Frances Darlington, Sculptor (1880 - 1940)

writing her biography - reflecting on practice


Finding Frances - the biography of Frances Darlington by Louise Marchal is published by The Marble Press on 9th November 2013. Order a copy here:

In 2001 The Henry Moore Institute put out a call for information on Frances Darlington via The Yorkshire Post. As her niece and god-daughter my grandmother immediately made contact. I myself had started research on her life in 1992, but in the dark ages before the internet had only met with continual dead ends. Although we had many photographs and letters we knew very little of her life outside Yorkshire. Research and collaboration followed. It transpired that Frances had studied under Sir George Frampton at the Slade from the age of 17 and was a contemporary of Augustus John, Gwen John and other forgotten female artists* such as Edna Clarke Hall, Gwen Smith and Ida Nettleship (John's first wife).

As the work and memory of Frances formed such a strong inspirational presence in our lives, the subsequent exhibition at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate in 2003 was a personal triumph for both my grandmother and myself: we regarded her artistic obscurity as a terrific injustice. Whenever we went to Harrogate Theatre, my grandmother would tell the box office staff about how her aunt had made the 70 foot frieze there, how she herself had posed for some of the figures, but nothing ever went beyond that.

My grandmother and I assisted Matthew Withey of the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds with a great deal of the necessary research for the exhibition, taking a year to sift through family postcards and correspondence and photographs to develop some image of the sequence of her life.

"Heavenly Creatures - The work of Frances Darlington 1880 - 1939" meant that more works and information came to the fore. Even the year of her death was an estimated mystery then: I have since found out that Frances died of heart failure during the bombing of Oxted on September 5th 1940. Due to the war she was buried almost immediately so the family did not hear about her death until after the funeral; which is why my grandmother could not remember it.

Works appeared in the exhibition which we had never seen before and some that we had only seen in ancient sepia photographs taken by Frances herself.

The writing of her biography is a challenging interpretive and creative act. As ever, my practice oscillates between theoretical studies and physical outcomes, and the book and art works are a synchronic production of that creative process. The research and compilation of the text has generated a series of art works that are rooted in (and opposed to) the identities and histories, types and attitudes that dramatically changed in the twentieth century.

* Alison Thomas has made a great study of these female artists in her book Portraits of Women, Gwen John and her forgotten contemporaries. (1994) Polity Press