British Council Scotland is celebrating their 70th anniversary by spotlighting works from the British Council Collection that map the vitality and record the activity of just some of the artists who were born in, or studied, lived or visited Scotland in the last 70 years.

Read an introduction to the project and the 70 chosen works by Susanna Beaumont, an independent curator based in Scotland

For the second in a series of blog posts about seven of these works, Susanna has written about a watercolour by Ethel Walker.  

Ethel Walker, Study for decoration,
Watercolour and pencil on paper, 24 x 33 cm

A small watercolour painted in dusky pinks shows a woman kneeling, her arms outstretched holding a scarf that trails the ground. This delicate study for a large frieze painting is by the indomitable Ethel Walker.

Walker was arguably a minority figure, working at a time when women artists were a rarity. Born in Edinburgh in 1861, she went on to study at the Slade School of Art in London, which unusually for the time, accepted women on equal terms as men from its inception in 1871. Gwen John was one of her contemporaries.

In the 1880s Walker travelled to Spain, where she saw the work of Velázquez She was deeply impressed by him. She later travelled to Paris to see the work of the Impressionists, then a contemporary art movement in full and provocative swing.

Back in the UK, in 1900 Walker became the first woman member of the New English Art Club. She painted intensely coloured interiors and exacting portraits of mainly women. She worked the paint hard, painting with small quick gestures, giving a hazy, soft-focus to the portraits. In her own self-portrait from 1930, Walker paints herself looking out. Eyebrows raised with a strong gaze, she determinedly catches the viewer’s eye.

Walker was also a painter of large frieze-like paintings. Semi-mythical and a touch decadent, these works show fabulous gatherings of women in easy-going landscapes. They are brilliantly celebratory of women. Walker went on show in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1930, 1932 and 1939; from 1938 onwards, the British Council managed and curated the exhibitions at the British Pavilion. In 1943 she was made a dame, one of the first female artists to receive the honour. 

Read a previous blog post about Bruce McLean