Creative Women of Abingdon

Abingdon has been the home of a number of writers and artists. It is noticeable however that many of them spent most of their careers elsewhere, and that Abingdon is not really reflected in their work.

The painter Agnes Tatham, for example, was born in Abingdon and grew up in Northcourt House. Her father, Meaburn Talbot Tatham, was active in the affairs of the town. He was a JP and a magistrate. When a fire damaged the County Hall in 1928, he was part of the Restoration Committee and contributed £50 to the Restoration Fund.

After studying at the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Vicat Cole School of Art, both in London, Agnes lived most of her life in Kensington. She only returned to Abingdon in her old age. It does not appear that Abingdon is reflected in any way in her paintings. Abingdon Museum owns one of her works, a depiction of a vase with flowers, with the title ‘Autumn Bunch’.

“Autumn Bunch” by Agnes Tatham, oil on canvas

With Charlotte Hardcastle, the connection to Abingdon is even more sketchy. We know that she was born in Abingdon in 1828, but we don’t know how long the family stayed there. Census data from later years show that the family lived in Surrey and in London. Charlotte was an artist who specialised in the depiction of nature, particularly plants and birds. Her work was exhibited in London, at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists and the British Institution.

Later in life Charlotte moved even further away than London: to New Zealand. In 1868 she married her cousin Edward Hardcastle and moved with him to Hokitika on the South Island. In New Zealand she continued to paint, now concentrating on the local flora and fauna. She exhibited her work as well, gaining an approving review in the Whanganui Chronicle. After the death of her husband in 1886 she lived in different places in New Zealand, but did not return to the country of her birth. She died in Whanganui in 1908. Not many of her works are known these days, but some are in the possession of the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui. Even though Charlotte was born in Abingdon, it is unlikely that this fact had any influence on her work.

Datura knightii, one of Charlotte Hardcastle’s paintings of flowers. Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui

The same can not be said for our next creative Abingdon woman. The writer Dorothy Richardson was born in Abingdon in 1873 and grew up in the family home on Park Crescent. Even though she, too, lived mostly in London, her childhood in Abingdon has a clear influence on her work. Her main work is a sequence of novels under the overarching title “Pilgrimage”. The books tell the life story of a woman called Miriam Henderson, and the first volume in the sequence, “Pointed Roofs”, tells the reader about Miriam’s childhood in a “pretty old gabled ‘town’ on the river”. This is a thinly disguised Abingdon, called “Babington” in the books. At various points throughout the novels Miriam recalls her childhood home and the garden, which is a reflection of the garden adjacent to the Richardson house on Park Crescent. While “Pilgrimage” is not exactly autobiographical, Dorothy Richardson certainly drew on her own life when writing the story of Miriam Henderson, so it is not surprising that a version of Abingdon should appear in it.

A modern edition of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage”

Dorothy Richardson is perhaps not as well known these days as she deserves, but she is regarded as a pioneering modernist writer and the first to use the “stream of consciousness” technique. She was not only a novelist, but also a journalist and a translator.

So far I have talked about artists who were born in Abingdon but moved away, sometimes quite early in their lives. Others, however, were born elsewhere but came to Abingdon later.

One of those is Pat Russell. She was born in 1919 in Wembley and grew up in Farnborough. She came to Abingdon after World War 2 with her husband, who was a physicist at Harwell. Sadly her husband died in an accident not long afterwards, leaving her with two small children. Apart from bringing her children up, she now took up the artistic activities again, for which she had been trained at the Chelsea School of Art before her marriage. She was both learning and teaching, having lessons from her old calligraphy teacher in London, but also getting a teaching job at the Art School at Oxford. In 1956 she was made a Fellow of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators. She also got into embroidery, and after collaborating with another artist on altar frontals for a chapel in Luton, she produced some vestments for an exhibition called “Modern Art and the Church” in Oxford. This got her noticed, and over the next few years she was commissioned to make embroidered copes and altar frontals for Pershore Abbey, Ely Cathedral and the cathedrals at Worcester, Norwich, Lichfield and St Paul’s in London. She still taught calligraphy at the Art School, which became part of Brookes University. Later she also taught evening classes in Abingdon – “Painting for Pleasure”. Combining both strands of her art, she wrote a book “Lettering for Embroidery”, and on the strength of the book went on tours to the US and Canada. She did all her work in her studio at the house in East St Helen Street, where she lived. In an interview she recalled that “we took over most of the house”, because copes are very large and she might be working on several at the same time. By this time she also had assistants to help her.

Pat’s work has been exhibited at the museum, and some of her pieces are in the museum collection.

When asked why she had stayed in Abingdon, she simply said: “Well, I’ve liked living in Abingdon…I know Abingdon and I feel an Abingdonian by now.”

An Alphabet, artwork by Pat Russell in the Museum collections

Mention must also be made of an artist whose work you can see every day in Abingdon. Margaret Jones painted the life-size figures from Abingdon’s history onto the walls of the Stratton Way underpass. She received a Mayor’s Award in 2007/2008 for that achievement. Look at the featured image for a cavalcade of historic figures, led by Henry VIII and Thomas Pentecost, the last Abbot of Abingdon. There are many more – go and see them for yourself.

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