A personal perspective
FOR ANYBODY trying to draw the human figure the most difficult things are the mouth and the hands – the hands especially. Usually it takes exploratory lines to get them right, with a pencil, say. But with a pen or an engraving tool it has to be right first time. Françoise did that, first time and every time. There is hardly anything in her pictures that is badly drawn. She rarely used a pencil, even for exploration or for any kind of modelling. As an artist, line was her primary gift, together with an unusual degree of imagination.
At the age of eighteen at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels – the Belgian equivalent of the British Royal Academy – she won first prize for drawing in her first year. And then in her second and third years. By the fourth year her imagination had taken hold and she left the academy having developed a unique style of drawing in which figures tended to be elongated and distorted but perfectly represented in an artistic sense. By this method, small though many of them are (some are microscopic) her pictures have a descriptive power only a highly gifted artist can produce. This was certainly the view of Belgium’s leading art critics; at La Cambre in Brussels she was awarded a Mastery with Distinction.
One of Françoise’s contemporaries at La Cambre in Brussels was Pierre Alechinsky. She told me once how she disliked the way he was continually promoting himself, and indeed it succeeded. Alechinksy is now quite a well-known artist. Françoise had no time for such things. If anything, she intended to become a religieuse rather than a celebrated artist.
Then she got married. Some time during 1946 Françoise Wauters was noticed by Englishman Kenneth Taylor in Antwerp at the home of her tutor Joris Minne, an artist who helped to revive the art of engraving in Belgium. Minne was so disgusted at the idea of her marriage that he refused to even look at any of her work for six months. It wasn’t about religion but that Françoise would be distracted from developing her full potential as an artist.
He was possibly right. It seems doubtful though whether she would have bothered with much except actually drawing. Later in life when she accompanied Kenneth up the Scottish Munros she could hardly be bothered with the last twenty metres to the summits. It was enough that he achieved his objective – for Françoise the conquest meant absolutely nothing. It seems typical that on her first date with Kenneth – to a concert in Brussels – she sent her mother instead.
It is not hard to imagine Françoise Wauters as a religieuse somewhere in Belgium devoting her life to the Catholic faith while at the same time continuing to express in her art the themes she adopted instinctively: the spirituality of belief, the hardships endured by much of mankind, the misery of human conflict and the natural beauty to be found in the animal kingdom.
In the event, Françoise (now Taylor) moved to England late in 1946 and the first of her five children was born in Oxford in 1948. By then, in Belgium, she had already produced hundreds of engravings, etchings, pen drawings, lithographs, woodcuts and monoprints of outstanding quality and beauty. Some of the most beautiful are some of the smallest, only a couple of inches square – they need a magnifying glass to observe them properly, almost like jewellery or small rare stamps.
Nor is it only the pictures. Their subject matter includes a remarkable spread of European literature going back as far as Sir Thomas Malory, the English author of Le Morte d’Arthur, a chronicle of the Arthurian Legend which was published in 1485. It also includes Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Dostoievski, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Brontë, Æsop, Homer, Hans Christian Andersen, Jack London, Jean Giono, Panait Istrati, the Catholic Bible, Alain-Fournier, Graham Greene, Miguel de Cervantes, Kafka, Nils Holgersson, Max Jacob, August Vermeylen, Joseph Conrad, Selma Lagerlöf, Jonathan Swift, Filip De Pillecyn and Ernest Claes.
Françoise must have spent as much time reading as producing those hundreds of pictures, all in the space of about five years including at least two during a world war in which her country was occupied by a brutal foreign power. It can only be explained by the complete immersion of the individual in her art to the exclusion of everything else. Whether she could have kept this up as Joris Minne hoped she would is open to question. Yet as a married woman now living in a new country and beginning to raise a large family she continued to create – all the way through, in fact, to her seventies.
Occasionally in her drawings Françoise wrote things in very small letters so as not to distract from the composition. She did that in the 1940s and still in the 1990s. One of those pictures is a scene of children flying kites in the back streets of Bolton during the 1950s. On the tail of a kite she wrote “think for yourself” in very small letters. As usual it had nothing to do with the picture. Perhaps it was advice but more likely just a random statement of her philosophy in life.
