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Hedwig E. Pillitz

(London 1896-1987)

Barbara Comyns (1909-1992), seated three-quarter-length in a blue dress, pictures on the wall behind, 1933

oil on canvas

82.5 x 65.5 cm.


From the artist’s estate.


London, The New English Art, Winter Exhibition, 1933, no. 234 as ‘Barbara’.

Barbara Comyns was an artist and novelist, whose unique style as an author - a kind of modern gothic - saw her fall in and out of favour over the years, but never receive the acclaim she deserved, unlike her contemporary, Daphne du Maurier. Most recently Comyns is the subject of a fascinating new biography by Avril Horner, ‘Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence’.

She was born Barbara Bayley to a brewer and industrialist, and grew up in a manor on the banks of the River Avon. After her father’s death when she was just fifteen, the family home was sold and Barbara left to attend art school in Stratford-upon-Avon, before moving to London where she studied at Heatherley School of Fine Art. She married fellow artist John Pemberton (1908-1960) in 1931, a marriage that would prove difficult and was not destined to last. In 1932 she gave birth to her son Julian, and by 1933 the couple were struggling to cope. Barbara took work when she could as an artist’s model, and indeed in 1933 that she sat to Pillitz, who exhibited her portrait in the Winter Exhibition of the New English Art Club in 1933, entitled simply ‘Barbara’. It’s not known whether the women were friends, but it seems likely. At this time, Barbara considered herself primarily a sculptor, and the roles of mother, wife and model threatened to subsume her own artistic output. Nonetheless, she exhibited her work with the London Group of artists in 1934, and counted Augustus John and Dylan Thomas amongst her acquaintances. After her marriage broke down in 1935, Comyns began a relationship the married art critic, Rupert Lee, with who she had her second child, and later married Richard Comyns Carr, an agent with MI6.

Having started writing about her unusual upbringing to amuse her children, Comyns turned these stories into her first book, the autobiographical ‘Sisters by a River’, 1947, and so began her career as a novelist, encouraged by author Graham Greene, who was a friend and colleague of Carr.

Hedwig Pillitz was born in London to Hungarian Jewish émigrés, Arpad Armin Pillitz (1867-1947) and Josephine, née Fischer (1876-1965). She had two younger siblings, Doris (1905-1959) who became a successful stage actress, and George (1909-1981). They lived at 80 Canfield Gardens in South Hampstead, and it was there that the girls attended South Hampstead High School. By the 1920s Doris was studying drama at the Central School of Speech & Drama and Hedwig had exhibited works at the Paris Salon. It’s logical to assume that she may well have studied art in Paris. In 1924 she exhibited her first portrait at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, a portrait of ‘Madamoiselle Y’, possibly depicting the portrait photographer Yevonde (Yevonde Philone Middleton, née Cumbers (1893-1975)).

By 1926, Hedwig not only had a painting at the Paris Salon, she was also exhibiting a still life of flowers at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Nonetheless, portraits seem to have been her passion. She established her studio at 29 Abercorn Place in St. John’s Wood, painting a range of Bohemian and artistic sitters – fellow artists like Barbara Comyns, and actors and models, including Marguerite Kelsey, a professional artist’s model most famously painted by Meredith Frampton (Tate Britain), Shulamith Shafir, a Ukrainian-Jewish concert pianist who made her London debut in 1936 aged just thirteen (Private Collection), the actress Dorothy Black (V&A, London), and the Chinese dancer and mother of contemporary Chinese dance, Tai Ai-lien (with FEFA). By 1940, when Pillitz exhibited the portrait of Tai Ai-lien at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, she was represented by The Rowley Gallery on Church Street, in Kensington.

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