Although often associated with famous artists from the 1920s to 40s, the sisters were daring and ground-breaking in their own right
What makes an artist’s muse? More than just physical beauty, muses have a distant gaze, an indescribable mystique. So what mysterious presence meant that three sisters from Wednesbury in the West Midlands would ignite the passions of the Bloomsbury group (a group of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and artists) and the art world from the 1920s to the 1940s?
I recently visited The New Art Gallery in Walsall, located alongside a canal in Britain’s industrial heartland. Having lived in Birmingham for seven years, this gallery had been on my radar for a long time and was founded by two women – Kathleen Garman and her friend, the sculptor Sally Ryan. Kathleen and her sisters Mary and Lorna were part of a large family of nine children – seven sisters and two brothers – raised near Wednesbury. Although many of the Garman siblings led fascinating lives, Mary, Kathleen, and Lorna were best known for their involvement in the arts. They would ultimately sacrifice their own artistic aspirations and become the lovers and muses of notable artists and writers of the time.
After studying art in Birmingham, both Mary and Kathleen fled the Midlands for London’s vibrant artistic circles. The enigmatic sisters generated a real stir and later, the youngest sister Lorna also became part of the bohemian art scene. As lovers and muses, their beauty was captured in bronze, stone, on canvas, and on the page, but the sisters were not only artists’ models. From gun-wielding artists to lovers in caravans, keep reading to discover more about the fabulous lives of the Garman sisters and the artworks they inspired.
"As lovers and muses, their beauty was captured in bronze, stone, on canvas, and on the page, but the sisters were not only artists’ models."
Mary had many musical and artistic gifts, and she had a particular flair for singing and playing the guitar, as well as painting and learning languages. She married South African poet Roy Campbell, a respected poet at the time, who was also known to be a complex and divisive figure. Roy relied heavily on Mary for her unique vision and she taught him to see the beauty in everyday life. However, their daughter, Anna, felt her mother had neglected her own gifts by focusing on those of her husband. In recognition of her muse-like qualities as “friend, lover, wife”, Roy even dedicated his collection Adamastor to Mary in 1930.
Crisis came in 1927 when Mary had an affair with aristocratic writer Vita Sackville-West. Vita had lent the Campbells a cottage next to Long Barn, her home in Sevenoaks, and during this time Mary and Vita grew close. Mary’s painting, View of Long Barn, Kent, In Winter (1927), captures this moment. Roy was outraged by the affair and he expressed his prejudiced views to C.S. Lewis saying “fancy being cuckolded by a woman!” Also entwined in the lovers’ web was Virginia Woolf, who was simultaneously having an affair with Vita, and was upset when she discovered the truth.
Vita wrote about her time with Mary in three sonnets, published in her collection King’s Daughter, which, when she wrote them in 1927, acted as “a sort of catharsis”, though she never addressed the affair directly. Roy went on to write The Georgiad (1933), a satire on the Bloomsbury Group, caricaturing Vita as a “frowsy poetess.” Though the affair was brief, it is said to have had a lasting impact on those involved.
Kathleen was a very talented pianist, wrote poetry in her spare time, and was an avid art collector and connoisseur of music and literature. She had a long-term affair with the sculptor Jacob Epstein and they later married. Though Jacob’s wife, Margaret Dunlop, had tolerated her husband’s previous affairs, his relationship with Kathleen was a lot more serious. Margaret’s jealousy escalated in 1923, and she suddenly shot her rival in the shoulder. Kathleen’s hospital treatment was paid for by Jacob, and though she was left with scarring, she never pressed charges. The affair spanned three decades, they had three children together, and after Margaret’s death in 1947, they eventually married in 1955.
Throughout their time together Jacob created sketches and sculptures with Kathleen as his muse. He produced a total of seven sculpted portraits, charting their relationship and ranging from the First Portrait of Kathleen, begun the day after they met in 1921 (on display in Walsall), and culminating in his Seventh Portrait of Kathleen in 1948. “When I look on you… I see the most wonderful things,” Jacob wrote to Kathleen, whilst working on his Second Portrait of Kathleen (1922). The Fifth Portrait of Kathleen (1935) is currently on display at the Being Human exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Kathleen’s friends regarded her life as a sacrifice to Jacob’s art, but her wonderful legacy was leaving her art collection to the people of Walsall. At the time Kathleen said she was delighted to house her art “in a solid Midlands setting for posterity.” The New Art Gallery in Walsall opened in 2000 and is home to a wealth of art and a large collection of Epstein’s work, including sketches and sculptures of Kathleen.
With her two older sisters away in London, Lorna was also longing for adventure, and after marrying Ernest Wishart, she found her ticket to freedom. Ernest became a publisher of left-wing books, while Lorna dazzled London society in sequinned gowns.
Lorna had a passionate six-year affair with the writer Laurie Lee after they met on a Cornish beach in 1937. Intoxicated with each other, they moved into a cosy London flat, and their daughter Yasmin was born in 1939. Soon a dark cloud of war hung over London and the nightly bombings made city-life perilous. The couple regularly escaped to the countryside, and Laurie’s poems Song in August (1940) and At Night (1944) echo their mid-war romance.
In the height of the London blitz, Lorna returned to the safety of Sussex, where Ernest promised to raise Yasmin as his own. Laurie, still infatuated with Lorna, quit his job and moved to Sussex too, where he rented a green caravan. Lorna visited most days and Laurie’s diaries set a romantic scene of them meandering in woodlands and laying in the warm “sunlit gloom” of his van. The relationship became increasingly fraught, however, and by 1943, Lorna had met and fallen in love with the 21 year old painter Lucian Freud. Betrayed and distraught, Laurie sat at his typewriter repeating “Lorna Lorna Lorna”.
Yasmin viewed her mother as “a natural muse”, and Lorna’s influence is strongly visible in Lucian’s art. Lorna fed Lucian’s creative imagination, bringing him objects to paint including the zebra’s head in The Painter’s Room (1944) and Quince on a Blue Table (1944), and the heron in Dead Heron (1944), and she also modelled for Woman with a Tulip (1945) and Woman with a Daffodil (1945). However, after discovering Lucian’s relationship with the actress Pauline Tennant, Lorna quickly returned to Sussex. Still besotted with Lorna and “very cut up”, Lucian went to Lorna’s home wielding a gun, though later attested he “wasn’t aiming at her.” In later life, Lorna devoted herself to Catholicism, destroying most letters from past lovers. She adored the natural landscape of Sussex and painted herself on horseback in mystical forest scenes.
The Garman sisters are commonly eclipsed by the artists they were associated with, often only appearing as a footnote in an art journal. They forfeited their own talents in painting and music, dedicating their lives to some of the great artists of the early 20th century. By spotlighting these muses and placing them front-and-centre of the artistic process, the sisters can be seen as life-givers, each daring and ground-breaking in their own right – fuelling the creative energy of artists.