With the Great War, the modernist experiment in the fine arts was temporarily suspended. Many artists, including Picasso, returned to various forms of realism which, in the 1920s led to a renewed interest in visual reporting. Those stationed on or close to the Western Front felt that the horror of war demanded it, and that there was no going back to their pre-war aesthetic diversions. Symbolist, Futurist and Cubist abstractions now seemed self-indulgent as painters looked to natural forms in field and flower for signs of renewal. Early evidence is found in the Royal Academy War Pictures exhibition in 1919, as Isabel Codrington (1874-1943) resumed her exhibiting career with the copiously studied Cantine Franco-Britannique, Vitry-le-François, 1919 (currently in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London).
This scene of jubilation on the Marne celebrated one of the great alliances of history, and also reminded art lovers of a name, and a remarkable talent, that was almost forgotten. Born at Bydown, Swimbridge, near Barnstaple in Devon, Isabel Codrington Pyke-Nott was the daughter of the local squire who sent both his daughters to art school – first on the south coast and then to St John’s Wood Art School, a crèche for the Royal Academy Schools, where Miss Pyke-Nott was offered a place at the age of fifteen.
Within a few years of leaving the schools, Codrington met the brilliant young journalist of Austro-Hungarian descent, Paul George Konody (1872-1933). At the time of their marriage on 29 October 1901, in the romantic village of Porlock, Konody was editor of The Artist. He would later become art correspondent of The Daily Mail and The Observer, and their wide circle of friends that included the poet, Ezra Pound, the illustrator, Dudley Hardy, the portrait-painter, Philip Alexius de Laszlo and the artist-traveller and former Whistler pupil, Mortimer Menpes. There were also adventures during their years of marriage. On one occasion in particular, ‘Belle’, accompanied her husband, ‘Dan’ Mayer, the art dealer, and ‘Pomponius’, the architect, Edwin Alfred Rickards, took a road trip to Italy in a ‘noiseless’ thirty-horse-power steam driven landau, recounted in Konody’s Through the Alps to the Apennines (1911). Despite the fact that Belle’s ambitions were on hold - her two daughters, Pauline and Margaret, were her first priority in these years - one of Dan’s photographs in Konody’s book shows her sketching an ox cart in Assisi (fig 2).
However, such trips did not save the Konodys’ marriage and following their divorce, the artist and Mayer were married in 1913. It was only in 1918, in her mid-forties, that Codrington "felt she would like to begin again". "I had forgotten almost everything", she later told a Devon reporter, but as is clear from the war museum commission, her remarkable skill as a draughtswoman had not left her, and ‘Codrington’, as she chose to be known, was set to emerge (Western Morning News, 16 May 1928, p. 5). Throughout the 1920s she showed regularly at the Royal Academy and, after 1923, at the Salon in Paris where, on one occasion she received a ‘Mention Honorable’ from the jury. Despite her august circle of art world friends and connections made through her husband’s firm of P &D Colnaghi, Codrington favoured scenes of peasant life drawn from travels in France, Spain and Italy. The heroic Onion Rover 1923 (lot 330) typifies these, while The Blouse Shop (lot 334) reverts to the picturesque rusticity of coster women and gypsies, common in the work of painters such as Eric Kennington and Albert Rutherston. Codrington takes evident delight in the exotic stuffs her women are discussing in a room at the back of a shop.
An article on her work appeared in The Studio in 1925, where she was seen "in the forefront of the movement" to secure recognition for women in the fine arts. Solo exhibitions at the Knoedler Galleries in Paris and the Fine Art Society in London followed in 1926 and 1927. Writing in the Fine Art Society catalogue, Frank Rutter likened Codrington to a ‘straight’ actor – but one whose work was "fresh, direct and natural". Being "thrilled by the beauty of colour and texture … she convinces us that … commonplace objects are lovelier than pearls …" he declared. These exhibitions revealed that the artist’s range extended to landscapes, flower-pieces and still-life paintings. One of her "singularly joyous" landscapes, in the words of the Westminster Gazette, is The Ploughed Field, exhibited in the 1927 show (lot 333).
Other landscapes painted around the Mayers’ estate at Wistler’s Wood, Woldingham in Surrey like The Ploughed Field, adopt a clear, clean alla prima style that characterises all her work. While there are echoes of John Nash and Allan Gwynne Jones, space, colour and line are carefully controlled in these sunny scenes of the north Downs. At the same time Konody, who remained loyal to Codrington’s work, praised one of her flower-pieces for having "something of the intensity and carrying power of Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers" (The Observer, 10 April 1927). This is evident in Chrysanthemums (lot 335).
Like that of many women artists of her day, Codrington’s was a short, but highly successful career. In her heroic decision to reacquaint herself with the tools of her trade in the last year of the Great War, she unfurled a flag for all those women who had proved themselves just as capable as their male counterparts. Her final solo exhibition of ‘Flower Paintings’ was held at the Rembrandt Gallery in Vigo Street in November 1935, and thereafter she concentrated on a burgeoning career as a printmaker. She returned to her native Devon during the closing years of her life and died there in 1943.
AUCTION | Five Centuries: Furniture, Paintings & Works of Art from 1600
Wednesday, 20 November at 10am | Edinburgh
VIEWING | Sat 16 & Sun 17 November 12 noon - 4pm | Mon 18 & Tues 19 November 10am - 5pm
Morning of the sale from 9am