Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Unknown Art of Henrietta Edwards

Henrietta Edwards is not an illustrator whose work you will be familar with. She received no formal training, never published her work, and did not even consider herself an artist. Most people who knew her were probably not aware of her talent until, soon after her death from cancer in 2006, her husband Richard printed a small collection of her drawings, and distributed a few copies to her friends.

Henny (as everyone knew her) worked for most of her adult life in Buckingham Palace, working for the Royal Household, making inventories and records of the Queen’s immense collection of artworks. As you might imagine, this was a fairly rarified job, done mainly for the love of the work itself - and paid virtually nothing.

I remember occasionally seeing glimpses of her sketches and encouraging her to exhibit – or at least to study her craft more seriously. Her work has a liveliness and charm that would be envied by many professional illustrators. 

But she always dismissed the suggestion; laughing it off and saying that she had no real talent. Most likely she had the kind of education that treated drawing as a hobby, something fun to do on Sundays but not to be taken at all seriously.

Henny was very popular. She had many friends - and countless god-children. Many of her drawings are messages to them; birthday cards, poems, keepsakes. Pictures of flowers, fairies, princesses.

When she worked for the Royal Family she got to know the painter Lucian Freud, who painted a portrait of The Queen back in 2001. Freud decided to paint Henny herself, and if you look through a catalogue of the great man's later paintings you will find his portrait of Henrietta, titled "woman with closed eyes".
Woman with Closed Eyes. Painter: Lucien Freud 2002
The painting itself, described by The Guardian art correspondent as "a beguiling picture of a sleeper whose warm multi-coloured flesh floats and billows on the canvas", was stolen in October 2012 from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, along with works by Monet, Gaugin and Picasso. Henny would have laughed at being in such illustrious company.

But Henrietta's own work as an artist is completely unknown. How different things might have been if someone had encouraged her to take her own talent more seriously.


P.S. Editor's note: Henrietta's husband Richard, who published and distributed the only existing collection of her work, has this to say about Henrietta's talent:

"In fact people did encourage her to go professional with her drawings, and all through her 20s this was a source of tension for her.  She was afraid of the 'commercial' world, and perhaps lacked confidence.  Such are the strange workings of grace in our lives, that she experienced her illness in fact as something of a liberation, because it gave the excuse to no longer get anxious about 'making a success' of her art.  She felt freed of a burden - maybe something to do with fulfilling other people's expectations of what she 'ought' to do; and then discovered that she could just be herself and enjoy doing her quirky illustrations for her friends. Hen taught me a great deal of things, and one was this, being happy just being herself.  A lesson maybe for us all."

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