Paule Vézelay

The new Wigan public library in the town centre opened a few weeks ago. One new development is that there are a number of prints from the Council’s art collection on display. There are works by a number of well known artists including David Hockney and Victor Passmore. But one I spotted and that I quite liked was by an artist I’ve never heard of – Paule Vézelay. There was an information panel next to the painting with some details on the artist, including a brief biography.


2012-02-18 13.12.39

Paule Vézelay – A Group of Five Contrasted Forms (1970)

With a name like this my first impression that the artist was male and was probably French. In fact she was a British woman born in Bristol in 1892 as Marjorie Watson-Williams.

Although I’d never heard of her before seeing the print in the library, she was well known enough to have her self portrait displayed in the national Portrait Gallery in London.

Paule Vézelay, by Paule Vézelay (Marjorie Watson-Williams), circa 1927-1929 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

She studied art in London and originally was a figurative painter, but moved to France in 1926 where she was influenced by abstract art and became one of the first British artists to adopt the style, exhibiting with Hans Arp and Wassily Kandinsky in Milan in 1938. I guess she changed her name in an attempt to gain credibility, which wouldn’t have been easy for a woman who was also English when the art world was dominated by men from the continent.

She returned to England at the outbreak of the Second World War. The Tate held a retrospective exhibition of her work in 1983 and own a number of her paintings, reliefs and sculptures covering the range of her work, including some figurative paintings from early in her career

Paule Vézelay The Bathers 1923

The Bathers (1923)

The print on display in the library is a later work – one of a series of silkscreen prints produced in collaboration with Tanagra and Curwen between 1970 and 1976 (I can’t find anything out about them despite Googling them, but I guess they must be established silkscreen printers). Although it is obviously an abstract design, some of the objects depicted could be taken for  human figures and trees, depending on how you look at them.  Some of her earlier abstract works are more complex, with more diffuse shapes and bright colours. She also continued to incorporate figurative elements within her work after she adopted the abstract style.

Five Nudes - Details

Five Nudes (1931)

However, quite a lot of her paintings, particularly after she left France, are composed of fairly simple shapes, carefully arranged and with a relatively limited palette.

Paule Vézelay Eight Forms and Three Circles 1959

Eight Forms and Three Circles  (1959)

As well as the Tate website, there’s a good selection of images of her work here.

8 thoughts on “Paule Vézelay

  1. Paule Vezelay was the FIRST British artist to commit wholly to abstraction. not merely the first woman but the first artist.
    Her work is in collections all over the world.
    i knew her well because she was my wife’s great aunt,
    The BBC made two films about her hosted by Germaine Greer.
    Her archive is held in the Tate Gallery London.

  2. She was 80 years ahead of her time. Now, in 2012, her work is grabbing attention because the critical faculties of the public have grown to appreciate abstract art.

    • Good point. Abstract art is much more accepted these days. And Britain was very insular and resistant to modern trends in art in the early 20th Century.

    • Hi Eirene. Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t heard of her either until I came across the print in the library, but her worth is definitely worth exploring further. Like many women artists she has been neglected by the establishment even though she played an important role as the first British artist to paint in the abstract style

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