Helen M. Sinclair (1892–1986)

Prefatory Note: The illustrations for this article can be browsed here.

Helen Sinclair never illustrated an edition of The Rubaiyat, unfortunately, and only two of her drawings based on FitzGerald’s masterpiece survive in published form. They are shown here as Fig.1 and Fig.2. I found them, as so often happens with these things, when I was looking for something else entirely, in Modern Book Illustrators and their Work, edited by C. Geoffrey Holme and Ernest G. Halton, with text by M.C. Salaman (The Studio, 1914), p.166 & p.167. The only comment in the introductory text of the book said simply: “FitzGerald’s ‘Omar’ has suggested some quaintly fantastic designs by Miss Helen Sinclair.”(p.12) But that was all. No details were given of the origin or date of the illustrations, nor any information about the artist.

Little is to be found about Helen M. Sinclair in the standard encyclopedias of artists and illustrators. (1) Thanks, though, to modern online access to ancestry websites and to a lucky contact with Helen’s grandchildren, we can now expand on the encyclopedias. (2)

Helen McKenzie Sinclair – her middle name apparently derives from that of the doctor who delivered her – was born in Durban, Natal on January 21st 1892. She was the sixth of nine children born to John Sinclair and his wife Heloïse Emilie (née Reddie), who were of Scottish descent, hailing originally from Caithness. The move to South Africa was for reasons of John Sinclair’s health – possibly he had tuberculosis, from which Helen was also to suffer. John Sinclair was a coal merchant by profession, and seems to have been an amateur artist by inclination, so Helen may well have inherited some of her artistic talent from him. At any rate, she showed artistic talent at an early age, and when only 16 she exhibited some sketches in Durban which attracted such notice that she was sponsored to go and study in England, initially for three years. Fig.3 was taken shortly before her departure for London: Helen is seated, and with her are her father and her sister Mary. On her arrival in London in 1908 – alone, and still only 16 – it seems she went to King’s College to study under Byam Shaw; later to Cope’s (presumably the art school in South Kensington founded by Arthur Stockdale Cope); and thereafter she entered the Royal Academy Schools. (3) Records at the Schools (the plural is used for purely historical reasons) show that her date of entry was July 27th 1909, and that she was registered as a student of painting there until July 1914 – five years, in all.(4) Fig.4a is a photograph taken during her time at the Schools – Helen is right at the front, in the middle. During this period she exhibited three times at The Walker Gallery, Liverpool (5) and between 1912 and 1917 she exhibited no less than eight times at the Royal Academy. (6) But her major exhibition, at which she exhibited no less than 47 works (7), was in March 1914 at Walker’s Galleries, New Bond Street, London. Actually this was a joint exhibition with her fellow artist and friend, Evelyn Muriel Young (8), who had started her course of study at the Royal Academy Schools at exactly the same time as Helen. The two are on the front row of Fig.4b, with Helen on the extreme right and Evelyn next to her. At some stage, too, Evelyn drew a portrait of Helen, here reproduced as Fig.5. A useful eye–witness view of the exhibition can be found in the March issue of the art journal The Studio (vo.61, p.142–3) – it was The Studio, of course, who published Modern Book Illustrators and their Work. It is here quoted in full:

At Walker’s Galleries in Bond Street two young artists, Miss E. M. Young and Miss H. M. Sinclair, have just been holding an exhibition of their work. Miss Young, who was a student at the Royal Academy Schools, showed some landscapes, pleasing both in colour and composition, but her forte is the painting of miniatures. From among her works of this character we reproduce an admirably painted head, “Ruby” (9) (Fig.6), against an unusual but effective vermilion background, and a decoratively treated portrait, charming in colour, entitled “May in June” (10) (Fig.7). Miss Sinclair, who comes from Durban, Natal, has also studied at the Royal Academy Schools. She was represented in the exhibition by a number of works in black–and–white, and some water–colours. The portrait we reproduce (Fig.8) (11) shows her decorative handling of the former medium, and “Spring Morning” (Fig.9), painted in water–colour on silk, is graceful in colour and very skilful in the rendering of the effect of light.

Luckily a catalogue of this exhibition survives in the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum: Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings, Miniatures and Designs by Helen Sinclair and Evelyn Young : March 2nd to 14th, 1914, inclusive. (Walker’s Galleries, [1914]) It is from this that we learn that Fig.1 & Fig.2 were two of six “Black and White Illustrations to ‘Omar Khayyam’” which featured in the exhibition along with her vellum paintings, landscapes in oil, and miniatures. The Omar Khayyam illustrations, which were priced at two guineas each, were titled as follows, my numbering here being that of the catalogue. I have added verse numbers from FitzGerald’s first edition:

8) “And then came Spring, and Rose–in–hand, my threadbare Penitence apieces tore.” (v.70)

9) “They sneer at me for leaning all Awry; What ! Did the Hand then of the Potter shake ?” (v.63)

10) “And when the Angel with his darker Draught draws up to thee – take that, and do not shrink.” (v.48)

11) “Then to the rolling Heav’n itself, I cried, asking: ‘What Lamp has Destiny to guide her little Children stumbling in the Dark?’” (v.33)

12) “While you live, Drink! – for once dead you never shall return.” (v.34) (Fig.1)

13) “And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press, End in the Nothing all Things end in – Yes – Then fancy while thou art, Thou art but what Thou shall be – Nothing – Thou shalt not be less.” (v.47) (Fig.2)

Another work, listed separately from the above, in the “Black and White” section of the catalogue (no.58), but nevertheless related to The Rubaiyat by its title, and presumably theme, was “Look to the Blowing Rose!” (v.13) This, by the way, was priced at 3 guineas.

