Annual Lecture 18th October 2012

Jane Hill, art historian, broadcaster and author of “The Sculpture of Gertrude Hermes” gave the 2012 Sybil Campbell Annual Lecture at the University Women’s Club in London on 20th October.   She spoke with authority and insight about the life and work of Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983).

Gertrude Hermes was born in Kent.  She had a rural upbringing, during which time she developed her love of nature, particularly of plants and animals.  Between 1921 and 1925 she attended Leon Underwood’s Brook Green School of Art in London, where she trained as a painter and sculptor.  Her contemporaries there included Henry Moore and Blair Hughes- Stanton, whom she married in 1926.   During the brief period of their marriage, which ended in 1931, Gertrude and her husband collaborated together in wood engraving, earning money from book illustrations.  They became the leading lights in the early twentieth century wood engraving revival.  In 1930, she designed a mosaic floor, carved fountain and door fittings for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford on Avon, which led to further commissions for decorative additions to buildings, such as pub signs.  In the following year she received her first commission for a portrait bust. She became an acclaimed portrait sculptor and sculpture, particularly wood carvings, would become central to her art.
She promoted her art through friendship and was associated during her life with several groups of painters, including the Bloomsbury Group.   In the late 1930s, her sculptural work was shown in the British Pavilions at International Exhibitions and at World Fairs. She spent the war years in Canada, where she worked as a draughtsman in aircraft production and shipbuilding.   On her return, she made colour lino cuts and became an expert in that field.   Her later sculpture took on a more monumental scale.  Major retrospectives of her work were held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1967 and at the Royal Academy in 1981.   In later years, she taught at several art colleges and from 1966 taught wood and lino block printing at the Royal Academy Schools.  She became an ARA in 1963 and a RA in 1971 and was awarded the OBE in 1981 for services to art.

She could move between different art forms with equal facility.   The individuals who most influenced her art, apart from Underwood, were Moore, Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska, but she also looked to the work of Japanese artists and African wood carvings.   Her typically stylised work, which at times bordered on abstraction, was often developed from animal forms and reflected her inner feelings.  One example of this was the 1931 wood carving of a Bird in Hand, which gave expression to her entrapment in an unhappy marriage.  Her love of nature was her prime source of inspiration.

Jane Hill, in writing her book, consulted and was helped by Gertrude Hermes’ daughter, Judith Russell, who is the Keeper of the artist’s collected works, as well as archive material; she unfortunately was unable to attend the lecture.  Gertrude Hermes’ sister, May Hermes, was a member of BFWG and first librarian of Crosby Hall Library which became The Sybil Campbell Collection.

Susan Butterfield


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