Monday, November 28, 2011

A Forgotten Prodigy ~ Joan Manning Sanders 1913-2002

A review of Penlee House Gallery’s Autumn 2011 exhibition

Penlee’s latest show turns the spotlight onto Joan Manning Sanders, a painter whose reputation has languished for some eighty years. Attaining her first commission at the age of eleven, this rising star of the 1920s was exhibiting at London’s Royal Academy by the time she was sixteen. Over a period of ten years she established a career as a renowned portrait painter, then disappeared off the critics’ radar.

Having encountered fleeting references to this elusive artist while researching the Newlyn art colony, my attempts to locate her artworks remained unsuccessful. So I was determined not to miss ‘A Forgotten Prodigy’- an unprecedented opportunity to appreciate some of her finest works.

Joan Manning Saunders painting 'David'
Photographer unknown
Private Collection

Joan Manning Sanders was born in Devon in 1913 to a bohemian couple who had spent the first two years of their married life travelling in a horse-drawn caravan. After their daughter’s arrival her parents Ruth, a poet, and George, artist and writer, realised they would have to return to a less unconventional way of life. Reluctant to relinquish their nomadic existence altogether, over the next few years they rented a succession of houses in Cornwall, Sussex and the south of France. During their wanderings the family was accompanied by a governess, Miss Bridge. Through her teaching, Joan and her younger brother David were encouraged to memorise historical and religious events by illustrating them in pastels and watercolours. Joan’s precocious artistic ability was fostered not only by Miss Bridge, but also by her parents, in a creative ‘hothouse’ atmosphere which did much to develop her confidence.

Eventually the family settled in Sennen Cove, near Lands End, where they were soon absorbed into a community which included many leading artists of the Newlyn School. A visit from friends Fr. Walke and his artist wife Annie when Joan was eleven, led to her first commission. Recognising her talent, Annie suggested she should paint a series of six watercolours scenes from the childhood of Christ, to decorate the screen of the Lady Chapel in their church, St Hilary’s near Marazion. The paintings were begun in 1924 and took two years to complete. They were widely praised, with Bernard Walke subsequently remarking in his autobiography Twenty Years at St Hilary that ‘the pictures are the quintessence of childhood.’ The series can still be seen in the church today, forming part of a decorative scheme which, in its entirety, incorporates contributions from Annie Walke, the Knights, the Procters and the Garstins – all significant figures from the art colony.

It was an extraordinary achievement, marking a defining moment for the young girl. George and Ruth, who had intended to send her to secondary school in Hertfordshire, instead provided Joan with her own studio in Sennen Cove. Aged thirteen, she was presented with her first set of oil paints, and decided to turn her talents to portraiture. While she obtained no formal art training, she benefited from the support of local artist friends. Family photographs of the 1920s show Laura Knight at work and participating in social gatherings. In her autobiography of 1936, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, Knight described the teenage Joan’s drawings as having a ‘remarkable quality’.

For this exhibition, Penlee has accumulated eleven oil paintings produced over a period of intense creativity from 1927 to 1932. ‘The Brothers’ (illustrated on the cover of the book which accompanies the show) was selected for the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1928 to tremendous critical acclaim. At sixteen Joan was the youngest ever exhibitor at this prestigious annual event, a record which has yet to be surpassed. In his introduction to a book of 1929 entitled Drawings and Paintings by Joan Manning Sanders, the highly regarded critic R H Wilenski felt that ‘The Brothers’ had echoes of Cezanne’s ‘Card Players’ about it. To his astonishment, it emerged that Joan had never come across this series of works.

The Brothers, 1928
Oil on canvas,
90 x 97 cm     

Private collection
© The Artist's Estate

Joan wrote that she usually had little difficulty finding fishermen to pose for her, since they were happy to make themselves available between tides. She came across this scene in the local pub. The brothers, who exhibit a strong family resemblance to one another, showed immense patience sitting for Joan over numerous sessions. This is a strong composition, in which one can sense the total absorption of the draughts players, watched over by their companion.

