Making Women Artists Visible – Violet Fuller and Joan Knoblock

This week has been London Art Week, when national art collections and leading commercial art galleries bring together an annual summer programme of events. This year it has been a virtual programme of course – London Art Week Digital – with some interesting talks and discussions online. One such event was ‘Making Women Artists Visible’ which highlighted that it has been almost 50 years since Linda Nochlin wrote in 1971 (and revisited in 2015) ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’. The reason is of course the same when acclaimed artist Sonia Boyce also posed the question ‘Whoever Heard of a Black Artist?’, the excellent programme filmed with Brenda Emmanus, putting the spotlight on Britain’s hidden art history. In that programme Lubaina Himid was featured. She made history by being the first black woman to win the Turner Prize as well as being the oldest in 2017. She noted in particular how as an artist she is doubly invisible – for being black and being a woman (see her landscape on the front cover of Vogue this August 2020). The art world, art market, art history and the canon of great male artists – the Great Masters – has been shaped for at least a millennium by the privileged white Western male viewpoint.

The journey of challenging and changing this has been long, hard and necessary but extremely rewarding. We look forward to the day when Tottenham’s international icon and textile designer the late Althea McNish (1924 – 1920) – who we wrote about recently – has a book dedicated completely to her and her work, not just a chapter in a book or a case in an exhibition.

Back in March this year, during Haringey’s Women’s History Month programme, we had planned the first of several art heritage walks around the borough (which sadly didn’t happen because of lockdown), showcasing local women artists past and present. It would have included Althea McNish, of course, but also the likes of Beatrice Offor (1864-1920), who we have mentioned in our posts previously and who we are paying tribute to this year, a centenary on since her death. In 1905, Beatrice, along with another woman artist whose work is also in our collections at Bruce Castle, was listed in Walter Shaw Sparrow’s ‘Women Painters of the World’. The book included over 200 women painters who lived between 1413 and 1905, and was published to prove wrong the statement that “the achievements of women painters have been second-rate.”

It was a bold move to publish such a book at that time. Sadly many of the women artists on the list remain in the shadows of obscurity. Even some who we understand were popular in their day – like Tottenham’s Beatrice Offor – have until recently been forgotten, especially once away from public attention. At Bruce Castle we are keen to make sure that women artists represented in our collections are continued to be known – even if we have only one artwork, like the Crouch End governess Ann Lobb we mentioned the other day, who painted St Mary’s Church, Hornsey in 1846.

Today’s post features therefore two local women artists who were friends and collaborated together, and whose artwork is in our collections – Violet Fuller and Joan Knoblock. If you do a quick search online, you will see their art can be seen sometimes on different auction websites – so prolific was their output – but apart from their seeing them on the Art UK website, it is hard to establish other information about who they were, and usually described as a ‘little known artist’.

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. © The artist’s estate

We only have one painting by Joan (above) – it shows Pond Square in Highgate, c.1955. Her artist friend Violet, also painted another view of Highgate (below), showing Southwood Lane in Highgate, c.1955. Both were undertaken at about the same time.

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. © The artist’s estate

Both women were interested in painting landscapes; Violet most certainly was. Joan has one other known painting in a public collection, in Southwark – a portrait. How the two women came to meet is not clear at this stage, but they both lived in Haringey and it was very likely through their membership of art groups. And what might appear to be two women enjoying art as a hobby together was definitely not quite the case. They were very much part of the ‘happening art scene in London during the early 1950s onwards and helping to shape it.

Less is known at the moment about Joan and her work, but here is what we have established about her life so far:

Joan Doreen Knoblock (22/4/1917 – 2003) was from a Dutch family; her parents were Julius (a commercial traveller) and Gertrude Glück. In the 1939 Register, Joan is described as a ‘dissecting typist’, living at 45 Devonshire Road, Southgate. After the War, in 1945, the family were living at 380 Green Lanes, N13. That same year, Joan had married Ernst Knoblock, a graduate in economics. From that point on, the Knoblocks lived at various addresses in and around Highgate: from 1946-51 they lived in a flat at 5 Stanhope Road, N6, and in 1952 at 31a Jackson’s Lane. By the later 1950s they had moved out to Hendon, and in 1957 their daughter Laura was born. Their life thereafter was quite peripatetic, as Ernst’s job as economic advisor to the United Nations took them to different parts of the world. With other cultural experiences, we understand this influenced new artworks for Joan.

