In praise of … Florence Elsie (Matley) Moore, FSA (1900–1985)
This is the third in our series of occasional articles profiling pioneering scholars of stained glass in the United Kingdom. The previous article can be read here. This instalment by our Features Editor, Roger Rosewell, focuses on the life of Florence Elsie (Matley) Moore, a talented watercolourist whose accurate copies of medieval stained-glass windows were invaluable to scholars before the availability of affordable and reliable colour photography.
In December 2009, the English Heritage Archive acquired fifty-five watercolour copies of medieval stained-glass windows painted on paper between 1935 and 1957 by the Worcester-based artist, Florence Elsie Moore, known at Elsie Matley Moore [EMM] (1900–1985). This acquisition brought to an end a saga that had begun almost seventy years earlier.
The Moore paintings are important for a number of reasons. The first is their exceptional quality. Unlike comparable copies of stained glass by other artists, EMM injected a genuine sense of texture and depth into her paintings; her style is unique and more refined than that of comparable artists. The paintings are also significant because some were made during the Second World War in support of the National Building Record’s efforts to record historic works of art at risk from enemy action. In addition, the paintings serve as poignant reminders of how, before the advent of colour photography, scholars were dependent on watercolour copies of stained glass for accurate depictions in colour. Finally, the combination of paintings and correspondence sheds interesting light on the work and personal life of the artist herself, a figure of enduring interest in Worcester.
Although not well known in wider artistic circles, EMM was a talented copyist and intuitive colourist with a life-long interest in decorative art, particularly that of the medieval period. She made important copies of medieval encaustic tiles; she repainted fifteen monuments in Worcester Cathedral and the parish churches of Kempsey, Kidderminster, and Cropthorne; she conserved wall-paintings in the county, including those discovered at the Commandery and Harvington Hall, and made full-size tracings of them; she conserved rare sixteenth-century painted cloths at Owlpen Manor (Gloucestershire); and she contributed articles on these subjects to academic journals. She counted well-known scholars of stained glass, such as Gordon McNeil Rushforth (1862–1938), among her friends. Her line drawings of stained glass helped illustrate Mary Green’s pioneering catalogue of extant medieval glass in Worcestershire (see Vidimus 71), and her work was also sometimes exhibited. Her contribution to the preservation of historic medieval buildings in Worcester also deserves high praise. Notable collections of her work are held by Birmingham Museums, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Trust, and the Worcestershire Record Office.
Florence Elsie Moore was born on 3 July 1900 and christened on 15 August in the same year. Her parents were John Moore (1844–1904), a dentist who operated from premises in Stockport, and Florence Ada Jessie Matley (1868–1954), the daughter of a Birmingham coal merchant who had previously been housekeeper to a family of dispensing chemists in Birmingham. How her parents met is not known, but it is clear that the marriage benefited Florence, who found herself the mistress of a household, rather than one of its below-stairs members. According to the 1901 census, the Moore family then lived in Alderley Road in Wilmslow (Cheshire) and shared their home with a nurse, three servants, and a nephew. Elsie was the younger of her parents’ two children: an elder brother, Malcolm John Matley Moore, had been born in 1897.
Although christened Florence, presumably after her mother, Elsie was usually known by her middle name. From at least 1935 onwards, she referred to herself as Elsie Matley Moore, adding her brother’s Christian name/mother’s maiden name to her own. In 1904, Elsie’s father died aged 61, and after her mother inherited a number of properties from his estate, the family moved to Birmingham. Information about Elsie’s childhood is scant. When the First World War broke out in 1914, she left school and enrolled at the Birmingham School of Art for the years 1914–16. Years later, she cited two alumni of the School, Joseph Southall (1861–1944) and Arthur Gaskin (1862–1928), together with the well-known potter and tile designer, William de Morgan (1839–1917), as the most important artistic influences in her life. Third-hand accounts claim that she had wanted to continue her studies, possibly at the Slade School of Art (part of University College London), but was prevented from doing so by her mother. By 1921–22, she was employed as an art teacher in the Birmingham area, appearing in the School of Art registers for those years as a 21 year-old ‘assistant art mistress’ living at 327 Bell Barn Road, Edgbaston, and taking a course in ‘lettering’ [calligraphy].
