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Nifty shades of Bray

A new audience can appreciate Phyllis Bray’s charming illustrations for Jo Manton’s Titania and Oberon now the book has been republished. Dan Carrier talks to art historian David Buckman, who has written a preface

20 July, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

One of Phyllis Bray’s illustrations in the book

HER style was distinctive and her subject matter wide – Phyllis Bray, a celebrated member of the East London Group of artists who won critical acclaim in the period between the wars, could turn her talent to almost anything.

Her works included everything from traditional landscapes – her love for Hampstead Heath shone through the images she created depicting the Ladies Pond – to oils. She could work on commercial projects, such as sweet wrappers and posters for London Transport, John Lewis and Shell Oil, to bookplates, glass engravings and then huge murals for public buildings.

Now a re-issue of a work she did in the final year of the Second World War has been published: a book she designed for writer Jo Manton, who took Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and focuses on the story of Titania and Oberon.

Born in 1911, Bray started illustrating books in the mid-1920s. She worked for major publishers, commissioned by Faber & Faber, JM Dent and Oxford University Press.

Art historian David Buckman, who has written a preface to the book and is an expert in the lives and times of the East London Group, says it was a mixture of circumstances and need that guided her career.

“In some ways, she was like an old-fashioned journeyman artist,” he says. “She was commissioned to do a wide range of work. Nowadays, you’ll find artists have clear ideas of what they can and can’t do, what they want to specialise in. They follow their own ideas rather than look at commercial outcome. She knew she had to earn a living.”

Bray studied at the Slade School of Art between 1927 and 1931. David says her talent was immediately obvious. He said: “She was a gifted student and won a string of awards.”

Phyllis Bray

She graduated in 1931 and that year married artist and tutor John Cooper. Cooper had set up the East London Group – famous for championing working-class painters with little formal training – and Bray became involved with them through Cooper.

This also shaped her career, as the young couple had very little money coming in.

“She had at first wanted to be an easel painter but people kept asking her to illustrate books, do sweet wrappers, all sorts of things,” David says.

“She could turn her hand to anything. She was inspired by the Slade, and its tradition of strong draughtsmanship. She was a favourite of her tutor, the famous Professor Tonks, and he instilled in her Slade traditions.”

She joined the East London Group soon after graduating and this brought her into the public eye. “She began her participation by showing two paintings at the second exhibition of the group in 1930 and each year after that her paintings became important features of these group shows,” says David. “She was also a valuable teacher with the East London Group. By 1937, she took responsibility, overseeing the students.”

Bray and Cooper parted before the war and she went on to marry Eric Phillips, a senior civil servant. They set up home in Platts Lane, Hampstead.

“When she married Eric, there was no longer the foreboding sense of economic pressure,” adds David.

This led her to work as a muralist, specialising in large-scale public buildings. She had already created a celebrated piece at the People’s Palace in the East End before the war. In the post-war period she worked with Hans Feibusch, a celebrated public artist.

“She had been really successful with her murals at the People’s Palace, and it was through this she met Feibusch,” says David. “Hans was a small man, not adapted to clambering up and down scaffolding – but he was a fine painter. Bray’s real gift was she was both good at figures and landscapes. They became team and they did a remarkable amount of work together. And added to this was the fact that Phyllis was very energetic and athletic. She clambered up and down scaffolding – and this went on for decades.”

Bray, living in Hampstead, kept fit through daily walks over the Heath for a swim in the Ladies Pond up to her death in 1991. She painted a number of studies of the wooded women-only enclave. Five of these works are in the collection of Burgh House, New End.

• Titania and Oberon. Illustrated by Phyllis Bray. Foreword by David Buckman. Pavilion Children’s Books, £12.99

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