How Westminster Libraries’ resources helped me to trace an elusive artist

'A view from the artist’s studio', print by Jessie Beswick

‘A view from the artist’s studio’ by Jessie Beswick

Recently I found this engraving in a junk shop. The print was crudely held in place with a sheet of cardboard and peeling masking tape. The frame was immediately recycled, the backing replaced with acid free mount board. However I must thank the anonymous framer for their work in keeping the print in its frame but also more importantly for scrawling in ballpoint ink biographical and geographical information about this print titled ‘A view from the artist’s studio’.

The writer also stated that the artist – Jessie Beswick – was a sister of their grandfather. Without this information this would have simply been a pleasing anonymous town view from a window.

Not so useful was the difficult handwriting which made interpretation difficult. Luckily from this text there was no ambiguity in interpreting the picture’s location, King Street Chester. What were more problematical to read were the artist’s maiden and married surnames which meant using possible name variations in any search for this artist!

With no stated date on the print it was not a just a case of Googling a name and finding her. Even if I was confident with the surname spelling of Beswick I found a number of alternative individuals with this name. I suspected that ‘my’ artist was active before 1945, on the basis that the writer was two generations younger than the artist and had written the information relatively recently – ballpoint pens did not come into mass use until the late 1950s. Another fact which proved to be a red herring in an initial search for her in Chester Street directories (located in the City of London’s Guildhall Library) was to assume that the King Street studio was her residence. In fact it turned out from census and other evidence that Jessie Beswick resided at other addresses in Chester.

It was time to bite the bullet and use Westminster’s ‘In House’ online resources for family history, Ancestry and Find My Past.

Having two surnames to deal with, I first checked marriage records using Find My Past. Success: after several false hits I found the marriage of Jessie Beswick to Walter W White (Walmsley-White) in Chester in 1914. The record usefully included her parents’ names and her age, thus narrowing down by date any census searches for further information. The 1901 census found her, aged 15, residing at her parents’ house. The 1911 census entry usefully reminded me that the census is a record of household occupation on a specific night which is not necessarily the home address. A Jessie Beswick was staying with friends in Lancashire but I am convinced that this is the same person as her occupation is listed as an artist and the birth year and place of birth matches the previous census entry.

I have mentioned my problem of reading original handwriting. Transcribed entries from the census enumerator returns can also provide evidence of transcription errors. Jessie’s name had been transcribed as ‘Lessie’ in Ancestry’s 1891 census entry for the Beswick household.

Find My Past also has a useful facility to search selected local newspapers. An October 1915 issue of the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reports on a local art exhibition which was

“strengthened by the contributions of some new members, and a new feature is collection of etchings by … Jessie Beswick (Mrs. Walmsley White), the latter lady being also represented in the oils section by two excellent studies of Brittany”.

Confirmation of the move was found when I used print resources at Westminster Reference Library’s Art & Design Collection. Post 1914 entries all list Jessie Walmsley White with a Devon address and prior to marriage her maiden name together with a Chester address. With this information it is reasonable to date this print between 1900 and 1914.

Royal Academy Exhibitors, 1905-1970The first resource I used was Royal Academy exhibitors, 1905-1970: a dictionary of artists and their work in the Summer Exhibitions
Vol. 6: SHERR-ZUL. 

This dictionary revealed that she had paintings exhibited in three separate exhibitions. Unfortunately the dictionary does not include illustrations but listed the botanical subjects of these works.

On a previous visit to Westminster Reference Library I had noticed a long run of annual directories: The Year’s Art: a concise epitome of all matters relating to the arts of painting, sculpture, engraving and architecture. 

The Year's Art, volumes 1908 - 1913

The Year's Art, 1915At that point I had not discovered her birth date and confirmation of her surnames, so I hadn’t plunged in with a systematic search of these volumes. Now, armed with this information, I returned to consult this series. Her first entry occurs in the 1909 edition. Usefully, an artist’s entry includes their home address together with the location of any exhibited work in public galleries. Her address details from the 1915 edition confirm the permanent move to Devon.

Find My Past was also used to find her death record. Luckily my assumption that she had remained in Devon was correct and I found her death record. Jessie died in 1961 aged 75.

Having tracked down this artist my next quest is to find further examples of her work, either in a gallery or improbably lurking in another junk shop.

[Francis]

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One response to “How Westminster Libraries’ resources helped me to trace an elusive artist

  1. Stop press: I have just found via an internet search another of her engravings for sale. This one is a view of Ludlow in Shropshire. Purchased it and awaiting delivery.

    Like

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