A new exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery profiles the creative work of Clifford and Rosemary Ellis who founded and ran Bath Academy of Art and worked together as artists for more than 50 years – Emma Clegg talks to gallery manager Jon Benington

In 2016, in the Urchfont home of Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, a box lined with red linen was found containing a selection of original artworks all mounted to the same size. The artworks were produced in 1965 by artists teaching at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, and included artistic golden names from the 20th century such as Adrian Heath, Howard Hodgkin, James Tower, Gillian Ayres and William Scott.

This was a thank you gift for Clifford Ellis from all those who showed work in an exhibition called Corsham Painters and Sculptors that Clifford put together for the 1965 Bath Festival, which was then toured by the Arts Council. Now fondly referred to as ‘Corsham in a box’, the contents – none of which have been exhibited before – will be taken out of the box to be displayed as part of the forthcoming exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery, Making Art Matter, 1931–85, Clifford and Rosemary Ellis.

THE OLD VICARAGE, URCHFONT

The Ellis Family Archive was donated to the Victoria Art Gallery in 2016 following the death of Penelope Ellis, Clifford and Rosemary’s daughter. Jon Benington, gallery manager at Victoria Art Gallery, recollects his first impressions of the Old Vicarage, the house in Urchfont where the Ellises lived and where Jon visited Penelope in 2014: “It was vast – it was like walking into a museum that had been preserved.”

Penelope had invited Jon to the house to show him her parents’ work and to ask if the gallery would like to use it for an exhibition. Jon was overwhelmed by the quality and breadth of the work he saw and would have readily agreed to an exhibition. However, the vast majority of the work was artwork on paper, mainly watercolours and prints, stored on shelves and in plastic envelopes which meant that nearly every piece would need framing – and the costs of this were prohibitive.

The day Jon visited, Penelope had taken out her favourite artwork, Dancing Frog, to show him. This was a design for a greetings card, Jon tells me, and while it looks totally spontaneous, it most likely wasn’t, as Clifford and Rosemary Ellis were renowned for their extensive background studies and sketches for every finished piece.

ART EDUCATORS

Clifford and Rosemary Ellis are best known as pioneering art educators, founding and running Bath Academy of Art for 26 years. The academy’s broad-based curriculum was underpinned by the idea of training teachers who could teach art in a different way, benefitting children who were not necessarily succeeding academically. In this environment individual flair was actively encouraged. Clifford’s idea was that the academy was supporting talented artists, developing them as art teachers, and enabling them to make a living alongside their own art practice. William Scott, Kenneth Armitage, William Turnbull, Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, Robyn Denny and Gillian Ayres were just some of the artists who taught at the academy two to three days a week. “It was an amazing synergy,” says Jon, “because they employed young and aspiring artists, and those at the cutting edge of modernism, to teach part time, a couple of days a week.”VE Day, Queen Square, Bath, watercolour 1945

A DUAL VISION

Clifford and Rosemary Ellis were not just teachers. Clifford Ellis attended St Martin’s School of Art and the Regent Street Polytechnic, studying illustration before taking an Art Teacher’s Diploma. He then worked for eight years at the polytechnic as a tutor – it was there he met Rosemary who was a student of sculpture and art history. After marrying in 1931, they worked together designing posters and book jackets. Their work was distinctive for its use of bright colours, bold design and images of animals and the natural environment. They designed posters for clients such as the London Passenger Transport Board, the Empire Marketing Board, the GPO and Shell Mex. These inter-war times were hard and this work was a practical way of supporting them both. The sort of collaboration that Rosemary and Clifford had, where every piece of artwork produced was a joint vision, was very unusual – they did everything together and C&RE was their joint monogram.

Clifford and Rosemary moved to Bath in 1936, driven by Clifford’s determination to make his teaching reflect his progressive ideas. Rosemary taught art at the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army in Lansdown (now the Royal High), while Clifford became an assistant at the Technical College, and was later promoted to head of the Bath School of Art. When the school finally separated from the technical college in 1942, Clifford used the school to shape and match his vision of the arts as fully integrated within society, and implement a regime that side-stepped the Ministry of Education’s daunting written exams.

