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Nell Vyse

Born in 1892, Nell was trained as a singer in her youth and she was also fluent in French and German. She would become a highly talented and noted painter of ceramics, which would prove to be highly collectable long after her death. As an afficionado’s site observes: “A ceramic figure conceived and potted by Charles and Nell Vyse was never a commonplace object. It was, and still is, an object of desire, an objet d'art, treasured and handed down through generations.”

In her teenage years, Nell was a suffragette and she went on to become a life-long Communist and a veteran campaigner for housing tenants in Southwark.

Shortly after the end of the First World War, Nell married sculptor Charles Vyse (1882-1971). 

(Pic: the cover of a book on the couple ad their work)

In 1919, they set up a studio in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea and then worked together for the next two decades, producing modelled figures in painted earthenware. Charles mainly designed and executed the modelling of the ceramics and Nell, for the most part, decorated the pieces with paint in a way that perhaps secured their initial and continuing appeal, though the exact division of labour between husband and wife team may not always have been as exact as this.

Between them, they ran a successful, if rather exclusive, enterprise best known for their colourful figurines of London characters, sold in very limited editions. Some of their most frequent customers were celebrated actors and musicians. The exclusivity of the work was enhanced by the routine destruction of most planning sketches of ceramic to ensure that Charles’ designs could not be copied.

Seemingly, the Vyses’ work began to be considered too commercial by a later generation of potters, the main criticism being that it did not explore the naturalistic material qualities of clay well. Nonetheless, today all the ceramic figures designed and potted by the Vyses are highly desired by collectors of fine art. It was in fact, Nell’s vast knowledge of glaze chemistry that made the pieces rather special, for this skill enabled Charles to achieve incredible mastery of detail in his stoneware ceramics.  Nell’s command of French had started her off in her study of glazes by deciphering old labelling on early imported Chinese ceramics.

The Chelsea studio produced figurines based on ordinary people seen out and about in London. These slip-cast statuettes proved to be extremely popular, so much so that the studio began to employ small numbers of people to assist the production process, especially when art deco hand-decorated functional stoneware also took off.

In the late 1920s Charles and Nell Vyse who had started a family – they had two children, Billa and John, bought a property in Middle Street, Deal. Certainly by the mid-1930s, many of the Stoneware “Barnet Fair” mugs that the Cheyne Row Studio were noted for were painted by Nell, who is evidenced as having done this in a photograph. One such mug is described as being of “gently ribbed barrel shape, covered in a light grey ash glaze and freely painted in blue with figures of a youth and girl and inscribed `ALL THE BEST AT BARNET’, the ridged handle painted with trellis, 14cm high, incised VYSE 22 and date 1935”.

Pic: `Barnet Fair' A Painted Earthenware Study, circa 1935, 29.5cm high, sold at Bonhams in March 2008 for £6,000.

The Cheyne Walk studio was bombed in the blitz of 1940 obliging Charles to take up teaching at Farnham School of Art. The Vyses continued production of painted earthenware figures, but only occasionally produced stoneware. From around this time, certainly following the end of the Second World War, Charles and Nell separated. Charles stayed in Deal and Nell decamped to the London Borough of Southwark.

Nell now devoted herself to the pursuit of left-wing politics, becoming a noted campaigner for tenants. She also became the partner of Joe Bent (see separate entry), the leading Communist in Southwark, who was a redoubtable election campaigner.

Nell herself was Communist Party candidate for St Michael's Ward in Southwark in a by-election held in November 1960. She secured a creditable 116 votes against 509 for the Labour Party candidate. In her campaigning, she stressed that the main reason for her contesting the seat was that all other parties in the Borough were prepared to leave it vacant until 1962: “but our Party will not allow the people of Southwark in any ward to be otherwise than fully represented”, she told the Daily Worker. 

Nell Vyse died in 1967.

Sources: Daily Worker 5th November (thanks to Michael Walker); Recollections of Pat Moody; www.patmoody-deal.co.uk/

Terrence Cartlidge “Charles & Nell Vyse: A Partnership”(2004); http://shop.pascoeandcompany.com/  

 Right: a 1923 Vyse collaboration figurine sold for £3120