Edna's Place in British Romantic Art

With a rigorous traditional training in figurative draughtsmanship at the Slade, a vivid and romantic imagination, high energy and prolific output, Edna can be considered the last of the British Romantic school of figurative artists in which Blake, Fuseli, Rossetti, Millais and Burne-Jones were the high priests. They laid potent paths for many followers and in tandem with those aspects of the work of these masters that was produced from emotive compulsion, rather than commission or strategic consideration, so does Edna's dramatic oevre belong with theirs. However her art and life bridge more variety and eras of change than such predecessors and as a result is more wide-ranging. Her prodigious illustrations for Wuthering Heights vary stylistically from dense Victoriana to a freedom that would not be out of place today.

The large study of 'Catherine Earnshaw Walking' (1924) at Tate Britain seems to show a contemplative spirit striding away from the stresses of her reality into a benign landscape to commune with her ally - nature. Is this a personification of the romantic artist escaping into a world of her own creation or just a sketch of a teenage girl out walking? In her unpublished autobiography, Heritage of Ages, Edna reveals that she didn't just sympathise with the heroine of Emily Bronte's novel but was sometimes convinced she actually was her. The frequent repetition of favourite figures and motifs in these designs confirms this obsessive identification along with the multiple roles she played in the many 'self-studies' that she sketched of herself as almost every other dramatic character in the novel. Unlike Blake who 'had to invent his own system or be enslaved by another man's', Edna found a ready made world of symbol and fantasy congenial to her artistic soul and never left it - she even lived most of her life in a surrogate 'Wuthering Heights': her Great House on Upminster Common. The Wuthering Heights drawings and prints known to us today are in a considerable variety of styles , medium and size. They vary from tiny experimental wash sketches to the magnificently drawn elephant folio pen and ink drawing of 'Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff' (c.1910) at Tate Britain (below right) which Fuseli, von Holst or Rossetti could be proud of. The latter's opinion of the author would undoubtedly have been 'exceptional stunner' which her contemporary Augustus John confirmed both in words and in his striking red chalk portrait of Edna (c.1900-1910) in the Tullie House collection.

There is a profundity, an obsessive self-absorbtion and fetishistic detail in this career-long series of illustrations that places Edna Clarke Hall firmly in the line of great British 'desperate romantic' draughtsmen. Edna reveals her quest for further romantic expression with an etching and drypoint Girl in Orchard (1924) in which she transposes herself/Catherine into the Dantesque setting of a wood (with personal touches of children playing and circular seat). The borders could be decorated with the opening lines from Canto I of Hell, "Midway this way of life we're bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone . . . Then I looked up, and saw the morning rays mantle its shoulder from that planet bright which guides men's feet aright on all their ways . ."

Edna found her way and romantic mˆ©tier with the Poem-Pictures. Their origin lies in authentic laments of the soul frustrated by the bodily binding of a difficult marriage and domestic chains. The poems have distinct echoes of Emily Bronte and the designs of William Blake whose roots hark back to the medieval tradition of blending verbal message with rich design. However the Poem-Pictures are not a response to politics or religion but the flowering of a vine rooted in elemental longing and personal frustration. In them Edna bursts out boldly, bravely and without inhibition - the unstoppable trajectory of a sincere, exceptional and very sensual artist. As a self-declared child and lover of nature many other subjects were created with similar impetus and exhibit the same powerful visual effect. Whatever the subject of Edna Clarke Hall's drawings and prints there is an unmistakeable power and vision that justifies a placing amongst the British Romantic artists of genius who have carved an individual and inspiring path into its heritage.

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