Also in the exhibition, listed under the “Landscapes in Oil”, were two paintings which again quite clearly owed their titles, and presumably their themes, to The Rubaiyat, namely, “‘Red Wine!’ the Nightingale cries to the Rose that yellow cheek of hers t’ incarnadine” (v.6; no.25 in the catalogue) and “The Moving Finger Writes” (v.51; no.26 in the catalogue.) These were priced at 3 guineas and 4 guineas respectively.

The style of Fig.1 & Fig.2 makes me wish that I had seen all of the pictures just mentioned. I also wish I had seen nos. 42 to 46 inclusive in the exhibition, which were black and white illustrations of “Modern Dances.” These were, respectively, the Bunny Hug, the Mississippi Dip, the Tango, the Double Boston and the Grizzly Bear ! Helen, it would seem from all this, enjoyed the social life of pre–War London, but actually she was never what we would now call “a party animal.” She was not particularly fond of alcohol, preferred academic pursuits to mere socialising for its own sake, and took no pleasure from gambling or cards – she explained this last as “hereditary” because, in generations past, the Sinclairs had gambled away an earldom! (This was apparently the Earldom of Caithness, and the family still owns a typewritten booklet of Helen’s researches into it.)

What happened to most of her Rubaiyat pictures after the exhibition, sold or otherwise, remains unknown, but it is possible that at least one of them did remain in family possession (Fig.10). I say “possibly” because although it is untitled, the style of it is so similar to The Rubaiyat series that it seems it might belong there, and if so, it could be no.10 in the listing above, “the Angel with his darker Draught” holding aloft what looks to be a pint of Guiness – a genuinely darker draught! At any rate, a copy of the picture was used to adorn the invitations to the joint birthday party of her grandchildren (Nigel’s 24th & Philippa’s 21st) in the cellars of Clare College, Cambridge, in 1972. Because the young woman in the pen and ink drawing was masked, it was a masked party. Another picture, again seemingly from the same or at least a similar series as Fig.10, is known to the family as “The Final Curtain” (Fig.11), though it, like Fig.10, is untitled. This one was used to adorn the invitations to Nigel’s 21st birthday party at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, in 1969. Though related to Fig.10 via the common theme of a masked, partying young woman, accompanied by a rather sinister figure – the figure of Death in one, the figure of a Faun in the other – Fig.11 does not seem to relate to any of The Rubaiyat series. In fact, Fig.11 could more easily relate to no.33 in the Walker’s Galleries Catalogue (7), “Invitation to the Dance”. Perhaps, then, Fig.10 & Fig.11 are part of a different series, the resemblance of the former to no.10 of The Rubaiyat series being fortuitous. But whatever they are, Fig.10 & Fig.11 are interesting and accomplished works.

But that is not quite the end of it, for in a small undated photograph of a room in Helen’s house (12), a detail of which is shown in Fig.12, we can see that the pictures of Figs.1, 2 & 10 have been framed and hung there. Thus we know that the Rubaiyat pictures of Figs.1 & 2 were not sold at the exhibition, though, alas, their present whereabouts is unknown (she may well, as was her wont, have given them away to friends) and only the picture in Fig.10 remains in the possession of the family. Intriguingly, though, on the extreme left of Fig.12 is a hitherto unknown picture. It is just possible to make out the figure of a faun removing a coverlet / cloak from a reclining / kneeling figure. Like Fig.11, which is currently in possession of the family and which also features a faun, it doesn’t seem to belong to the Rubaiyat series, though clearly it is in a similar style.

One further detail of interest: it would seem that Helen was inspired to do her Omar Khayyam illustrations after being given two copies of The Rubaiyat in 1912. The first, given to her as a birthday present in January 1912, is currently in the possession of her granddaughter Philippa. It is a copy of an edition illustrated by Maurice Greiffenhagen, published by T.N. Foulis in 1909 (Potter #66), and with the following inscription in the front: “To Helen with love from Eric, 21-1-12.” (Her birthday was on January 21st; it is not known for sure who Eric was, but it seems likely that he was her older brother.) The second, given to her as a Christmas present in 1912, is currently in my possession thanks to the generosity of her grandchildren. It is a copy of the Arden Books edition, published by Saint Catherine Press in 1911 (Potter #83), and with the following inscription in the front: “Sinclair from Peart, Xmas 1912.” (May Peart (10), of whom more presently, was to be a lifelong friend of Helen’s. Fig.13 is a portrait of her, done by Helen during her time in London.)

