While women artists traveling the globe are commonplace today, in 1922 it was not only unusual but dangerous for a woman to set off alone “for no particular reason,” as Hilda May Gordon wrote in her journal at the onset of what became a six-year journey that took her tens of thousands of miles away from her home on the Isle of Wight. Reporting on Miss Gordon’s final stop and exhibition in New York before she returned home in March 1928, The New York Evening Post said of the intrepid artist that it was “the first time that this department ever heard of any one making a circuit of the globe on a paint brush.” From January 27 to February 3, 2018, New Yorkers will have an opportunity to rediscover Miss Gordon (1874-1972) and her work in Hilda May Gordon, A Colourist Abroad, an exhibition of approximately 50 works presented by the London-based gallery, Martyn Gregory, in the Leigh Morse Gallery as part of Master Drawings week and marking the 90th anniversary of her last New York exhibition. The works encompass paintings she made while traveling through Tibet, India, Thailand Myanmar, Bali, Sumatra, Java, Korea, Japan and South Africa and range in size from 3 x 5 inches to 15 x 20 inches.
Hilda May Gordon studied art as a girl and went on a sketching trip to France at the age of 26 with one of her teachers, Frank Brangwyn, from whom it is thought she learned her freedom of brush handling and love of vivid color. She held her first one-woman show at the Doré Gallery in London in 1907. During World War I, she volunteered as a nurse after lying about her age in order to qualify for duty. She served in France, Italy, Egypt and Palestine, painting in her spare time. She became known as “the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) artist.” After the Allies’ advanced into Palestine, she frequently had an armed escort with her while she painted. When she returned home in 1921, life must have seemed dull by comparison, and in the spring of 1922, she set off on what was intended to be a short tour of the Dalmatian coast. According to Miss Gordon’s journals, she used her social connections where possible throughout her travels to find lodging, and when that wasn’t possible, she relied on her boldness and charm or sold paintings to get by. On occasion, she enjoyed royal patronage from several maharajahs, kings and queens (in Greece, she painted the future Duke of Edinburgh on his first birthday). Twenty-two countries and six years later, she returned home; not one to sit still, throughout her life Miss Gordon took several more journeys. During the World Wars she often travelled undeterred to places in the midst of military or political upheaval, yet she preferred sites not typically sought by artists. At the end of World War II, when Miss Gordon was in her seventies, she made a permanent home in the Chelsea area of London, where she continued to paint. She died in 1972 at the age of 98.
“It is 45 years since I acquired a substantial number of Hilda May’s drawings and watercolours from her estate. Having participated in ‘Master Drawings in New York’ before with early British drawings, by way of a change, it seemed appropriate to show this indomitable woman’s work in the very city she ended her epic, six-year journey in 1928,” said Martyn Gregory, the owner of the eponymous gallery.
Among the featured works to be offered in Hilda May Gordon, A Colourist Abroad is Cremation of King Rama VI of Siam, a gouache that was first exhibited in London at the Fine Art Society in 1929 depicting the most significant event of her expedition. Arriving in Bangkok, Siam (present-day Thailand) from Penang on March 16, 1924, she witnessed the cremation ceremony of the king. She was permitted to watch the ceremony as a member of the British diplomatic party and her sketches constitute an important historical record of an event of which there are few existing photographs. According to her account, the ceremony took hours; this large sketch captured a moment at the end of the evening, according to her journal. Left deliberately unfinished, the picture captures a steady stream of mourners climbing the steps of a lavishly decorated, alter-like canopy. The restrained palette of subtle washes lends the work a somber, dignified tone, allowing Miss Gordon to showcase her mastery of complex perspective and eye for composition. The picture was exhibited along with other Siamese views at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok towards the end of her stay. Among her admirers was the new King of Siam, Rama VII, who bought several drawings.
Another highlight of Martyn Gregory’s exhibition of Hilda May Gordon’s work is a pair of drawings, both made from the deck of the S.S. Malini, a cargo liner that travelled the Gulf of Thailand. Day, Siamese Coast, S.S. Malini and Night, Siamese Coast, S.S. Malini demonstrate Miss Gordon’s versatility as she captured the same scene at different times of day and treated each in different styles. Day is a classic example of her work: busy and vibrant with brush strokes that convey the hustle and bustle of local industry and the unique profiles of native sea craft. Night displays near abstract forms and its translucent pink wash evokes the tranquility of nightlife on the Gulf in a spare manner.
