Malvina Cheek obituary
Malvina Cheek, the last surviving official woman artist of the war, who has died aged 100 evacuated to Luton during the War. She painted important buildings in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Cornwall. Eighteen of her finished works were presented to the the Victoria & Albert Museum.
When the National Gallery sent its collection to Wales for safekeeping at the outbreak of the second world war, its visionary director, Kenneth Clark, wanted to keep visitors coming all the same. To attract audiences he showed in place of the familiar masterpieces the work of British artists who had been recording architectural landmarks in anticipation of their possible destruction.
Among those artists was Malvina Cheek, the last surviving official woman artist of the war, who has died aged 100. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in 1938, like many students of her generation she had fallen under the spell of the exquisite draftsmanship and engraving of Robert Sargent Austin. His influence, and an introduction to the painter and engraver and administrator of the Recording Britain project, Arnold Palmer, resulted in commissions for Cheek to paint important buildings in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Cornwall.
Eighteen of her finished works were presented to the scheme: the Victoria & Albert Museum holds 14, but three Bedfordshire and one Cornish watercolour are missing. Cheek was especially intrigued by the historic village of Mow Cop on the border of Cheshire and Staffordshire, below the hill on which Primitive Methodism was founded in 1810.
Widely viewed at the National Gallery exhibition, after the war the work of the Recording Britain team was published by OUP in a handsome four-volume hardback set, partly financed by the Pilgrim Trust. The exhibition and book enhanced the artists’ reputations both at home and abroad.
In 1943 and 1944 Cheek exhibited at the Royal Academy, where a painting entitled Blood Donors was sold, although its present whereabouts are unknown. In September 1944 the Imperial War Museum acquired a drawing of suburban flying-bomb damage for six guineas, and a year later a study of American soldiers at the Rainbow Corner club for US servicemen in Denman Street was sold to a private collector in Sheffield.
Cheek was also a portraitist, and one of her most characteristic studies, which she kept in her own collection, is that of her father, Percy Ebsworth Cheek, in his ARP helmet. Of the debilitation she and her compatriots felt towards the end of war she noted: “Not eating properly didn’t help their health, and confidence was extremely shaken.”
Nevertheless, her continued enthusiasm for the initiative set by Recording Britain led to her sketching many local London vistas once she had returned to the capital. Two particularly fine examples, Weatherall House Being Demolished (1948) and Hampstead Heath Station and Magdala Pub (1949) are now in the collection of Burgh House and Hampstead Museum.
After the war, two further topographical books, this time illustrated solely by Malvina, were published by Paul Elek for the Visions of England series: The Black Country, by Walter Allen (1946), and Derbyshire, by Nellie Kirkham (1947). Illustrations for the former include St Kenelm’s Church, Romsley, Worcestershire, the barge Geranium, an interior and a detail of newel posts at Aston Hall, Birmingham, pulpit details from St Peter’s collegiate church, Wolverhampton, and rock dwellings at Kinver, Staffordshire. The index page shows the courtyard at Dudley Castle. The cover designed by her fellow war artist Kenneth Rowntree incorporated two of Malvina’s vignettes: the Oak House at West Bromwich, Staffordshire, and the Red Lion at Wednesbury.
In 1947 Malvina was appointed to teach at St Albans School of Art, where she stayed until she became, briefly, a full-time senior lecturer in the graphic design school at Twickenham College of Technology. Among her early students at St Albans were renowned watercolour artists such as Ronald Maddox and David Gentleman, and, at other establishments, John Raynes and Albany Wiseman.
In 1950 Cheek was asked to design the toy theatre sets for George Speaight’s play The Atom Secrets. To commemorate this, in 2003 Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust published a greetings card showing The Cabin of the Lucy for Scene III.
In 1951 Cheek married John Oliver Dewis, a French teacher and photographer; the couple had a daughter. During the 1950s the family often stayed with the artist Peggy Angus at Furlongs, a rented shepherd’s cottage at the foot of the Sussex Downs and a magnet for many artists of the time. Malvina drew the corn stooks in the fields surrounding the cottage, and the farmer who leased the fields near Firle.
Fascinated by boats and the maritime artistic culture around the English coastline, Malvina also painted at the Royal Dockyards, Chatham, and the Valhalla Museum, Tresco, now a branch of the National Maritime Museum. Among the articles she wrote for magazines was one in 1955 illustrated with her drawings and photographs of the figureheads, fiddleheads and name boards observed in both places. The following year topographical drawings formed the basis of her illustrations for an edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1956).
Cheek became a member of the Society of Industrial Artists, Illustrators Group in 1957, having contributed to its biennial review in 1949. She also exhibited with the Allied International Artists (AIA) group exhibitions, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Watercolour Society and the New English Art Club.
Fresh, primary colours characterise her work of the 60s and 70s. Highlights of red abound in her still lifes and portraits: pots of geraniums, a summer hat, the costume of an Indian wooden marionette. Trees were always important sources of subject matter, the pear tree in the garden of her home at Christchurch Hill, Hampstead, represents her move to the house in which she lived from the late 1940s until her death.
She was born in London, the younger of the two daughters of Percy Ebsworth Cheek, a banker with Glyn, Mills, later Coutts, and Jessie (nee Cross). Her first name came from her paternal family’s long-standing connection with the Falkland Islands. After leaving St Philomena’s, a Catholic school near Carshalton, then in Surrey, she studied at Wimbledon School of Art before going to the Royal College of Art, where she gained her diploma the year before war was declared. She taught for two days a week at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and when war broke out was evacuated with the school to Luton.
Here she continued to teach and also worked at a blood transfusion unit at the local hospital, where she was asked to hand out certificates for bravery, later moving to St Albans, where the art school was rapidly establishing itself as a centre of excellence. She would return to the capital for weekends, a hazardous journey since there had to be total darkness on the trains during the blackout. She recalled the eerie sound of air raid warnings and bombs falling on arrival in London.
In her later career, a series of large canvases, painted with a rich autumnal palette, reflected her interest in spirituality, in particular Freud and Jung. While she was growing up, her father had not encouraged a religious leaning in his household and she may have found an equally cool reception from her husband, an atheist, but the work displays an unmistakable passion.
In 2009 she published an anthology of her poems, The Silent Fairground. She was also a composer. The artist and author Raynes Minns, who has made a special study of women war artists, recalls on visiting Cheek at home the atmospheric combination of house plants, home-made jam, lino floors, and paintings everywhere.
She was pleased that an exhibition this year at Persephone Books in Lambs Conduit Street, Bloomsbury (which continues until 17 June), of watercolours and pen-and-ink drawings of female figureheads made in the 50s was attracting a new audience to her work.
Cheek is survived by her daughter, Sarah, a landscape historian, and two granddaughters.
• Malvina Cheek, painter and illustrator, born 8 July 1915; died 22 May 2016
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