A Frances Darlington Mystery for the Platinum Jubilee

What seems like aeons ago now, just before the U.K. and the rest of the world was plunged into the darkest days of lockdown and the pandemic, I sent a copy of my biography of Frances Darlington to HM. the Queen. Among other things, the book features Darlington’s relief sculptures for St. Wilfrid’s Church in Harrogate, which is situated on Crown land on Duchy Road which being situated in North Yorkshire is, perhaps controversially, part of the Duchy of Lancaster! Darlington’s works in St. Wilfrid’s were part of a collaboration with the architect Temple Moore are integral to the overall architectural theme.

I received a lovely letter back and some time later, another communication from Jonathan Marsden, who as curator of sculpture at the Royal Collections was compiling a catalogue of sculpture in the collection. Jonathan sent me an image of a piece that I had never seen before, a relief panel by Frances Darlington made in 1926 to commemorate the birth of a daughter to the then Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) with the tiny princess growing up to be H.M. Queen Elizabeth whose Platinum Jubilee I have the pleasure of celebrating in writing this post. 

Royal Collection Trust copyright 2022 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 

The arrival of this communication was quite momentous for me because, as those who are familiar with my work will know, I have been attempting to research the life of Frances Darlington since I was seventeen and this has even affected my own work as an artist in rather a profound way. Darlington, known affectionately as Auntie Dickie within the family was my grandmother’s aunt and my research stemmed from very little information, a handful of letters and postcards, disconnected old photographs (and negatives) and a few pieces of her work still owned by the family. From this and with the help of extra research collaboration with Matthew Withey at the Henry Moore Institute in 2001-3 (towards an exhibition of Darlington’s work at The Mercer Gallery, Harrogate 2003-4) which provided a catalyst for the ensuing research, I’ve amassed a large body of research material and published two editions of her biography in 2013 and 2016 (revised paperback and ebook). As I have written in my book, it is evident from various sources that Darlington had a deep regard for the tradition and duty of monarchy, but up to this moment the only royal portrait that I knew of was her 1901 memorial bust of Queen Victoria, unveiled when Darlington was only twenty-two.

Marble bust of Queen Victoria, Morley Town Hall by Frances Darlington 1902.

The email also arrived at a time when I was feeling the loss of my father quite deeply (he had died of Covid-19 in April that year) and so embodied a type of light and hope that I have come to associate with H.M. This new discovery warranted new research which I have done when I have been able to amidst all my other commitments. There is nothing like new information to inspire energy in a research project!

According to the Jonathan Marsden, the relief panel is thought to have been present to HM the Queen Mother, but the identity of the donor is not known. That there should be no obvious record perhaps points to the informality and personal nature of the gift and the sentimental heart-shaped composition surely points to something deeply personal. As there was a much greater deference towards the royal family in the past, it seems unlikely to be the unsolicited gift of a stranger.

1926 was the year that Frances Darlington moved from her riverside cottage in Knaresborough to a studio flat in London. (She is listed in trade directories at the beginning of the year in Knaresborough and on the electoral roll in London by the beginning of the next year). So at the time of the Queen’s birth in April, it is more likely that Darlington still lived in Knaresborough. Knaresborough is very close to Goldsborough Hall, where the Duke of York’s sister, Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, (who had married Viscount Lascelles, the eldest son of the Earl of Harewood) lived. (As was traditional, the eldest son of. the Earl of Harewood lived at Goldsborough Hall). Diane Howse, Lady Harewood put me in touch with the curators at Harewood House where the private archive of Princess Mary is held, but as yet no clue has been found. Despite this, it still seems to be the most plausible connection. According to the curators at Harewood, Princess Mary and her husband were keen patrons of the arts and attended many local exhibitions and events, so it seems likely that they would be familiar with Darlington’s public works in the locality, including the seventy-foot frieze in the foyer of Harrogate Theatre unveiled just a few years earlier c. 1923-4. It is worth noting that Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was friends with Princess Mary and was her bridesmaid before she married Princess Mary’s sister Prince Albert, later George VI.