At the age of ten she was sent away to boarding school in Switzerland, receiving no family visits for a whole year. Later, at her school in Brussels, aged fourteen, she requested to become a boarder although it was only across the street from the family house in Boulevard Brand Whitlock. At fifteen she was sent to a boarding school at Blumenthal on the Dutch-German border without being able to speak any German. It was there she was made to write with her right hand though she always drew with her left. At seventeen Françoise was already studying art at the Académie Royale, winning her prizes for drawing from year one. Then came the second world war and the German occupation of Belgium. By 1941 she had begun her six years at La Cambre with a group of ‘progressive intellectuals’ and Communists, and by the end of the war was teaching art in Antwerp. As the youngest of seven quite eccentric children – and with such an upbringing – it seems natural Françoise learned to think entirely for herself.
Françoise Taylor first came to England in a troopship unaccompanied by Kenneth (for some reason) and at first she spoke no English. The transition from full-time artist in the Belgian capital to becoming a housewife in the industrial North of England may well have been softened by a few years in Oxford before moving to Bolton in 1949. In any case, in Oxford she was still a full-time artist in regular contact with Brussels as she prepared the submission for her Mastery.
Until 1946 Françoise doesn’t seem to have had much time for romance – or perhaps she did but suppressed such instincts. Either way, from her marriage onwards her husband’s head appears in some of her pictures, even as a ‘Knight in Shining Armour’ – as Sir Lancelot for example.
From the early 1950s onwards her output inevitably declined, at least in quantity, as she set about being a wife and mother. Nonetheless, over the next couple of decades she produced hundreds of pen and brush paintings which stand as a unique record of how a ‘foreigner’ perceived the then industrial north. From her home in Barrow Bridge in Bolton Françoise regularly walked to the nearby suburb of Halliwell and on to the town centre to sketch the mills and gasworks and the railway station, and the children at the fairground or in the streets with prams and bicycles or enjoying the November bonfires or flying kites, with hardly a motor vehicle in sight except for the odd delivery van.
A reviewer at the time wrote: “Mrs Taylor sees through the grime of industry and back streets to a kind of beauty – a pathetic, sometimes tragic beauty. There is sorrowful nobility, for example, in the eyes of the dog guarding a squalid door. The children who push perambulators or spot trains, the adults who go about their work, or sit at their doorsteps, or trail wanly by the gasworks, are thin and spectre pale and curiously detached from their surroundings. Only the footballers are well fleshed and fully extrovert. Only these match in human strength and drive the mechanical power and impetus of Mrs Taylor’s locomotives.” Another that “the beauty is the beauty of design, seldom that of theme, although there is pathos in the wraith-like figures discerned in the encircling industrial gloom, figures presented sometimes with disregard for the perspective, but with powerful symbolism.”
The ‘detachment’ is certainly true. Françoise’s view of post-war Bolton was never coloured by politics or personal experience of the deprivations of the industrial North of England. She viewed it as another story amongst all the other stories, imaginary or true, which formed her repertoire. It is tempting to view, for instance, her series of pictures ‘Pointes Seches Sur La Guerre’ (which depict the deprivations of wartime Belgium under German occupation) as a kind of disapproving political statement against something she was deeply affected by. On the cover of ‘Pointes Seches’ Françoise printed “La guerre n’a lieu que tous les vingt cinq ans. Qu’elle soit belle” which in English means “War only takes place every twenty-five years. Isn’t she beautiful.” No doubt she disapproved, and was deeply affected, but it seems just as likely to be no more – or no less – tragic to the artist as the ongoing tragedy of the way humans can behave towards each other.
One of her Bolton scenes is an etching of ‘Bolton fairground’ in the 1950s. This is a strange picture. There is no sense of enjoyment. Instead, pairs of humans appear to be locked in a revolving machine against a bleak background of exaggerated mills. A half-drawn car is placed in front on the cobbles with a broken trailer, and the moon sits serenely in a threatening sky. I think it was not so much a picture of gloom as her natural irony showing through.
As her contact with Belgium gradually diminished, so did her output of engravings, etchings and lithographs. Perhaps it was the cost (the plates were sent to London to be printed), or a busy mother wanted more immediate results, or more colour, or she didn’t need so many copies, or engraving was more of a Belgian fashion, or the high concentration required, or even her eyesight, or any combination of all these things. It seems a pity – very fine lines had always been her primary means of expression.
