Ishbel McWhirter: Burgh House in her soul
NINETIETH birthdays are truly special events to be celebrated. And for Ishbel McWhirter it is going to be a truly spectacular occasion – some 40 paintings from her remarkable career are going on show in a retrospective exhibition at Burgh House, Hampstead, being launched on Tuesday.
Moreover, the portraits that form half of the show will be in the Peggy Jay Gallery and will include a portrait of Peggy, the late community campaigner, as well as Ishbel’s actor friends Tilda Swinton and Tom Conti, together with the artist Sir Kyffin Williams, once the art teacher at Highgate School.
Her two sons, Owen and Gregory Brenman, by her second marriage to the late psychologist Eric Brenman, came up with the idea while Ishbel was recovering from an operation in hospital, their first choice of a gallery being rejected by their formidable mother.
“Somebody then mentioned Burgh House and I went and had a look,” said Ishbel. “And I felt how comfortable it would be to have an exhibition there in such a delightful setting – and so very near at hand for me here in Hampstead.
“This has always been such a wonderful home for art going all the way back to Constable. I remember when it was a village and the vegetables were spilling over onto the pavement outside Cook’s the greengrocers in the High Street.
“But when you walk around now you see all these lovely houses turned into monstrous flats being sold at ridiculous prices. That’s terrible.”
Indeed, life itself changed dramatically too for Ishbel. Born in Hampstead, she was brought up in Prestatyn, North Wales, by her professional opera singer Welsh mother, Enid Roberts, after her marriage to Cunard shipping line executive John McWhirter – her Scottish-born father – had crashed.
Ishbel was only two at the time and became somewhat in awe of her multi-talented mother, who, when Ishbel was 12, sent her to Summerhill, the avant-garde school created by AS Neill, who believed schools should be made to fit the individual child.
Ishbel McWhirter's portrait of Gerald Isaaman
“I was happy there from the moment I arrived,” she recalls. “I felt safe, it was a great place. We absorbed democracy without even knowing the word. And that’s where I met its charismatic art teacher, Robin Bond, in an art room that became a hive of wonderful activity.
“I was praised, we all did. That felt nice. I had always thought of myself as pleasant, popular and mediocre, perhaps because of my supremely talented mother who sang with the Carl Rosa Opera.”
It was then that Ishbel’s teenage life took off, when, in 1943, the famed photographer Michael Peto visited Summerhill (then evacuated to North Wales). He was overwhelmed by the quality of the art class and organised an exhibition of students’ work at Paul Wengraf’s Arcade Gallery, in Bond Street the following year.
“The war was just ending and we came down from the rain-soaked hills, rubbing our eyes in the big city, bright lights. I was astonished that people like the film-makers Roy and John Boulting and the actor Bernard Miles were buying my pictures and paying money for them. We had just been mucking about in the art room at Summerhill.”
The BBC picked out Ishbel’s work as the star of the show, not perhaps surprising since her forebears include the successful Victorian artist John McWhirter, who lived at McWhirter House, No 1 Abbey Road, which subsequently became the studios where the Beatles recorded their albums.
The art historian Herbert Reed said of her work there is “a born painter here” and critic Bryan Robertson later described her as “a draughtsman, a poet, a recorder of familiar scenes and a social commentator. But she is an artist first and foremost...”
Ishbel, however, had never consider herself one, thinking she might go into theatre design or become a psychiatrist. Yet, at 18, she had her first one-man West End show, which coincided with her marrying her art teacher. Subsequently, Robin Bond moved on to Dartington Hall School in Devon, where he showed off the work of his students, Ishbel included, when the Viennese expressionist artist Oscar Kokoschka, who had escaped to England when the Nazis invaded Austria, conducted a summer school.
He pointed to the graphic dexterity of Ishbel’s early drawings and said he would teach her, which is what he did at his studio in St John’s Wood for eight years. Ishbel’s reputation enhanced with exhibitions in the following decades, her work now represented in the National Portrait Gallery, the V&A, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the National Library of Wales and, in 1990, as a tribute to Kokoschka, she had a retrospective exhibition in Pochlarn, outside Vienna, the birthplace of her mentor.
Today she still paints, though not as often as in the past, at her studio home overlooking the Menai Straits in Anglesey, a panorama that continues to fascinate her, and at her Hampstead home in Pattison Road, where she moved in 1986 from nearby Ferncroft Avenue.
She remains too as modest as she was in her early days, her aim, she points out, always “to try to grab a moment that will disappear forever. It could be a strange light on the water, an unlikely sky and hectic birds or, the mood around a person, the tilt of the head, the droop of an eyelid echoing the curve of a mouth. Something as simple can take my breath away...”
She insisted: “I have never been fashionable. That was because I was taught by Kokoschka and wasn’t in an art school. So I didn’t grow up with a whole body of buddies who networked all their lives and helped each other.”
Go judge for yourself at Burgh House where Ishbel’s show runs until March 26, half of it on display for three months.
• Burgh House, New End Square, NW3 1LT, 020 7431 0144, www.burghhouse.org.uk