Herstory

On Stanislawa de Karlowska by Natalia Puchalska

Stanisława de Karłowska remains a lesser-known yet important artist associated with the Fitzroy Street and Camden Town Groups, exhibiting societies active in London at the beginning of the 20th century. Her body of work, dispersed across public and private collections, became the testimony to both the rapid social and cultural transformation of Edwardian England, and to the artist’s more personal experiences as a woman and an expat.

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Stanisława de Karłowska [Fig. 1] was born at the family estate at Szeliwy (now Wszeliwy) [Fig. 2] in 1876 in then Russian-occupied Poland. Following schooling in Warsaw and Kraków, she went on to study art at the Académie Julian in Paris. She left for Paris in 1895 and enrolled at the academy in 1896. [Fig. 3][Fig. 4]

The private Académie Julian differed from other artistic academies, such as the École des Beaux-Arts, in that the school was one of the very first to admit female students. Adepts included many successful female painters, among others, Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz and Marie Bashkirtseff, who would later praise the academy for the solid and efficient training for women artists.1 Julian and his staff encouraged all pupils to compete anonymously in the in-house artistic contests intended to prepare the students to leave the academy with confidence and solid artistic background. This sense of equality and commitment to cultural democracy resonated in Karłowska’s life later, as she gracefully made her way up to the top of London’s artistic circles.

After graduating in 1897 and marrying an English painter, Robert Bevan, [Fig. 5] the same year, she moved to England, eventually settling down in London’s Swiss Cottage in 1900. [Fig. 6] Despite being busy with her new marital life and a growing family (she gave birth to a daughter, Edith Halina, in 1898, and a son, Robert Alexander, ‘Bobby’ in 1901), she continued to lead a cosmopolitan lifestyle and pursue painting [Fig.7]. She travelled extensively; sometimes alone, as at the time when, while being pregnant with her first child, she went to visit a friend, Janina Flamm, in Paris; or with her husband.

Karłowska’s works from that period contemplated her travels and a fascination with modern French art, shared with her husband. After studying at Académie Julian in the early 1890s, Robert Bevan moved to Brittany for several years, where he befriended and worked with Paul Gauguin and August Renoir. The encounter with Gauguin significantly impacted Bevan’s early works, leading him to what Philip Hendy called ‘one of the first exercises in the expressive use of pure colour in this century’.

Unlike her husband, Karłowska kept the use of colours to a bare minimum, occasionally enriching the palette with a pop of pure blue, as in Woman Sitting [Fig. 8] (Undated, Private Collection) or yellow, as in Reclining Woman [Fig. 9] (Undated, Private Collection). Quickly applied, thick brushstrokes in Rock in Anglesey (1900, Cardiff Museum) and in two undated cityscapes of Paris [Fig. 10 and 11] (Private Collection) indicate her fondness for modern styles and deep interest in the principle of light inherited from French Impressionism.

Shortly after moving to London, Karłowska became actively involved in the city’s artistic scene. In 1900 she began exhibiting with the Women’s International Art Club (WIAC), the Allied Artists Association, and the New English Art Club. The culturally diverse, metropolitan city offered Karłowska and her husband an abundance of opportunities to make new, valuable contacts. The couple complemented one another on social grounds; while Karłowska’s bubbly and jovial personality helped the reserved and self-doubting Bevan meet like-minded artists, his social background and reputation as an avant-gardist allowed the couple to reassert their status. In 1908, they both exhibited at the Allied Artists Association’s show in London’s Royal Albert Hall, where Bevan was noticed by his future peers from the Fitzroy Street and Camden Town Groups – Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman. Soon after, Bevan became a regular at weekly gatherings on Fitzroy Street. This exhibition body, established by Walter Sickert in 1907, later evolved into the Camden Town Group. Although short-lived (the society held only two exhibitions 1909-1912), it distinguished itself as the leading force of London’s art scene at the beginning of the 20th century.