The village women proved more of a challenge to the artist, as they tended to become restless, mindful of the tasks awaiting them at home! An exception to this is ‘Gracie’, a portrait which reflects the dignity of a character whose experience of life is etched in the lines of her face, the set of her mouth, and the clasp of her work-worn hands.

Gracie, 1927
Oil on canvas, 81 x 63 cm     
Private collection
© The Artist's Estate

In complete contrast, ‘The Little Negress’ is a delightful depiction of a girl who engages the viewer with the confident gaze of youth. Children were Joan’s least favourite subjects, since they had a propensity to fidget. This pose (whose crossed ankles remind one of Manet’s ‘Olympia’) must have provided the perfect solution.

The Little Negress, 1931. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. © The Artist's Estate

In my view, this work shows the influence of Dod Procter’s representations of young girls. To locate Joan’s work within the larger context of Newlyn and Lamorna, one has only to venture into the adjoining gallery. Here, an array of paintings by her contemporaries and mentors has been selected to complement her own canvases. This visual feast includes Procter’s ‘Little Sister’ and Laura Knight’s voluptuous portrayal of Eileen Mayo, ‘Blue and Gold’ – both iconic works which I had not seen before.

Penlee House’s quest to track down paintings by Joan Manning Sanders from a variety of sources proved to be a substantial undertaking. Only one work, ‘The Baby’, is from a public collection, Leamington Spa Art Gallery. Many canvases were in storage, having been rolled up and exposed to damp for decades. Those which were salvageable required restoration work, carried out by the Courtauld Institute in London, and Penzance-based conservator Alison Smith.

R H Wilenski had expressed the hope in 1929 that Joan would develop her extraordinary talent by following her creative instinct, rather than seeking to build on her early Royal Academy success. Feted as a celebrity artist and gaining considerable press attention, she continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy almost every summer until her 1936 submission was rejected. She seemed unable to move beyond a figurative style which had become unfashionable in the modernist era.

In the same year Joan enrolled at Chelsea Art School, where she met and married a fellow student, Roderick Floyd. The couple rented a studio in Paris but Joan returned to Cornwall in 1940. After moving to Canada in 1949 she gave up her painting altogether. She returned to the UK in the 1950s accompanied by her two sons. Joan and Ruth, now widowed, settled in Penzance, where Joan carried out research for her mother’s publications. Ruth died in 1988, after which Joan lived out her last years in Penzance until her death in 2002.

© 2011 Helen Hoyle

May 2012 News update  Subsequent to the exhibition, Joan Manning Sanders' painting David has been acquired by Falmouth Art Gallery, and can be viewed on the Gallery's website.

The following book was published to accompany the exhibition:
Owen Baker & John Floyd : A Forgotten Prodigy ~ Joan Manning Sanders and her circle

Further reading:
Melissa Hardie (ed) : Artists in Newlyn and West Cornwall 1880-1940  (2009)
David Tovey : Creating a Splash (2003)
Bernard Walke : Twenty Years at St Hilary (1935)
R H Wilenski : Drawings and Paintings by Joan Manning Sanders (1929)


  1. Fascinating post Helen. The paintings manage to be both sophisticated and have a naive quality .. thanks for sharing.

  2. Didn't Duchamp move to Canada and give up painting? Hardly an emerging pattern but I so want to know WHY she stopped :)

  3. Vanilla, I'm not sure about Duchamp ... but Emily Carr (see my article of Feb. 2011) on returning to her native Canada after a spell in St Ives in 1901, became fascinated by the rainforests of British Columbia, producing her finest work there in the 1930s.

  4. I wonder if Lucien Freud ever saw her work. It looks as though there could be some influences there.

  5. there is a portrait of her by RO Dunlop in the Hepworth wakefield in UK public collection - see BBC -Your paintings website
    Rgds Peter

    1. Thank you, Peter, for drawing my attention to this portrait of Joan Manning Sanders, which I've just located on the 'Your Paintings' website. And I had a look at some of Dunlop's other portraits, which are quite exceptional.