As this route of research failed to yield any truths, I began to wonder about other possibilities, other friends of the late Queen Mother who might have commissioned the piece for her. This led me to look at the friendship with the Vyner family who lived at Fountains Hall, Studley Royal – Fountains Abbey was also a favourite haunt of the Darlington family.

I must at this point thank Richard Compton at Newby Hall for his help with this line of research, in breaking the news to me about the devastating fire that destroyed most of the evidence of the Vyner family as well as for pointing me to the West Yorkshire Archive where the remainder of the family papers are held. Huge thanks to the amazing West Yorkshire Archive staff who helped look through the holdings remotely so as to also eliminate this line of enquiry. Who knows how many other clues to this and other branches of research were lost in this fire.

My strategy with researching and writing the biography was ‘a cup half full’ approach and to focus upon what I did know, and what I might reason from it. What we do know is that at the time Frances Darlington lived at St. Francis Cottage, Knaresborough, a town with a large artist community. We also know that it is in close proximity to Goldsborough Hall where a close friend of the Queen Mother, who was also a patron of the arts and was also, in her patronage of the Girl Guides, something of a feminist, lived and may have looked to patronise the work of a fairly prominent (then) female artist.

It seems highly unlikely that the Royal family ever sat for this piece and there is evidence that Darlington frequently worked from photographs when a live model was not available. In comparing some of the press photographs released upon the birth of Princess Elizabeth with the sculptural figures it is easy to see the resemblance may have been slightly altered for the purposes of the relief panel. However, if the commission did originate from within the family it is possible that Frances Darlington had access to other photographs that were not released to the press.

There are so many other tangental connections which may yet prove to be the source of the commission. Darlington’s family were mainly solicitors and consuls involved in international diplomacy but as yet the Royal Archive has not found any such connection with the piece.

As such, the mystery thickens but experience has taught me to be patient, alert and never to leave any stone unturned as the tiniest clue can be a key to a palace of information! My heartfelt thanks go out to all involved in getting this image to me – I hope to find something more soon and to eventually find a publisher willing to take a revised edition of the biography into the mainstream.

Wishing everyone, and especially Her Majesty the Queen a very HAPPY PLATINUM JUBILEE!

Finding Frances – the biography of Frances Darlington (1880-1940) available as a print-to-order paperback via Blurb or as an ebook on Apple Books.

My recent paper on Frances Darlington’s female networks available on the Royal Society of Sculptors’ Vimeo channel here.

Frances Darlington c. 1900

Psychedelic Disko Flux NFTs

This is the title of one of my new collections of NFTs on Opensea. The works are an integral part of the development of my current visual research and I am in the process of animating some of them for projection. Taking the ideas from earlier works – inklings of forms that I really cannot fathom the source of, but which seem to have their own logic as they develop.

Thought Metaphors available on OpenSea

These marbling experiments began when I was doing my M.A. in Fine Art at Sunderland between 2005 and 2007 at a time when I was musing upon notions of order and chaos. I’d read a lot of existential philosophers some years earlier, Sartre, Heidegger, Kiekegaard and so was musing on ideas of freewill – which was the main thread of my MA degree show and therefore my works were visual musings on order / chaos, determinism / freewill.

Work considering existence, order and chaos, waves 2007

For what I hope are obvious reasons, marbling seemed to be a good visual metaphor for the depiction of chaos. That this patterning should be so popular for bookbinding I felt was no accident – how the fluidity seems to echo thought, trains of thought, experience, consciousness all mutable and shifting, flowing with dynamics of new colours as ideas.

My own early experiments with marbling paper were used to bind artist books carrying on the subject area of my M.A. in my library installation, Further Reading at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2007-8. Off cuts were used in collages on graph paper.

This collage of marbling on graph paper and this marbled ball-type structure were made in my Leeds studio back in 2009 as part of my development of a body of work I titled Screen Play.