We shall return to her interest in The Rubaiyat a little later, but meanwhile, getting back to the details of her life, it is an interesting fact that she was the model for Solomon J. Solomon’s painting of “The Commons Petitioning Queen Elizabeth to Marry” (1911), which is today situated in a stairwell in the House of Commons (Fig.14.) Whether she was paid a fee for this is not clear, but it is certainly a fact that in pre–War London, as now, student finances were a problem: we know, for example, that she shared a house with other art students, and that, then as now, they pooled their clothes and jewellery for going out for the evening. They also took advantage of any last minute free tickets for performances at the nearby Albert Hall. As for earning some money, in addition to exhibiting her work at galleries, we know that Helen painted several portraits on a commission basis. (3) In addition, in 1913, she took a job with the Austin Motor Company, designing a successful advertisement for them (Fig.15), and also designing some decorative capital letters to adorn the articles in their magazine, The Austin Advocate. (3) A nice example of one of these, the letter A, is shown in Fig.16. In those days, of course, the body of a car was made of wood, and this letter A was used to open an article on “The Body Shop.” What makes this a nice example of Helen’s wry sense of humour, already clear from her Rubaiyat illustrations, of course, is that behind the A is a young flapper powdering her own body shop! [Another example of her humour is “Our Landlady of the Lakes”, no.52 in the Walker’s Galleries exhibition (7), which presumably is a reference to a holiday in the Lake District, or similar, with a punning reference to Sir Walter Scott’s poem!] During the First World War, of course, art may well have taken something of a back seat, as, like many other women, she went to work in a munitions factory in London. The photo in Fig.17 was taken there in 1915 – Helen is on the back row, wearing a small polka–dot head–scarf, and May Peart is slightly in front and to the left of her, wearing a large polka–dot head–scarf.

Helen does not appear to have exhibited any paintings after 1917, and it is unclear what work she did after that. She seems to have continued to draw and paint commissioned portraits, however, for there is a portrait in pencil by her, of a sitter named Monica Sanctuary, dated 1922 (Fig.18.) We also know that she illustrated a children’s book, Charles Perrault’s Once Upon a Time: Fairy Tales of Long Ago, published by Daniel O’ Connor in 1922. It contained eight illustrations in colour plus three in black and white (one of which is also used on the cover.) Examples of these together with an image of the front cover, are shown in Figs.19 to 23 – browse here. (13) Philippa Borgal still has the copy given by Helen to her fiancé Leo, inscribed: “To Leo: a little comic relief to dilute your more serious studies!” This brings us to the next part of the story.

In June 1923, at St Ethelburga’s Church, Bishopsgate, London, Helen married Leo Frank Goodwin (14), a professor of chemical engineering who, having lived in Canada since 1910, served with the Canadian army in the First World War. (“I was swept off my feet by his uniform,” she once said.) They moved to Kingston, Ontario, Canada in August of that same year – Fig.24a & Fig.24b show her saying goodbye to her London studio prior to going. In her embarkation details she is listed as “housewife”, rather than as “artist”, perhaps signalling that, like a number of other young women artists of that era, she intended to give up her career as an artist as she took on the roles of wife and mother. At any rate, having gone to Canada, their only child, Heloïse Joan, was born in October 1924, and art seems to have taken a back seat, though she did continue to paint the occasional landscape, and to document the growing up of her daughter: Fig.25a is Helen’s portrait of her aged 3; Fig.25b, titled “The Only Child”, was clearly done at Christmas time when she was about ten years old; for comparison, Fig.26 is a family photograph, seemingly taken when she was about five years old. Helen also continued to do portraits of other people: Fig.27a is a portrait of her brother Eric, mentioned above, dated 1930; Fig.27b is a portrait of Peter Lloyd, of whom more presently, done in 1944; and the intriguing Fig.27c, done in 1947, is of an unknown sitter.

In 1941 she was one of a group of artists who attended the Kingston Conference, which was to lead, in 1945, to the foundation of the Canadian Arts Council, later renamed the Canadian Conference of the Arts. (The CCA is now defunct, but, coincidentally, Philippa Borgal, herself an artist, worked there for some years, at one point becoming its assistant director.) As regards her own career as an artist, though, Helen’s marriage can be taken as a dividing line between her early, more imaginative work – including her Omar drawings, of course – and her later, more routine portrait and landscape work. Accomplished as her later work is, I personally find her early work more interesting (the work which The Austin Advocate described as “leaning to the fantastic in her choice of subjects” (3).) But to continue.

Leo, who was a graduate chemist from Imperial College London and with a PhD from Heidelberg University, set up the first department of chemical engineering in the British Commonwealth at Queen’s University, Kingston, in 1912. He died whilst on vacation in Nova Scotia in 1944, by a strange coincidence only a few miles from where Philippa Borgal now lives. Sometime after that, Helen McK. Goodwin, as she now was, left Canada. Her daughter, Heloïse, had emigrated from Canada to England, to marry Peter John Ernest Lloyd (1923–2014) (Fig.27b), in March 1946, and he being in the Royal Navy, they moved around quite a lot. Helen’s own movements after the Second World War are unclear, and it is perhaps safest just to say that for a while she alternated between England and South Africa, with occasional visits to wherever Heloïse and Peter were stationed. Thus, for example, she had a short stay with them (and her first grandchild, Nigel) in Malta in about 1949, and it was here that she painted the landscape in Fig.28. Again, in the spring of 1953, en route for South Africa, she stayed with her daughter and family, who were now back in England, living in Lovedean, some fifteen miles to the north of Peter Lloyd’s home port of Portsmouth. It was here that she made sketches of each of her grandchildren, as she had done of her own daughter, Heloïse, years earlier. We know that she left London for Cape Town on 24th June 1953, her occupation on the ship’s passenger list being recorded as “artist”.

