Mildred Eldridge might have made a name for herself. In 1937 she held a one-woman show at the Beaux Arts Gallery near Bond Street in London and opposite the gallery was a car showroom with a Bentley convertible in the window. The car attracted her so much that she drew it on the back of one of her exhibition invitations and, when almost everything in the show sold, she crossed the road and bought it.
Aged 28, she seemed set – an independent, glamorous female artist with a slew of favourable newspaper mentions. The London art world was half conquered, the other half would surely be a breeze. At this point, however, Eldridge decided that becoming an art teacher in Oswestry in Shropshire, on the Welsh border, was preferable to becoming a woman artist about town.
Eldridge (1909-91) didn’t explain why she decamped, although an unwanted proposal from a fellow painter while blackberry picking might have been a factor: it was, she said, “A thorny place and a thorny problem. I had to sadden him for who could marry a person whose work one did not admire and whose hand steamed in cold weather?” Her son identified a “withdrawal-from-the-world tendency” in his mother (“She did go into a nunnery once, though she got out again pretty quick”), but wondered if her flight might have been more due to “the casting-couch tendency in the art world”.
[See also: The rural fantasies of Helen Allingham]
Whatever the reason, London was not her spiritual home, but Wales was. The picture above, Poplars, Chirk Valley, painted in the late 1930s and now in the Manchester Art Gallery, transposes the poplars she had once seen in Italy to the Welsh hills. In its dry-brush technique and muted tones it reflects the influence of Eric Ravilious. It is also a reflection of the solitude she sought when she started to visit the principality from 1935. This place, shorn of any human presence, is the very antithesis of London. Later, she would paint the natural world in painstaking detail. This, though, is a nature study writ large – a painting about the textures, colours and indeed sounds of a blustery day.
It was at Chirk that Eldridge met the clergyman-poet RS Thomas, a lodger in the same boarding house, and in 1940 married him. Her recollection of the moment they became engaged was telling: “RS and I were on the moor at Bwlch y Fedwen, the wind blowing across the bleached grass and grey stone and the golden plover calling when we decided that we could live together.” It was her recall of nature rather than love that was most intense.
For the rest of her life, she would follow Thomas – brooding, spiritual, ascetic and militantly Welsh – to a succession of sparse rectories, bedding herself in to the natural world. “Wales has almost everything I need now,” she wrote, “tawny grass and good grey stone moss and lichen covering the bleached bones of the horned sheep up in the mountains behind us where mercifully we can still escape crowds.”
The bardic couple shared a suspicion of the modern world and lived with few comforts, and those they had they rejected – pulling out heating pipes because they were ugly and sending back a vacuum cleaner because it was too noisy. The Bentley belonged to a different time, place and woman.
What might have been did not seem to bother her. At the Royal College of Art (RCA), she was gifted enough to win a £100 travelling scholarship to visit Italy to study. She saw Rome, Venice, Naples and Tuscany, where she visited the art historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson at his fabled jewel-box villa I Tatti outside Florence. On her return she painted murals for Brockley County School alongside two RCA friends, Evelyn Dunbar and Violet Martin, and started exhibiting at the Royal Academy.
Life with Thomas was very different. Mildred, known to her family and friends as Elsie – her middle name – adopted the Welsh form, Elsi, and set out to make the best of things. Whatever the bond between them, the marriage does not appear to have been warm. After Elsi’s death Thomas was asked whether he missed her: “I suppose so,” he replied. And was he lonely? “I was alone when I was living with her.” Nevertheless, some of his poems suggest that this bleakness was in part assumed and that they were closer than he was willing to admit.
Elsi, more worldly and much better read than her husband, has been credited with helping Thomas find his own voice as a poet and escape the Georgian dead-end in which he found himself. She introduced him to the work of Thomas Hardy, GK Chesterton and Edward Thomas, as well as Hilaire Belloc (whom she had known). She also kept the household afloat financially, taking teaching jobs – including a post at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth – and commercial work as an illustrator for Faber & Faber and Medici greeting cards. During the Second World War she contributed some 20 pictures to Kenneth Clark’s “Recording Britain” project, painting Welsh rural ways and buildings that were under threat.
Elsi’s art was underlain by the belief that mankind had become disassociated from nature – the theme of a huge mystical-philosophical decorative scheme, The Dance of Life (1957), painted for the nurses’ dining room of a hospital near Oswestry. To ensure she herself kept nature close, she looked at it minutely, making numerous immaculately detailed botanical and animal pictures. Some have a hint of Beatrix Potter about them, although Elsi had more morbid tendencies and would hang dead owls in an apple tree before lining up their skeletons on her mantelpiece. When her father died she commented that “everyone looks rather lovely when they are dead. He was always good looking… but not nearly as beautiful as when the ivory skin was drawn tightly over the fine bones.”
In her later years, Elsi suffered long bouts of ill health and, with her sight failing, withdrew ever further from the world. The woman who had willingly sacrificed worldly fame for the consolations of nature continued in her examinations, even when she was reduced to painting with the aid of a magnifying glass and the use of just one eye.
This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer