DERWENT LEES (1884-1931)


Artist

An abandoned bedroom at West Park Hospital
An abandoned bedroom at West Park Hospital.
Photo by Tuna-baron via Wikipedia

Sometimes a town may have a very talented resident for many years and not even know it. Derwent Lees was one such person, by virtue of the fact that he was a psychiatric patient in Epsom mental institutions. He died in West Park Mental Hospital in 1931, but presumably was not there for his entire stay in Epsom, since he was incarcerated in 1918: West Park did not open officially until 1924, but was taking patients from 1921.

I doubt that you will have heard of him: I never had. Look at that bleak room in the picture above and then look at this.

Spanish Landscape by Derwent Lees
Spanish Landscape by Derwent Lees, 1912.
Image source: Wikigallery.org

It's like night and day, isn't it. So, what happened to this man, who painted pictures such as you see above? Several sources say that he painted nothing after being admitted to an asylum, but that is not true. For example, in 1919 he painted 'The Drive to the Asylum', but was effectively finished as an active artist by the time he was institutionalised for schizophrenia.

Derwent was born as Desmond Lees in Clarence, Tasmania (part of the Greater Hobart area) on 14 November 1884. His parents were English and his father was a bank manager. He called himself Derwent after the river on which Clarence stands. He had a riding accident in Australia, suffering a head injury and losing a foot; thereafter he wore a wooden prosthetic.

The Derwent River
The Derwent River from Mount Wellington, Tasmania.
Image source: Free Images Live

Derwent was educated at Melbourne Grammar School and then went to Paris, but in 1905 he enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, London WC, where he won many prizes; he studied particularly under Henry Tonks and Frederick Brown. Tonks was a surgeon, but also a fine artist and noted teacher, and had himself been Brown's pupil (as was Aubrey Beardsley).

Frederick Brown    Henry Tonks
Left: Frederick Brown, self-portrait.
Right: Henry Tonks, self-portrait.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Derwent became close friends with a fellow student, the slightly younger Welshman James Dickson Innes, who was at one point a member of the Camden Town Group, as were Walter Sickert, Augustus John and Spencer Frederick Gore among others.

Pembroke Coast
Pembroke Coast by James Dickson Innes.
Image source: wikigallery.org

Derwent and James took many painting trips abroad, particularly to Collioure on the Mediterranean.

Near Collioure in the Pyrenees by Derwent Lees
Near Collioure in the Pyrenees by Derwent Lees.
Image source: wikigallery.org

In Britain they stayed in Ffestiniog, North Wales from late 1910 until 1912 with Augustus John: they were known as the Arenig school of painters for that period, Arenig being a mountain in Snowdonia (Arenig Fawr).

Arenig by James Dickson Innes
Arenig by James Dickson Innes.
Image source: wikigallery.org

The eccentric James was on a path to self-destruction: he was tubercular, mentally unstable (one of his friends described him as 'mad as a hatter'), sometimes lived with gypsies and was having an affair with a married woman: he died of tuberculosis in 1914, aged just 27. There is a good account of his life here.

Derwent Lees taught at the Slade intermittently, from 1907 until 1918. He exhibited widely and at the seminal Armory Show of 1913 in New York: the importance of this exhibition was that it introduced Americans to the art movements that were happening in Europe, such as Fauvism and Cubism. He showed works often at Vanessa Bell's Friday Club and belonged to the New English Art Club.

In 1913 Derwent married Edith Harriet Price (born 1890 Eastbourne), who by 1911 was earning a living as an artist's model in London, at which time she was residing in Fulham with her widowed mother, Emma Price-Pierce. Her father, John, had been a house painter. Edith was a popular model and she had known the Arenig painters for some time, Augustus John having drawn her in the nude in 1910. He was surprised that she should marry Derwent.

Edith used the forename of Lyndra and was obviously one of Derwent's favourite subjects. Here she is, darning Augustus John's socks.

Lyndra in Wales by Derwent Lees
Lyndra in Wales by Derwent Lees.
Image source: wikigallery.org

Portrait of Lyndra, the Artist's Wife by Derwent Lees
Portrait of Lyndra, the Artist's Wife by Derwent Lees
Image source: wikigallery.org

In his biography of Augustus John, Michael Holroyd describes Derwent as a 'copycat of genius', claiming that James Dickson Innes said 'I tired of seeing my own subjects so many times'.

It is said that Derwent's mental disintegration began soon after his marriage and was hastened by the fact that, because of his artificial leg, he was unsuitable for service in the First World War; in 1918 he was placed in an asylum, never to emerge. He died in West Park Hospital on 24 March 1931. Lyndra apparently died in Croydon on 15 June 1984.

West Park 1926
The hospital in 1926.
Image source: Wellcome Images

Honiton and Hereford Ward after being gutted by fire in 2003
Honiton and Hereford Ward after being gutted by fire in 2003
Photo by Tuna-baron via Wikipedia.

Linda Jackson
July 2013


 Art
 Family History
 Health
 Map
 Nature
 People
 Places
 Society
 Sources
 Technology
 Trade
 Transport
 War Memorials

 Contact
 Sitemap
 What's New
 Home

Email:


Donate to The History Centre
HV Usill
HV Usill
Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page
Page Family
Page Family
TH Snow
TH Snow
JA Larby
JA Larby
J Harrison
J Harrison
Foundlings
Foundlings
Nonsuch Mansion
Nonsuch Mansion
New Stables
New Stables