But with her pen drawing the line quality remained if a little more scratchy, still distinctly her own. As well as pictures of Bolton Françoise continued with some of her favourite subjects: Alice in Wonderland particularly, and Venice (which she visited with Ken), sometimes seemingly combined in the same picture and more colourful.
As far as I know Françoise enjoyed bringing up her family. The last of her five children (a daughter) was born in 1958. It was her focus throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s until we became independent. She must have drawn and painted throughout these years – where and when I do not know but she held regular exhibitions in the North West and her ‘Bolton’ paintings were popular (if only she had kept a record of who she sold them to). She tried painting in oil for a time in the 1960s but was dissatisfied with the results and set about burning them in the garden – those which still exist, mostly of Mykonos and a few figures, were saved from the fire by only one of her sons. She was right actually. Perhaps it was better to save the paintings for her family but the essence of her art was always her gift for drawing, almost impossible in oil.
Fortunately Kenneth was as cultured as his wife; perhaps more so. They shared a love for classical music and the arts in general, literature included. It was probably Ken’s idea to hold the exhibitions. But Françoise had no real contact with other artists nor joined the art establishment, locally or anywhere else. She was as suspicious of societies as she was of politics – anything, in fact, that might lead to not thinking for oneself.
In the late 1960s Françoise became Head of Art at Mount St Joseph girls’ school in Bolton. By all accounts she was an excellent teacher. She will have taught the girls that ‘waiting for inspiration’ is lazy and will certainly have shown them how to draw. It seems doubtful she encouraged abstraction or the fashionable idea that as long as you are satisfied with what you did, it’s all that matters – self-indulgence was never her thing.
Françoise and Ken were always a good fit. As their lives together passed through the normal transitions they had much in common: as well as music, a small circle of like-minded friends, a love of hill walking and cycling, and other things they understood about each other through Françoise’s art and Ken’s passion for photography. As her eyesight began to fail she took up pottery and her drawing became more confined to gifts for her grandchildren and the Christmas cards she made every year since she’d come to England. Occasionally though she set about creating something special, as she did at the age of 78. In What a Beautiful World – probably her last real drawing – human children emerge in wonderment into an innocent world of squirrels and acorns, field mice, birds with their young, a cockerell announcing the new day, not devouring each other this time but going about their business in perfect harmony.
As Françoise grew older her pictures mellowed – less brutal at least. In her twenties in Belgium she thought nothing of depicting animals devouring each other, impaled corpses, bleeding limbs, the effects of starvation, the violence of combat, and so on. There is more harmony in the themes of her later pictures – those that she made as a mother: Venice for instance, or Romeo and Juliet, and parks filled with flowers, and more colour generally, using crayons on coloured paper. It wasn’t that she was more in harmony with the world in general. It may have been the opposite: she was in search of harmony whereas when she was young she was carefree with no need for it. After her children had left home a kind of melancholy began to show in some of her themes: ‘Ophelia’ and the ‘pool of tears’. She never said as much in words but I think she became tired of the human condition.
I haven’t counted all the engravings, etchings, woodcuts, lithographs, monoprints, drawings and paintings Françoise produced during her life. A thousand different pictures wouldn’t be a bad guess, all created with the same expressive imagination and her prodigious gift for drawing, right first time. It’s a remarkable body of work, much of it unseen seventy years after she began. Regardless of what the pictures are actually about – there is hardly one without people or animals – they express what it is to live consciously. Some of the literature she illustrated has become obscure, or was obscure already in the mid-1940s; some has retained its appeal in the public imagination – classic stories like Alice in Wonderland for instance, or the Arthurian legend, and of course the Christian religion remains relevant to many people. They are all illuminated in the images she created. Then there is reality – of the tragedy of war, the streets of a mid-century industrial town in the north of England, football matches, Bonfire Night, the wonderment of children at Christmas, animals both in captivity and in the natural world. Nothing was abstract; everything Françoise Taylor drew or painted was meant to convey something not about herself but the world in general.
Patrick Taylor, September 2019