Helen did apparently intend to settle in South Africa again, partly for (Sinclair) family reasons and partly for health reasons (she, like her father, had suffered from TB as a young woman), and indeed she spent some time there. Fig.29 is one of several landscapes which she seems to have painted there at this time: it was painted in a garden belonging to a friend of the Sinclair family on the Berea, a ridge overlooking Durban. But she found the violence of apartheid intolerable, and eventually, in the 1950s, she moved back to England for good.

At first she lived in a flat of her own on Widdecombe Hill in Bath, later moving to another flat near the Pump Room in central Bath – places of historical interest had great appeal to her, though.the choice of Bath in particular may well have owed something to the fact that her old friend May Peart – or May Vance, as she was by then – lived there. She lived there for some years, until, in August 1968, she joint–purchased a house in Cambridge with her daughter and son–in–law. It was during her time in Cambridge that her hands became arthritic and her eyesight began to fail, but despite this she enjoyed discussing ideas with the undergraduate friends of her grandchildren – Fig.10 & Fig.11 were drawings supplied by her for their party invitations, remember! Helen continued to live in Cambridge until some time after Heloïse’s early death in 1979. On Peter Lloyd’s remarriage she moved to live with her niece, Philippa Middleton–Stewart (also South African born) near Henley–on–Thames. Finally, she entered a care home back in Cambridge, where she stayed until her death, on January 17th 1986, just short of her 94th birthday.

Having sketched Helen’s life, let us now return to her work, beginning with her illustrations of Omar. It is always interesting to look into how a particular artist came to be inspired enough by The Rubaiyat to want to illustrate it. In the first instance, as mentioned above, she was given two copies of the poem in 1912, one of them illustrated by Maurice Greiffenhagen. So far so good, but there is something of a contradiction in its fascination for her, for, as mentioned above, she was no great lover of wine. Furthermore, she was an orthodox Anglican for whom attendance at church was of great importance, even when, later in life, lameness made it difficult for her. Attendance at church recharged her batteries, she maintained. She also had a firm belief in the Afterlife – more than that, she took an interest in spiritualism, attended séances, and was a medium herself. (15) Omar, of course, in addition to his fondness for wine, poured scorn on orthodox religion and rejected any idea of an Afterlife. From that point of view, then, it is difficult to see why The Rubaiyat inspired her enough to do 6 drawings on the theme, one of which (Fig.1) gave the advice, “While you live, Drink! – for once dead you never shall return” and another of which (Fig.2) proclaimed the “Nothing all Things end in!” As Nigel Lloyd put it, “her illustrations for the Rubaiyat seem very louche / dissolute, and don’t particularly fit with the Helen I knew!” Of course, it is possible to admire the poetry of The Rubaiyat at the same time as rejecting its message – as indeed G.K. Chesterton did (Main Essay, Chapter 4.) In addition, as Nigel adds, she did move in bohemian circles in her student days. Perhaps, then, for Helen, her pictures were a commentary on the era in which she lived.

As regards artistic and literary influences on her work, she was greatly influenced by Aubrey Beardsley and The Yellow Book, and identified with Art Nouveau. But she also particularly liked the work of Albrecht Dürer and of both Pieter Bruegels, and in her flat in Bath, she had a large reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “St Anne with the Madonna and Child”. Mostly, though, her flat was decorated with family portraits. Her title “Nocturne, Marble Arch” (7) is suggestive of a reference to Whistler, and though he appears not to have been one of her favourite artists, she was interested in a wide range of art and artists, reading extensively on the subject of art history. (She also had a keen interest in history generally, as well as in archaeology.)

Helen was an avid reader right up until her old age, when her eyesight began to fail. She was interested in symbols, dreams and dream interpretation, and is known to have read the complete works of Jung (whom she preferred to Freud.) Mythology interested her, as did “ghosties and ghoulies and long–legged beasties and things that go bump in the night,” and even in her eighties she developed an interest in the Gnostic Gospels. She was widely read, then.

The literary influences on her early work can be gauged from the titles of some of her pictures, even though their whereabouts is at present unknown, and images of them are unavailable. Despite being a devout Christian, religious themes were not a prominent feature of her work, and only “Crucifixion” (6), “Mystery, Babylon the Great” (a title based on Revelation 17.5) (5, 6 & 7), “Samson and Delilah” (7), and possibly “The Atonement” (6), are of a religious nature – less in number than her Omar Khayyam and Modern Dances outputs. Some of her works seem to take their titles from poems, though without seeing the pictures themselves, it is difficult to be sure. Thus, “The Midnight Clear” (6) possibly takes its title from the opening line of a poem, or Christmas carol, written by the American Unitarian pastor Edmund H. Sears in 1849; “Julia’s Petticoat” (6) is the title of a poem by Robert Herrick; “Pied April” (6) possibly takes its title from a line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98; and “The Dove on the Mast” (6) is possibly a reference to the poem “Sailing beyond Seas” by the popular Victorian poetess Jean Ingelow.

