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Archive for January 1st, 2012

Edna Clarke Hall

I wanted to create a feeling of a calling, the kind that whispers to us when we least expect it. The kind of calling that moves us past what we know to places where the unknown provokes us to wonder…and discover new knowledge about ourselves and the world.

(Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox reflecting on one of her paintings)

Coincidences stick like burrs to the intricately-woven cloth of the mind. At the same time as I got the heads up about Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox’s website of delicate yet powerful artwork interwoven with thoughtful reflections, I also stumbled on another accomplished artist of another generation of whom I had never heard – Edna Clarke Hall. I spotted a haunting photograph of her in Hollis’ moving account of Edward Thomas‘ last years (more of that in later posts for sure) and tracked down some websites with samples of her swiftly executed images that capture in expressive lines and mood-saturated colours the essence of the passing moment. Though their occasional absence of faces is somewhat disconcerting, they have hooked my imagination, rather as Kathryn’s reflective artwork has, and I keep going back to them. I felt they were worth mentioning in case others were similarly ignorant of Clarke Hall’s existence until now.

Sketch for Catherine & Heathcliff

I could not find on the web the portrait in Matthew Hollis’s book that captures her sadness but the one at the top of this post conveys the beauty that seems to have drawn Thomas towards her in the months before he left England for the front in the First World War never to come back. Her constant return to images of Heathcliff and Catherine from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights was presumably driven by this sadness which predated but was intensified by his loss. Hollis describes her situation with great sympathy (op. cit.: page 254):

Edna Clarke Hall had exhibited her watercolours annually with Vanessa Bell’s Friday Club since 1910; in April 1914 a successful solo exhibition at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea showed fifty-six works and grossed £147 in sales. Shortly after, she temporarily set aside her paints to spend the next two years on verse. Her life in Essex was lonely. William Clarke Hall was a barrister and campaigner for children’s rights who spent lengthy weeks in his chambers at Gray’s Inn, leaving his wife feeling isolated in their country house. The couple had two boys of their own, but Edna could not forgive her husband’s decision to apply his energies to the children of his charitv work, some of whom were foundlings, abandoned by prostitutes. William would return at the weekends with an orphan in tow, sometimes leaving Edna to care for the child when he returned to London the next week. For Edna, the longing and the hurt was intense. ‘Why does a man engrose [sic] his mind in this cause of prostitutes leaving his wife sick to the heart in loneliness,’ she wrote in her journal.

Clearly there was more than a touch of Mrs Jellyby in her husband, William.  Not surprisingly she was as drawn to Thomas as he to her (op.cit. page 257):

Thomas’s gentle understanding of Edna’s domestic plight, and their rangy, artistic conversations and shared interests, were a lifeline to Edna that winter of 1915.

It was hard though to define exactly what she represented to him and Hollis struggles to pin it down (pages 277-278):

The relative absence of Edna’s name in Thomas’s correspondence is no surprise, especially when he was writing letters from camp that might very well have been prone to gossip or censorship. For Thomas a private allure would have been enough: a companion, a muse, a subject of desire. He once wrote that the goal of love was not the possession of another person but the stimulation of desire for things both known and unknown: ‘It is a desire of impossible things which the poet alternately assuages and rouses again by poetry.’

He claimed to be incapable of love. His leaving affected her badly (page 294):

Thomas’s departure would be a hard blow for Edna, who would sink into a terrible depression in the years to come. In Edward she had found a relationship of a kind that she believed she could never have with her husband: one that was careful, artistic and loving.

Her son, Dennis, in the kitchen

When I come to explore Edward Thomas’ life and poetry I will inevitably be coming back to the question of whether depression and creativity are in any way related. What has to be said here is that Edna Clarke Hall is one of the few women whose creativity was not completely stifled by the sexual inequality of her times and for whom the consequent depression did not extinguish her gift completely but rather fed it perhaps. That there are other such significant exceptions such as Jane Austen, the Brontes and Christina Rossetti should not blind us to the prevalent pattern. Until it changes universally humanity will not rise to its full potential:

. . . . the principle of religion has been revealed by Bahá’u’lláh that woman must be given the privilege of equal education with man and full right to his prerogatives. That is to say, there must be no difference in the education of male and female in order that womankind may develop equal capacity and importance with man in the social and economic equation. Then the world will attain unity and harmony. In past ages humanity has been defective and inefficient because it has been incomplete. War and its ravages have blighted the world; the education of woman will be a mighty step toward its abolition and ending, for she will use her whole influence against war.

(The Promulgation of Universal Peace:Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the US and Canada in 1912, page 108).

The life of Aung San Suu Kyi provides a good example of how that can work.

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