At the same time as Elsie remained in Birmingham, Matley spent at least part of the war as a medical student at a Blackpool hospital and, from 1917, as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corp. Although he suffered some sort of breakdown when he was about twenty-two, he successfully followed in his father’s footsteps and qualified as a dentist on 6 April 1922. Around this time, the family moved to Worcester and eventually settled, in 1924, at 16 The Tything, a large five-bay house dating to c.1770 with a notable Doric door case in a city centre street of other late Georgian residences. It was to be the family’s home for the next quarter of a century, with Matley running his surgery at the house and Elsie working in a garden studio.
Almost immediately on moving to the city, the family began a relationship with the Worcestershire Archaeological Society (WAS) that was to shape much of the rest of their lives. Like other learned societies of the time, membership of the WAS was relatively small (c.100–150 members) and socially exclusive. Even so, it introduced the Moores to a new circle of friends and people of shared interests; during their association with the Society, they entertained the poet and architectural writer, John Betjeman (1906–1984), the novelist Francis Brett Young (1884–1954), and other prominent individuals. The WAS also provided Elsie with a focus, as well as opportunities for her artistic abilities to shine.
Matley was the first of the trio to join the WAS; he is listed as a committee member as early as April 1923. Next up was his mother, who was elected a month later. The position of Elsie is less straightforward. Her name appears in the Society minutes as early as 1924, when some of her drawings of medieval encaustic tiles were displayed and members were told that she hoped to make a complete record of the county. As far as membership goes, however, she was not formally elected until 10 January 1934. Although evidence about Elsie’s life up to this point is slim, what is known is mildly depressing. According to the privately published memoirs of a long-time friend of fifty years standing, the Stourbridge-based architect John Homery Folkes (1906–2000), she sometimes complained to him (and others) about an ‘unhappy young life’, blighted by a domineering mother, who belittled her, prevented her from going to art college, told her that she was ugly, and treated her less favourably than ‘her blue-eyed’ sibling Matley. Sadly, this pattern apparently continued into Elsie’s early fifties, with Elsie confiding in friends ‘something of the cruel treatment she suffered from her mother until that most unloved and unkind matriarch died’ (in 1953).
Not everything was so bleak. In 1933, one of the leading members of the WAS, Robert Holland-Martin FSA (1872–1955), gave a talk about medieval tiles in the county in which he not only lavished praise on ‘the skill and enthusiasm of Miss Matley Moore who [has] recovered complete designs from broken tiles in many places’, but also thanked her for alerting his attention ‘to the wonderful tiles in Worcestershire churches … and those in neighbouring shires many of which she has visited, some as far off as St Davids in order to complete her collection of drawings’. Indeed, writing in 1941, EMM told Walter Godfrey: ‘I’ve got to middle-aged having spent a sheltered but somewhat hard life chock full of interest.’ Matley and Elsie must have read and (possibly) travelled extensively in the inter-war years, as they were widely regarded by their contemporaries as extremely knowledgeable about pre-Reformation art and architecture. Homery Folke wondered if Elsie’s mother ‘who was astute and had an eye for the antique and for worthwhile artefacts, was an influence unappreciated by a daughter who only remembered and told of the unkindness’s of childhood continuing until middle age’.
Elsie’s emergence as an artist and lecturer in her own right dates from the 1930s. In 1930, she painted a reredos for the St John Chapel in Worcester Cathedral. The Church Times described it as a ‘striking feature with an exquisitely delicate design of harmonious colour touched with deep reverence’. The painting depicts the Crucifixion within a local setting: familiar Worcester landmarks are visible behind the figures, including the cathedral, the spire of the parish church of St Andrew, and the parish church of St Nicholas.
Her first published work dates from 1934, when some of her drawings illustrated Holland Martin’s paper on ‘Medieval Tiles in Worcestershire’ published in the transactions of the WAS. A month later EMM joined the WAS. The following year, she came into her own, when medieval wall-paintings were discovered at the Commandery, a Grade I pre-Reformation medieval hospital standing just outside the former Sidbury Gate on the southern side of the city. After the Dissolution of the monasteries, the building had had various uses, including as a private house (initially) and a printing works (in the twentieth century). With advice from Professor Ernest Tristram (1882–1952), at that time the leading author on medieval wall-paintings in Britain, Elsie cleaned and preserved the paintings. She also made a complete set of full-scale copies of the discoveries, some of which were purchased by the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was the beginning of a new field of expertise. In 1936, her services were sought again after medieval and later wall-paintings were found during the repair of Harvington Hall, a picturesque irregular L-plan Elizabethan house near Chaddesley Corbett (Worcestershire), which had fallen into serious decline. The most important discoveries were arabesque drawings in the so-called Mermaid Passage and on the back staircase, and a spectacular series of figures of the Nine Worthies on the second floor. As they were cleaned Elsie made life-sized copies of the paintings, which show more detail than is now preserved on the actual walls at the Hall. Twenty of these paintings were acquired shortly afterwards by Birmingham Reference Library, where they remained before being transferred to Birmingham Museum in 1985. EMM’s work at these and other sites was summarized in papers she gave to both the Worcestershire Archaeological Society and to the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1938.
