A renowned artist, once described as the “most imaginative artist that we have”, lived quietly near Upminster Common for over 75 years, unknown to most of the people of Upminster. The talents of Edna Clarke Hall – Lady Clarke Hall from 1932 – were largely ignored for decades after she was forced to give up painting in 1951 but in her later years her work was once again celebrated.
Edna Waugh, was born in 1879 in Kent, the daughter of the Benjamin Waugh, a Congregational Minister. She showed a precocious early talent for drawing and from the age of 14 onwards trained at the Slade School of Art where she was taught by the respected drawing master (and later Professor) Henry Tonks. She was a contemporary and friend of fellow artists Gwen and Augustus John, winning many prizes and certificates for her drawings and in 1897 she was awarded a Slade scholarship.
Her father had in 1887 given up his ministry and became the founder and first Director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) . In 1892 when Edna was just 13 she met William (“Willie”) Clarke Hall, a barrister friend of her father, when he came to tea at the Waugh’s home in St Albans. At 26 Willie was some thirteen years Edna’s senior, double her age, but he became a frequent visitor and they developed a close friendship which resulted in their engagement three years later. Edna left the Slade in the early autumn of 1898 and was still just 19 when she married Willie in December that year. After a honeymoon in Devon the couple started married life at Red Cottage, Thames Ditton, Surrey.
A resurgence of Edna’s childhood rheumatic fever, which made her hands stiffen and made painting painful, required a period of recuperation but her affliction flared up on her return to the damp riverside surroundings at Red Cottage. The Halls’ Upminster connections began in 1901 when Edna’s sister Rosa spotted that the medieval Great Tomkyns (then known as Moat Farm), was being advertised for a three to six month rental at three guineas per week. The summer warmth proved an effective cure and the old house inspired Edna to embark on six months of intensive painting and drawing greater than the previous few years. While staying there she saw and fell in love with a red-brick house with unusually tall chimneys, the nearby Greathouse, which could be seen from the windows of Great Tomkyns. The tenant farmer Edward Stevens Manning invited Edna to look round and she knew that she wanted to live there.
In early 1902, while dining with the owners of Great Tomkyns, John and Isla Purvis, Edna learnt that Manning had died and that the house was to let. The Clarke Halls took over the tenancy, moving into the unfurnished property on the eve of Edna’s 23rd birthday on 28th June 1902; four years later in 1906, they bought the property for £2,900. After moving in, Edna converted part of a barn to form a studio and resumed painting after a break of several years.
Differences in the temperaments of the 22 year-old artist and her more traditional husband, who expected Edna to take on a domesticated wifely role, had surfaced before the move to Upminster and had already led to early strains in their marriage. Difficult though these tensions were they provided Edna with artistic inspiration. She identified closely with Emily Bronte’s heroine Cathy in the famous novel Wuthering Heights and felt herself to be living an equally intense and frustrating romantic existence. This inspired her to produce a powerful group of drawings, an early example being “Catherine and Heathcliffe” (1902), reinventing the story in her own Upminster surroundings. The atmospheric barns and room interiors at the medieval Moat Farm became the inspirations for her artistic settings, although later visitors to Greathouse felt that these backgrounds were based on rooms, fireplaces and doors there.
Her sons Justin and Denis, born in 1905 and 1910 respectively, were also important subjects for her studies. The 1911 census reveals their domestic arrangements at Greathouse: in addition to Willie, Edna and their two sons, there were three live-in servants – a housekeeper, a nurse for her two sons and a house parlour maid – and they probably employed other day staff who lived locally. It is believed that Edna’s model for Catherine Earnshaw in many Wuthering Heights images was daughter of her cook but no likely local candidates have yet been identified. One such domestic staff member known to have been painted by Edna was Ada Saltmarsh (nee Gray) – see below.
Edna’s art was an intensely personal activity which she initially only shared with close friends and occasionally in group exhibitions but in 1914 her former Slade teacher Henry Tonks persuaded her to hold a one-woman show in Chelsea, which was a critical and commercial success.
Edna had befriended the poet Edward Thomas soon after her marriage when he was a visitor to Thames Ditton. Their friendship was resumed from November 1915 onwards when he spent eight months training with the Artists Rifles at Hare Hall Camp, Gidea Park, some three and a half miles or an hour’s walk away across country. With Edna feeling neglected, as Willie spent much of his time in London, and Thomas’ marriage also under strain, the conditions were ripe for an affair to develop, but there is no suggestion that the couple progressed beyond a strong platonic friendship. It has been suggested that the poet might have wished to have taken their relationship further and some of his romantic poems are thought to be inspired by Edna. Their close friendship came to an end with Thomas’ death in action in the Battle of Arras in France on Easter Monday, April 1917.
