Bernard Meninsky (1891-1950)

The Green Dress (1930)

Signed and dated ‘Meninsky. 30’ upper right

Oil on canvas

76.2 x 50.8 cm (30 x 20 ins)

Bernard Meninsky was born in the Ukraine at Konotop. The family name was Menushkin but was altered in error by an English customs officer when the family moved to Liverpool when Bernard was a baby.

Meninsky attended evening art classes and then went on to the Liverpool School of Art from 1906. He won the King’s medal in 1911 and went to The Royal College of Art in London briefly before studying at the Academie Julian in Paris. He was awarded a scholarship which enabled him to study at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1912 – 1913. In 1913 he went to work in Florence for Edward Gordon Craig at his theatre school. On his return to London, he started to teach painting and drawing at the Central School of Arts & Crafts from 1913-1940.

When the First World War broke out, Meninsky served in Palestine with the Royal Fusiliers. He was commissioned in 1918 by the Ministry of Information to paint a series of paintings to illustrate the arrival of trains to London bringing troops from the front, but Meninsky had a nervous breakdown and was discharged as a war artist after six months in the post. His fine commissioned work can however be seen in the Imperial War Museum. He was naturalised as a British Citizen in 1918.

In 1919, Meninsky held his first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery with the London Group (for which he helped with the day to day organisation) and the New English Art Club. In 1920 he was appointed as tutor of life drawing at the Westminster School of Art. He was also associated with the Bloomsbury Group during this period, allied to Roger Fry and friend to Duncan Grant, with whom he would share models and joined the heavy drinking set in Fitzrovia for a short period of time. He was great friends with Sickert and they shared a love of the music halls together. He would teach at Westminster during the day and the Central School of art in the evening, producing his own work outside of this and in addition, taking a great interest in music, literature and philosophy.

In 1927, he had a large show at the Collectors Gallery, Manchester, followed in 1930 with another at the St. George’s Gallery, London. From 1931 – 34 his mental problems increased again and proved a difficult period. In 1934 he exhibited watercolours at the Zwemmer Gallery and in 1935 for the first and last time, produced sets and costumes for a ballet “David” for the Markova-Dolin Ballet company. In 1935 he had a three-month Winter break in Torremolinos and Malaga which enriched his palate and relaxed his painting. His painting always had “an air of restraint”. This trip along with visits to the South of France enriched his sense of colour and influenced his work greatly. Although regarded as a rather conservative, classical artist with influences from the Renaissance to Neo-Romantics, he was featured on the cover of Art Review in February 1949, the first ever issue. The profile noted “using a palette which owes something to the Fauves and through them to the Expressionists, he has created a world of classical dignity and plastic form”.

1935-39 proved to be the happiest years of his life. He found a patron in Edward Marsh, Secretary to Sir Winston Churchill and close friend of Ivor Novello. Through Marsh, Meninsky met important and influential people in society, but due to his temperament, he did not make the most of this opportunity. As Oswald T Falk was later to write in the catalogue introduction for the Arts Council memorial exhibition 1951 “for a shy man without influential friends, who resisted, rather than sought publicity, his success was remarkable”. In 1937 Lord Glenconnor would send him praise for his work in the form of letters, invitations to his country home and an allowance of £100 per annum. Meninsky used this for an extended painting trip to Cagnes sur Mer in the south of France.

Alas in 1939 when World War 11 started, these happy years came to an end. The Central and Westminster Schools of Art closed and hence in 1940 Meninsky moved out of London to the Oxford City School of Art. He returned to London in 1945 to teach again at the Central School of Art.  The London Group had gone into abeyance with the war, the New English Art Club still existed but was not seen as showing anything new or exciting. Difficult times for an artist who did not fit into any specific style, lacking in self-confidence but who excelled at teaching for most of his life.

This portrait of The Green Dress shows exceptional draughtsmanship and classical dignity illustrating his sitter, deep in thought and pensive, but with a great sereneness upon her face, almost other worldliness. The backdrop has a treatment similar to the Bloomsbury Group style and painted very freely with Fauvist blocks of colour in earthy tones. Meninsky painted numerous portraits but this could arguably be one of his finest, a relatively early work, dated ’30, a period when he worked at his best before his life-long mental illness of depression, worsened. It is an outstanding example of his portraiture and uses the original keyed wooden stretcher for the canvas. The sitter bears a striking resemblance to his second wife, Nora and can be compared to the charcoal drawing Portrait of Nora, 1944 in John Russell Taylor’s biography of the artist. Meninsky worked both in oils, watercolour and gouache, a figurative artist, also with works depicting figures in pastoral landscapes later in his life. The majority of his portrait paintings show the sitter in a pensive pose with eyes cast down, head turned to the right, rarely face on. The Green Dress is a typical example of this stance.

Post-war, Meninsky continued to battle with his mental demons. A great loss to the world of art, Meninsky committed suicide on 12th February 1950, leaving a note from a page torn out of a book on Cezanne, who influenced him greatly, for Nora his wife “A blessed relief for me, for all I long for is the peace of death” He was 58 years old. A shy, intensely private person, unskilled in utilising professional contacts. His life was about painting and teaching, not selling himself. Meninsky believed that art was the highest expression of life. A memorial exhibition was organised by the Arts Council in 1951 -1952 and a retrospective show was staged at the Adams Gallery in 1958. Notable exhibitions were held in the 1970’s and 80’s at the Belgrave Gallery and Blond Fine Art, but it was his widow Nora, who pursued with great determination, for his justifiable and rightful recognition.

His works are on show in numerous public collections. Namely, the Arts Council, British Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Gallery of Ireland, Tate Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum and the Galleries in Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield.