A recent posting on the Wales Online website piqued my interest: “Mildred Elsie Eldridge: Celebrating the woman behind R S Thomas.”
Eldridge, an artist of some renown, was Thomas’s first wife. The online article deals with a retrospective exhibition of her works mounted at a gallery in Pwllheli, Wales, this past spring, and summarizes her accomplishments as a painter. (You can view a gallery of paintings by Eldridge on the BBC Wales website.)
She painted Welsh landscapes in oil and watercolor, sketched persons and places, was a weaver and sculptor, and designed altar cloths, stained glass windows, and wrought-iron chandeliers – two of which are in churches where her husband was the vicar: Eglwys-fach and Aberdaron.
Eldridge’s husband once contrasted the “watercolour’s appeal / To the mass” with “the poem’s / Harsher conditions.” Her drawings of him portray him as a poet of life’s “Harsher conditions.”
A commenter on the Wales Online article asks: “Why have we not heard more about this wonderful woman? It would seem that she was the one who was the huge talent in this family. . . . It couldn’t be because she was English ???? could it ????”
Cheeky, understandable, but not true.
I have not seen any of Eldridge’s paintings and drawings, only being able to study reproductions of them in books and such websites as the Victoria and Albert’s. But art critics who saw them in the 1930s wrote:
Eldridge’s work “gives more than the promise of achievement” – that was Tommy Earp, London’s best-known art critic, writing about Eldridge’s one woman show at the Beaux Arts Gallery.
Other critics hailed her “delicate taste in colour,” and noted that she lived in “a paradise of her own so that all her work is other worldly.”
I evaluate Eldridge as having a seeing eye, a light hand, a soft-pedaled palette – an appealing, talented artist, but not “the huge talent in this family.” No critic wrote about her the way a host of critics wrote about her husband:
1955 – Kingsley Amis: “R. S. Thomas is one of the half-dozen best poets now writing in English.”
1978 – British Book News: “. . . the most rugged, honest and original poet writing in English today.”
1981 – Ann Stevenson: “All his poems possess that authority of tone which is the hallmark of a master.”
1986 – Alan Bold: “. . . in his attempts to give utterance to the ineffable Thomas has created some of the most profoundly religious poems of the century.”
Art critics did not rank Eldridge among the six best English artists of her day. Although she was one of the artists selected for the Recording Britain project during the Second World War, the V&A’s website dealing with the project does not list her among the painters singled out.
The truth is this: R. S. Thomas is a Welsh poet who has a worldwide reputation that was initiated by London-based literary critics, and he was nominated by the British literary establishment for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mildred Elsie Eldridge is an English artist who painted many Welsh landscapes, who was noted with appreciation by English art critics early in her career, but whose paintings never gained high acclaim in either England or Wales. Perhaps because they are too delicate in color, too other worldly, for an age characterized by life’s harsher conditions.
Yes, her work deserves renewed appreciation, but R. S. will remain “the huge talent in this family.”
His poems capture truth, her paintings beauty, and truth, as R.S. reminds us, is not necessarily beautiful:
. . . One thing I have asked
Of the disposer of the issues
Of life: that truth should defer
To beauty. It was not granted.
Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
”watercolour’s appeal” – “Reservoirs,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 27.
“One thing I have asked” – “Petition,” H’m, 2.