On 23rdSeptember 1916 a German airship, L33 dropped bombs on Upminster Common, before crashing near Little Wigborough and this threat was a factor in Edna and her younger son moving out of London in October 1917. Returning after the end of the war, Edna then suffered a nervous breakdown, as a result of which she again stopped painting and drawing until treatment by a psychologist Henry Head aided her recovery and enabled her to resume her creative efforts. From 1922 Willie set her up in a studio in Grays Inn where she worked two or three days each week and from 1924 she exhibited regularly. In 1926 she was described by the Times art critic as the “most imaginative artist we have [in England]” and her work was in much demand.
Willie was the President of the Upminster Liberal and Radical Association and had stood as an unsuccessful Liberal candidate at Hythe in the 1910 election. He was a counsel to his father-in-law Benjamin Waugh’s NSPCC, and he was appointed a Metropolitan magistrate in 1913. A leading expert on juvenile crime – he was already an author on the subject when he met Edna in 1892 – he rose to national prominence as Chairman of the Magistrates Association and the National Association of Probation Officers and in recognition of his work he was knighted in the 1932 New Year Honours list. He was therefore at the height of his career when on 28thOctober 1932 he unexpectedly died suddenly of a heart attack while on a boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads. His widow was thereafter Lady Clarke Hall.
Greathouse had been always farmed by tenants, with eight acres retained for the family’s exclusive use, but before her husband’s death Edna had herself taken back the running of the farm. Her farm hand George Styles, who with his wife Adela had worked for the family throughout their time at Greathouse, was put in charge of day to day business and was listed as their farm bailiff in 1929 and 1937.
Willie’s death brought financial worries but Lady Clarke Hall sold some of her work and refocused her efforts on making the farm a commercial success. Although her long hours on the farm meant that painting became a more limited activity, the 1930s were still a productive decade for her art, although in 1939 Edna described herself as an “artist farmer”. Almost 40 years later on a visit to the Upminster Tithe Barn in September 1977 she was said to be “very excited to see the farming exhibits” and “went into great detail of how she had worked at Great House making butter and such like”.
In August 1941 her London studio and much of her artwork there was destroyed by enemy action in the Blitz, after which her creative work further reduced. In the early 1950s she ceased painting altogether, largely due to severe arthritis in her hands. In 1958 her niece Mary Fearnley Sander moved to Greathouse as Edna’s housekeeper and companion which proved to be a mutually beneficial partnership during the last 20 years of Edna’s life.
In the 1960s Mary encouraged Edna to write her (unpublished) memoires and, after an exhibition of her work as part of the 1971 centenary of the Slade School led to renewed interest in Edna’s work, Mary organized Edna’s letters, many of which had been returned by friends. Further interest followed Edna’s 100th birthday in June 1979, with articles in publications including the Daily Telegraph and Country Life, while the Tate Gallery marked her birthday with an exhibition of seven of her best works. Locally her centenary attracted recognition and the Mayor of Havering presented Edna with a bouquet of flowers, while an exhibition of some of her works, arranged by the branch librarian Peter McCaul, was on view at Harold Wood Library in July 1979.
From October 1967 onwards the barn was leased to a theatre group, the New Elizabethan Players, which was repaired and restored by the club members as a 90 seat private theatre which was in use until around 1976.
Greathouse had suffered blast damage during the Second World War and by 1979 was found to be structurally unstable. Just after celebrating Edna’s 100th birthday her niece said that “It would cost an impossible amount to repair” and that they were “putting up buttresses and hoping it will hold”. But by October 1979 the couple were forced to leave, moving to a cottage at Deal, Kent with Edna soon moving into the Kent Nursing home where she died peacefully on 16th November 1979.
Largely forgotten in the local area, although she is currently featured at a small exhibition at Havering Museum, Edna’s works are to be found in many major British art galleries including the Tate, V&A, with a large collection of Wuthering Heights studies held at the Manchester Art Gallery to whom they were donated in 1939. In 1982 some 69 of her works were sold by auction by the family, presumably work left at Greathouse, and items from her extensive body of work come up for sale from time to time.
Portraits of women: Gwen John and her forgotten contemporaries by Alison Thomas (1994)
Art from her heart by Alison Thomas in Essex Magazine & East Anglian Life January 2005 pp17-19
Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979) and Wuthering Heights by Max Browne in The British Art Journal Vol XVI No 2 pp108-118 Autumn 2015
Drawings and memories: Edna Clarke Hall at 100 by Christopher Neve in Country Life 2 August 1979 pp330-331
An Upminster Artist 1879-1979 by Janette M Howell in Havering History Review No 10 February 1980 p5-6
Now all roads lead to France: the last years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis (2011)
Website: Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979) – an English Romantic of Genius and Beauty http://ednaclarkehall.org.uk/index.html
With thanks to Simon Donoghue (LB Havering Local Studies Librarian) and Max Browne (www.ednaclarkehall.org.uk)