Historic Environment Record images

Rachel Reckitt

1908-1995

Rachel Reckitt was an extraordinary artist whose life in rural West Somerset belied her persona as a  20th century modernist. Her father, the architect Norman Reckitt, moved the family from Hertfordshire to Golsoncott, near Roadwater in 1922, designing and building the village hall there in the late 1920s. Her mother had studied at the Slade School under Henry Tonks. After an unpromising start at Taunton School of Art, Rachel Reckitt went to London in the mid-1930s to study at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, under its charismatic head Iain Macnab. Returning home at weekends she shuttled back and forth between the bucolic and the bohemian: a Red Poll was a very different creature on Exmoor from the breed in Chelsea. At the Grosvenor, Picasso and Cézanne reigned as supreme gods, particularly the latter whose principles and exploitation of volume, and the treatment of surface Macnab especially revered. Russian constructivists were also part of the pantheon, and the brash surrealists, then the latest ‘thing’, forced their way in. Graham Sutherland and Mark Gertler were visiting lecturers. Macnab is best known as a wood engraver – very avant garde in the inter-war years – and Rachel at first followed in his wake, exhibiting with the Society of Wood Engravers from 1933; by 1935 she had developed her own recognisable and highly individual style. However the influences absorbed and techniques learned took her far beyond that exacting medium, for she painted, sculpted and constructed for the next 60 years, entirely on her own terms, doing what she wanted: the subject matter, classical, medieval, renaissance and the quotidian; the manner 20th century modern.

Sign for The Valiant Soldier Inn, created in 1937 (© ENPA 2017)In 1937, she began an entirely new type of work, utilising modern materials and imparting to the designs an expressionist character. This was the ‘sculpting' of local inn signs from tin or aluminium sheeting, displaying a strong interest in plastic form and modelling that owed more to the vernacular tradition than the academic. By bending and shaping strips of narrow aluminium and other non-ferrous materials, combined with riveted soft ferrous metal, Rachel fashioned at least 5 signs in the next 2 years: the Valiant Soldier (Roadwater; see image to right), The White Horse Inn (near Cleeve Abbey at Washford), the Butchers Arms (Carhampton) and the double-sided The Blackbird (West Buckland, near Wellington) all in Somerset; and the Half Way House (Willand, near Cullompton) in Devon. All are still extant, though that at Carhampton is much restored, and that near Cleeve Abbey is now inside the pub. At the same time her early sculptures, exhibited with the London Group whose luminaries included Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, were carvings in stone and in wood. The stone was usually beach alabaster recovered locally from Blue Anchor and Kilve, either side of Watchet; the wood, local apple or elm. Beach alabaster is another intractable material: the compositional form dictated by the impurities in the stone, as carving reveals more and more of the intrusive schists; many such pieces were abandoned or fragmented during working.

Crucial to Rachel’s art were the annual journeys made to Europe before and after the war. The journals amassed, annotated sketches made, and photographs taken were a constant resource and inspiration for later work; often appearing many years later in a style and manner not then part of her repertoire. But of equal importance was the inspiration that was immediate and local, with Golsoncott set in a large north-facing combe of the Brendon Hills, in West Somerset. From this flowed engravings and paintings of Agricultural shows, Point-to-points, farmhouses, Old walnut trees, tug boats in the Bristol Channel and much else.

In the 1960s she began a constructivist stage, often of local scenes, represented in an abstracted manner dictated by the wood, metal, sand, paint and tesserae to hand. These material sculptures were experiments in form, but are perfectly intelligible: Snow over the Quantocks, a Spring Convolvulus, a hollow tree, and the Bristol Channel glimpsed through a series of receding hedges are typical. At the end of the decade, as an OAP, Rachel began to learn blacksmithying with Harry and Jim Horrobin; substituting the plasticity of sheet metal for the solidity of wrought iron she produced decorative sculpture based around the primacy of the figure. Early pieces did combine aluminium with iron work producing at least one masterpiece in Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, given to St Bartholomew’s, Rodhuish. A number of free-standing sculptures followed, which were decorative rather than architectural or functional. Roe deer and birds being typical subjects.

An ambitious local project was the joint commission that she and Jim Horrobin, with assistants from his Doverhay Forge in Porlock, undertook for the tower screen at the west end of St Andrew’s, Old Cleeve, which was installed in 1974: 4 fibre-glass panels, painted with the patronal saints of the various churches combined in the new parish group, mounted within a pierced screen, or access gates with symbols of the evangelists in the spandrels and an overthrow of supporting angels. Surviving full-size colour-cartoons, which are superb studies in their own right, show Rachel’s changing thoughts with collaged additions stuck on, as weight and posture are subtly altered. The angels hark back to those on the Romanesque tympanum on the west portal of Collonges in France, first seen nearly 30 years before and hastily sketched in the cold, are here reproduced in a quite different medium but with the same reverence of feeling, evoking the same delight. As well as Old Cleeve all the former parish churches surrounding Golsoncott have something of Rachel’s work in them: St John the Baptist, Carhampton – a praying woman in local elm which blends with the chancel screen; St Giles, Leighland – painted pulpit, reredos, and chancel capitals; St Nicholas, Withycombe, where her late (1988) painted and gilded St Nicholas combines metalworking skills with dramatic form and a rare sense of scale in placing the work in a specific medieval setting. All these works show how she simply made the material shape the sculpture within its own fluid integrity. But nearest to her heart was the St Bartholomew the small chapel of ease at Rodhuish, which contains a number of works of art fashioned by her and Jim Horrobin, as well as Winchester work embroidery altar frontals by her mother. Descriptions of Golsoncott and Rachel at work and at home appear in her niece Penelope Lively’s memoirs Oleander Jacaranda (1994) and A House Unlocked (2001).

Hal Bishop

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