Rivers, Elizabeth Joyce (1903–64), artist, was born 5 August 1903 in the family home, Bonks Hill House in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, England, the daughter of Thomas Alfred Rivers, nurseryman, and his wife Mabel (née Hall). Her family had run a renowned nursery plant operation from Bonks Hill since 1725, from which her great-grandfather Thomas Rivers (1798–1877) had either developed or introduced into Britain numerous popular commercial varieties of fruit. Her father ran the nursery until his death in 1915, and her brother Thomas Hall Rivers (1901–78) ultimately succeeded to the business, which went into decline from the first world war, eventually being sold in 1987. This background surely influenced her lifelong passion for gardening.
Educated at St Catherine’s School, Bramley, Surrey (1914–21), she then studied art for three years at Goldsmith’s College, London. In 1926, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools, subsequently exhibiting there. She maintained herself by doing freelance woodcut and wood-engraving illustrations for various books and the Radio Times. Supported by a £300 legacy, she left the Royal Academy in 1931 to study for three years in Paris with the artists André Lhote and Gino Severini, and at the École de Fresque. The flat, angular shapes of Lhote’s synthetic cubist style made the greatest impression. Participating during this period as a printmaker and painter in group exhibitions in London, Rivers had a solo show with the avant-garde Wertheim Gallery in 1933.
Advised in 1935 to find a fresh subject matter for her art, she chose the Aran Islands because a friend had spent an enjoyable honeymoon there. Her intended three-month visit stretched to almost a year, and she returned in 1936 – this time for seven years. Rivers rented the three-room cottage built near Kilmurvey, Inis Mór, for the film ‘Man of Aran’ (1934), running it as a bed and breakfast. The islands were then a fashionable destination for creatives, and she befriended visiting artists and writers, some of whom would lodge with her. Unusually for someone seeking inspiration on these remote, rugged islands, she stayed year-round. She also made money from packaging locally produced knitwear and posting it to the Country Shop in Dublin, which from 1943 prominently displayed her drawings of Aran craftspeople; she recruited knitters for the shop.
Apart from initial harassment from the parish priest, who was outraged by her habit of wearing trousers, Rivers was accepted in Inis Mór. Behind her shy, English upper-class mannerisms, she had a good sense of fun and enjoyed being in company, making her abode an open house. She developed an affinity with the islanders and seems to have had a relationship with Pat Mullen (qv), a well-known local farmer. Although a visiting English friend concluded that she had ‘gone native’, she never regarded herself as such, hence the title of her book, A stranger in Aran, published by Cuala Press in 1946. Her narration, which mainly related the islanders’ storytelling, was sympathetic without being condescending or rose-coloured.
In depicting fishermen, farmers, spinners, kelp-gatherers, cattle, ponies, horses and ceilidhe dancers, her art was similarly clear-eyed about life on Inis Mór. She achieved a suitably primitivist sensibility by employing simplified shapes with minimal detail. Her crisp harmoniously arranged woodcuts and wood-engravings had a dreamlike intensity and were the most successful of her works in terms of critical acclaim and technical accomplishment, whereas the drawings and sketchier oils were too crude, albeit redeemed by her bold line. She built her watercolours and oils around flat masses of subdued tones, but her adept draughting was often undone by the clumsy application of colour.
Breaking radically with conventional picturesque treatments of a western seaboard that was integral to Ireland’s national iconography, her grittily quotidian Aran scenes reflected her lack of nationalist preconceptions as well as the challenging conditions in which she made the preliminary drawings, such as on her knees along the sandy shore amid a gale. The authorities tolerated her mildly cubist idiom for imbuing the islanders’ traditional way of life with an austere dignity; such art also projected abroad an impression of cultural sophistication. Thus, in 1939 her solo exhibition at the Nicholson Galleries, London, was opened by the Irish high commissioner. Three years before, she had featured in an exhibition held by the anti-modernist Royal Hibernian Academy.
In 1939 she published This man, a book consisting of twenty-four exquisite wood-engravings chronicling the life journey of its male protagonist. Meditatively allegorical and sexually charged – she was an excellent drawer of male nudes – this collection adverted to her contemplative nature with the final passages outlining a rejection of the city for a new life in a rural coastal locale. Her forms kept throughout to a sure pattern while the biblical-style commentary complemented the dark, brooding atmosphere. Most of the 205 copies printed, along with all the illustration blocks, were destroyed when the building housing the Guyon House Press was bombed during the London blitz in 1940.
She left Aran in 1942, first for Dublin, then in 1943 for London, where she worked as a fire warden amid the worst of the German rocket attacks. Describing this as a hellish experience, she was glad to have served, nonetheless, stating that the war made her feel English for the first time. During this period, she sketched scenes of devastation and exhibited with the Royal Academy and the New English Art Club. These wartime experiences informed her subsequent publication, Out of bedlam (1956), a book of illustrated wood-engravings that included depictions of a city’s destruction. The harsh, soaring angularity of her cityscapes contrasted with the finer detail of the no-less severely stylised scenes from nature.