Only Bevan could attend the Fitzroy Street and Camden Town Group meetings, following the rule that debarred women from the membership. Each Saturday, however, the couple met Bevan’s peers at the fashionable Café Royal on Regent Street. The café was frequented by leading figures of London’s artistic and intellectual circles, such as Walter Sickert, Harold Gilman, Lucien Pissarro, and Spencer Gore, Augustus John, Katherine Mansfield and Nancy Cunard.2 Karłowska became lifelong friends with many of them, most notably with Harold Gilman, to whom she would sit for several portraits [Fig. 12 , Karłowska by Harold Gilman, NPG]. On Sundays, the Bevans would invite fellow artists to their home in Hampstead. Bobby Bevan recalled later in his memoir:

Both immediately before 1914 and later through the war, the Bevan house in Hampstead was a rallying point not only for his [Bevan’s] closest associates but also for a number of other young artists. Teatime on Sunday afternoons, often followed by a simple cold supper, usually saw quite a gathering which often included T.E. Hulme, Ashley Dukes, and the Gaudier-Brzeskas, as well as Sickert, Walter Bayes, Lucien Pissarro, Manson, and Wyndham Lewis.3

Karłowska’s fascination with modernity and close observation of everyday urban life in her works at the time corresponded to the subject matter championed by her husband and the Camden Town Group artists in the same period. This, and the group’s gender exclusivity, later gave rise to the accusation that Karłowska was a follower. Unlike Bevan and his peers, who were committed to making art based on candid observation, Karłowska often used social reportage as a pretext to explore more pressing issues and personal experiences. In the Fried Fish Shop [Fig. 13, Tate], she used a common urban subject, i.e. shops selling fish and chips – popular among the Edwardian working-class – to explore shifting attitudes to the role of women in public spheres.

Even though the painting’s title indicates a fish and chips shop as its primary subject, Karłowska focused on figures rather than the shop itself; she intentionally gave particular importance to the figure of a woman looking in through the shop window from the street. The woman epitomises the flâneuse, a female counterpart of a city observer known as a flaneur. Such representation was relatively new and forward-looking, as women had started participating in public life not long before this painting was made . This representation may therefore indicate Karłowska’s approval of an emancipated lifestyle, enabling women to leave the confinement of domestic interiors and traverse the streets unchaperoned. Another sign of these sentiments may be a bag the figure holds, an accessory associated with modern women, that allowed them to travel freely around the city.

The art critic Frank Rutter would later write a review of the Fried Fish Shop for the Sunday Times:

Lower in tone than anything on this wall ‘The Fried Fish Shop,’ by S. de Karłowska (Mrs. R.P. Bevan), is a delightful and wholly personal rendering of a common Whistler subject transfigured by a vibrating luminism that was unknown to Whistler.4

It was not the only time Karłowska depicted a woman in this specific manner. A few years after painting the Fried Fish Shop, the artist created the Swiss Cottage [Fig. 14, Tate]. As with the Fried Fish Shop, the focus lies here on the figure of a woman in the foreground, carrying probably a satchel in one hand and holding the hand of a young girl in the other. This recurring motive may represent Karłowska herself, pondering over her place in a busy, foreign city. Furthermore, the artist seems to refer to Bevan’s earlier work, The Gate of Szeliwy 1901 (Private Collection), depicting Karłowska and her young daughter, Halina, leaving the gate at her family estate in Poland [Fig.15]. Interestingly, in both paintings, the figure of a girl holds a particular object – a hoop, indicating, therefore, that Swiss Cottage may be the artist’s response to her husband’s piece and an attempt to engage with him in artistic dialogue.

Swiss Cottage evidenced the artist’s shifting attitude towards colours and a significant change in style. The painting symbolically marked Karłowska’s transition to a more experimental period, manifested by flat perspective, elongated figures, and patches of intense colours that corresponded somehow with the Polish folk art [Fig. 16]. The artist’s native region, situated in central Poland, has been famous for its rich folk traditions and craftsmanship, most notably colourful cut-outs, decorative mobiles – ‘pająki’, and folk costumes. She captured this spirit in the Polish Interior 1909 (Southampton City Art Gallery), not only in form but also in substance, choosing an interior of a traditional peasant cottage as the subject matter. The fascination with vernacular craftsmanship and culture invites comparisons with fellow modern artists such as Zofia Stryjeńska and Stanisław Wyspiański.

Karłowska did not forget her origins, and when moving to England she brought with her ‘a piece of homeland’. In her drawing room, she hung a makata buczacka, a silk jacquard tapestry from the Potocki factory in Buczacz (present-day Ukraine) decorated with other Polish memorabilia: two crossed karabelas – a Polish type of sabres, an engraved portrait of the national hero, Tadeusz Kościuszko by Antoni Oleszczyński, and an effigy of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. She also held a collection of Polish books and personal photos of her family.5

Frequent visits to Poland had a profound impact also on Bevan, who developed a habit of spending the summer period in Karłowska’s family estate at Szeliwy. He painted many works inspired by the Polish landscape and countryside, such as the Polish Landscape c.1901 (Leicester Museum and Art Gallery) and Morning over the Ploughed Fields c. 1904 (Tate Britain).