Gotiek Viaduct, Burma, a large (10¾ x 9¾ in.), recently discovered sheet that will also be featured in Hilda May Gordon, A Colourist Abroad, shows the artist at her most expressive. Although her journal reveals very little about her time in Burma (present-day Myanmar), she wrote that she found the country particularly conducive for painting: “I reveled in the types of colour effects, never had I worked so hard before. I just couldn’t stop….” The subject of this gouache, the Gotiek viaduct, a railway trestle between Pyin Oo Lwin and Lashio, allows for an attractive juxtaposition: a feat of difficult engineering delineated with the sharp end of the brush set against a backdrop created in an especially free manner: the paint was left to drip and pool on the paper. At the time she made the picture, the viaduct, which was constructed in 1899 in Pennsylvania and shipped to Burma in pieces, was the largest of its kind in the world.
Also made during Miss Gordon’s time in Burma is Weaving, Lashio, Burma, a sensitive study of costume and local custom that showcases a careful modeling of the face rarely seen in her existing body of work. This drawing demonstrates her abiding interest in ethnography and is among the most intimate of all her pictures. This same personal quality and close observation of people is evident in another picture she made during her time spent in Africa. Zulu Hut shows a careful depiction of everyday details: the hut’s interior, the pots and pans, etc. It shows a dignified, peaceful quality similar those evident in the best genre paintings.
Although Hilda May Gordon found Sumatra to be an unsettling place, the pictures she made there are some of her most accomplished, despite her thoughts at the time which she wrote in her journal, “There is a market place, where I painted, but figures in black or dark blue and rather shapeless withal, do not lend themselves to brilliant artistic achievement.” To the contrary, The Market, Brastagi, Sumatra, is a tour de force. One of two pictures in the exhibition of this bustling market, it combines detailed modeling of faces and architecture in the foreground with men, women, children, chickens and fabrics rendered in riotous color with the most gestural of brush strokes as they recede into the distance.
From her travels in Bali came Eruption of Batour, Bali, of a subject matter that fascinated her. Miss Gordon was drawn to fire, whether it was cremations in present-day Thailand or volcanic eruptions in Bali and Java. This example is one of four pictures of active volcanoes to be shown in this exhibition. Following her time in Sumatra, she arrived in Bali and immediately set out for the volcanic Mount Bator. While this volcano was famously active, the eruption at the time of her visit was exceptionally devastating. The villagers were reluctant to abandon their houses (on the previous occasion they had prayed to the gods of the mountain and, miraculously, the lava had stopped within a foot of the temple); this time, they were forcibly evacuated. Miss Gordon sketched the bursting flames from up close, deafened by the noise while black ash darkened both her pictures and herself. Eruption of Batour, Bali contains traces of ash mixed with the pigment, a tribute to her proximity and bravery. She managed to convey the raw power of the volcano while including a characteristically human element: the three diminutive figures standing at the edge of the precipice watching their livelihoods being burned away.
As The Washington Post wrote in 1928 of Miss Gordon’s work:
…they are far from being merely sketches or representations of people or scenes. They are essentially the reactions of the mind of the artist, of a temperament that has the ability of getting the most out of a great adventure. For this has been a great adventure recorded with spontaneity and truth…. Miss Gordon has made a remarkable achievement, not only in the actual paintings but in the fact that she has traveled around the world on her brush: she has financed her journey by her work….It spells a very special success which has been translated into a practical asset.
For anyone who appreciates color, exceptional plein air work and a sense of wanderlust, Hilda May Gordon, A Colourist Abroad is a must-see exhibition in winter 2018. The exhibition will be on view daily from 10-6. During the exhibition, inquiries can be made by calling the Leigh Morse Gallery at (212) 288-4144.
Martyn Gregory, the proprietor for whom the gallery is named, has been an art dealer for more than fifty years. The Martyn Gregory Gallery sells works that are often both historically significant and highly decorative including examples of fine early English watercolors and oil paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Over its history, the gallery has handled works by J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Girtin, Thomas Gainsborough, Paul Standby, John Varley, David Cox and Peter De Wint among others, and continues to deal in works by these artists as well as a vast inventory of watercolors of this period as well as those by early 20th-century British artists. Martyn Gregory is an exhibitor not just at Master Drawings New York but has for many years participated in TEFAF, Maastricht; Masterpiece, London and the Winter Antiques Show in New York. The gallery also holds annual independent exhibitions in Hong Kong and is recognized as the world’s leading specialist in China Trade paintings, historic pictures related to the Far East and the work of George Chinnery. At least once a year, the gallery produces illustrated and scholarly catalogues on China Trade paintings. For over 40 years Martyn Gregory has been located at 34 Bury Street, St James’s in the West End of London. Telephone: 44 (0) 20 7839 3731; fax: 44 (0) 20 7930 0812; website: www.martyngregory.com.
Robyn Liverant Public Relations