Ιrene Bache (1901 - 1999)

Although better known in her adopted Wales than in her native England, the artist Irene Bache travelled extensively in search of subject matter, exhibited widely and, in true Bohemian fashion, sold her sketches to fellow tourists, whether in Venice, France or the West Indies.

As a watercolorist in the tradition of her heroes, Turner, John Cotman and Constable, she was pre-eminent in the depiction of the dramatic landscape of South Wales, and in particular of Gower, with its brooding skies, sheer cliffs and wild seas.

To her task she brought a strong sense of theatre. She was a prolific scene-painter and once considered taking up a full-time career in Milan with La Scala. Typically, though her contemporaries in the Welsh School included Ceri Richards, Alfred Janes and Merlyn Evans, she was lukewarm towards most modern artists with the notable exception of John Piper, whom she had once met in her twenties and whose essentially theatrical vision of the English and Welsh landscape matched her own.

Born in Brockley, south London, in 1901, the eldest of four children of Charles Westover Bache, an insurance clerk, and his wife Emily, both of whom painted, Irene moved with her family to Reigate in Surrey in 1904. A precocious child, she watched her mother paint from an early age and had learned the names of various colours before she could say the words "horse" and "cow". After Croydon School of Art, where she made a special study of the English watercolourists, she embarked on a teaching career with spells at schools in Croydon, Peterborough, Worthing, and Whitchurch. She also taught at the Royal College of Art.

Around 1944, she moved to Swansea College of Education and set about changing the face of art education in the city. By the time she had retired as head of her department in 1961 a new generation of art teachers in South Wales had been inspired by her radical ideas. "Children should be taught as children," she believed. "They should be encouraged to use their imagination and not be treated as potential art students."

Soon after arriving in Wales, Bache joined the Swansea Arts Society, becoming its Chairman in 1955. A tireless encourager of talent and an often merciless critic who, on one occasion, demolished in loud tones a famous painting by Pissarro in the City Art Gallery, Birmingham, she devoted much of her retirement to teaching amateur artists, not only in the art of landscape, but also in portraiture, flower-painting and pottery. Like her mother, she excelled as a flower-painter and could easily have made a career as a botanical illustrator. However, when, in her mid-eighties, she took up book illustration for the first and last time, it was for Wild Mushrooms (1992) by Nigel and Marie-France Addinall that she contributed some extraordinary but characteristic drawings.

With the self-confidence that went with a youthful outlook on life, she proudly announced in her mid- seventies that she had invented a new art-form called sand sculpture, which involved creating dramatic sculptural effects in a sand-box using back lighting. She even contemplated writing a book on the subject.

She had loved poetry since her schooldays, had particularly admired Shelley and in the 1940s came to know Dylan Thomas and his circle. However, her own first volume of verse, Gower Poems (1981), owed little to her wide reading, being highly focussed panoramic views of the landscapes she knew and loved.

Towards the end of her life, when near-blindness and physical incapacity prevented her from painting and crossword-solving, she amused herself by laboriously writing out in barely decipherable block letters a number of short stories for children which revealed a feeling for the macabre and a wry sense of humour.

Despite being a dedicated smoker and a self-confessed consumer of unhealthy foods, Bache retained an uncanny physical youthfulness, which a few ascribed to her determined status as spinster. When asked why she had never married, she replied that she had always felt that her life had been given to her for herself.

Irene Mary Bache, artist and teacher: born London 23 March 1901; died Gower, Swansea 24 May 1999.

Source: independent.co.uk / R.M. Healey 23 June 1999



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