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'An Old Inn Kitchen', 1922, by Frederick William Elwell (1870-1958)


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About the artwork

'An Old Inn Kitchen' was one of the many interior scenes depicting people at work or at leisure to which Frederick William Elwell was particularly attracted. Although Elwell painted many pictures of workers, he was not especially interested in the hardship of the poor or the social realism of other late Victorian artists. Elwell's work is merely a naturalistic reflection of people and spaces rather than being concerned with any moral message or sentimentality. In the work 'Maids with Pigeons' (in the Beverley Borough Council) from 1918, for example, Elwell painted two of the maids, Hilda and Mary, in the kitchen of his home in Beverly feeding the pigeons. In another work from the 1920 with the same title as the Walker painting ('Old Inn Kitchen', Tate Britain) Elwell painted the staff of the Beverley Arms Hotel, at work in the kitchen. The hotel was very near to Elwell's home and he was a close friend of the family who owned it. Thus it is no surprise that Elwell painted the kitchen and staff once again, during their rest time for this work. The kitchen must have particularly attracted him because it was an original 18th century inn kitchen rather than an early 20th century one. The inn had eighteen rooms and eight maids. Its kitchen was distinctive because of its uneven flagged floor and the arched Georgian window, as well as an oven range still heated by coal.

Elwell painted the staff at the time of their midday meal, with the butler at the head of the table and the cook on the other end being served with her stout. The butler was modelled by Jacob Rainer, who owned an antique shop in Beverley. We also know that the maid in the right front and her companion were modelled from Miss D Foster (also featured in the painting at Tate Britain) who worked for Elwell's household. Around the room our eyes wonder at the kitchen equipment arranged in a way which reflects Elwell's interest and skills in still life painting. The long table in the kitchen and the arrangement of the maids around it give the painting a tremendous sense of space and depth. We are invited to look at the scene from the back as if we are about to enter the room without disturbing the meal. Most of the figures look pre-occupied with their meal with only a few animated gestures and expressions. The head butler with his long coat and knife and fork in his hands resembles a conductor of an orchestra. The painting is all about a synergy of acts and attitudes, its overall structure emphasising the harmony and tidiness required in a well-run kitchen and inn. This effect is even more enhanced by the effects of light, bright but subtle, its rays entering the room through the main window. The subtlety of light and the serenity of the painting give it a nostalgic tone.

'An Old Inn Kitchen' was purchased from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1922 for the price of £200.

Frederick Elwell was the son of cabinet-maker and successful woodcarver James Elwell from Beverley in East Yorkshire. Frederick attended evening classes at the Lincoln School of Art. In 1887 he won a scholarship to become a full time student in the school. The Lincoln School of Art was one of the ten best schools of art in the country and was famous for combining fine art teaching with the study of design. In 1887 Frederick won the Queen's bronze medal in the National Art Schools Competition for 'A Still Life with Fish'. Although Elwell was interested in the impressionist techniques taught by the principal of the school, Alfred Webster, he probably found them too advanced for the British audience in the 1880s. Elwell also spent time studying in Antwerp, where he was influenced by the Northern European painting tradition of the 17th century, which featured interior scenes and everyday subjects. In 1892 Elwell moved to Paris and joined the Academie Julian, the informal art school where some French Impressionist artists also trained. In Paris Elwell met another British artist Augustus John (1878-1961) as well as the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Elwell painted works experimenting with the effects of light and colour and was inspired by Degas (1834-1917) and Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) especially their nudes and circus scenes. Elwell also followed a circus in a gypsy caravan.

After Paris, Elwell was planning to move to London. During his short stay there it became apparent that his financial situation would not allow him to meet the expenses of the capital and his health deteriorated. He was rescued by his father and settled back in Beverly in 1896. Soon Elwell found supporting patrons for his views of the waterways of Beverley and the landscapes of East Riding as well as a number of portraits. He also exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy exhibitions especially after 1909. In 1914 Elwell married Mary Dawson Holmes, (1874-1952), the widow of oil broker Alfred Holmes, herself an established artist. Mary's financial independence allowed Elwell to explore further the effects of light in his work. In 1920s the couple travelled extensively in the Continent and in 1923 spent six months following 'Sanger's Circus' in England. In an exhibition of Elwell's works in Sunderland in 1927 most of the paintings were landscapes from France and other parts of the Continent in which Elwell introduced bolder motifs and a brighter palette.

In the late 1920s Elwell explored a new direction, combining portraits with interior spaces, and this new work attracted many commissions. Elwell's work was particularly popular with the general public. In 1931 Elwell was awarded the Associateship of the Royal Academy. In 1935 he acquired a studio in Holland Park in London, and received many more commissions for his works while also developing close friendships with fellow artists such as R Brundit (1883-1960), A Munnings (1878-1959) and J Birch (1869-1955). In 1938 Elwell became a full member of the Royal Academy, serving on its Council and on the Selection and Hanging Committee. In his will he bequeathed £1000 to the Royal Academy Schools to endow an annual Fred Elwell Prize for Still Life Painting. Elwell supported art students and local art societies and clubs throughout his career. He was a traditionalist who believed that "painting is 90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent inspiration" and regarded modern art movements as "misguided attempts at being different".