Helen seems to have had a fondness for George Meredith’s Arabian Nights style fantasia, The Shaving of Shagpat, for her “Bhanavar the Beautiful” (6) and “Rabesqurat, Queen of Illusions” (7) take their titles from it. “Sheherazade” (5 & 7), of course, is Arabian Nights related. She also seems to have had some interest in Irish literature – “The Lament of Cuchullin (sic)” (5) is taken from an Irish epic poem (16), and the title, “The Lady Helen of Troy, and she abroad pacing back and forward with a nosegay in her golden shawl” (7) – despite sounding like something from the poems of Tennyson or the paintings of Burne Jones – is actually from J.M.Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World, first performed in Dublin in 1907. “Hedda Gabler” (7), of course, is the title of a play by Ibsen, first performed in Munich in 1891.

On a musical front, “Ballet Fan” (7) and “Invitation to the Dance” (7), perhaps denote an interest in ballet. As regards the latter title, Weber wrote a piano piece, with program, with the same title, in 1819. This was orchestrated by Berlioz in 1841, and Berlioz’s version was subsequently used by Michel Fokine for the ballet “Le Spectre de la Rose” (for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes) in 1911. Whether the picture relates to the ballet, though, or whether it is merely a depiction of a ballroom scene, or a dance–hall scene relating to her “Modern Dances” series, remains unclear, as, once again, its whereabouts remain unknown and no image of it is available. As stated earlier, Fig.11 could just as easily – if not more easily – bear the title “Invitation to the Dance” as “The Final Curtain”.

Unfortunately, Helen rarely talked about her career as an artist, and since all of the paintings and drawings just mentioned are early works, all done before 1917, the surviving members of her family can throw little light on her sources of inspiration for them. Furthermore, the whereabouts of most of them is now unknown. Fortunately, an early sketchbook of Helen’s has survived, and though it doesn’t throw any light on any of the pictures mentioned in the course of this article, it does give us a view of the artist at work. At the front of the sketchbook are some drawings which seemingly date from pre–London days. Fig.30a (“Radha Krishna”), Fig.30b (a reclining woman) and Fig.30c (a mermaid) are examples of these, and their South African origin seems to be confirmed by a study of Cape Buffaloes nestled among them. The middle pages of the sketchbook are blank, but at the back of the book are some other sketches. Fig.31a (“Women! Be worthy of your Queen”) seems to be a design for a poster urging women to support the war–effort, and thus was presumably done about the time when Helen worked in the munitions factory in 1915. Fig.31b is seemingly a sketch of a circus scene, though it is untitled and there is no indication of where it was done. Finally – unrelated to the sketchbook, but worthy of note – is Fig.32, a neat, if unfinished, study of a sea–nymph (?) It is unsigned and undated, though by its style and subject matter it is presumably an early work, and a rather nice example of it at that.


Note 1: She does feature briefly in J. Johnson and A. Greutzner’s Dictionary of British Artists 1880–1940 (1976), p.462, and also in Simon Houfe’s book The Dictionary of 19th Century British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists (1996), p.302. Houfe opens his entry with “SINCLAIR, Helen Mok (sic) (fl.1912–1917) ”, and it is this which seems to have given rise to the belief in some quarters that her name was Helen Monk Sinclair, it being assumed that Mok was a misprint for Monk. However, Houfe’s “Mok” is actually a misprint for McK, the abbreviated form of Helen’s middle name, McKenzie.

Note 2: My thanks are due to Michael Behrend for his extensive work on ancestry sites, and to Nigel Lloyd, Philippa Borgal and Debbie Allen, three of Helen’s four grandchildren, for much otherwise inaccessible information.

Note 3: This is from a short but useful article titled “Our Artists” in the magazine The Austin Advocate, vol.III, no.1 (November 1913), p.35–6. The Austin Advocate was the magazine produced by the Austin Motor Company for the owners of their cars. This article being so difficult to find, I here quote the article in full, omitting only the first part of it, which deals with the magazine’s resident artist and cartoonist, Ernest Noble:

This time we have some remarks to make about Miss HELEN M. SINCLAIR, pleasant ones fortunately.

The delightful series of capitals which form the principal decoration in colour of these pages, have been designed for us by this young artist, whose style is both distinctive and attractive. Although the minuteness of the reproductions of her drawings make it rather difficult to get a fair idea of their real merit; to a critical eye they should be sufficient indication of her ability, at any rate in one direction. [Fig.16.]

As a matter of fact, Miss Sinclair while leaning to the fantastic in her choice of subjects is an artist of considerable versatility, and can be severely practical if necessary, as is shown by the fact that not long ago she designed for the Company a most excellent poster for use abroad [Fig.15], while quite recently she has painted a couple of very successful portraits – one of Mrs. A. G. Mackay, of Lee Park, Grangermouth, and the other of Mrs Cuthbert Curwen, of Alexandria, Egypt. These portraits are of moderate dimensions, and carried out in a decorative style of her own.

