I bought this painting about 30 years ago – on an impulse – from a pavement stall in Islington’s Camden Passage market. It hangs in the hallway and I’ve passed it umpteen times a day ever since but it was only at the beginning of this week that I paused on the way to bed to see if it carried a signature . I suppose, back c. 1990, I must have noticed the artist’s name but, if so, I hadn’t given it much thought, it then being a near impossibility to research the ‘unknown’.
There, In the bottom right-hand corner, is, indeed, a very clear and neat signature – ‘Winifred Hartley 1956’. So, rather than going to sleep, I then spent an hour or so with ancestry.co.uk searching for a likely Winifred Hartley, only to realise that not only was the name fairly common but I didn’t even know whether she was married or single.
Frustrated by this apparent brick wall, the next morning I made the bold (but entirely obvious) decision to take down the picture, which had hung undisturbed for at least 20 years (that being, I have to admit, the last time the wall was painted). And, there on the reverse were the two labels that are the key to the identification of the artist.
One gives her address: Mrs Winifred Hartley, ‘Oakfield’, Woodmansterne Lane, Banstead, Surrey’ and the other, with the heading ‘Banstead Arts Group’, the painting’s title, ‘Housewives’ Choice’. There had also been a handwritten note of the price but this has been torn off, presumably by the dealer who sold it on. But its presence did indicate that the painting had originally been included in a selling exhibition.
It was then, thanks to Ancestry, only the work of a moment to uncover an agreeable depth of information about Winifred Hartley.
She was born Winifred Amy Castle on 29 June 1907 and by 1911, an only child, was living with her parents and maternal grandmother in a pleasant end-of-terrace house, 15 Bourne Road, Crouch End. Her father was clerk to a firm of hardware exporters. By the late 1920s the family had moved to 61 Park Avenue North, close to Alexandra Palace.
Winifred’s son tells me that she was educated at Crouch End High School and then attended Sutton School of Art, but by 1925 was working as a bank clerk for the National Provincial Bank. Banks at this time tended to recruit young women only if they had received a thorough education. She was employed at the Bank’s headquarters, 15 Bishopsgate, and clearly took her work seriously, in 1929 passing the examination to become an Associate of the Institute of Bankers. The Institute’s examinations had been open to women since 1919, but I think ten years later it was still relatively rare for a woman to take the Part 2 to qualify as an Associate.
Former headquarters of the National Provincial Bank, 15 Bishopsgate
However, Winifred Castle’s banking career ended on 8 October 1932 when she married Richard Crozier Hartley (1901-1967), a fellow bank employee. At that time women were required to resign on marriage. The couple set up home in Banstead, at the address on the back of the painting, ‘Oakfield’, Woodmansterne Lane. On the outbreak of war in 1939 Winifred was contributing to the war effort by working for the Women’s Voluntary Services in the canteen set up for Banstead’s Air Raid Post, while her husband was an air raid warden for the bank in Bishopsgate. Their only son was born in 1943.
By 1950 Winifred Hartley was treasurer of the recently-formed Banstead Arts Group, a former banker being an eminently sensible appointee. In the 1950s the Banstead Arts Group held classes in painting and drawing several times a week and in the summer organized outdoor sketching expeditions. The Group’s first exhibition, held in October 1949, attracted over 500 visitors and I assume that ‘Housewives’ Choice’ was on display and probably bought at a similar exhibition, c 1956.
In 1982, fifteen years after the death of her husband, Winifred Hartley emigrated to South Africa, to be near her son and his family. She continued painting, clearly, from images I have been shown, delighting in the bright colours of Africa, and died there in January 1994.
I am very fond of the painting which, to my untutored, eye, strikes me as very well executed. I like the composition and the sense of movement. I love the colours and the costumes, particularly the duster coat. I like the idea of gossiping housewives, especially, I must confess, if they’re safely situated in the 1950s. I don’t know Banstead at all, so have no idea if this streetscape is based on reality. Certainly it seems to bear no relation to Banstead High Street as it is now, as shown on Street View. Does anybody recognise this corner (if it is a corner)? Does anybody else have a Winifred Hartley hanging on their wall?
UPDATE: July 2021
I have now been put in touch, via Sweden, with Winifred Hartley’s son, living in South Africa -and with her grandson, living in the USA – such are the wonders of the internet. Her son has given me permission to include this photograph of his mother, taken in her youth – and her grandson has told me how encouraging his grandmother was of his own artistic endeavours. Winifred Hartley was clearly very much loved – and I now know that at least two other families have paintings by this artist hanging on the wall.
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