For Violet Fuller we are fortunate to have our own records where she talks about her own life and art. She says this in 1955, when she exhibited at Bruce Castle Museum:

I have lived in Tottenham all my life, except for 5 years during the War when I lived in Stroud, Glos. My parents moved to Tottenham soon after they were married, my father’s work being in Tottenham at Belmont and Downhills Elementary Schools.

Violet Fuller with her father Charles, sitting in front of one her paintings at an exhibition launch at Bruce Castle Museum c.1980

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. Photographer and © Henry Jacobs

A century ago this month, Violet R. Fuller (1920 – c.2006?) was born at 80 Gloucester Road, Tottenham on 26 July 1920. In 1927 the family had moved to a newly-built house at 27 Walpole Road in Tottenham – as Violet here describes:

“ At that time that area of Tottenham still had green fields and I remember going over a stile to get to Belmont School whilst living in Gloucester Road. The stile was at the top of Downhills Park near the old water tower… About 1936 – I attended the Hornsey School of Art in the evenings and in 1937 was awarded a scholarship and grant to go to the school during the day, taking a general course in art. I stayed there until 1940 when our house in Walpole Road was damaged during an air raid. My mother, my sister Joan and I moved to Gloucestershire, living in an annexe of a disused pub, in the village of Chalford near Stroud.

This was the start of my real interest in the countryside, now I started painting landscapes in watercolour, small detailed work. Earlier in London I was mainly interested in painting people. In my childhood, I was encourage to draw and paint my parents, my father painted in his spare time. He was a craftsman, a French polisher of pianos by trade and had great pride in his work.

Downhills Park and the Water Tower, Tottenham, 1955 by Violet Fuller

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. © The artist’s estate

While in Stroud, I worked for a while in a factory making ammunition boxes, and hated it, when on a freezing winter day the place was burnt to a shell my friends joked, saying that it must have been me who set fire to it. After that I was sent to work in the drawing office of the Sperry Gyroscope Co. as a tracer.

When first in Stroud I worked in an Animated Film Company called Anson Dyer, as a tracer but had to leave that to work for the war effort.

My family returned to Walpole Road in Tottenham (my father never left if for he was in the Special Constabulary) at the finish of the War, I found another job, again in Animated films. Gaumont British Animation at Cookham Berks, the village of the artist Stanley Spencer – and sometimes he came to our dining hall for a meal. I left there after 18 months, after a couple of short-stay posts I joined Larkins Animations in Berkley Square, staying with the same company until I started working freelance in 1969. On my return to live again in Tottenham I wished to meet other artists and to start exhibiting my paintings. I joined the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society, at that time known as The Royal Society of British Artists Sketch Club.

Contemporary photograph by Tottenham Borough Council of one of Violet Fuller’s paintings Blackfriars, exhibited in 1956 at the Tottenham Arts Festival

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. Painting © The artist’s estate

In the early 1950s, it was an exciting time in London, many things were getting going again after the War years, and new groups were being formed. I was the founder member of two art groups, one the Free Painters and Sculptors, formed by a group of members of the Institute of Contemporary Art. The other group was the Tottenham Art Group formed in 1953 and first known as the Tottenham Art Circle. We had our meetings for painting in the Old Friends Meeting House in the High Road, Tottenham. For many years this was a very vigorous group, organising open art exhibitions held mainly at the Old County School at Tottenham Green.

Frank Fenton, the curator at Bruce Castle Museum, was the president of the group for several years.

