Ishbel McWhirter: ‘I try to grab a moment that will disappear forever’

Artist Ishbel McWhirter. Picture: Polly Hancock

Artist Ishbel McWhirter. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Former child prodigy Ishbel McWhirter whose 90th birthday exhibition opens at Burgh House looks back on her career

Ishbel McWhirter's Evening on Ynys Gorad Goch, 1972

Ishbel McWhirter's Evening on Ynys Gorad Goch, 1972 - Credit: Archant

It’s fitting that a portrait of the late Peggy Jay should go on show in the gallery named after her.

A drawing of the doughty Hampstead campaigner who helped to save Burgh House as a museum and exhibition space, was unearthed by artist Ishbel McWhirter as she prepared for a retrospective celebrating her 90th birthday.

Despite the Scottish name, McWhirter spent her first months in West Heath Road, and after growing up in North Wales, returned to North West London when she was singled out as a teenage prodigy.

Now living in Pattison Road, Hampstead, Ishbel was encouraged to stage the retrospective by her sons Owen and Greg.

“I am very lucky to be turning 90 and having an exhibition for the first time at Burgh House,” she says.

It was attending A.S Neill’s legendary liberal school Summerhill that changed McWhirter’s life.

Prone Ballet Dancer, 1976, red and black

Prone Ballet Dancer, 1976, red and black - Credit: Archant

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Along with fellow pupil John Burningham she was given freedom to choose her lessons, including art classes with “the brilliant inspirational” Robin Bond.

“We did have formal lessons and I did go to them because if you didn’t it was hard to catch up. Some people felt they didn’t get sufficient support, and it’s true with all that freedom you really need brilliant teachers. But it changed my life completely,” she says.

When photographer Michael Peto visited the school in 1943 he thought the art work was exceptional and pushed for an exhibition of ‘child art’ at the Arcade Gallery in Bond Street. The art critic Herbert Reed picked out 16-year-old Ishbel as the star of the show.

“Reed said I was a born painter and the gallery owner said if I carried on he would give me a solo show.”

A year later he fulfilled his promise but Ishbel says: “It didn’t go to my head at all, I just thought ‘oh my god I’ve got to get all this work done’.”

When Robin Bond went to work at another liberal school Dartington Hall, he met artist Oskar Kokoshka and showed him his pupil’s work.

Isleworth Garden on the Thames, 1952

Isleworth Garden on the Thames, 1952 - Credit: Archant

“I was back in Prestatyn when I got a postcard saying ‘Kokoska will teach you’. I had never heard of anyone called that, but my mother had several pictures over the fireplace including one of London Bridge by Oskar Kokoskha, but I thought ‘it can’t be him’.”

Lodging with an uncle in Neville Drive, Hampstead Garden Suburb the 18-year-old visited Kokoshka at his studio and at home in Eyre Court, St John’s Wood. The Austrian expressionist had been forced to flee in 1938 because the Nazis deemed him a ‘degenerate artist.’

He encouraged McWhirter to be spontaneous and take risks.

“He had a very heavy accent and I couldn’t always understand what he was saying but his teaching was amazing. There were others there beside me and he worked out how we could all be helped and tuned into what he thought a person could do.”

She saw him sporadically for seven years. “He never taught me methods except to say ‘I don’t want to see watercolours like stale salad’ or ‘use bright colours they suit you’. It was more like a seminar. He was quite philosophical and said you should love what you do and never to feel superior to your sitter.

“I was interested in human faces and he’d say ‘your eyes should reach out like long arms and caress anyone you are painting.’

Monsignor Gilbey, 1988

Monsignor Gilbey, 1988 - Credit: Archant

When McWhirter took a job as an air stewardess on a converted Halifax bomber plying a route to South Africa she thought Kokoshka would disapprove, but his only comment was ‘go abroad and drink Champagne’.

He even gave her a drawing of French workers which she rolled up and took with her on her travels.

When later she returned to Pretatyn to nurse her opera singer mother Enid in her final illness, Kokoshka was “incredibly supportive”.

“He wrote me wonderful postcards and said ‘draw your mother it will help her and you’.

“It was horrible, there was no real pain relief but we talked all the time and it was strange, it was so easy as if I were writing a letter. It was not a struggle to make art it just flowed.”

Back in London McWhirter hung out with fellow artists John Minton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde in Soho pubs like The French House where the bohemian set got together.

Boy in Red, 1966

Boy in Red, 1966 - Credit: Archant

“You would have half a pint of beer, because shorts were too expensive I would just look and listen.”

Writing in her first catalogue Kokoshka praised her “curiosity and restraint” while his friend the poet Alfred Marnau described the root of her talent as “the child’s unerring uncorruptible eye that was hers from the beginning and is with her still.”

After marrying a psychotherapist she lived in Ferncroft Avenue, Hampstead for two decades raising her boys but said it wasn’t a very productive period artistically

“I had a lonely artists’ life. I envied the people who went to art school because they grew up with a body of chums and helped each other,” she says.

With second husband Reg, she spent cherished periods on an island in Anglesey that she inherited from an aunt.

She still has a house on the mainland “with the most amazing view of the Menai Strait and Snowden, and a pier and boat.

Artist Ishbel McWhirter. Picture: Polly Hancock

Artist Ishbel McWhirter. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

“It’s right in your face, I’ve always been interested mostly in people but I found water and boats good to paint.”

Going back through boxes of early work for the exhibition she says: “I’m not sure I’ve improved at all!

“I think you don’t necessarily get better but you change. There’s a poignancy about an artist’s young work which of course changes but is why people often like the early works.

“I try to grab a moment that will disappear forever, it could be a strange light on the water, an unlikely sky or the mood around a person, the droop of an eyelid echoing the curve of a mouth.

“It is something that I think ‘oh my god that’s amazing, and I start work, always trying to preserve that first snapshot vision that so excited me.”

Ishbel McWhirter’s 90th Birthday Retrospective runs from January 18 until March 26 at Burgh House in New End Square Hampstead.