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Artist Spotlight: Lucy Kemp-Welch

Lucy Kemp-Welch (1869-1958) was the principal painter of horses (and especially working horses) during her time. She began her artistic training in 1891 at a painting school in Herkomer’s Art School, Hertfordshire. At this school her painting of animals was encouraged and from here, she soon developed a reputation for painting horses.

Kemp-Welch was an expert horsewoman with a natural understanding of their movement, nature and anatomy. This gave her paintings the true to life impressionist style that she is so well known for. The freedom in her work clearly echoes the freedom Victorian women felt when riding horses and their new ability to move around without being chaperoned. She could paint excitement and defiance, as well as scenes of a more tender manner.

I am a great admirer of Lucy Kemp-Welch and there is soon to be a highly anticipated exhibition opening on 1st of April at Russell-Cotes in her hometown of Bournemouth. Ahead of the show we’d like to share some of our favourite Lucy Kemp-Welch works…

Fascinated with working horses, pulling carts, ploughing, sowing and haymaking, Kemp-Welch’s work was a move away from the traditional style of aristocratic horse portraits that were so popular around this time. She was often compared alongside Alfred Munnings who was a great friend and painter of horses. Kemp-Welch became known for painting horses in working scenes as well as farm animals, wildlife and landscapes. She even did a few portraits.

During the First World War women took over many agricultural roles which gave Kemp-Welch an opportunity to observe horses in various situations. She is credited for her dynamic realism and picturing unaltered working scenes. Kemp-Welch’s paintings were increasingly overlooked after the Second World War and fell subject to the violent changes in art, however from the 1890s until the mid 1920s she was the country’s best known female artist.

Foam Horses (1896), Lucy Kemp-Welch (1869-1958) © David Messum Fine Art Ltd. Photo credit: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

It is known that when Russell-Cotes’ Director Norman Sylvester asked if Kemp-Welch would like to be involved in an exhibition of women’s work, she responded: ‘While thanking you for this kind consideration, I should like to say that I do not wish to join in an exhibition of women’s work. I have always been of the opinion that the discrimination of sex is absurd in such a matter as art’. Kemp-Welch continued a link with Bournemouth and the Russell-Cotes gallery until her death and she was pleased that some of her paintings would stay at her ‘native place’.

One of my favourite pieces in the Russell-Cotes collection is a sketch of ‘Gypsy Horse Drovers’, which the artist painted on part of her paint box. Kemp-Welch apparently spotted a long procession of horses being driven up a muddy road outside her window. She rushed after the group, taking her palette and the nearest thing that should could sketch on. That happened to be this wooden part of her paint box!

She later transferred the sketch to canvas and the work became her first to be exhibited at the Royal Academy. It was painted whilst she was a student at the Herkomer School of Art in Bushey. Apparently, headmaster Herkomer was ‘very severe’, but he loved the work and in a letter to a Russell-Cotes curator, Kemp-Welch recalled ‘from that day he never ceased to be the kindest and sincerest critic and guide that ever a young painter had’.

Kemp-Welch’s work was widely revered and collected. Her painting ‘The Straw Ride’ can be found in the Imperial War Museum’s permanent collection.

‘The Straw Ride: Russley Park Remount Depô’, Wiltshire. Imperial War Museum

You can also spot her illustrations on the cover of the 1915 edition of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

We are so proud to have a Kemp-Welch painting in the Firmdale Art Collection. Pride of place in the Library at Ham Yard Hotel, this painting is titled ‘Ploughing in the South Coast’ and is a wonderful large-scale example of her work.

We hope you can go ‘out and about’ and enjoy the exhibition at Russell-Cotes Gallery in Bournemouth this April: ‘In Her Own Voice: The Art of Lucy Kemp Welch’.

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