Single mother Isabel Alexander struggled to establish a career as a painter and illustrator in the Thirties and Forties. But now, says Ruth Campbell, this talented artist is set to emerge from the shadows as a major exhibition casts new light on her work

Had Isabel Alexander been born male, she would probably need little introduction. For, given more prominence, her impressive body of work would no doubt have placed her among the leading artists of her generation.

The struggling and impoverished single mother fought against prejudice to establish her career as an artist in the 1940s but, sadly, never enjoyed the sort of recognition her extraordinary talent deserved.

That could soon be about to change.

The Mercer Art Gallery, in Harrogate, has gathered together more than 50 of her paintings, drawings and prints, sourced from private collections in the UK and abroad, in a retrospective which it is hoped will result in a major reassessment of her work.

Art experts have compared Alexander, who lived in Yorkshire for the last 19 years of her life, to Georgia O’Keefe, one of the most significant American modernist artists of the 20th century. And now the exhibition ‘Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator’ is set to introduce a whole new audience to the technical brilliance of her sweeping sea and landscapes, the captivating detail of her botanical illustrations and the emotional depth of her drawings recording the conditions endured by miners in wartime Britain.

Born in 1910, headmaster’s daughter Alexander studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, the first London art school to allow women into life study classes, and initially worked as a teacher, one of the few occupations considered acceptable for women at the time. “A woman of Isabel's generation who wanted to be an artist was very much up against society, because middle-class women were not expected to work at all,” says Jane Sellars, Harrogate’s curator of cultural services.

Alexander had the rare opportunity of working as an art director in the burgeoning documentary, information and educational film movement of the Forties with her husband, producer and director Donald Alexander. But after her marriage broke down, she became a single parent and took whatever jobs came her way, from book design and illustration to social documentary work, botanical studies and children’s stories, in order to make a living. “Had she been a man she would have been able to carve out a respectable career in any of these areas, but as a woman she wasn’t taken seriously,” says Jane.

In spite of her straitened circumstances, Alexander maintained her artistic integrity and managed to produce a remarkable body of work in everything from pencil, watercolour and gouache to oils, ink, pastel and lithography, portraying both her love of the natural world and her empathy for the disadvantaged.

Working right up until the year before she died in 1996, aged 85, throughout her lifetime Alexander sold around 250 of her works to avid collectors, many of them in Yorkshire,.

Organisers of the exhibition have now put out an appeal to anyone in the region who may be lucky enough to own one of her lost works, as she failed to keep complete records of her sales and a large number have not been traced.

Her son Professor Robin Alexander, who lives in North Yorkshire, remembers his mother as remarkably single-minded. “When her marriage broke down, things became difficult,” he says. “She lived hand-to-mouth throughout the 1940s and it was never easy for her, but she secured commissions and the studies of mining and miners in South Wales and a lot of her illustrative work came out of this period, as well as work in documentary film.

“I was aware that life for her was a struggle but she never said so, she just got on with things. She was a serious and committed artist. If she had been a man things would have been very different. She met a lot of prejudice. Women artists at that time were not always taken seriously and many lived in the shadow of their male contemporaries. She was very single minded about her work, a driven person.”

Alexander’s passion for art was clear from a young age. With a mother who was a trained musician, creativity ran in the family and she was fanatical about drawing and painting from a young age, says Prof Alexander. She was always determined to study at the Slade, but family circumstances didn’t allow it. So, after training at Birmingham School of Art, she moved to the capital and taught for a year to earn enough money to go to the prestigious London art college.

As a young woman, she travelled widely, visiting art exhibitions all over Europe, including the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937. Politically aware, she was moved by the grim circumstances of so many people’s lives during the Thirties and Forties, when she bore witness to momentous changes in society. It was while she was recovering from her marriage break-up that the renowned film maker Paul Rotha encouraged her to visit Rhondda, South Wales, where she produced a series of compelling and powerful portraits, including striking drawings of miners at work underground, which remain a poignant comment on society of that time.

By 1949, when a lecturing job at Saffron Walden teachers’ training college offered her financial security, life became a little easier and, no longer dependent on commissioned work, she turned from illustration to painting. Always obsessively committed to drawing, Alexander found she was able to move seamlessly from one art form to another during this momentous period of changing perceptions in art.

She created a number of powerful and liberating abstract works in the Sixties and Seventies, but then became increasingly drawn to remoter landscapes and coasts. “She was captivated by the constant changing effects of light on water,” says Prof Alexander.

Having settled in Yorkshire to be close to her son and family, Alexander painted the county’s moorland and coast and, towards the end of her life, regularly visited the remoter parts of the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides, which resulted in a haunting series of sky and seascapes.

She was painting, recalls Prof Alexander, right until the end, travelling to Sark in the Channel Islands to work, despite being ill, the year before she died, and preparing for an exhibition of her mining pictures in Doncaster.

With so much increased interest in the work of British artists, especially those once neglected and overlooked female artists, of the mid-20th century, it seems particularly fitting to revisit Alexander’s work now.

As well as the exhibition, a new book about her life and work by art historian Janet McKenzie, is being published. “There is a lot of interest in Isabel’s style of drawing at present,” says Jane. “She belongs to a generation of British women artists who are currently gaining more attention for the diversity of their work.”

Art expert and former gallery owner Alan Hitchcock, who regularly exhibited Alexander’s work in the Stonegate Gallery in York during the Eighties and Nineties, is hopeful this exhibition could lead to Alexander being seen in a new light. “For many artists, fame can often come late,” he says. “It is only after they are dead that people realise just how great they were.”

• Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator, Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, January 14 to 4 June 4. Admission free.

• The artist’s son Robin Alexander will be talking to Jane Sellars at an ‘In Conversation’ event at the Mercer Art Gallery on Monday, January 30, 2pm. Tickets £6. Book in advance.

• Visit and to book tickets for the ‘In Conversation’ event call 01423-556188 or email