Another interest that surfaced in the mid-1930s was the polychromatic decoration of tomb monuments, especially those in Worcester Cathedral. She contributed an article about this subject to the Friends of Worcester Cathedral Annual Report in 1936 and thereafter wrote about the subject, produced conjectural reconstructions, and actually repainted fifteen monuments of different dates in the city and county.
In or before 1934, she also began making watercolour copies on paper of medieval stained-glass windows in the county, eventually producing twenty-four drawings for the pioneering catalogue of pre-1700 stained glass in the county by her ‘great friend’ Mary Addison Green (1873-1941), published in eleven parts in the Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society between 1935 and 1948.
Glass and wall-paintings also occupied her during the Second World War. According to Folkes, ‘She was employed to make drawings of ancient church murals and glass as a record in event of destruction by bombing, describing her adventures on rickety scaffoldings at dizzy heights and the endurances of war-time travel.’ The reality, however, was more complex, as extensive correspondence in the English Heritage Archive National Building Record (NBR) files testifies. EMM’s relationship with the NBR began in 1941, when she wrote to its founder and first director Walter Godfrey (1881–1961) at the suggestion of Dr Tancred Borenuis (1885–1945), an expert on medieval wall-paintings with whom she had collaborated on a paper about the recent discoveries in Worcestershire presented to the Society of Antiquaries in 1938. The letter explained that she was making drawings of ‘things that might be bombed or fired’ and stressed her credentials by saying that the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Birmingham Reference Library had both bought copies of her pre-war drawings. The next paragraph came to the point: ‘Now, after being Commandant of my Ambulance for a year, with no work to do luckily, I have felt that whereas there are many Women in Worcester who can be Commandant there are very few who can make accurate records and I have taken it upon myself to start off with stained glass in some of the village churches nearby … I wrote to Dr Borenuis to know if there is any scheme by which I could get paid for my drawings and get an adequate petrol allowance and he asks me to write to you.’
EMM’s drawings were full-size accurate copies and obviously appealed to Godfrey and his deputy, the art historian (Sir) John Summerson, but their reply contained a refrain that was to be heard on many occasions over the next thirty years: a shortage of funds to pay EMM either for her work or her expenses. The root of the problem was almost certainly cost. The NBR was trying to build a ‘record’ archive quickly, without huge resources, and against a background of petrol shortages and war-time emergencies. Photographs were ideal. EMM, on the other hand, was essentially offering not just records but also works of art for which she expected to be paid substantially more than photographers. Moreover, while her drawings were admired and her unpaid work encouraged, she was never an employee of the NBR. The NBR did not commission her to make specific drawings on its behalf, and although she often asked for directions as to what she might record, replies were often vague, perhaps deliberately so in order to avoid any potential legal liabilities. To her credit, EMM was not deterred, responding to what must otherwise have been disappointing news, ‘I am certainly prepared to help you because I think that it is one of the best ways in which I can help’.
Over the next few years, EMM corresponded regularly with Godfrey and the NBR. Sometimes she pleaded (successfully) for their help in persuading petrol controllers to give her additional fuel allowances; once she asked for headed notepaper to give her letters asking incumbents for permission to draw their glass an extra edge of authority; on other occasions she described some of her adventures as she climbed scaffolds and ladders to make copies of windows. Years later, she told a reporter from the Worcester Evening News that a painting of ‘a tracery light in Tewkesbury Abbey was executed … 88 feet above the Chancel floor’.
More than once she returned to the issue of payment for her drawings. The first re-run was in February 1942, when she told Godfrey about a collection of photographs that could be acquired from a Mrs Hoare in Malvern, the daughter of John Henry Parker (1806–1884), a famous nineteenth-century expert on English Gothic art and architecture. When the NBR expressed interest in buying the collection, she asked ‘Why will you pay for photographs and not drawings? Unless something more reasonable happens about my work I shall have to stop making records.’ There is then a full-blooded cry from the heart: ‘Do you yourself think that it is reasonable to ask a woman who has her living to earn to be perpetually out-of-pocket on paper, paints, petrol, meals from home etc when she is the only person you can get to do exactly that type of work, and yet you will pay salaries to other people, including payments for photographs.’ Her anger was palpable: ‘I notice that as a voluntary worker I have to take sandwiches from home where Mr Mason [G. B. Mason, NBR staff photographer] manages fairly well at The Crown.’
