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Rediscovering Jessie Boswell

22 April 2009
Published in Culture
by Giovanni Biglino

boswell1A graceful painter, try shy, case distinguished. The only woman, and a foreigner, in the group of the Six Painters of Turin (“i Sei di Torino”). Jessie Boswell (Leeds 1881 – Moncrivello, Biella, 1956) can be today (re)discovered in Turin, at the exhibition curated at Sala Bolaffi, and “discovery” is not an exaggeration, for several unknown paintings are exhibited together with valuable documents, letters and photographs.

The Boswell family had connections with the world of literature and art and its most illustrious member is James Boswell, author of the The life of Samuel Johnson (1791) and whose house (Boswell House, in Scotland) is today home to the Boswell Society. Daughter of Jasper James Boswell and Sarah Jane Baxendale, young Jessie was educated in music and studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She arrived in Italy in 1906, following the footsteps of her sister Gertrude (Gertie) who married the Italian banker Gaudenzio Sella. From the point of view of her artistic growth, a turning point in her biography is 1914, when she became lady companion of Mrs Cesarina Gualino, wife of the richest man in Italy at the time, dynamic inventive and sometimes reckless Riccardo Gualino. The Gualinos were an extremely enthusiastic and active couple in those post-futuristic years, apart from being insatiable art collectors (from Botticelli to Rubens to Modigliani). Cesarina’s passion for dance and choreography led to collaborations with Bella Hutter and Vitia Gourevitch; Isadora Duncan was visiting the Gualinos in 1937 in their home in Sestri Levante; performances were staged in the private theatre at the Gualinos’ home in Turin or in the outdoors at their castle in Cereseto. Because of her musical talent, Jessie Boswell was certainly at ease in this context. On the other hand, painters and critics were constantly visiting and thus Jessie became effortlessly acquainted with Lionello Venturi, Felice Casorati and the Italian creative milieu of the 1930s.

Blossoming from a post-impressionist time, the Six Painters of Turin were exhibiting as a group for a very short time span, from 1929 to 1931. Jessie Boswell was certainly standing out: if stylistically her work bares similarities with that of Nicola Galante, Enrico Paulucci, Gigi Chessa, Francesco Menzio and Carlo Levi, she was the only woman, the only foreigner and double the age of the other members.

In the new critical analysis of her work, collected in the numerous essays that enrich the catalogue of the exhibition at Sala Bolaffi in Turin, it is her “British-ness” that is considered a pivotal element for understanding her art.

The Gualinos suffered political persecution during Mussolini’s dictatorship in Italy, condemned to confinement in the island of Lipari. The family assets and collections were confiscated. Industrialist Riccardo Gualino later resurrected, among other things, as a movie producer (including Luchino Visconti’s Senso) and enjoyed a second life of success and wealth, although not comparable to the pre-Fascist era. The family archives in Rome (Archivio Gualino) still represent a valuable source of information about the life and art of Jessie Boswell. The research carried out by the Archives’ curator, Beatrice Marconi, encouraged by Riccardo Gualino’s grandson, Riccardo jr, brought to light early drawings and several precious letters.

1)Jessie Boswell – “Strada nel bosco a San Gerolamo”, olio su tavola - 77.5x87.5 cm – 1943The drawings certainly represent that aforementioned British-ness. In the tradition of the carnets de voyages of the British travellers in the Grand Tour period, they are also those sketches that kept occupied several well-born young ladies. Sometimes ironical and caricaturist, in the tradition of Max Beerbohm, sometimes intimate and delicate, the drawings are the place where the gesture was trained. Self-taught Jessie Boswell, artistically educated for a short time by Mario Micheletti and Felice Casorati, joins the Six Painters of Turin: it is Cézanne’s lesson, the blurred edges, hills and gardens that fade away in a timeless dimension. But not only landscapes and en plain air. Jessie Boswell is equally attracted by indoor scenes. Firstly, it is the rooms of the Gualino and Sella houses, foreshortened views, rays of sunshine from unseen windows. Secondly, she portrays with great delicacy women chatting or sawing indoor, in paintings such as “Baby a Villa Piuma” (1928), “Interno con figura femminile” (1928), “Donna che cuce” (1928), “Donna che cuce” (1939) and “Teresa e Paola Galimberti con Gertie Sella Boswell” (1941), scenes that are reminiscent of Vuillard but not as oppressive. A third thread is indoor scenes with women studying and practicing music, certainly linked with her knowledge of the piano. Paintings such as “Lezione di musica” (1925), “Signora al piano” (1929), “Violinista” (1929) and “Lezione di piano” (1930) are reminiscent of “Fille au piano” by Paul Cézanne (1868) or “Jeunes filles au piano” by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1892) but possess a unique feminine grace.

There is also a literary taste in Jessie Boswell’s art. It evokes a certain atmosphere (bourgeois, but not frivolous) that can be found in several poems by Guido Gozzano. Also, there is affinity with the writings of William Somerset Maugham. (A curious link in this regard: Maugham’s daughter, Daphne, married Felice Casorati and became herself a painter, thus becoming a British painter adopted in Italy just like Jessie Boswell.)

There is also a taste of the years of the Bloomsbury Group, a vague echo of Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. More of a reflection or an intuition than a direct link. Some rooms painted by Jessie Boswell could well be rooms in Gordon Square or Fitzroy Square. Some of the women portrayed while intent at writing a letter or their diary bring to mind A room of one’s own by Virginia Woolf. Interestingly, a strong link with Virginia Woolf is drawn in an essay by painter and critic Pino Mantovani. He notes that Boswell possessed “a persistent naïveté, of the sort that leads the painter Lily Briscoe in To the lighthouse to resume her painting exactly where she left it ten years before”. And – even more interestingly – Mantovani suggests that “instead of collecting some images from English XIX-XX century art that would bear some similarities, in terms of iconography or style, with Jessie’s work, […] I prefer to entrust the investigation to a short collection of quotations from To the lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, referred to the painter Lily Briscoe”.

«She fetched herself a chair. She pitched her easel with her precise old-maidish movements on the edge of the lawn, not too close to Mr Carmichael, but close enough for his protection. Yes, it must have been precisely here that she had stood ten years ago. There was the wall; the hedge; the tree. The question was of some relation between those masses. She had borne it in her mind all these years. It seemed as if the solution had come to her: she knew now what she wanted to do.»

«Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants’ bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn’t paint, saying she couldn’t create, as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.»

Jessie Boswell – “Teresa e Paola Galimberti e Gertie Sella Boswell”, olio su tavola - 20.5x27 cm - 1941«For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air. Where to begin?—that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must be run; the mark made.»

Alive now on the page, there is a last element in Jessie Boswell’s art: the purity of the amateur. Her art, seen as a whole in this exhibition comprising over 100 works, is in fact very sincere.

Finally, Cesarina Gualino, Jessie’s employer but also her good friend and a painter herself, coined the expression “deluded club”, referring to the years of dreams and art and creation. In the light of this expression, Boswell’s paintings acquire a sudden taste of melancholy.

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