Miss Sinclair is only 24, and started her career at the age of 16, when she exhibited some sketches in Durban, South Africa, which attracted such notice that a special scholarship was manufactured, so to speak, in order to send her to study in England for three years. On arrival she went to King’s College under Byam Shaw, and later to Cope’s; thence she entered the Royal Academy School, which is in the nature of a scholarship, as tuition is free if one satisfies the examiners. The usual two years having been passed at the Royal Academy School, Miss Sinclair’s Durban friends were sufficiently satisfied with her progress to extend her stay there for another year, since which she has been engaged in that difficult task for a budding artist, namely, the earning of a living and making her way. Last year, however, one of her pictures was hung on the line at the Royal Academy, and was subsequently bought for the Durban Art Gallery (*). She has also exhibited two years in succession at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, and at less important Shows in town and in the provinces. At present she is working on material for a joint exhibition with another artist, of their respective work, at the Walker Galleries, Bond Street, London, which will be held during the first fortnight in March.

Miss Sinclair’s headquarters are in London, at St. Clement’s House, Bolsover Street, though she has a studio elsewhere, and is also a member of the Three Arts Club.

It is probable that more of her work will be seen in connection with the “Advocate” from time to time, and we count ourselves lucky in having happened upon so capable a young lady.

[(*) The painting mentioned here was “Bhanavar the Beautiful”, referred to in note 6 below. Enquiries at the Durban Art Gallery have revealed that though the painting was indeed bought by them in 1913, it was sold again in 1937, and unfortunately there are no available records of who bought it. My thanks to Jenny Stretton and Mduduzi Xakaza of Durban Art Gallery for supplying this information.]

In the following month, The Austin Advocate (vol.III, no.2 (December 1913), p.98–9.) went further:

Last month we published an autobiography of Miss Helen Sinclair, a young artist who has done some very good work for the “Advocate.” On the opposite page a charming sketch of her (Fig.5), by a fellow artist, will be found, while above is a representation of a most successful poster which Miss Sinclair designed for the Company (Fig.15.) The original, of course, is in colours, and therefore we have been unable to reproduce the full effect, but it will be seen that the poster is most artistic and effective.

Incidentally, either on account of Miss Sinclair’s bad writing, or our indifferent arithmetic, we made a mistake in regard to the number of years she has been studying, and gave her age as 24, whereas it is really 21. To mis–state a lady’s age, and on the wrong side, is a terrible thing, but we are glad to say that we have been forgiven.

Note 4: My thanks are due to Andrew Potter of the Royal Academy Library for supplying these details. The records show that she was recommended by the Principal and Art Mistress of Coast High School, Durban.

Note 5: A trawl through the catalogues of the autumn exhibitions held at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, revealed that she exhibited three paintings here, a watercolour titled “Sheherazade” in 1912 (no.546 in the catalogue); a watercolour drawing (?) titled “Mystery, Babylon the Great” in 1913 (no.1705 in the catalogue – see also note 6 below); and a watercolour–drawing, apparently in the form of a screen, titled “The Lament of Cuchullin (sic)” in 1915 (no.996 in the catalogue.) Incidentally, in the list of artists in the 1913 catalogue (p.168) she is named as “Helen McK Sinclair” confirming that Houfe’s Mok is a mis–reading of McK, as mentioned in note 1 above.

My thanks are due to the staff at Liverpool Central Library for making these catalogues available and helping me out with various queries. (The Library – not the nearby Walker Gallery itself – houses almost a complete set of these from 1878 through to 1937, lacking only 1915 and 1917 & 1918, though I gather that the last two were probably never actually published. Details for her exhibit in the missing 1915 catalogue were very kindly supplied by the Courtauld Institute of Art.)

Note 6: The 8 works exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1912 and 1917, were titled, with dates of exhibition in brackets, as follows: “Bhanavar the beautiful” (1912); “Crucifixion” and “Mystery, Babylon the Great” (both 1914); “The midnight clear” and “The Atonement” (both 1915); “Julia’s Petticoat” (1916); and “Pied April” and “The dove on the mast” (both 1917.) See Angela Jarman, Royal Academy Exhibitors 1905–1970: A Dictionary of Artists and their work in the Summer Exhibitions of the Royal Academy (Hilmarton Manor Press, 1987, p.14.) My thanks are due to Karine Sarant–Hawkins of the Royal Academy of Arts Library for this information. Incidentally, in addition to featuring in note 5 above, “Mystery, Babylon the Great” also featured in the Walker’s Galleries, New Bond Street exhibition of March 1914, listed as no.3 in “Vellum Paintings.”

Note 7: In addition to the Omar Khayyam illustrations listed in the main body of this article, the other works by Helen in the exhibition were as follows, the numbering preserving that of the catalogue:

Under the heading “Vellum Paintings”:

1.) Rabesqurat, Queen of Illusions

2.) “The Lady Helen of Troy, and she abroad pacing back and forward with a nosegay in her golden shawl”

3.) Mystery, Babylon the Great

4.) Confetti

5.) Crucifixion

6.) Arachne

7.) The Purple Jersey

Nos. 8 to 13 were the Omar Khayyam illustrations; nos.14 to 24 were “Landscapes in Oil” by Evelyn M. Young. The following were “Landscapes in Oil” by Helen, the first two having already been mentioned in the main body of the article:

25.) “‘Red Wine!’ the Nightingale cries to the Rose that yellow cheek of hers t’ incarnadine”

26.) “The Moving Finger Writes”

27.) “Fancy Dress” Fan–panel

28.) Limelight

29.) “Paraqueet” Fan

30.) Ballet Fan

The catalogue continued with “Black and White” pictures by Helen. The “Modern Dances” (nos.42 – 46) have already been mentioned in the main body of the article, as has no.58:

31.) The West End

32.) Nocturne, Marble Arch

33.) Invitation to the Dance

34.) Study of Monkeys

35.) The Order of the Bath

36.) Scheherazade

37.) The Pony Coat

[No.38 was by Evelyn M. Young.]

