Sworders Head of Pictures, Jane Oakley, describes the thrill of uncovering the work of an exceptional talent, Elsie Marian Henderson, Baroness de Coudenhove (1880-1967), whom before now, she knew so little about.
22 September 2021
One of the great things about working at an auction house like Sworders is uncovering the work of artists I have never seen before – be they of local or regional significance, or perhaps they have become a bit neglected over the years. Sometimes, as well-regarded as they were in their lifetime, they may just not have come up in the salerooms frequently, so they have escaped my notice and they slip below the radar. The latest artist to do just that is Elsie Marian Henderson, Baroness de Coudenhove (1880-1967). I was lucky enough to work with Sally Hunter on her single owner sale at Sworders earlier this year and we entered a number works by Henderson – landscapes, figure subjects, and a collection of her sketches of lions and tigers at London Zoo. She is an incredible draughtsman, and the works had a real flair to them. Even so, we couldn’t have predicted just how much interest we would have in them, with one lot selling for £4,940.
Sold - £4,940 | The Sally Hunter & Ian Posgate Collection | Tuesday 18 May 2021
Elsie Marian Henderson (1880-1967) Watching Tiger; Resting Tiger; Waiting Tiger, conte and watercolour, 29 x 20cm and smaller (3)
After the sale, I was approached to sell some more works spanning her career from an early art deco head study that looks every inch like a J D Fergusson (lot 105), examples of her sculptures from the 1920s (lot 103), still lifes, to her later visionary landscapes. These oils and watercolours are so vibrant and imaginative with a confident sense of composition and balance. A little light clean and the right frame, I am confident these forgotten gems will help to re-establish Elsie’s reputation as a formidable talent.
Elsie Henderson in her Holland Park Studio circa 1926 working on a sculpture of a lioness
Elsie Henderson was European in her training and interests. Having become a student at the Slade in 1903 under Henry Tonks, Fred Brown and Philip Wilson Steer, she developed her extraordinary sense of line and ability to observe the world around her. She later studied and copied the masters in galleries in Dresden, Berlin and central Italy. From 1908 she continued her training in Paris, attending a number of progressive ateliers including La Palette, where Cubist Amédée Ozenfant was a fellow student, and also that of the sculptor Filippo Colarossi – who not only admitted women but also allowed them to draw from the male nudes in his life classes as well as the female. By the time she was at the studio of Fauvist Othon Friesz in 1912, Henderson had come into contact with many of the most influential art teachers in Paris and London.
Lot 91 - Modern & Contemporary Art, Tuesday 5 October 2021
Elsie Marian Henderson (1880-1967), Study of a dancer with three figures, mixed media on board, 51 x 61cm, unframed
Having spent the First World War in Guernsey, her childhood home, Henderson enrolled at Chelsea Polytechnic in 1916 to learn lithography under Ernest Jackson.
She became famous immediately for the series of animal lithographs she began then - outstanding in their grasp of form and design and almost Japanese use of space - and for the London Zoo drawings on which they were based. In 1916 the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum acquired six of these works from a New English Art Club exhibition, and in 1917, commenting on a Women’s International Art Club exhibition, the art critic Sir Claude Phillips wrote ‘Nothing in the gallery equals in suppleness and power, in intensity and passion, Miss Elsie M Henderson’s studies in black chalk of the royal beasts of the cat tribe.’ That year she was commissioned by London Transport to design a London Zoo poster for the Underground. She set up her own printing press, and became a member of the lithographers’ Senefelder Club.
Lot 103 - Modern & Contemporary Art, Tuesday 5 October 2021
Elsie Marian Henderson (1880-1967), Reclining lion, ciment fondu 48.5cm wide 20cm deep 20cm high
During the early 1920s Elsie Henderson experimented with stone and cement sculpture, and developed an expertise in clay modelling and bronze-casting. Her self-doubt was tempered by her close friendships with strong, independent women like the painter Orovida Pissarro, and she went on to hold solo exhibitions at the Leicester, Redfern and Storran galleries, and to exhibit with other well-known artists like Paul Nash. Her work was bought by and presented to museums worldwide.
Henderson returned to Guernsey in 1928, marrying the French consul Baron Henri de Coudenhove. Continuing to enjoy international success, she worked hard in her purpose-built studio producing linocuts as well as lithographs, and vibrant, Deco-style still-lifes and portraits of women in oils and pastels.
Lot 105 - Modern & Contemporary Art, Tuesday 5 October 2021
Elsie Marian Henderson (1880-1967), Art Deco head, signed 'Elsie Henderson' l.l., charcoal and pastels, 24 x 19cm, unframed
All this changed, however, with the Second World War and the German Occupation of the island. With the couple facing starvation, Henderson was forced to abandon her art to grow food. In 1946 the Baron died from the consequences of malnutrition, and Henderson moved with her sister to Hadlow Down in Sussex.
In Sussex Elsie once again built her own studio, and with renewed determination to experiment and express her feelings in her art, worked obsessively, almost daily, until her death in 1967. This energy is particularly evident in the series of watercolours and oils of the Sussex countryside she produced during the 1950s, when she was again exhibiting with the best-known British artists, for example at the Leicester Galleries in 1954. With their slashes of vivid colour, and often tending towards abstraction, many of these in their treatment of light have a visionary quality – as if Henderson was perhaps reaching a state of acceptance after her vicissitudes, and sensing the end of her life.
Lot 84 - Modern & Contemporary Art, Tuesday 5 October 2021
Elsie Marian Henderson (1880-1967), Bright red sun, 1953, signed 'E. Henderson' l.l., oil on board, 51 x 61cm, unframed
In 1985 the Parkin Gallery, London, revived Elsie Henderson’s memory with an exhibition of her work alongside that of Orovida Pissarro. The Sally Hunter Gallery then held three further Elsie Henderson exhibitions. Henderson’s life spanned a long, important period in British history, with many changes in society and artistic styles. The significance of her contribution to the Modern British art movement is now again being recognized and celebrated by art historians and collectors alike.
Modern & Contemporary Art - Tuesday 5 October 2021
A rare work by the extraordinary Sarah Biffin (1784-1850), an early 19th century artist born without limbs, will go under the hammer in our Fine Interiors auction this December.
26 October 2021
A collection of Chinese silver assembled by a family who lived in Shanghai in the early 20th century comes for sale at Sworders in November. The group of typical ‘export’ wares owned by the vendor’s grandparents who lived in ‘the Paris of the East’ had been stored in a trunk since the end of The Second World War.
19 October 2021
Next week's auction of Design offers two archetypal side chairs from a truly unique Italian designer - Carlo Bugatti - whose life was filled with talent and tragedy.
14 October 2021