Who was Elinor Pugh?
Now almost completely unknown, Elinor Pugh (1879-1962) was an illustrator and theatrical costume designer, who was also responsible for preserving an important collection of works by her uncle, the architect, designer and Century Guild founder Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo. Her illustrations, sketches and designs, in the collections of the William Morris Gallery and the V&A, reveal her to be a talented, quick-witted, yet sensitive artist, with a particular skill for affectionate caricatures of her family and friends. This exhibition highlights a few of our favourite pieces, many on display for the very first time.
Here we see Elinor Pugh with her uncle, Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (left, seated) and the artist Frank Brangwyn in the garden of Brangwyn's home, 'The Jointure', in Ditchling, East Sussex. Brangwyn was a great friend of both Mackmurdo and Pugh, and all three were involved in the establishment of the William Morris Gallery. In the 1930s Elinor lived with her uncle and aunt, Eliza Carte, as a housekeeper. She also assisted Mackmurdo in the compilation of his autobiography, dutifully typing up his dictated reminiscences.
Sunny afternoons were spent talking and sketching in the gardens, carefully observing the comings and goings of the various contractors working on her uncle's architectural projects. On the right, Mackmurdo's distinctive nose and beard are just visible under the brim of a sun hat as he reclines in a deck chair. There are lots of these candid illustrations in the collection, suggesting Elinor often carried a sketchbook with her, recording her observations of the different characters she encountered, such as the workman we can see on the left, looking a little hot and bothered!
Elinor made several affectionate portraits of her uncle over the years. This one, likely from around 1910, shows an exhausted Mackmurdo fast asleep, tucked under a bundle of blankets, apparently after a sightseeing trip to Normandy. Luckily, many of the drawings in the collection were later annotated in detail by Pugh herself, shedding light on the stories and memories that accompany the otherwise untitled sketches.
Pugh's talent for capturing character also extended to animals. This chaotic scene depicts the various inhabitants of the gardens of Soval House, on a visit to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Each animal has its own small storyline: the calf chewing cheekily on a butterfly net, one little dog furiously digging a hole in the ground, the other making friends with a sheep. The additional vignette on the bottom right shows a pair of sheep who have broken into the toilet and are busily nibbling on sheets of 'Bromo' toilet paper, a popular 19th century brand claiming to be "a perfectly pure article for the water closet"!
This watercolour, titled "Guitar Player" was possibly intended to be painted onto a piece of furniture. The composition of a woman (perhaps a self portrait) playing a traditional mandolin is reminiscent of several romantic Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the 19th Century (see for example Kate Elizabeth Bunce's 'Musica' or Dante Gabriel Rosetti's 'The Mandolin Player'), but her dress and the interior details seem more contemporary to the early 1900s. The "great table", which Pugh's annotations indicate to the left hand side, is based on one designed by A.H. Mackmurdo for the Century Guild.
These sketches of elegant passers by on a day out to the British Museum demonstrate Elinor Pugh's keen eye for fashion and clothing design. The V&A collections contain a number of theatrical costume designs Pugh created for the D'Oyly Carte Theatre Company, to which she had a family connection through her cousin, the director Richard D'Oyly Carte. The company was based at the Savoy Theatre and produced a number of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. These drawings, though not specifically for any design, show her interest in the construction and details of the garments worn by everyday people.
This elegant family group was captured by Pugh on a Bank Holiday visit to Hampstead Heath, London. The clothing, particularly the magnificent Edwardian hats, suggest this was done around 1910. This scene was later worked up into a highly finished illustration, but the pencil underdrawing, quick ink marks and deft hatching of this initial sketch suggest it was probably drawn in situ.
This charming illustration is one of a series of pen and ink illustrations that accompanied "100 Poésies Enfantines" or "100 Poems for Children" by Daniel Jones, a notable early phonetician. The book contained poems, maxims and proverbs written in French phonetics, a way of spelling developed in the 19th Century designed to help young children to learn speech sounds. Pugh's signature pen and ink is simplified to a linear style, and the mouse's smart jacket is reminiscent of the Edwardian soldier in the previous image.
Pugh illustrated a number of books, mostly for children, including a picture book of scenes from London. This one, titled "At the Zoo" shows a pair of elegantly dressed children aboard a magnificent camel. Like many of her illustrations, this simple ink drawing nevertheless gives every subject a distinct character: the watchful zookeeper in his London Zoo uniform; the small child nervously holding the reins of his decidedly superior-looking steed. Pugh made several copies of these illustrations before completing a more finished version for publication, allowing her to perfect the composition.
Many of the examples in the collection are illustrated notes and letters to Pugh's friends and family, in this case her uncle, A.H. Mackmurdo, shown here fleeing a furious cockerel in the top right corner. This tongue-in-cheek letter seems to suggest that Mackmurdo left behind a chicken intended for Christmas dinner, 1903. It is not clear who Miss Todd was (or whether she is the slightly frazzled character in the top left corner!) but "Cousin Lizzie" is almost certainly Eliza Carte, Mackmurdo's new wife, who was also Elinor's cousin.
This scene shows Mackmurdo and his wife Eliza, apparently observing social distancing and mask wearing in the early 20th century. According to Elinor's note on the reverse, Mackmurdo, "a martyr to hay fever and asthma", was concerned that he would catch a cold from his wife. Pugh made this drawing as a suggestion for how he should care for her, which in 2021 seems remarkably sensible!
Elinor never married, but her close relationships, particularly with her immediate family, were the inspiration for much of her work. Her talent for affectionate caricatures here extends to a comical self-portrait, posing somewhat disinterestedly with a book titled "How to be happy though single"!
We hope you've enjoyed getting to know Elinor Pugh! Elinor's theatrical designs for the D'Oyly Carte Theatre Company can be found on V&A Explore the Collections. To find out more about Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and the Century Guild, visit our current exhibition, 'Within The Reach Of All: The Century Guild' from 18 May - 31 August 2021.