Our Object of the Month for April is unique, in the fact it is not an object at all, but a woman! Our focus this month is Elva Blacker, the famous artist born locally in Surrey, in 1908. From 1903, her father ran a photographic business, which she took over after his death in 1930. She grew up with two brothers, who were properly educated, and she was sent by her father to the Regent Street Polytechnic to learn photography, as he doubted her ability to make a living through her passion, art. Despite this, painting remained her first interest, and she studied in the evenings and as a part-time student to develop her technique, particularly in the field of portrait miniatures. During the 1930s, she even exhibited her photography and painting in the Paris Salon and the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, before becoming a full-time student at the Slade College of Art in 1936.
At the beginning of World War Two, before she was called up for service in 1942 and joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), she drove vehicles for the Blood Transfusion Service. She completed a training course to upgrade her driving skills after being taken on as an Aircraftwoman Motor Transport Driver, and then served in the Fighter Command at Biggin Hill. However, she did not let this get in the way of her art. During the times of relative calm while Blacker was on-duty, she would draw her colleagues. Her skill gave her access to the sick quarters, crew-rooms and miscellaneous offices all over her stations, allowing her to produce an unparalleled record of life on an RAF station. In 1943, Blacker exhibited some of her group photos and portraits from the war in the National Portrait Gallery in Losford.
After the war, Blacker was drawn to recording theatrical subjects; through local connections in Sutton, she became close to Dame Lilian Baylis, who had kept the ‘Old Vic’ theatre open throughout the war. She was also acquainted with Dame Sybil Thorndike and others in the acting profession. She set herself up as a professional artist, not wanting to go back to her earlier profession as a photographer. In the mid-1950s, when travel became easier, Blacker spent a long time in the United States producing animal portraits. The following year – having been a vegetarian her whole life, even throughout the war – she attended a Vegetarians Conference in India, going on to tour extensively in the Far East producing a range of landscapes and portraits.
Her career continued, alternating between long trips abroad with periods in Surrey, back at home with her family. She was a leading figure in the art circle of Sutton, making use of her contacts and connections for the benefit of the local arts club, having been known for her kindness, as well as her fast driving and motorcycle touring. She even managed to persuade Graham Sutherland, the designer of the Coventry Cathedral tapestries, to become President of the Sutton Arts Council! She continued painting well into her sixties, specialising in animals, and becoming a regular visitor to Cruft’s dog shows. Unfortunately, her failing eyesight forced her to give up her work, though she remained in touch with local artists and exhibitions until her death in 1984.
One of her sketches on show in Cheam library, although unfinished, demonstrates the amazing ability of Elva Blacker. This masterpiece is a view from outside the pub Ye Olde Red Lion looking west down Park Road, towards Whitehall, which is briefly sketched in with a watercolour wash on its facade and roof. The edge of the pub can just be seen, with a fence to the next properties. The profile of Bay House is also visible, and behind it, the chimneys of the White House, later pulled down in 1960, can be seen.
The sketchbook of hers contains multiple watercolour works, including drawings of Carshalton Park and Beddington Park. On the majority of the pages, in the corners, the date and a description of the painting are written. One of the pencil sketches shows a view across a rooftop and various back gardens, among other houses in the distance. This must be from where the Blacker family lived – the flat above 130 High Street, Sutton – as S.126, which is identified as at that location, was drawn the same day. In the corner, Elva Blacker has written ‘Drawn April 7th / 1924 / painted / View from Maurice’s / bedroom window / facing East’ in black ink.
Although fragile, all of the masterpieces inside her sketchbook are extremely beautiful, and a testament to Elva Blacker’s extraordinary talent. Luckily, this collection was one of several items rescued from a skip by the donor, which was outside Elva Blacker’s house in 1984 when it was being cleared following her death. It is open on an unfinished painting of a location in Cheam. Do you recognise it?
More of her pieces include an elegant watercolour painting of yellow flowers standing inside a large shallow bowl on a table and a watercolour portrait of John Reynolds Ruddock, an actor born in Lima, Peru, in 1897. He later became a drama teacher in Guildford, where he died in 1981.
Elva did not restrict herself to preserving her own works, but also seems to have collected other artworks, one of which was a greeting card printed in Copenhagen. The card shows an elderly man in a rather fancy costume, with a walking stick and scroll, supported from a pole with an owl perched on top. The artist of this greetings card, which dates back to the 19th century, is a British man, Marshall, F. D.
Featured in this month’s collection is also Elva’s photo paper, from Kentmere Bromide Paper and Cards, with instructions on its use. Today, although British based and owned, Kentmere is one of the world’s leading B&W paper manufacturers. Clearly, Elva Blacker only made use of the highest-quality products when it came to her art, and this standard is reflected in all her work.
Carrying on this theme is her Brush Lacquer Colour Programme- a wide selection of Winsor and Newton brush-lacquer colours for wood painting. Winsor and Newton, established 1832, is still up-and-running today; it manufactures a wide variety of fine art products, including oils, watercolours and acrylics. This particular programme was produced in 1930, and the statement ‘by appointment to their majesties the King and Queen’ is a Royal Warrant; a very prestigious mark of recognition awarded to those who regularly supply goods and services for at least five continuous years to the Royal Household. It seems Elva Blacker was a fan of their products, along with the Royal Family, and perhaps even used them for some of her works on display in Cheam Library.
This blog was written and researched by Nonsuch High School for Girls students and Whitehall volunteers, Natasha and Yasmin Truelove. You can see the April Object of the Month and all of the objects discussed here in their accompanying display currently on at Cheam Library (Church Rd, Sutton, SM3 8QH) during regular library opening times.