39.) Lamp–Light

[No.40 was by Evelyn M. Young]

41.) Samson and Delilah

42.) Modern Dances – The Bunny Hug

43.) Modern Dances – The Mississippi Dip

44.) Modern Dances – The Tango

45.) Modern Dances – The Double Boston

46.) Modern Dances – The Grizzly Bear

47.) Miss Muriel Bourne (Fig.8)

[No.48 was by Evelyn M. Young]

49.) The Chantilly Shawl

[No.50 was by Evelyn M. Young]

51.) Hedda Gabler

52.) Our Landlady of the Lakes

53.) Spring

54.) Bacchante

55.) The Challenge

56.) The Impulse to Madness

57.) “Milady” Fan

58.) “Look to the Blowing Rose”

[Nos. 59 & 60 were by Evelyn M. Young]

61.) Spring Morning (Fig.9)

62.) Summer Night

63.) Julia

The catalogue then continued under the heading of “Miniatures”:

[Nos.64 – 68 were by Evelyn M. Young; her “May in June” (Fig.7) was no.67.]

69.) “The Fete” Fan

[Nos. 70 – 86 were by Evelyn M. Young; her “Ruby” (Fig.6) was no.76. No.86 was the last entry in the catalogue.]

Note 8: After a complex trawl through ancestry websites, Michael Behrend was able to determine that Evelyn Muriel Young was born in Hornsey, Middlesex, in 1889. In the 1911 census she was living with her parents in Uxbridge, being registered as an art student. In 1912, at the Royal Academy Schools, she was awarded the Creswick Prize (£25) and a silver medal for her landscape painting, “In an Orchard” (no.17 in the Walker’s Galleries catalogue in note 7 above.) Her award, along with a full list of the Royal Academy Schools’ awards for 1912, presented by Sir Edward Poynter, can be found in The Times for 11 December 1912, p.11. In 1915 Evelyn married a fellow artist, Charles Randle Jackson. She died in Croydon, Surrey, in 1944. Perhaps not surprisingly, given her early death, none of the living members of Helen’s family remember her, or remember Helen mentioning her, either under her maiden name or her married name.

Note 9: This is presumably Evelyn’s younger sister, Ruby Aline Young (1892–1980), who was apparently a musician. She married Richard F. Jackson (the brother of Evelyn’s husband) in 1918.

Note 10: The curious title “May in June” arises from the fact that the subject of the portrait was called May Peart. Actually, May was just a nickname, and her real name was Marian Ada Peart. Born in Bath, Somerset, in 1891, she seems to have met Helen when at art–school in London, though this was not at the Royal Academy Schools, as she was never registered as a student there. In the 1911 census, she is listed (age 19) as a visitor with “no occupation” at the residence of the Bates family in Maida Vale. The head of the household was listed as a widowed Mrs Bates, and Michael Behrend discovered the interesting fact that Mrs Bates was actually the widow of the sculptor Harry Bates (1850–1899), and was in receipt of a pension from the Royal Academy on that account. But however they met, May became a close and life–long friend of Helen Sinclair, becoming Godmother to her daughter, Heloïse. She is remembered with great fondness by Helen’s grandchildren, who regarded her as an extra godmother - their nickname for her being GM May (ie. godmother May.) In May 1921 May married Harold Robert Vance at St Ethelburga’s Church, Bishopgate, the same church at which Helen and her husband were married. He became a lawyer (in The Times, Jan 13th 1930, p.5 – under Bar Examinations – he is recorded as gaining a Class III in his Final Examinations at the Middle Temple) or perhaps a civil servant on the legal side of things.

In addition to contributing illustrations to various children’s annuals, such as Father Tuck’s Annual (1918), Mrs Strang’s Annual for Girls (1924), and The Big Book for Children (1939) – this last also being associated with the pseudonymous Mrs Herbert Strang (*) – May also wrote and illustrated three children’s books of her own, from which sample illustrations are given here: Over the Moon (1927) [Fig.33], The Perigog (1929) [Fig.34] and Kiki the Sacred Cat, and Other Stories (1941) [Fig.35a & Fig.35b]. All three books are still obtainable today, the last belonging to the popular Herbert Strang’s Readers series. May’s work being so little known, it may be of interest to give a few other examples of it here, all from originals currently in possession of Helen Sinclair’s grandchildren. Fig.36 is an illustration of The Water Babies; Fig.37 an untitled illustration with a similarly watery theme; Fig.38 is untitled, but appears to depict the Chinese goddess Xi Wangmu (or Hsi Wang Mu), riding among the clouds on the back of a crane; and Fig.39 is yet another untitled work on a Pierrot / Masque theme – perhaps a distant relative of Helen’s Fig.11! It is not known if any of these was ever published in a book.

May, who signed her art–work “M.A. Peart” or “M.A.P.” in monogram, died in Mendip, Somerset, in 1975; her husband in 1964.

