Lena Elizabeth Tarpley, d.1971

Lena Elizabeth Tarpley (who sometimes signed herself, L. Elizabeth Tarpley), was, undoubtedly, a very capable artist. She was also one of the many thousands of women artists who continued to study and paint for all their lives, but about whom little is known.

Tarpley lived and worked in Bushey, Hertfordshire. She became a member of the Watford and Bushey Art Society, which had been formed in 1921. In fact, this was an area where artists had gathered for many years. In 1883, the young Hubert Herkomer (who became Sir Hubert von Herkomer, R.A.) had opened his art school in Bushey, which, over the following 21 years, attracted many students, including Lucy Kemp-Welch[1], who arrived as a pupil in 1888 and stayed on, taking over the running of the School from 1905-1926. Herkomer himself had been trained at the Royal College of Art, but he was impatient with conventional, academic teaching and promoted, instead, drawing from life, in the open air. Tarpley could not have attended the Bushey Art School in Herkomer's day, but it is an intriguing possibility that Tarpley and Kemp-Welch knew one another. In any event, the stamp of Herkomer’s taste for the rich culture of everyday life, and his brilliance in portraiture, as well as Kemp-Welch's vigorous, painterly handling, must have influenced the Watford and Bushey Art Society and, thus, surely, Tarpley herself.

Like many women, whose life was governed by domestic demands, Tarpley painted what was around her: landscapes, still lives, self-portraits and portraits of Neville, her husband. She was not commenting on or criticising her environment, nor was she self-consciously investing it with powerful meaning. Instead, Tarpley is one of those artists who provide a consistent, affectionate accompaniment to our everyday lives, reaffirming and enriching our daily experience, reminding us to look at the world and relish it.

It is said that Tarpley was commissioned by firms such as Cadbury’s to produce designs for chocolate boxes; she also produced images which were reproduced as lithographs and used in products such as calendars. Such work might now be easily dismissed, but this kind of commission was of great importance to many women artists, who possessed neither the time nor the vaunting ambition to spend too much time exploring their own psyches. In fact, the painting of chocolate boxes - and similar commercial goods - was promoted in order to provide post-War employment to artists and as a means of encouraging a sluggish economy. In June, 1923, The Times reported that the Royal Society of Arts had launched, ‘Art in Industry: plan to encourage designers’. Leading manufacturers were amongst those who provided sponsorship. Design categories initially included textiles, furniture, book illustration, pottery and glass. Chocolate boxes were added to the list at the behest of J.S. Fry and Cecil R. Fry (Fry’s, since 1918, had been a subsidiary of Cadbury’s). The first of several Competitions of Industrial Design was held in 1924 and these continued, annually, until 1934. In the first year, over £1,000 of prizes and travelling scholarships were awarded; and the first recipient of the medal sponsored by the RSA itself was Rowland Hilder. For a decade, prospective employers could thus see the work of, ‘highest artistic power’. The extent to which Tarpley became involved in the ‘Art in Industry’ competitions remains unknown. But it is clear that she was working in a context where such commercial possibilities - for 'chocolate box painting' - were open to her.

Many of Lena Tarpley’s paintings were sold in 2012; presumably the contents of her studio, which must have remained in family ownership, since her death in 1971. The range of subjects is interesting. She travelled and painted round the British Isles: she visited the small, picturesque villages and byways of England; she journeyed around Ireland, painting in Killarney, in County Kerry, and Connemara, in the west of Ireland; she toured Wales, painting along the coastline and in places such as Llanwrst, Snowdonia. Her travels abroad were probably more limited, though there are pictures of the countryside in Luxembourg and in the Swiss Alps.

Tarpley clearly enjoyed exploring the quality of light and atmosphere: a heat haze on a summer afternoon, the sombre winter dusk, flickering light through the newly-emerging leaves in spring, contre-jour effects and sharp contrasts of light and dark. Her colour is resonant and bold: strong greens, rusts, golds, purples and reds lend vigour and intensity to her work. Her compositions tend to be assertive, carefully-constructed, with simplified forms containing areas of linear complexity. She plays with pictorial space, sometimes exploring effects of atmospheric perspective, sometimes thrusting the image to the forefront of the picture plane.

Many of Tarpley’s images were surely painted from life, though it is clear that others were worked up in the studio, from watercolours painted on the spot - perhaps these more finished pieces were the ones intended for reproduction. Where she was not so constrained, her touch appears to be more free and experimental. She captures the fresh, outdoor light and the scudding clouds in her landscapes; she explores the vibrant colours and reflected glow associated with a simple bunch of flowers. In these works, the quality of her paint may be dry, encrusted, vigorous; it can also be swift and succulent. She was audacious in exploiting the expressive potential of both brush and palette knife.

Lena Tarpley was much more than just a competent artist. She was not particularly experimental in her approach, nor was she a philosopher. But she worked hard and consistently and, in so doing, enormously enriched – with colour and delight – the everyday lives of thousands, even millions, of people.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] Kemp-Welch became one of the most interesting and powerful of women artists working in both the Boer and the First World War. Her Forward the Guns! was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1917 and was based on Kemp-Welch’s sketches outdoors, from life, of men and horses in military manoeuvres.