The Bevans’s house in Hampstead was often called ‘the Polish House’, and the couple frequently hosted Karłowska’s compatriots, many of whom escaped Poland due to political persecution. The couple played an active role in organising support for the Poles in need that sometimes led to friendships, most notably with the vorticist painter and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and his partner Sophie Brzeska, whom Karłowska would tend to after Henri’s premature death in WWI in 1915.

This mindset may have stemmed from Karłowska’s patriotic upbringing. Born to a noble family with patriotic traditions, she personally experienced the Polish struggle for independence. Her father, Aleksander Prawdzic Karłowski, [Fig. 17] fought under General Bem in Hungarian wars against the Austrian Empire in the late 1840s. He also participated in the January Uprising in 1863, which caused the family substantial financial losses. To commemorate the victims of the revolt, teenage Karłowska would later pose in a portrait photo wearing a mourning brooch pinned to her collar. [Fig. 18] Many similar patriotic memorabilia were inherited by her descendants. [Fig. 19]

Throughout her long career, the artist explored urban and industrial themes, i.e. a series of London’s cityscapes, such as Berkeley Square c.1935 (Tate Britain), or Soho Square (Private Collection) [Fig. 20], rural landscapes [Fig. 21], still lifes, [Fig.22] and occasionally portraits. [Fig. 23] Her style became more synthetic as she drifted towards geometry and linearity. Apart from oil painting, Karłowska experimented with other techniques, such as printmaking [Fig. 24, 25, 26] and watercolour. [Fig. 27, 28] For many years she exhibited with the Society of Wood Engravers. In 1935, ten years after Robert Bevan’s death, Karłowska held her first solo exhibition at the Adams Gallery, selling six paintings. The catalogue entry, written by a former Camden Town Group member and then Tate Britain director, James Bolivar Manson, praised her work for its sincerity and individuality, and described it as ‘modern in feeling’ and owing ‘nothing to any school’. After gathering positive reviews from art critics, her Berkley Square entered Tate Britain’s permanent collection [Fig. 29, Tate].6

Except for the WWII period, captured by Karłowska in the Barrage Ballons of 1939 (Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne), the artist lived and worked in London for the rest of her life. She died in the aftermath of the great fog in London in 1952.

Her prolific body of work consists of more than two hundred oil paintings, prints, drawings, and watercolours that later became part of many public and private collections in the UK, Europe, and Australia. For many years, Karłowska, together with her female counterparts, ‘occupied an ambivalent place in the metropolitan avant-garde’7 – neither quite inside nor outside of the mainstream art historical discourse. However, owing to recent studies and changing approach towards female painters, she has started regaining her voice as a forward-thinking, talented artist with an aptitude for combining her experiences and convincingly conveying them in her art.

Special thanks to Patrick Baty for generously sharing images from his archive.

1. C. Fehrer, ‘Women at the Académie Julian in Paris’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 136, No. 1100, November1994, pp. 752-757.

2. M. Clarke, ‘Sex and the City’, D. Longworth, ‘The Urban Observer’, in The Camden Town Group in Context, H. Bonett, Y. Holt, J. Mundy (eds.), (Tate Research Publication, May 2012), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/deborah-longworth-the-urban-observer-r1105660, [accessed 04 August 2018].

3. R. A. Bevan, Robert Bevan, 1865-1925: A Memoir by His Son, (London: Studio Vista, 1965) p.18.

4. F. Rutter, ‘Round the Galleries’, Sunday Times, 19 March 1911, p.5.

5. W. Jaworska, ‘Love Story sir Roberta Bevana w powiecie łowickim’, Mazowieckie Studia Humanistyczne, No. 1, 1997, p. 60.

6. James Bolivar Manson, ‘Preface’, in Paintings by S. de Karłowska, exhibition catalogue, Adams Gallery, London 1935. Copy in the collection of the Tate Archive TGA 9216/109.

7. J. Wallace and Bridget Elliot, Woman Artists and Writers: Modernist (im)Positionings (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 165.

