Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Emily Mary Bibbins Warren - and an eye for quality

EMB Warren - watercolour on paper

I like to think I have a good eye. 

This is literally true, because my right one is what opticians used to call 'lazy' or more correctly amblyopian. As a child, I had to wear a patch but it didn't improve the neural connections that are the cause of it seeing less clearly. The result is my left eye does all the hard work and being connected to the creative side of my brain perhaps explains my artistic bent—or so the theory goes.

In truth, it was only the corner of my vision that spied the painting on the mouldering stairwell of a bric-brac shop in Pontypool  Dusting it off, I realised the small image was an original watercolour, and rather delicately done too; whoever had painted this, knew what they were about. The dealer wanted twelve pounds and I didn't have the heart to haggle.

Which would have been churlish, as it turns out the painting is by E M B Warren. 

I'd seen the signature but didn't know the artist until I searched online. A graduate from the Royal College of Art, working at a time when women artists were badly discriminated against, she became a notable member of the Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Watercolour Society and Society of Women Artists.  Moving to Canada in 1919 she continued travelling and painting, with works purchased by the National Gallery of Canada and a considerable collection at the Univerisity of Toronto.

It takes a good eye to paint as well as she did. 

I wonder if there was an influence of John Ruskin, who famously wrote an essay arguing that drawing is really the art of seeing. It's surely no coincidence that she illustrated a book on his Homes and Haunts, written by E T Cook and still available in print.  Ruskin is a hero of mine, the quintessential polymath; sadly, we have few of his like today. 

The painting itself is small and perhaps worth a few hundred pounds now that it's reframed and we know its provenance. I wish, however, I could place the location of its subject.  The lake and mountains look Alpine—perhaps Switzerland or Austria—but I guess they could be from North American too. There are hints of a small town which suggest a church spire, though it will no doubt have changed by today. 

But regardless, it's beautiful and a little treasure on my wall, reminding me that few of us are lucky enough to leave such a tangible trace. How wonderful that something painted so long ago is still giving pleasure today. Quality and care have a part to play. When she made those brush strokes, Emily could never have known that decades later they'd turn up among heaps of junk in a South Wales emporium...  catching the one good eye of a passing admirer. 


  1. Hari OM
    I greatly enjoy art... my first thought on seeing the image at top was that it reminded me of Canada - then you mention EMBW moved there. Further investigation indicates she produced work in British Columbia and there are plenty places on that coastline which might be represented this way - then again, it is similar to the coastline of Norway - which she also visited! How wonderful to have such a piece in your collection!!! YAM xx (who has often been asked about the art on her walls - and may take a prompt from this post to share some of it...)

  2. Nice little watercolour and clever of you to recognise it as such,

  3. Gosh that's quite some find. Her architectural works are outstanding too. I love stories like this.

  4. That is a great story and a great little painting. A kind of treasure. Those snowy mountains in the background are so tall. It could so easily be British Columbia as Yamini has suggested.

  5. Great painting and find. I have found a few myself. A great heirloom to pass down to future generations.

  6. What a fabulous find at the bric-a-brac shop - and a bargain price. I have sold at booths at such shops and know how to search for little treasures others may have missed! I miss it now. Hope you can discover the location - Canada does feel perhaps correct, especially with her backstory.
    My husband has had amblyopia since childhood - he was born too soon for doctors to know to cover the good eye to strengthen the weak one - this treatment apparently only came after WWII when treating injured soldiers. Sorry it didn't work better for you. Bob will never allow surgery on his 'good eye', just in case they botch it and then he'll see nothing perhaps!

    Thanks for the get well wishes Mark - much appreciated.
    Mary -

  7. You have a good eye and that was certainly a good buy. A little gem. Not an artist I have ever heard of.

  8. Isn't it funny how something will just stand out and call to us sometimes? I've had that experience several times and yes- a little treasure. Like this painting. And I am NOT a visual person at all. What a good find!

  9. Serendipity. I don't have an artist's eye. Our walls are adorned with a really motley collection. With a couple of notable exceptions they are all originals either because I knew the artist, or they were depicting something (or somewhere) I knew. I used to love the MayDay art trails around our district in Hampshire and acquired a few of our pictures that way. A friend, disappointed that the open studios days were not better supported on Hayling Island, used to organize an outing which she called 'Birds on Bikes'. At its strongest around 40 women of her acquaintance would gather to follow her carefully planned out route around all 40 or so of the studios open for the weekend. It became so well known that new artists joining the organization had to be warned that at some stage there would be an influx... In later years she had to add Buzzards on Bikes to accommodate the Blokes who felt they were missing out on something (I suspect the ice cream parlour at the half way point was the only establishment that had something for everyone!)

  10. Darling Mark,

    What a treasure you have discovered!

    We love the watercolour, its moody palette of colours and its brooding landscape, all so very evocative of place and time that surely lies deep in the memory.

    It is a thing of beauty and it will be such a pleasure to look upon it every day and contemplate.....times past and new adventures to come.

    We can see your thoughts on Ruskin here as there is something timeless in the quality of the work. This is rather reminiscent of Ruskin's 'Stones of Venice'. Whatever, a great find and a joy to behold.

  11. Wow! What a great find! And a great story to go with it. It's a beautiful little watercolor and I can see why its quality was apparent.

  12. What a wonderful discovery! Warren painted in British Columbia and this scene looks very like the scenery in my province. The coast was once dotted with small villages like this one, but many of them have disappeared.