From 1946 Rivers was mainly based in Dublin, regularly changing address. She fitted seamlessly into a decidedly niche modern art scene dominated by wealthy Anglo-Irish women, all proteges of Lhote. From 1946 to 1955 she was an apprentice in the Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, studio of one of the grand dames of Irish modernism, the stained-glass artist Evie Hone (qv), who inspired her, not just artistically, but also religiously. Hone relied on Rivers to enlarge her inch-scale designs. Working in this environment encouraged Rivers’ use of richer colours on canvas. In the late 1940s she made a series of paintings that took Noah’s Ark as a metaphor for post-war Europe, applying vivid tones in angular patterns to striking effect.
Revelling in playing with colour, she preferred painting but won more renown as an illustrator, remaining in demand with the Dublin and London publishing houses, especially for her wood-engravings. Her pen-drawn illustrations show her deploying a flowing – if not to say casual – line to pleasing effect. A 1947 retrospective of her wood-engravings at the Dublin Painters Gallery confirmed her reputation in a starkly monochrome discipline that demands restraint and precision. She exploited wood-engraving’s suggestive possibilities by adopting a spare, schematic linearity to successfully articulate detail, typically arranging her forms in masses of black with a white silhouette. There was always movement, expressiveness and balance.
If her wood-engravings were characterised by a calm sense of control, she strove to inject passion into her paintings. Friends, however, held that her acute self-consciousness prevented her from developing an intuitive feel for colour. Critics agreed, pointing to a deliberateness, an air of decorum that clung to her paintings. Her attempts to loosen up produced works that looked flimsy and wildly experimental, though some of the watercolours had a breezy charm. As befitted her mastery of the intimate art of wood-engraving, she did best at weaving her colours on small canvases, being most comfortable with pastel tones, yellow especially. She had six solo shows in various Dublin venues between 1942 and 1960, also featuring regularly in important group exhibitions. Peers respected her for never taking the easy creative option, but by the 1960s her uneven output was too redolent of the early twentieth century school of Paris for contemporary tastes.
A fundamentally solitary character, who kept friends at bay, she grew more solemn with age, reading widely on religion and philosophy. In 1951 she visited Israel, wishing to imbibe an older Christian civilisation for artistic purposes. She financed this tour by contracting to write a book about her experiences. Published in London in 1956, Out of bondage features characters that were composites of people she had met; her account mingled the biblical with the contemporary and sought to relate Judaism to Christianity. The main theme – the Jews’ liberation after centuries of persecution – is tempered by her sensitivity to the Palestinians’ plight.
Christian imagery had been predominating in Rivers’ art long before her conversion to catholicism (from anglicanism) in 1956. Her religious paintings lacked feeling, having the formalised character of a stained-glass design, whereas the wood-engravings better evoked her piety by at times achieving a spiritual potency. Aran persisted as a recurring subject, often reimagined in a biblical setting. From the mid-1950s, she took up woodcarving, stained-glass work and sculpture, sculpting a series of pieces based on the book of proverbs. She completed the stations of the cross for a church in Athenry, Co. Galway, in 1960 while her painting, ‘The second fall’, was chosen to represent Ireland at the 1962 Salzburg Biennale of Sacred Art.
Although Hone, who died in 1955, left her £1,000, Rivers remained financially insecure due to an impasse arising from her joint purchase of a cottage in Cornwall in 1957. She intended settling there but quickly moved back to Dublin and could not persuade the co-owner either to rent out the cottage or to sell it; the matter does not seem to have been resolved until shortly before her death. Neither these worries nor her poor health deterred her from devoting herself to art, which she described as her way of life.
Teaching art one-to-one and in classes from the mid-1950s, she influenced younger practitioners, notably Michael Biggs (qv), Frances Biggs and Patrick Pye, who all appreciated her frankness and conscientiousness. From the late 1940s, she showed regularly at Ireland’s foremost modernist exhibition, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, but when it became a closed shop in generational terms, she helped found the Independent Artists group in 1960 for younger artists. Her participation lent weight to the early Independent Artists exhibitions. In 1961, she was heavily involved in establishing the Graphic Studio, an artists’ cooperative in Upper Mount Street, Dublin, which made good the lack of instruction and facilities for graphic artists in Ireland; she taught woodcuts and wood-engraving there.
On 20 July 1964, Elizabeth Rivers died suddenly of a stroke at her apartment in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, and her remains were interred at St Mary’s cemetery, Tallaght, Co. Dublin. She had been working on a stained-glass window for a church in Cashel, Connemara, Co. Galway; Frances Biggs completed this project in 1965 based on Rivers’ designs. In 1966 a memorial exhibit was held in the Municipal Gallery, Dublin, featuring almost 200 examples of her work in assorted media. There were further retrospectives in the Barrenhill Gallery, Howth, Co. Dublin, in 1974; in the Gorry Gallery, Dublin, in 1989; and in the Frederick Gallery, Dublin, in 1996. Considered a minor artist, she remains under-appreciated as an early exponent of modernism in Ireland. Her work can be found in the British Museum, the Ulster Museum, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and in the Hugh Lane Gallery. Her archive, which includes correspondence, book drafts, poems, photographs, sketches, prints and woodblocks, is in the National Library of Ireland.