Mary Kessell

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Mary Kessell
Born (1914-11-13)13 November 1914
Died 1977
Nationality British
Occupation Artist
Spouse(s) Tom Eckersley

Mary M Kessell (13 November 1914 – 1977) was a British figurative painter, illustrator, designer and war artist. Born in London, she studied at the Clapham School of Art, then later at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. At the end of the Second World War, she was commissioned to work in Germany as an official British war artist; one of only three women selected. She spent six weeks in Germany, travelling to the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as well as other major cities including Berlin. She produced charcoal drawings of refugees, primarily of women and children which she subsequently sold to the War Artists Advisory Committee.[1] After the war Kessell collaborated with the Needlework Development Scheme (NDS) to produce experimental designs for machine and hand embroidery as well as working for Shell as a designer. She later returned to the Central School to teach at the School of Silversmithing and Jewellery alongside painter Richard Hamilton.

Early career[edit]

Kessell was born on 13 November 1914 in London.[2] She began her artistic training at the Clapham School of Art, where she studied from 1935 to 1937, then at the Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1937 to 1939. Throughout her time as a student she illustrated books, one of which was Miss Kimber by Osbert Sitwell in 1937.[3]

War artist[edit]

Ruins in Hamburg: The Dock Area (1945) (Art.IWM ART LD 5745a)

During the end of the Second World War, Kessell was based in Germany having been commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) as an official British war artist.[1] Just three female war artists worked abroad during World War II; as one of them, Kessell was asked to document refugees "moving through Europe in the aftermath of the German surrender".[2][4] She spent six weeks in Germany, from 9 August 1945 to 20 September, where she made charcoal drawings of refugees as well as keeping a diary of her experiences.[1][5][6]

Kessell's first destination was Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had been liberated by Allied forces four months previously. She arrived later than the other war artists, including Doris Zinkeisen and Eric Taylor, who had visited the camp immediately after its liberation. By the time Kessell arrived, the remaining camp buildings had been destroyed and former inmates were being transferred to the nearby displaced persons camp. This had a distinct effect on the work she produced. At Belsen, Kessell completed seven drawings in black and sanguine charcoal, which she called Notes from Belsen Camp, 1945.[1][5] These were the smallest of the drawings produced during her time as a war artist. Unlike the work produced by the other artists, which often featured detailed scenes and backgrounds, Kessell's subjects are entirely removed from any sense of background. The subject themselves, primarily women and children, are drawn as "detail-less bodies".[1]

During her time in Germany, Kessell also visited Hamburg, Lübeck, Hanover, Kiel, Berlin and Potsdam also producing charcoal drawings in a similar style to those that she completed at Belsen.[1][4]

Post-war work[edit]

After the war, in 1947, Mary Kessell was commissioned to complete needlework designs for the Needlework Development Scheme, a collaborative initiative between education and industry, which sought to promote and improve British embroidery design.[7] Although the scheme had a large and current selection of embroideries in a number of styles, foreign examples represented the collection's best needlework.[8] With the intention of expanding the number of British works, Kessell was chosen to create experimental designs for hand and machine work that could be interpreted by Britain's embroidery artists.[7][9] The designs were considered particularly "progressive" and proved difficult to reproduce. Machine results were considered more successful than those produced by hand.[10]"Few arts schools were accomplished enough to use them".[11] The Bromley College of Art was one of those to adopt the designs.[12]

In 1939 she painted a mural, Judith and Helofernes, for the old Westminster Hospital. In 1955 she painted Four ancient elements for Imperial Chemical House, Millbank.[13] She worked as a designer in the Shell Studio at Shell-Mex House and produced posters for Shell (1952) and later for London Transport (1964).[14][15] Kessell exhibited some of her refugee drawings at the first of her four solo shows to be held at the Leicester Galleries in 1950.[16][17] In the 1960s Oxfam commissioned Kessell to visit India to produce drawings supporting their work there.[16]

Kessell later returned to the Central School where she was brought in by the then Principal William Johnstone. She taught at the School of Silversmithing and Jewellery, alongside painter Richard Hamilton, despite having no technical skills or experience with the craft.[18] Kessell's work is held in London collections including the Imperial War Museum,[19] the Tate[3] and the Victoria and Albert Museum.[12] She was married to the poster designer Tom Eckersley.[15]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Brian Foss (28 September 2007). War paint: art, war, state and identity in Britain, 1939–1945. Yale University Press. pp. 144–146. ISBN 978-0-300-10890-3. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Mary Kessell". Unspeakable, the artist as witness to the Holocaust. Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "Mary Kessell Biography". Tate Collection. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  4. ^ a b "Waiting for the Train on the Anhalter Bahnhof, Berlin. December 1945". Imperial War Museums. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  5. ^ a b "Notes from Belsen Camp, 1945". Imperial War Museums. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  6. ^ "Private Papers of Miss M Kessell". Imperial War Museums. Retrieved 29 September 2016. 
  7. ^ a b "Needlework Development Scheme". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  8. ^ "Needlework Development Scheme". Scottish Textiles Heritage Online. 15 July 2003. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  9. ^ Brooks, Helen (1955). "Embroidery: Sources of design, past and present". The Vocational Aspect of Education. 7 (14): 30. doi:10.1080/03057875580000041. ISSN 0305-7879. 
  10. ^ "O Can Ye Sew Cushions". The Glasgow Herald. 26 September 1950. p. 4. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  11. ^ Kelvin, Jean (13 April 1951). "Experiment in Embroidery". The Glasgow Herald. p. 3. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  12. ^ a b "Dress & slip, Mary Kessell". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  13. ^ Mutual Art Services. Four-Ancient-Elements-/EB78D03775945F94 "Mary Kessell Two works: "Four Ancient Elements"" Check |url= value (help). Retrieved 7 March 2012. 
  14. ^ "Artist: Mary M Kessell". London Transport Museum. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  15. ^ a b "Arlington Row, Bibury". The National Motor Museum Trust. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  16. ^ a b Alicia Foster (2004). Tate Women Artists. Tate Publishing. ISBN 1-85437-311-0. 
  17. ^ Grant M. Waters (1975). Dictionary of British artists, working 1900–1950. Eastbourne Fine Art. p. 189. Retrieved 25 March 2012. 
  18. ^ Margot Coatts (October 1997). Pioneers of modern craft: twelve essays profiling key figures in the history of twentieth-century craft. Manchester University Press ND. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-7190-5059-6. Retrieved 28 February 2012. 
  19. ^ "Collections Search for "Mary Kessell"". Imperial War Museums. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 

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