Ishbel McWhirter: Scrutiny and Revelation Press Release

7 December 2016


Ishbel McWhirter: Scrutiny and Revelation

A 90th Birthday Retrospective

Exhibition: 11 January – 26 March 2017

Burgh House is delighted to announce the opening of a retrospective exhibition dedicated to Hampstead-based artist Ishbel McWhirter. Showcasing works spanning from the 1940s to the present, the exhibition will be the first comprehensive survey of her work across seven decades. Coinciding with McWhirter’s 90th birthday, it will celebrate her achievements as an artist. Charting her stylistic developments, personal relationships and singular sensitivities, it aims to communicate what makes McWhirter so distinctive and unique as a 20th century artist. 

McWhirter’s career began in the early 1940s when she was a student at AS Neill’s progressive boarding school, Summerhill. Neill’s liberating influence cultivated McWhirter’s strong instincts for figurative drawing and human behaviour, which were heightened during the war when the school was evacuated from Suffolk to the dramatic mountains of Snowdonia. By her late teens, McWhirter had developed a bold and distinctive style. In 1943, at the age of seventeen, she exhibited at a Summerhill exhibition where she was ‘discovered’ and hailed by the BBC as a rising star. The following year, she had her first solo exhibition in Bond Street shortly after which her work came to the attention of Viennese artist Oskar Kokoschka. Moved by the psychological charge and graphic dexterity of McWhirter’s early drawings, Kokoschka invited the young artist to become his pupil in London.

For the next eight years, McWhirter regularly visited Kokoschka’s home to show him her work and discuss matters ranging from technique to the human condition.  Kokoschka honed McWhirter’s skills at scrutinising the physical and emotional qualities of a subject simultaneously and championed the revelatory powers of her depictions. In the introduction to her second solo exhibition at the Starling Gallery in 1948 he wrote, “I see my pupil Ishbel moved by curiosity. She pictures her heroines with a serene remoteness, lovely restraint, and the strangeness of the designers of the white funeral vases of ancient Greece.” Kokoschka had a long-lasting impact on McWhirter and regularly wrote her heartfelt letters. McWhirter continued Kokoschka’s quest to penetrate the inner cores of her subjects, writing that “every portrait painter wants to do more than simply imitate features – to search beneath the skin to discover what the facial lines mean”.  

McWhirter has been prolific in her studies of people. Having begun her career drawing her mother, aunt and grandmother, she went on to produce portraits ranging from street children to cultural figures such as curator and writer Edward Lucie-Smith, actress Tilda Swinton and psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. McWhirter’s sitters have frequently commented on the disarming experience of being studied. Arts broadcaster Judith Bumpus wrote, “it is almost as if the artist were intentionally lifting some intolerable burden in order to reveal, and even on occasion restore, a spirit which is still tender and vulnerable under the social mask.”

McWhirter’s approach to landscape is equally evocative. The panorama of the Menai Strait and Snowdonia recurs throughout her work as an area where she has had an emotional connection since her infancy and currently owns a studio.

Ishbel McWhirter was born in 1927 and lives and works in Hampstead, London and Anglesey, North Wales. Solo exhibitions have included the Arcade Gallery, London (1945), the Hampstead Art Cellar, London (1961) and the Oskar Kokoschka Archive Museum, Vienna (1990). Ishbel McWhirter also has work in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and has been included in various group exhibitions including ICA, London (1954), where she exhibited with artists including Lucien Freud, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, and the V & A, London (1984), where she contributed to an exhibition of 20th century watercolours.

A simultaneous exhibition in the Peggy Jay Gallery, featuring large-scale paintings, including works for sale, will run from 18th January-5th February 2017.

For further press information and images, please contact:

Burgh House Curator, Rebecca Lodge

Email: rebecca.lodge@burghouse.org.uk


Burgh House, New End Square NW3 1LT

Open Wednesday-Friday & Sunday, 12-5pm, admission free