Long Live Great Bardfield: The Fry Art Gallery celebrates the life, loves and art of Tirzah Garwood

By Richard Moss | 20 April 2012
a painted portrait of a woman with brown eyes and wavy brown hair
Duffy Ayers, Portrait of Tirzah Garwood (1944)© Courtesy the Fleece Press
Exhibition: Long Live Great Bardfield & Love to You All! An Exhibition of Work Related to the Life of the Artist Tirzah Garwood at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, until June 24 2012

Thanks in part to the fame and brilliance of her husband Eric Ravilious, Tirzah Garwood is a largely forgotten figure in English art and design.

It’s a travesty that the current exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery goes some way in remedying as they reveal a fascinating story and a talent that was not only overshadowed by a greater one but also by tragic circumstance and a short life. 

Eric and Tirzah met at Eastbourne Art College, where Ravilious tutored his future wife in wood engraving, but as the star of the famous painter of watercolour landscapes, Wedgwood designs and book illustrations rose, Garwood’s career was inevitably eclipsed.

a wood engraving of 1920s schoolglrls walking together in line
© Courtesy Fry Art Gallery
They were married in 1930, and quickly moved from the bustle of London to the rural tranquillity of Great Bardfield in Essex, where they shared a house with Edward Bawden and his wife Charlotte. An artistic community flourished around the two couples, which today is celebrated as a kind of Essex country version of the St Ives scene.

A famous Ravilious watercolour, Two Women in a Garden, captured the two artist’s wives; Tirzah idly shelling peas and Charlotte reading a book, in 1936 - and it’s tempting to see the painting as a kind of allegory of wifely duty and domesticity.

But as this exhibition makes clear, another look at the output of Garwood until her death from cancer in 1951 reveals someone who balanced her own artistsic talents with the demands of family life.

After the birth of the first of three children she successfully experimented with a range of art forms not as exacting as wood engraving, including the art of marbled paper making, which are today regarded as some of the best examples of the period. After the death of her husband in an air sea rescue accident off Iceland in September 1942, she moved on to collage and painting.

The results on show here reveal a creative arc which flits thrillingly from the highly intricate and wryly observed wood engravings of her youth through to some remarkable later paintings and collages which seem to offer a surreal take on ideas of childhood and memory - and an often bizarre counterpoint to the familiar countrified vision of her husband. 

a woodcut showing 1920s society couples in a bar
© Courtesy the Fry Art Gallery
Family photographs from the collection of her daughter Anne Ullmann and work by a range of Great Bardfield artists complete the picture, shining a welcome light on an artistic circle that includes John Aldridge, Duffy Ayers, Phyllis Dodd, Edwin Smith and the later contributions of John and James Ravilious.

But the focus and fascination lies with Garwood, remembered by her friend Olive Cook as having “the figure of a Botticelli angel” with “dark vivid eyes, shining with intelligence and full of half mocking humour”. A remarkable portrait by Duffy Ayers casts her as this swan necked beauty – a vision backed by some of the early photographs.

The exhibition is also a welcome chance to take a closer look at the wood engravings, collected by her daughter Ullmann, and included here is the series The Seasons together with some classic work for the Curzon Press.

These 1920s and 1930s depictions of schoolgirls, matriarchs, rail passengers and other English types are rendered with cool detachment and a gently surreal eye, marking her out as a strong and singular English voice which nevertheless recalls the work of Edward Gorey and other modern illustrators evidently aware of Garwood's skills.

The Fry Art Gallery boasts a strong sense of place, and this exhibition puts one of its local figures back into the heart of the community in which she lived. She may yet emerge more fully from her husband's shadow.

More Pictures:

a painting of an old fashioned steam train steaming through a downland landscape
Etna, Oil on canvas© Courtesy Fry Art Gallery
a painting of a tortoise shell cat returning home by moonlight
Tirzah Garwood, Erskine Returning at Dawn© Private Collection
A 1920s studio portriat of a woman with fashionably cut brown hair
© Courtesy Anne Ullmann
a bookplate showing a women with her back turned to the viewer and a dog by her side
A bookplate designed for her mother© Courtesy Anne Ullmann
a watercolour showing three ladies seated at a tea dance
© Courtesy the Fry Art Gallery

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