“Clifford’s vision for the college,” explains Jon, “was based on their work in the 1930s where his first poster design paid for Rosemary’s appendectomy. At this time Britain was deep in recession, but they needed industry and to work for industry. So his vision was to train artists to enable them to do something to make a living.”

THE WARTIME YEARS

During the Second World War, the Ellises continued their teaching and design work. They both made work for the Pilgrim Trust’s Recording Britain project, unusually signing pieces in their own names. Rosemary focused on graveyards while Clifford made paintings of Bath’s historic ironwork. He also created watercolours and drawings of Bath’s bomb-damaged buildings from the Blitz and in 1945 recorded the VE Day celebrations in the city.

CORSHAM COURT

After the war ended, the school was moved to Corsham Court in Wiltshire. The owner, Lord Methuen, assigned a wing of his mansion to the Academy of Art, which had been used as a military convalescent hospital during the war. For the next 26 years, Corsham was regarded as one of Britain’s best art schools outside London.

While committed to their teaching roles, Rosemary and Clifford also continued producing commercial work, notably for the Collins New Naturalist series which they worked on from 1944 to 1985, supplying more than 100 covers of animals and insects, created as lithographs. Jon says “The New Naturalist series is an iconic series of books and it was a forerunner of the conservation movement in the 1950s. Some of the books are quite dense – they are not easy reads or fun reads. The magic was that, rather than using photographic covers, the publisher chose to go down the artistic route because that made them more user-friendly.” Their very first New Naturalist book in 1945 was Butterflies, and it sold so well that it was still in print in the 1970s.Dancing frog, ink and gouache 1937 and poster of heron for the Collins New Naturalist series of books c. 1945

THE ARCHIVE

The Ellis Family Archive that has been left to the Victoria Art Gallery is a massive body of work. Fortunately Penelope had looked after everything and had labelled it carefully. “I’ve been in the situation where someone has died and you go to the property and if they are 20th-century artists you don’t necessarily know what you are looking at. But Penelope had meticulously put things into folders with pencil notes on them telling us what they were,” said Jon.

There was also a collection of letters and because the Ellises were so well-connected, with friends including Henry Moore, John Piper and Kenneth Clark, many of these are of historic interest. The artworks were taken by the gallery and the letters by the Bath Record Office meaning that the archive has been kept relatively intact.

THE EXHIBITION

The exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery shows more than 90 pieces of Clifford and Rosemary Ellis’s work, and this is just a fraction of the archive. “We have only grazed the surface. It’s going to take years more to fully come to terms with what’s there,” says Jon.

The exhibition will have two walls of posters and two cases of New Naturalist artworks. There is also a section about what the Ellises did during the Second World War and one about the academy and the artists that they worked with, where the boxed artworkswill be exhibited for the first time.

“Their work has this power because they embraced the modern idiom of colour and boldness”

Jon told me that when they first found the Corsham in a box piece, it was not complete – many of the artworks had been taken out, so it took a while assembling the full collection. One of the pieces was an early Howard Hodgkin of an abstract figure dated 1964–5. Jon says, “We were working on our Howard Hodgkin show last year. On my last visit to his studio before he died. I’d taken a picture of the watercolour he’d made for the box and asked him who the figure was. He said that it was Clifford Ellis. He told me that Clifford was a rubbish administrator but a brilliant teacher. For Howard to be so fulsome in his praise really meant something as he didn’t suffer fools gladly.”

Rosemary and Clifford Ellis made a monumental contribution to the art and the artists of the period in which they worked. While their wider reputation is as teachers, there is no doubt that their work over the years they were together is rich, bold and distinguished. Jon says, “Their names are not household names, but the work is really accessible and charming because of its subject matter. And it has this power because they embraced the modern idiom of colour and boldness.”

Making Art Matter: Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, 8 September – 25 November, Victoria Art Gallery; victoriagal.org.uk

Featured image: Whipsnade Zoo (Wolves), poster for BP Ltd