Godfrey’s reply sought to soothe her feelings by declaring his astonishment: ‘You do not think for a moment that I prefer your drawings to photographs, or that I wish, if I had my way, to discriminate between yourself and people who work the mechanical devices of a camera … The grant from outside sources has been specifically assigned to photography by the donors and I am quite powerless to divert a penny of it to other activities … On what basis do you value your drawings for sale? Even if I had the money I might be deterred from asking you to accept a sum which I should know was an under-valuation.’
Exhibitions also constituted flashpoints. When some of her drawings were exhibited at Worcester Cathedral in 1943, the event passed without incident. The same cannot be said when they were displayed in February–March 1944 at the Society of Antiquaries in London, where she had an awkward encounter with the celebrated artist John Piper (1903–1992). After this meeting she told Godfrey: ‘I had never met him before and found his ideas so different on the subject of copying that instead of hitting him on the head I pulled myself together and politely changed the conversation.’ Godfrey was sympathetic, replying: ‘John Piper comes here at times. He interests me, but he has much to learn. I don’t like his article on Norwich in the new Cornhill and I didn’t go to hear him at the Antiquaries. But he has skill, and one day he might look at things with a wider and more generous view’.
Towards the end of the war, EMM’s life took another twist. As early as 1928, her mother had urged the WAS to rescue a late fifteenth-century house in Friar Street, central Worcester, known locally as Greyfriars, based on the mistaken belief that it was the guest wing of a former Greyfriars (Franciscan) house in the same street. Despite demolition orders and the all too predictable clamour from ‘progressive’ councillors and planners who wanted to demolish the building, it was finally saved in 1943, when a wealthy member of the WAS bought and weather-proofed the building. Four years later it was effectively acquired by the Moores, who agreed to restore the house at their own expense, providing they could live in it for their lifetimes. The family moved in 1949 and it remained the centre of Elsie’s life until her death. She painted furniture, collected old textiles and hand-printed others in period styles, decorated the house and helped to make and plant the garden. Some of her painted furniture survives in the kitchen and in a guest bedroom in the north wing. In both instances the designs revolve around flowers in bright colours.
After their mother’s death in 1953, brother and sister were left ‘in a pleasant state of financial security’. Elsie bought neighbouring houses and, together with her brother, played important conservation roles within the city, buying three other small medieval timber-framed buildings in Friar Street and subsequently donating them to the National Trust. On 8 January 1948, Elsie was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and remained so until her death in 1985; her brother Matley had attained his Fellowship on 7 February 1935. In 1966, Matley (and Elsie?) arranged for the WAS to donate Greyfriars and its contents to the National Trust.
In April 1969, seventy of Elsie’s drawings, including her copies of medieval stained-glass windows, were shown during a three-week exhibition at the Victoria Institute in Worcester. After Matley’s death in 1982, Elsie continued to live at Greyfriars until failing health saw her moved to the Henwick Grange nursing home in Hallow Road, Worcester. During her decline, she sold or gave away various possessions; her watercolours of stained glass were also sold. Folkes wrote: ‘I was sometimes shown these drawings, which at the end of her life, she tried to sell without success until, at last, they went to an antiquarian book dealer.’ EMM died on 31 January 1985, leaving £255,443 in her will, which, after a few small bequests, was divided equally between the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, the Children’s Society, and the Royal UK Beneficent Association (a charity for older people). A significant collection of her papers was deposited on indefinite loan at the Worcestershire Record Office.
Although there was a memorial service at the church where she, her mother and Matley had worshipped, there was no reception afterwards. As with her mother and Matley, the whereabouts of her body are currently unknown. None of her friends knew whether she was were buried or cremated, or where her remains were laid to rest. There are no tablets, gravestones or memorial windows to her … or to them. Their memorials are rather the buildings they saved and the paintings that Elsie left behind.
I am extremely grateful to the English Heritage Archive for allowing me to publish these extracts from a study of Elsie Matley Moore’s life that I undertook on their behalf earlier this year.