Natalia J. Puchalska is an art historian with a keen interest in Central and East European art from the 20th century and beyond. She holds an MA in Art History from the University of Sussex and a BA in the same subject from the University of Gdańsk, Poland. She works as Head of Communications, Literature and Education at the Polish Cultural Institute in London, where she has been involved in many interdisciplinary projects, such as the Jan Matejko exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

 

Bibliography: 

Primary Sources:

Correspondence to Stanislawa de Karłowska from other artists, galleries and her family, 1897- 1851, Tate Archive TGA 9216/1-104.

James Bolivar Manson, ‘Preface’, in Paintings by S. de Karłowska, exhibition catalogue, Adams Gallery, London 1935. Copy in the collection of the Tate Archive TGA 9216/109.

Letters to Stanislawa de Karłowska, Tate Archive, TGS 9210/1/4.

 

Secondary Sources: 

Bevan, Robert A., Robert Bevan, 1865-1925: A Memoir by His Son (London: Studio Vista, 1965).

Jaworska, Władysława, ‘Love Story sir Roberta Bevana w powiecie łowickim’, Mazowieckie Studia Humanistyczne, No. 1, 1997.

Stanislawa de Karłowska: Paintings 1909 -1936, Catalogue Entry, Maltzahn Gallery, London, June 1969

Stenlake, Frances, Robert Bevan: From Gauguin to Camden Town (London: Unicorn Press, 2008).

 

Websites:

Baty, Patrick, Stanislawa de Karłowska Part. 1 and Part. 2, http://patrickbaty.co.uk/2016/03/06/stanislawa-de-karlowska/, [accessed 16 May 2018].

Bonett, Helena, ‘Stanislawa de Karłowska 1876–1952’, January 2011, in The Camden Town Group in Context, ed by H. Bonett, Y. Holt, J. Mundy, (Tate Research Publication, May 2012), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/stanislawa-de-karlowska-r1105347, [accessed 04 October 2022].

Brown, Mark, ‘Camden Town Group of Painters Welcomes a Woman – a Century Later’, Guardian, 1 December 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/dec/01/camden-town-group-welcomes-woman, [accessed 04 October 2022].

Clarke, Meaghan, ‘Sex and the City: The Metropolitan New Woman’, in The Camden Town Group in Context, Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds), (Tate Research Publication, May 2012), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/meaghan-clarke-sex-and-the-city-the-metropolitan-new-woman-r1105659, [accessed 04 October 2022].

Fried Fish Shop, Gallery Label, Tate, February 2016, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/de-karlowska-fried-fish-shop-n06238, [accessed 21 September 2022].

Longworth, Deborah, ‘The Urban Observer’, in The Camden Town Group in Context, H. Bonett, Y. Holt, J. Mundy (eds.), (Tate Research Publication, May 2012), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/deborah-longworth-the-urban-observer-r1105660, [accessed 04 October 2022].

Moorby, Nicola, ‘Her Indoors: Women Artists and Depictions of the Domestic Interior’, in The Camden Town Group in Context, Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds) (Tate Research Publication, May 2012) https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/nicola-moorby-her-indoors-women-artists-and-depictions-of-the-domestic-interior-r1104359, [accessed 1 October 2022].

Stephenson, Andrew, ‘Questions of Artistic Identity, Self-Fashioning and Social Referencing in the Work of the Camden Town Group’, in The Camden Town Group in Context, H. Bonett, Y. Holt, J. Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/andrew-stephenson-questions-of-artistic-identity-self-fashioning-and-social-referencing-in-r1104367, [accessed 1 October 2022].

Swiss Cottage, Stanislawa de Karłowska, Tate, Gallery Label, February 2010, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/de-karlowska-swiss-cottage-n06239, [accessed 21 September 2022].

Upstone, Robert, ‘Painters of Modern Life: The Camden Town Group’, The Camden Town Group in Context, in H. Bonett, Y. Holt, J. Mundy (eds.), Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/robert-upstone-painters-of-modern-life-the-camden-town-group-r1106519, [accessed 04 October 2022].

Upstone, Robert, ‘Swiss Cottage Exhibited 1914 by Stanislawa de Karłowska’, catalogue entry, May 2009, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/stanislawa-de-karlowska-swiss-cottage-r1129515, [accessed 1 October 2022].

Wallace, Jo-Anne and Bridget Elliot, Woman Artists and Writers: Modernist (im)Positionings, (London: Routledge, 1994).