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What the Dickinson? - I am nobody

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Who are the Dickinsons of the Fine Art World and what do we mean by that?

Like most, I was mostly aware that Emily Dickinson was a recluse and of the thousands of poems she wrote, only 10 were ever published, and not necessarily because she allowed them to. Friends who believed she should be recognised for the great poetry she wrote would slip a poem here or there to the newspapers.

Emily Dickinson - 1830-1886
I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too? Then there's a pair of us! Don't tell! they'd advertise (banish us) – you know! How dreary – to be – Somebody! How public – like a Frog – To tell one's name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!

After watching the highly acclaimed Dickinson TV show, my mind was sent on an extravagant (or just highly imaginative) journey of what ifs and trying to speculate how many people enjoy writing, or painting, but are happy to remain undiscovered, or just struggle with wanting to be recognised, but recognition could affect how they practice their art. For instance, would a fine artist be forever stuck painting what sells because they themselves, or the gallery representing them, will not let them try out new things. And if they do try out new things, it has to be on their own time when they're not preparing for a show and need to create 20 or so original artworks in the same exact style they've always painted in. Or if you do try something new, don't make it too new, or different. You don't want to scare away your collectors and fan base.

I, for one, love to see artists reach new heights and evolve. Try something new and different because, surely, it will still be unique and have something of the artist that makes you recognise their signature move instantly. I can't fathom caging and trapping an artist so that all they become is a money making machine. On the other hand, cynicism and today's capitalist society wants to take anything we love and turn it into hard, cold cash. When reading about the Old Masters, they too followed the money and had their own art production line in the form of apprentices, and they also hired lesser known painters who specialised in robes, backgrounds, etc. For instance, Peter Paul Rubens (1577- 1640) was well known in Europe not only for his masterpieces, but also his large studio, the most famous one during his time.

In present times, we have have all heard of of Warhol's production line system. Currently, artists such as Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst also have their signature styles and outsource their production to apprentices, and hired help. An interesting case is that of artist Kehinde Wiley, who outsourced his production to China, where he opened a studio in 2006. Although the artist keeps that information very close to his chest. According to a GQ interview:

Critics have long wondered about the extent to which Wiley’s paintings are painted by Wiley himself. When I asked if I could visit his studio in China to watch him paint, he declined. He welcomes studio visits qua visits, and there are snippets of video of him painting on the interwebs—Wiley in headphones, palette and tiny brush in hand, delicately drawing the dark outline of a large eye. Caption: "Man, Alone, Confronting the Muse." This surely isn’t inaccurate, at times. But due to high demand for Wileys, a single Wiley can’t produce them fast enough, and that’s where the assistants take over—though, again, to what degree and at what point it’s deliberately difficult to say. (source)

But, I digress, this isn't about showmanship and business prowess. It is about the artists who created in the privacy of their home and only become famous because once they passed away, somebody discovered their artwork. I don't mean the artists who were rejected during their lifetime, or tried to become famous during their lifetime, but never made it. I mean the hobbyist, the perfectionist, the artists who hid their work from public view for whatever reason.

Ethel Mabel Brown - Selected Illustrations
Ethel Mabel Brown - Selected Illustrations (Source: Daily Mail)

This, though, is a lot harder to research and find. But, thanks to Google and Simon Allan's good memory, I found very good articles on exactly what I was curious about. This is the case of fashion designer Ethel Mabel Brown, someone you have probably never heard about and here is why. Although she studied at the Birmingham School of Art from 1919, and finished her final year in 1925 specializing in fashion design and illustration, it is likely that once she married, she put that all behind her. According to collector Connie Gray of the art gallery Gray MCA:

"the illustrations are exceptional and Ethel obviously had a keen understanding of the figurative form and how garments work." (source)

Fiona Waterhouse, research assistant at the Birmingham City University Art and Design Archives, says:

"it was a time of change when the women were winning more school prizes than the men for all subjects including drawing, design and metalwork. Feasibly, Ethel could have used her talent to start a career – in the 1920s, female illustrators were used in many magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar." (source)

Ethel Mabel Brown's illustrations are now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum's (V&A) collection where they will be accessible to all and will inspire future generations of fashion designers. The designs curator Dr Olivia Horsfall Turner says:

"the drawings are a fine example from the era and will complement the museum’s existing collection of fashion designs and illustrations beautifully". (source)

Henry Darger girls fleeing soldiers
Henry Darger - Untitled

Another very interesting story is that of Henry Darger. Better known than Ethel Mabel, there is more information available on him. He worked as a janitor in a Chicago hospital and was known to be a recluse. In the privacy of his little flat he painted and wrote fantasy works that were illustrated in watercolour panoramic collage style artwork. After Darger was moved to the St. Augustine's Home for the Aged, where he passed away in 1973 at the age of 81, his artwork was discovered by his landlords Nathan and Kyoko Lerner. Nathan Lerner was a photographer well acquainted with the visual culture of Chicago and recognised Darger's talent. It is thanks to him and Kyoko, that his work was publicized and their contributions that Darger become a posthumously renown figure within the Outsider Art world.

Further readings on Hernry Darger:


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