’t until the New Zealand government increased state pensions in the late 1960s that Mayo could finally afford, at the age of sixty-three, to dedicate herself to printmaking full-time. “White Cat and Poppies” (1985) was her final print. With its silvery lace curtains and washed-out pink flowers, it is a moonlit picture, as enigmatic as the moody twin of thirty years before that appears on the cover of Sara Cooper’s book Eileen Mayo. “Woman and Siamese Cat” (1953) is an intriguing choice: a rare and mesmerizing self-portrait by a woman who had her fill of posing.

In 1947, attracted by an exhibition of tapestries at the V&A, Mayo went to the trouble of training in all of the skills involved in tapestry-making. Only one of her cartoons was ever commissioned during her lifetime, but an irresistible piece on show at the Towner is “Duckpond”, a posthumous realization of a recently discovered design. You can watch it being made at the West Dean College of Arts and Conservation in West Sussex in a video on the wall beside it: art as a continuing conversation.

“Duckpond” is a sumptuous thing. Three birds, hemmed in by rich blues and reds, haggle for space, one of them turned a yellowish-green by the water as it feeds from the leaves along the border. It belongs in a home as much as in a gallery, fulfilling the function that Mayo, echoing William Morris, assigned to Art. An artist, she declared, was “a workman who designed and/or made things of our ordinary lives as beautiful as they could be”. As this exhibition demonstrates, it is a definition she lived up to.

Sarah Watling‘s biography of the four Olivier sisters, Noble Savageswas published in 2019

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