The new digital collages available as 1/1 editions on Opensea are direct developments of these works, but they also correspond to the idea of a mind-manifesting in depth of thought whilst also taking in outside influences.

Towards my practice-based PhD on the revivals of nineteenth century imagery in the late 1960s I have looked at the various forms of transcendence, e.g. through psychedelic drugs and Transcendental Meditation – and why these older imageries somehow articulated these departures. And as far as I have researched, departure is the key –  for it is a departure to another reality that of the past, which crossed and still crosses over with our own in the traces of Victorian culture, architecture, clothing etc that remain in contemporary life.

Recognising the lilting lines of Art Nouveau as parts of the revival and the Victorian end-paper as visually connecting to the amorphous lines of the liquid light show – the rendering of these segments as facets, sequentially distorted and centred in a globe structure seemed a good metaphor for a thought.

Art Nouveau Staircase, Brussels.

Thought Metaphors 1-14 currently available on OpenSea as part of Psychedelic Disko Flux.

Marble thought collages rendered to T-shirt design

T-shirts available through shroomies.uk – hit the sticker to enter!

Painting & the 3rd Dimension

Over the past few months I have been reading the excellent William Feaver biography of Lucian Freud. Some of my followers will already be aware of my affinity with Freud’s work, especially with his earlier paintings. I have always admired his facility and continued attention in the application of paint in relation to his subject. Simultaneous with this reading has been the presence of two of my own paintings in the same room. They are from very different bodies of work but they correspond in their analysis of depth of space and, albeit on different planes, on the idea of perception and existence too.

In chronological order they are this one that began a series of paintings that I called Screen Play:

Space Bar (part of Screen Play) 2010

The painting was first exhibited in York rather appropriately at York City Screen in 2010. The screen in question is something approximating what we see when we look at the illusion of the depth of field on a computer monitor. A keyboard and a mouse is suggested. The painting also plays around with patterning approximating marbling – like the endpapers to a book – a book of fact or fiction. There are snatches or glimpses of landscapes – I imagined a travelator on the left and a snowy woodland scene at the base as well as abstract shapes there are various points of perspective. There is perhaps a lamp to the left of the painting.

The second painting is more recent. It has never been exhibited but had some nice praise when I first posted it on Instagram. The painting derived from a model of a small theatre that I had made. This follows on from a large body of work upon reflections upon man’s existence – which I realise are essentially rooted in the plays (and poems) of William Shakespeare with possibly nod to more recent readings of other philosophers. But it probably because of Shakespeare that the stage became a recurrent motif. Followers of my work will know that this theatre construction is one of many. This one is the tiniest.

Untitled 2018

Looking at these two works on a daily basis whilst reading about Freud’s own deep reflections upon vision – and perceiving that incisive investigation in the recent Freud exhibition at Liverpool has made me look at the main areas of analysis in my own paintings. If it wasn’t already obvious, the visual materiality of the third dimension is certainly a recurrent theme in my work. Further back in 2005-7 during my M.A. at the University of Sunderland I was working on fragmented images on wide open canvases whose surfaces were otherwise populated by screen prints. In an exhibition around the same time I elaborated on this theme by reproducing the composition into a three dimensional model on one facet of a lantern book.

Safe Place 2006
Safe Place Pop Up Version in Lantern Book as part of Further Reading at The Lit & Phil, Newcastle, 2007

More recently I have been indulging this further with a stereoscopic app on my phone – viewers (invented by Brian May – yes, THE Brian May) are available from the London Stereoscopic Society.

Fly Agaric Stereoscopic Photograph 2020

More recently I have been building more three dimensional models and experimenting with these in film and painting – below, an example of an experimental film still.

Experimental Film (still) 2021
Pen & Ink Study 2022

Above a pen and ink study of the camera chamber model, (lined with hand marbled paper and also used in the film) where I’ve taken this perception and relay of the third dimension and distorted it – as Freud sometimes does – to as the eye sees it rather than as it correctly is. A sort of travelling of the eye over space.

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