Tag Archives: painting

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.



Chinese painting

The beautiful and traditional art of Chinese painting holds a fascination for many. Charing Cross Library invites you to join in with their long-established Chinese painting class, held every Saturday from 11.00am – 1.00pm in the library. Chinese Art Class The class is taught by an experienced teacher, Mr William Cai, who has practiced Chinese painting for over 40 years – and has been teaching it in the UK for more than 20 years. He has served in various institutions such as the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Missenden Abbey Adult Learning Centre, the University of Westminster, Imperial College and more. Adults of all levels of skill, from beginners to advanced, are welcome. Classes cover techniques including Xie Yi (which is a freely expressive style) and Gong Bi (highly detailed brushstrokes, very precise and without independent or expressive variation), and subjects such as landscape, flowers and birds. The courses also includes an introduction to and analysis of master works in Chinese painting, to help students understand and appreciate Chinese art. Through live demonstrations and hands-on exercises, Mr Cai guides students through to mastery of the basic techniques of Chinese painting, step by step. You can find out more by contacting the library or Mr Cai – more details on the Charing Cross Library events page.


Paper Cutting for Silver Sunday

Our Paper Cutting workshop at Charing Cross Library on Silver Sunday had some very enthusiastic crafters. Chichy demonstrated the basics of this ancient craft, which is practiced throughout the world and has become very popular over the last year. Everyone produced a piece of artwork which combined paper cutting with watercolour painting and they enjoyed the couple of hours of concentration and creativity so much they requested a regular workshop!

“I had a really good time… forgot to use the internet that I had booked before!”

“Enjoyed this very much and to meet Chichy and more residents. Am doing artwork on my walls at home so this will be an added skill!”

“Enjoyable introduction to papercutting. Need more time to learn and develop the skills of the tutor. Need a workshop once a month.”

“Wonderful workshop”

Silver Sunday


Adult Learners’ Week at St John’s Wood Library

Chinese brush painting at St John's Wood Library, June 2014Adult Learners’ Week 2014 was one of the busiest yet in Westminster Libraries, with several events every day – many held in partnership with Westminster Adult Education Service (WAES).

St John’s Wood Library has a full schedule of regular events for adults (IT support, family history, arts & crafts and even chair yoga! – See the Events at St John’s Wood Library page for more details). 

During Adult Learners’ Week we squeezed in even more:

Shared Reading Group: With tea and coffee, the participants engaged in a story by Joanne Harris and a poem by WB Yeats. They shared their thoughts with others and had a good time.

Crime Readers Group: Part of the National Crime Reading Month Event, Special Guest Author Peter Tickler. Regular members but other participants as well enjoyed being able to ask questions and see how a crime author’s mind works. Authors generally love it and this author did too – a treat for everyone!

Chinese Brush Painting, organised by WAES: An event whose attendance almost tripled the expected numbers! Although participants were asked to sign up and pay £4 for the materials, many came on what must have been the spur of the moment. The instructor, Xiao-Lan Gu, very graciously welcomed everyone. The practice is very involved and takes more than just arm movements. It was greatly enjoyed by everyone and we hope for an encore!

Chinese brush painting at St John's Wood Library, June 2014


Victoria Library update

Last week, Victoria Library went into high gear with two great events: Painting in Prose and a Spring Health Fair.

Painting in prose at victoria Library, February 2014

On Monday, we had a delightful talk with three authors of historical fiction – Imogen Robertson, Elizabeth Fremantle and Vanora Bennett – who gave an excellent insight into the influence that art had had on their work. It is always interesting to hear where and how authors get their ideas, so to be able to see the actual inspiration was brilliant. The room was packed with no seats left and the authors had all clearly put a lot of thought into their presentation. Having a visual slideshow really brought the talk to life.

On Wednesday, the library was humming for a good few hours with people excitedly getting health checks, relaxing massages and making smoothies on a bike (!). Everyone had a great time, professional and customer alike. A number of the customers mentioned how useful the day had been, with people coming away having boosted their health in a range of ways. On a more serious note, the fair also allowed the health practitioners to catch a number of potentially life threatening problems early on and encourage the customers to seek help now. One lady mentioned to me that she had learnt some useful exercises to deal with the aftermath of an operation she recently had and another about how she had finally got some relief from ongoing pain.


New Year, new Chinese Corner

Xuan Ji, music and dance performer at Charing Cross Library, February 2014Libraries celebrated the Chinese New Year of the Horse at Charing Cross Library last week, with a programme of events including traditional music and dance, calligraphy, and martial arts.

The Chinese Services Librarian, Chichy Li, based at Charing Cross Library, organised a stunning display of martial arts performed by HengLong Kungfu Club & Performance Team, music and dance performed by by Xuan Ji and Ms Wang FengYing and calligraphy by Cai, Weimin.
Take a look at a gallery of images from the event, on the BBC China Service site.

