About Isabel Steinthal
Isabel Steinthal came from a family of four painters: her father, her mother, her sister and herself. They were Egbert, Bertha, Helen and Isabel Steinthal. Neither of the sisters ever married. All four of them painted to a professional standard. They lived together in North Wales from the end of the 1930s until the end of their lives; three of them in the same house and Isabel, who was more independent by nature, in a separate house across the road. They painted, exhibited and sold their work locally. The Steinthal family was German-Jewish. They came from Germany to Manchester in 1809. There they set up a branch of the family's textile-trading business, Steinthal & Co Ltd. It traded mainly in cotton and flourished for more than a century.
The family had many connections with the intellectual and artistic life of nineteenth century Manchester. Here are just two examples. First, a relative of Isabel Steinthal's, Bessy Holland (1796-1886) was a gifted amateur watercolour painter who studied with James Duffield Harding (1797-1863). Second, in 1916 the company Steinthal and Co Ltd commissioned some of Edward McKnight Kauffer's earliest graphics work in the form of colourful labels for cotton bales featuring South American scenes. Egbert Steinthal only started to paint full-time when he retired from working as a cot-ton broker. Isabel was a painter all her life. She worked for a time under Lilian Bayliss at the Old Vic Theatre where she painted scenery.
The family moved to North Wales at the beginning of the Second World War. They lived in the village of Tremadoc, close to the better-known Portmadoc. Like other artists in the first half of the twentieth century who sought isolation in rural Wales from the commercial and social pressures of metropolitan centres, the Steinthals drew upon local customs and folklore. Isabel Steinthal's original subjects were fantasy scenes populated by mysterious dancing figures, and also Welsh landscapes. Towards the end of her life she turned to abstraction. No doubt this change was partly simply a response to modernism in the visual arts, though her reaction would certainly not have been to follow any fashion, but to choose ways of expression which helped her in what she set out to say through her work. These late paintings, some water-colour, some oils, some work in textiles such as rugs, were based on elaborate theories to do with pattern. The fact that she included textiles was in keeping with the view she held, in common with other artists of the time, that works of art required close hands-on work by their creators, as opposed to objects turned out by mass-production. The search for meaning in pattern became something of an obsession, as she sensed that in understanding pattern lay the key to understanding human life itself. She had a very strong conviction that true pattern-making had lost its way during the second half of the nineteenth century. She believed the fault lay with William Morris.
About this subject, and on many subjects, she talked with relish, without becoming a bore. Altogether she was, to meet, an original. She was a short, fit-looking, forthright woman. I knew her best when she was an old lady. She would open the door of her house in Tremadoc and come forward fast with her head tilted downwards, then suddenly lift it up and smile at you shyly. The tentative expression on her face was at odds with her strongly-held views on any matter that came up. She wore plain, simple clothes that somehow harked back to her art-school days, as did her straight bobbed hair. She spoke in a similar style, short, correct, grammatical sentences. She seemed of another, altogether more earnest era.
Finally, since New Hall has strong connections with the Darwin family, it may be worth noting a couple of connections between Isabel Steinthal and the Darwins. First, Bessy Holland, mentioned above, was a distant cousin of Charles Darwin: he the grand-son of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), she the granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood's sister Catherine. Second, in 1947, my eldest brother Cecil Chapman (born 1924) married Clare Cornford (1924-1992), one of Charles Darwin's great-granddaughters.
Dick Chapman Cousin of Isabel Steinthal Cambridge, July 2007
Oil on board
Donated by the Chapman family, 2007