(*) Herbert Strang was the pseudonym of George Herbert Ely (1866–1958) and Charles James L’Estrange (1867–1947), the pseudonym being derived from the middle name of the first and part of the surname of the second. They specialized in publishing books for children, notably in the form of anthologies and annuals. “Mrs Herbert Strang” seems to have been invented to edit some of the books more particularly aimed at girls.

Note 11: “Miss Muriel Bourne” appears to depict the young woman who was later to become Lady Muriel Wheeler, wife of the sculptor Sir Charles Wheeler. She was born in 1888 and died in 1979. She too was an artist, though more of a sculptress, it seems. Though she and her future husband had met as art students in Wolverhampton in 1908, and indeed married there in 1918, he certainly studied at the Royal Academy between 1912 and 1917 (indeed, he was destined to become its President in 1956.) Both Helen and Evelyn attended the Royal Academy Schools, of course, so it appears highly likely that they (and May Peart) linked up with Muriel Bourne via the Royal Academy and the London art scene. However, none of Helen’s living family remember her or any mention of her.

Note 12: The date and location of Fig.12 are not known with certainty – it might have been taken in London, and so in or before 1923, or it might (as Nigel Lloyd believes) have been taken in Canada, and so in or after 1923. Actually, it hardly matters, as a later, even less clear photo (not reproduced here), but one known to have been taken after she had gone to Canada in 1923, shows that at least three of the pictures shown in Fig,12 had gone to Canada with her. (The left–hand three; only the one on the extreme right is missing from the other photo, and it may well be just out–of–shot.)

Note 13: As regards the whereabouts of the originals, one of them is still in the possession of the family (Debbie Allen), this being “The wolf in Grannie’s bed”, the illustration facing p.68 of the book, and illustrating the story “Little Red Riding Hood”, of course. Two other originals are housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. One (E.3060–1938) is for “The Sleeping Princess”, the illustration facing p.20 of the book, and illustrating the story “The Enchanted Sleep”. The other (E.3061–1938) is for “Little Thumbkin got up very quietly in the dark”, the illustration facing p.56 of the book, and illustrating the story “Little Thumbkin.” Both are in pen, ink and watercolour, and were donated to the V & A by L. Boys Behrens in 1938 (presumably Lilian Boys–Behrens.) Unfortunately this name rings no bells with any of the family, so it seems likely that they were given to Mrs Boys Behrens shortly after publication of the book, and before Helen’s departure for Canada in 1923. (My thanks are due to Zorian Clayton, Assistant Curator of Prints at the National Art Library, for supplying images of these originals.)

Note 14: Leo was born in Vienna into an Austro–Hungarian Jewish family from what is now part of Serbia, the family name being originally Guttmann. To dissociate themselves from Germany during the First World War, Leo and his brother Camillo changed their names from Guttmann to Goodwin. The change was announced thus in the London Gazette of 31 August 1915: “that by deed poll dated respectively the 18th and 20th days of August, 1915, duly executed and attested and enrolled in the Central Office of the Supreme Court, on the 24th day of August, 1915, they formally and absolutely renounced and abandoned the said surname of Guttmann.”

The Jewish link is interesting. Pretty much from the time of her arrival in London in 1908, Helen seems to have moved in Anglo–Jewish circles – recall her acting as the model for Solomon J. Solomon’s painting of Queen Elizabeth I (Fig.14). It is not known for certain, but it seems likely that she first encountered Solomon J. Solomon at the Royal Academy, and thereafter had contact with the Solomon family, who were a prominent part of the London Anglo–Jewish artistic and cultural scene. In fact, it may well have been through this community that Helen met Leo, though Leo seems to have played down his Jewish ancestry (he had actually converted to Christianity) to the point where Helen claimed relative ignorance of it. Indeed, Debbie Allen believes that Helen was actually introduced to Leo by her brother Harold, though in somewhat unclear circumstances involving applications for patents on scientific inventions!

Note 15: By her own account, Helen was clairvoyant and a “negative medium” – one who could receive messages from the dead, but could not send them to the dead. Her older sister Mary, could do both, however, and she later became quite a well–known faith–healer in South Africa. The two sisters found they had ‘psychic gifts’ from early childhood in Durban, the family’s native servants having a pet name for Helen in their language which meant “third eye” or “seeing eye.” There was a surge of interest in Spiritualism during, and in the aftermath of, the Great War, as so many young men – and women – lost their lives. I wondered if Helen’s own spiritualist activities were triggered by the loss of any close friend or family member at that time, but it seems not. Indeed, eventually she came to regard experiments in spiritualism as dangerous, and steered clear of them as a result.

Note 16: “The Lament of Cuchulain” presumably related to the particular story of Cuchulain’s mistaken killing of his own son. Helen may have come across the story via W.B. Yeats’ verse–play, “On Baile’s Strand”, first performed in Dublin in 1904, a revised version of it being published in 1906. Another possible source is Cuchulain of Muirthemne, the Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster, a version of the Cuchulain legends based on oral and written versions as collected and translated by Lady Augusta Gregory. First published in 1902, and running to four editions by 1911, it was one of the earliest such collections to appear in English. Cuchulain’s mistaken killing of his own son has a curious parallel with Rustum’s mistaken killing of his own son in the Persian Shahnameh (for which see the Notes on Verse 9.)


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