In the earlier days of the Tottenham Art Group, there were linked exhibitions with the Leyton Art Group and the Hertford Art Society. An art exhibition called ‘The Three Towns’ was shown in each town, one per year, the towns taking it in turns. The Tottenham Art Group had several changes of meeting place. The Friends Meeting House, Downhills School and then we were very fortunate to find a hay loft in Loxwood Road, we rented this for our studios. … After some further moves, the last one was to the Sports Centre, near the Spurs football ground. By then the number of members had dropped and all the impetus had gone, so I resigned about 1973.

Pastel drawing of Old shops at Scotland Green (The Old Blue School), 1956 by Violet Fuller

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. © The artist’s estate

I first exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1950 – a watercolour – and have shown work there many times since then. I have also exhibited with the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painters, the Royal Society British Artists, and the Women’s International Art Club and the New English Art Club.

Several one (man?) shows starting in 1958 at the Woodstock Gallery in London [at 16 Woodstock Street, Mayfair, W1] – that was when that gallery opened and mine was the first show after the inaugural one. Since then I have had many others around London. In Haringey at Bruce Castle Museum, and the galleries at Hornsey Library.

Landscape painting has always been my very great interest. The sun and light fascinate me compared with the dark winter earth, capturing the moments between light and dark.

I have been an art tutor for many years, first at the Clapham & Balham Adult Education Institute and then at Oakwood, branch of Edmonton College of Further Education. “

In our collections we have an annotated catalogue list of one of Violet’s exhibitions at the Woodstock Gallery, held 21 July to 2 August 1958 – very likely to be the first solo show at that gallery she mentions above. Amongst her landscape paintings listed, all in oil, she showed several countryside scenes from the Epping Forest area, a number of views from around the South Downs in Sussex, as well as ones painted at home in Tottenham, including one called Belmont Bridge. (In the collections of Bruce Castle we have Morning Moon, Belmont Bridge – seen below – which was from the artist in 1959, and quite possibly the same painting, or one of a series). The catalogue has a quote from the artist James Burr (b.1926):

Violet Fuller uses a well-balanced mysterious palette to evoke familiar scenes transformed by her own particular mood of gentle melancholy.’

Oil on board – Morning Moon, Belmont Bridge, c.1958-9 by Violet Fuller

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. © The artist’s estate

Violet also mentions (above) being a founder member of the group Free Painters and Sculptors (FPS) in 1952. Her friend Joan Knoblock was also a founder member. Following the exciting Festival of Britain in 1951 at what is now the South Bank, FPS was a pioneering group of artists who played a major part in the 1950s in establishing more abstract and modern forms of expressive art in Britain. The sculptor Roy Rasmussen (1919-2014) who was for many years its Chair, joined in 1957. He wrote a very comprehensive account of the first forty years of the FPS group (1952-1992), from which we can learn more about Violet and Joan. It was an important FPS policy to keep reminding its audiences, through exhibitions and publications, about its own history and development.

Roy Rasmussen tells us about the first year of FPS 1952:

“ At the end of the year, November 19th-December 1st, the Group had its first exhibition, which was opened by John Berger at the Three Arts Centre, Great Cumberland Place, WI (Marble Arch). Twenty-six artists exhibited. Among them were Denis Bowen, Graham Fry, Cynthia Fuller (later Francyn), Violet Fuller, Maurice Jadot, Joan Knoblock, Rosalie de Meric, Peter Stroud and Lyall Watson, most of whom have survived actively to recent times. There were paintings of strong figuration, of fantasy, metaphysical landscape and completely abstract works . . . a prophetic glimpse of ideas that were to preoccupy members till the present day. The exhibition was described in Arts News and Review as a first exhibition that showed courage and promise.”

We also learn that in 1958 The Woodstock Gallery opened. Roy Rasmussen describes that time:

“a gallery sympathetic to FPG aims opened: The Woodstock Gallery, in Woodstock Street, off the top end of New Bond Street. It was started by Lyall Watson and Joan Knoblock. Shortly before the opening date Roy Rasmussen joined them [1957] to organise the sculpture, and later became a co-Director. The Gallery’s policy was catholic, attracting figurative artists of the time as well as non-figurative, thereby creating a balance with the other two galleries [exhibiting FPS artists]. Although the three galleries were independent from the Group, they reflected its styles of painting and sculpture, and had a sympathetic attitude towards members, thereby giving it strength and confidence in the long haul to bring the modern idioms of art before the public.”

