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Sheila Fell (20 July 1931 – 15 December 1979) was an English artist. She was born at Aspatria, Cumberland in 1931 and although she lived in London for the greater part of her life, she devoted her career to painting and drawing places close to her place of birth. The Cumberland landscape would always remain her chief influence, inspiration and theme.
Sheila Fell was born into a poor household at Aspatria in 1931, the only child of John (Jack) and Anne Fell. Her father was a coalminer who worked at the Brayton Domain Colliery about a mile and a half from Aspatria. Her mother was a seamstress.:59 By 1936 her father was out of work, but later found work in Whitehaven. Whilst working at another pit in Siddick, some time later, he had both legs crushed in a roof fall. After his convalescnce, he returned to work for a year, but then gave up work altogether.:66
After her early education at Richmond Hill School, Aspatria, Fell gained a scholarship allowing her to attend the Nelson Thomlinson, Grammar School at Wigton, where the teacher responsible for art, Mrs Campbell-Taylor, recognised her ability and encouraged her to go to art college. At the age of 16 she enrolled at the Carlisle School of Art (1947–1949), then housed in Tullie House. She later described this experience as a ‘dismal disaster’. She explained: “They said I would never make a painter and should do textile design.”[this quote needs a citation] After rejecting their advice she enrolled at Saint Martin's School of Art (1949–1951) where she studied under Roland Vivian Pitchforth and John Napper. She gained her National Diploma in Design at the age of 21, and then stayed on for a further twelve months to complete a post graduate course. Fell augmented the grant received from Cumberland County Council by working in a night club and also at the National Gallery. During her college years she exhibited her work in the Young Contemporaries Show in 1952 and 1953. After leaving college, she worked for a while as a freelance painter during the day, did head modelling, and worked in a café at night.
In 1955 at the age of 24, she held her first exhibition, becoming the youngest ever artist to exhibit at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Bond Street, London. In December 1955, she appeared on the ten minute ‘Highlight' television programme, which spotlighted the personalities of the day. She joined the teaching staff of Chelsea School of Art in 1958. She would never return to live in Cumberland but its landscape dominated her work for the rest of her life,
Not only did her first exhibition in London completely sell out but it brought her to the attention of artist L. S. Lowry, who bought two paintings and a drawing, bringing a friendship that would last for many years. Lowry gave her all the help he could, he advised, encouraged, sympathised, and above all bought her pictures, some twenty of them in total, many later donated to international galleries. He made her a weekly allowance of £3 and would often visit her when she returned home to Aspatria for her regular holidays. They would go out to the countryside to paint. Lowry got on well with her parents and always called her "Miss Fell", until shortly before his death. Success never changed her; she had few pretensions of grandeur, as observed by the photographer Lord Kilbracken, who wrote in The Tatler: “She still smokes Woodbines, is still as likely to eat in a workingman’s café and still spends less on clothes than the average typist.”. Although never married, she had a daughter Anna in 1958, by the Greek sculptor Takis Vassilakis.
Style and influences
Sheila Fell never painted romantic pictures of nature or pretty chocolate box pictures of sunny days among the lakes and fells of her native countryside, but used powerful, melancholy oils of living landscape, presided over by huge brooding mountains and dark looming clouds. Colour was always less important than tone, she painted the hills and the seas of the area she loved so well, she painted the earth and those who worked it, depicting rich brown soils, piles of potatoes, small groups of driven cattle, indistinguishable farm buildings and terraced houses running along the streets of Aspatria. Several major artists influenced her style, Cézanne, Constant Permeke, Auerbach and Van Gogh are all evident in parts of her early work.
In December 1979, Hunter Davies began his article for the Sunday Times: “Sheila Fell lives at the top of a long flight of stairs in Chelsea.” He ended it with Fell's own words. “I don’t think of myself as a woman artist. Artists are either good or bad. I also intend to live until 104. I’ve promised myself I will. It’s what keeps me going when I worry if I’ll ever have time to do all the paintings in my head.” However, by the time the article appeared she was already dead. The inquest into her death reported that she had died of alcohol poisoning, on 15 December, at her London flat. She was 48 years of age.
Fell’s first major award came in October 1957 after she entered a painting in the John Moores painting exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. The competition drew 3,000 entries, short listed to 250. Fell, the only female winner, came second in the junior section and picked up a cheque for £250. In 1959, she received a ‘Boise’ travelling scholarship. Although she travelled extensively throughout Italy, Greece, Switzerland and France the period was not a success. As she told one enquirer: “I have an obsession about Cumberland. I have tried painting in other parts of the world, particularly Greece, but it just doesn’t work.” In 1967, she was awarded an Arts Council Purchase Award. In 1969 she was elected Associate Member of the Royal Academy (A.R.A.) and a full membership (R.A.) five years later.
- 1955 Beaux Arts Gallery
- 1958 Beaux Arts Gallery
- 1960 Beaux Arts Gallery
- 1961 The Derwent Centre, Cockermouth
- 1962 Middlesbrough Art Gallery
- 1962 Beaux Arts Gallery
- 1964 Maryport Education Settlement, Cumberland
- 1964 Beaux Arts Gallery
- 1965 Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal
- 1965 Queen Square Gallery, Leeds
- 1967 Stone Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne
- 1969 Stone Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne
- 1969 Also exhibited in Arts Council and Contemporary Arts Society touring exhibition
- 1979 New Grafton Gallery, London
- 1981 Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal
- 1981 Salford Art Gallery
- 2006 Castlegate Gallery, Cockermouth
- 2011 Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal
Official purchases and public collections
- Tate Gallery, London (three paintings)
- Contemporary Art Society, London
- Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
- Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport
- Carlisle Art Gallery
- Sunderland Art Gallery
- Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal
- Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne
- Swindon Art Gallery
- Huddersfield Art Gallery
- 1955 Aspatria wedding
- 1955 Miners
- 1958 Farm Land at Aspatria
- 1958 Portrait of Anna Fell
- 1959 Cumbrian village under snow
- 1961 Snowscape IV Tate Gallery collection
- 1964 Men working in a cornfield
- 1965 Maryport Tate Gallery Collection
- 1965 Skiddaw summer
- 1967 Haystacks in a field Tate Gallery collection
- 1970 Houses in winter
- 1979 Potato pick-ing-clouds
- 1979 Christmas
- "Royal Academy of Arts Collections - Person". Royal Academy of Arts. Retrieved 9 April 2014.
- The Times. 6 December 1979.[full citation needed]
- Goldman, R. (ed) 2012. Breakthrough: Autobiographical Accounts of the Education of Some Socially Disadvantaged Children, Vol. 212. Abingdon: Routlege Library Editions. ISBN 978-0-415-50848-3. Chapter IV: "Sheila Fell", p. 57-72.
- West Cumberland Times 6 August 1955[full citation needed]
- West Cumberland Times 3 December 1955[full citation needed]
- Cumbrian Life, February/March 1991, page 63
- Cumbrian Life February/March 1991, page 62[full citation needed]
- Sunday Times 16 December 1979[full citation needed]
- Roger Lytollis (26 November 2010). "New book reveals Cumbrian Painter Sheila Fell was loved by all". The Cumberland News.
- West Cumberland Times 19 October 1957[full citation needed]
- West Cumberland Times 26 March 1960[full citation needed]