We also took the opportunity to launch the recently introduced service Chinese Corner, a scheme which offers the public and businesses learning materials and activities on the Chinese language and culture and is a networking opportunity for the local community. Chinese Hanban has generously sponsored the Chinese corner for 300 titles of reading and teaching materials and provides £4000 funds annually.

Calligrapher Cai, Weimin demonstrates his craft at Charing Cross Library, February 2014

The Chinese Library is much valued and well-used by the local community, being located on the edge of London’s Chinatown with holdings of over 70,000 Chinese adult and children’s books, plus CDs for loan and reference – one of the largest collections of Chinese materials in the UK. Director of Libraries and Archives Mike Clarke thanked the Chinese community for their continued support and involvement.

Chinese New Year celebration and launch of Chinese Corner, at Charing Cross Library, February 2014

Charing Cross Library offers language classes for those who wish to learn Chinese, especially for business and those who wish to improve their English language skills. There will also be Chinese painting classes with Mr Cai based in Charing Cross beginning tomorrow, 15 February 2014. Contact the library for more information.

[Chichy and Eve. Images courtesy of Eve Francourt]

Portrait of an archivist

Alison Kenney, Archivist at the City of Westminster Archives CentreProfile of Alison Kenney, Archivist

How long have you been an archivist?
I’ve worked for Westminster City Archives for 31 years – after doing a history degree, a year’s work experience and an archive diploma/MA.
You may think 31 years is a long time, but I’ll never beat my father’s record of 51 years in the same office!

What do you like best about it?
The variety – there’s never a dull moment! We acquire, sort, list and conserve archives so that we can use them for enquiries, exhibitions, talks and tours. I really enjoy using my knowledge of the collections to find information for local residents with problems. I remember once helping a very nice old gent with a flooded basement  in Pimlico, who was then able to prove to Thames Water that the River Tyburn did indeed flow under his house, using the Geological Survey maps I found for him.

Liberty ‘Dress and Decoration’ catalogue, 1905, page 27. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Liberty ‘Dress and Decoration’ catalogue, 1905. Image property of Westminster City Archives

What are your favourite items in the collection?
I really love the catalogues of Arts and Crafts costume, furniture and metalwork from Liberty’s, the famous West End store – they are so beautiful!
I also like the lovely 19th century watercolours of Westminster scenes by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd – he always includes a little family group and dog in the foreground for interest.
And as a life-long architecture fanatic, I love the late Victorian photographs by Bedford Lemere of the grand mansions in Mayfair, many of which are long since gone.

What interesting stories have you unearthed in the archives?
There are plenty of fascinating stories about people’s lives in the 18th century settlement examination books of St Martin-in-the-Fields Parish.  They contain interviews with poor people applying for financial help. Some of them even include heart-rending notes pinned to the clothing of babies abandoned by their mothers before the Foundling Hospital was established. One of our volunteers discovered the amazing story of a soldier’s wife who brought back six orphaned children from the Seven Years’ War in Europe to be looked after in London in 1760.

What’s the most curious item you’ve ever found?
It has to be the bizarre print of the Java sparrows who performed in a show in New Bond Street in the 1820s. Their owners claimed they were proficient in seven languages and could do card tricks!

Advert for Java sparrows on New Bond Street, 1820s. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Advert for Java sparrows on New Bond Street, 1820s. Image property of Westminster City Archives

What’s been your most surprising discovery?
Seeing the great seal of Elizabeth I on a deed in the Grosvenor Estate archives. It shows the queen in a spectacular dress with a lace ruff at the neck just like the ones in the famous portraits.

What’s the oldest document in the archives?
It’s a grant from Henry III to Westminster Abbey of rights to hold a market in Tothill Fields, Westminster, in 1256. It’s written in ink on parchment (sheepskin) and has most of its original green wax seal showing the king on the throne holding a sword.

Exterior view of the Archives Centre

Westminster Archives Centre

What are your concerns for the future of archives?
The fact that the 1256 document survives in the correct environment in the Archives Centre makes me wonder if any of the records we are producing now will last as long, especially as so many have been created on computers. I think the 19th century will be the best recorded century in London’s history because minutes of meetings were carefully written in bound volumes, not like the files of loose papers we get today.

What qualities do you think the archivist can bring to society?
Perspective! – we view everything that happens now against a backdrop of centuries of history. But we’re also always thinking of the future and the legacy we’re leaving to future generations. I think archivists can bring a fair degree of impartiality to the decisions about which records to keep and which to destroy. Basically, good record keeping is essential for a democratic society. You’ve only to think of the despotic regimes throughout the world, which destroy government records to deny citizens their rights, or else invade their privacy by recording every minute detail of their lives, to see just how important an issue this is.Explore Your Archive 2013