Sheila Fell was one of LS Lowry’s favourite artists. He described her as the finest landscape painter of her day, although – along with many women painters at the time – she struggled to achieve the profile and attention she deserved.
A miner’s daughter from the small Cumbrian town of Aspatria, she was born into grinding poverty. Her talent as an artist saw her achieve a place at art school in Carlisle – only for her tutors to despatch her to a fabric design firm. In frustration she left for London’s St Martin’s School of Art, never to live in Cumbria again and, in her words she became ‘bitterly homesick … drawing, reading, living on nothing but little food and grandiose ideas’.
Finally, she was offered a solo show at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London in 1955, from which Lowry bought two paintings and a drawing. At his request, the gallery owner arranged a first meeting, outside Tottenham Court Tube station, and Fell and Lowry began a lifelong friendship. “Lowry didn’t influence my painting,” Fell said ‘I wasn’t really interested in the industrial landscape.” But both shared a commitment to painting the world around them. As Fell says in one of these clips from television interviews in the 1960s, ‘Any painter must see something … as though it’s never been seen before’.
In 1974 she became a member of the Royal Academy, a significant achievement for a woman at that time. In her last interview, for the Sunday Times in 1979, she said ‘I intend to live to 104 … I’ve promised myself I will. It’s what keeps me going when I worry if I’ll ever have time to do all the paintings in my head.’
The day before the article was to due be published, she fell down a steep staircase and died.