Contemporary photograph by Tottenham Borough Council of another of Violet Fuller’s paintings Catalonian Landscape, exhibited in 1955 at the Tottenham Arts Festival

From the collections and © Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. Painting © The artist’s estate

Roy tells us that another FPS artist joined Violet in the Three Towns exhibitions (that she mentioned earlier), co-organised by her own more local Tottenham Art Group. We note too that Violet worked on the Executive Committee and was also a Fellow of the FPS.

In 1991, in anticipation of the FPS’s 40th anniversary in 1992, there were three solo exhibitions programmed, as Roy explains:

“Violet Fuller, who had been one of the founder members of FPS, in her exhibition revealed how she had distilled her vision of landscape over the years. She had not lost the essential emotion of her early landscapes, which had held their own alongside the effusions of passionate abstract artists in the fifties. Over the years her paintings had become elegant statements without losing touch with the indefinable presence that is discernible in all good landscape painting. Two other founder members, Joan Knoblock and Lyall Watson were booked for the end of the year. It seemed appropriate that three such artists should bring the programme to the threshold of the forty-year celebrations. All these highly individual artists had found happy complementary advantages when together.”

Although sometimes absent from London’s FPS art scene for short periods of time due to working abroad with her husband (living in Morocco in 1958 and Fiji in 1965), Joan Knoblock always returned to the work of the gallery or FPS when back in the UK. Both Joan and Violet had a friendship that lasted, exhibiting for the FPS for more than a quarter of a century.

It was a circle of friends that was also the focal point of a recent exhibition at Bruce Castle Museum in 2017 that some of you might recall – Cornelius and Friends: Exploring the Friendship of Five Artists – which saw Violet Fuller’s work exhibited alongside fellow local artists Cornelius McCarthy, Colin Ward, John Godden and Beatrice Camm. Through working on her exhibitions with the Tottenham Art Group and Hornsey Art Club in Haringey, Violet met the new Haringey Arts Officer Cornelius McCarthy (1935-2009). Between 1971 and 1988, Cornelius (known as Con) had joined Haringey Council, based at Bruce Castle before moving to Wood Green Library in 1973. Cornelius’ own artwork alongside those of his friends can be found in the book about his life Radiant Affinities (2015). His painting of Alexandra Palace is now in the collections of Bruce Castle, where he once worked, together with Violet’s work and the others.

Oil on canvas – Trees and the Moon c.1985-7 by Violet Fuller

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum & Archive. © The artist’s estate

Violet’s landscapes were bought by individuals and private collectors but were used commercially as well it seems. In 1967 her painting of The Silent Valley, The Mountains of Mourne was published in an advert (along with her photograph) in the Illustrated London News to promote Shell’s Countryside Books, encouraging folk to take to their car and explore the British Isles.

At an exhibition in the Central Library in Wood Green in January 1985, organised with Con McCarthy, she showed 45 art works painted between 1953-1984. The catalogue said: “It is singularly appropriate that Haringey Libraries should be presenting an exhibition of Violet Fuller’s work at this time. Recently Violet moved away from the neighbourhood of which she was such an important part.”

The last painting by Violet added to Bruce Castle’s collection was Trees and the Moon (seen far above) and was presented to the Museum in 1987 after she had already left her – up to that point – life-long home in Tottenham. It was possibly one of the last paintings she had done at her home at 27 Walpole Road, showing her garden in the moonlight.

Violet had moved to Woodingdean in her retirement, a great place to live as it nestles on the outskirts of Brighton overlooking the sea one way and the South Downs the other, one of her favourite rural subjects for her landscape paintings. The Society of Sussex Painters proudly count Violet as once being a member of their group. Not far away along the coast, Joan Knoblock was living in Hastings until she passed away in 2003. It seems likely after all their artistic collaborations over the decades they would have both met up. Let’s hope they still had the opportunity to enjoy exhibiting together.

Deborah Hedgecock, Curator