Phyllis Dodd

Phyllis Dodd: ‘Self Portraits.’

Phyllis Dodd was born in 1899 in Chester. Her parents encouraged her early interest in art.  Attending the Queen’s School, Chester at the age of eight she won a Royal Drawing Society prize in 1909, drawing her friend Freda from memory.   Her father Charles Dodd would take her to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, his death when Phyllis was sixteen was a severe blow. Her mother took in paying guests to send her to Liverpool School of Art, 1917–21, where Will Penn taught her the use of a limited palette; by the 1950s she developed an interest in more positive colour.

In 1921 Phyllis won a Royal Exhibition to the Royal College of Art, 1921–25. This prized and coveted award allowed her £90 a year and expenses towards art materials and travel expenses. Her friends and colleagues at the RCA included Henry Moore (1898-1986), Raymond Coxon (1896-1997), Roland Vivian Pitchforth (1895-1982) and Edna Ginesi (1902-2000). Liverpool colleagues Robert Lyon (1894 – 1978) and Edward Halliday (1902-1984) remained friends for the rest of her life. These northerners formed at clique at the college sharing theatre visits, excursions and eating at a separate table in the canteen.

 A year later Phyllis would be joined by another cohort of ‘the outbreak of talent’ – Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Douglas Percy Bliss and Co. Having studied life drawing at Liverpool School of Art for two-years Phyllis was not pleased to find that at the RCA she was expected to revert to Antique Studies for a day each week. These studies included drawing furniture and architecture in the V & A. She was also not allowed to paint in her first year. The Ladies Life Class was held one day a week from 4-6pm and had only female models. Dodd complained to Principal William Rothenstein and after demonstrating her ability in figure drawing was allowed to attend the Year 3 Men’s Class, it now meant that the male models had to wear posing pouches. Drawing from a nude model had always been contentious, the educational bureaucracy regarding it as an indulgence verging on the immoral. Phyllis knew her anatomy and was skilled in the use of chiaroscuro in model form. Rothenstein soon acknowledged her ability to draw and capture likeness, she won the drawing prize in her final year.

Phyllis Dodd Female nude study, circa 1925

Another RCA colleague was the flamboyant bi-sexual northerner Basil Taylor and Phyllis produced an etched portrait of him. Taylor killed himself in Great Bardfield at Christmas 1936.

Amongst the ‘explosion of talent’ at the RCA in the early 1920’s was the flamboyant, bi-sexual Basil Taylor. This is Phyllis Dodd’s etched portrait of Taylor.

Phyllis, gaining her painting Diploma in two years instead of three was able to take up etching and aquatint in her RCA third year.

Phyllis Dodd: ‘Northgate Terrace, Chester.’ etching 1925. ‘The Blue Bell, Northgate Street, Chester,’ etching 1926.

Having left the RCA Phyllis took up lodgings in Kensington. Teaching at Walthamstow Technical College, 1925–30, she obtained portrait commissions sometimes helped by William Rothenstein. Meanwhile Edward Bawden (number 58, Eric Ravilious and Douglas Percy Bliss (number 38) had taken up lodgings in Redcliffe Road. Phyllis was living at number 52 with two other RCA friends, and it was within this tight little artist colony that Dodd and Percy Bliss came together as a couple.

Phyllis Dodd: ‘Douglas Percy Bliss.’ The portrait was painted in Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn’s studio at 37 Redcliffe Road.

On the 17th of April 1928 the couple were married in Chester Cathedral followed by a honeymoon in Lewes. The two set up home at 65 Sandcroft Road, Lambeth, above a sausage factory, from where the stink came up through the floorboards.  Ravilious came to live with them at weekends when he was teaching at Eastbourne College, an arrangement he maintained until he married Tirzah Garwood in 1930.

Phyllis Dodd: ‘In the Pentlands near Liberton Tower. 1928.

Douglas and Phyllis married 17th April 1928.

Phyllis Dodd: Portrait of Eric Ravilious, 1929. Portrait of Tirzah Garwood, 1929. Portrait of Edward Bawden, 1929.

Phyllis being a perfectionist in all things, domestic life eroded her time for painting. When a student she had painted so concentratedly that she forgot to eat and became ill, as a housewife she said that “when there is dust on the stairs, I cannot settle down to painting.”

In 1932 the Blisses moved to a flat in Blackheath and in that year daughter, Prudence was born. Five years later came sister Rosalind. While Douglas was busy teaching and painting Phyllis developed her portrait painting, one of her finest works ‘Czech Peasant’ was painted in 1932.

Phyllis Dodd: ‘Czech Peasant.’ 1932. ‘Bath in the Nursery,’ 1935.

Her finest child painting was ‘Prudence on Pegasus,’ the family’s restored rocking horse. This work was hung at the Royal Academy in 1939, only for war to break out within a few weeks.

Phyllis Dodd: ‘Prudence on Pegasus.’

Douglas was past the age of conscription but volunteered for the RAF Reserve. During the constant bombing of London in the Blitz a bomb fell next to the Blisses flat, the bomb laid open the cellar containing many of Douglas’ wood engraving blocks. Looters stole Phyllis’ etching acid baths, bottles of acid, steel plate and other engraving equipment.  Phyllis never made another etching. The Blisses were now homeless.

The couple moved to Derbyshire in1940 to a cottage rented by his brother, Dr. Roger P Bliss. This cottage was at Shottle, Derbyshire, out in the countryside, staying there until January 1943. A second cottage was rented in 1943 at Ireton Wood before moving to their permanent home at Windley, Derbysire, in 1945. Having been called up by the RAF in 1941 and stationed at various stations in England and Scotland, Douglas was finally demobbed in May 1945 and returned to teaching at Hornsey. Having made useful contacts whilst on service near Glasgow, Douglas applied for the job of Director at Glasgow School of Art and was duly appointed in 1946.  Douglas and Phyllis along with Douglas’ mother moved into a large Victorian house at 3 Princes Gardens, Glasgow. Their daughters were left in their Derbyshire boarding school. With no studio at home Douglas and Phyllis made use of a studio at the college, Phyllis’ portrait Delay Goulen being painted there over several Sundays in 1955.

Dodd, Phyllis; ‘Delay Goulen.’ Newport Museum and Art Gallery.

Phyllis Dodd: ‘Douglas Reading Boswell to his Mother.’ ‘The Young Philatelists,’ 1946 Prudence stated: ‘We were both feeling cold and fed up, so it was never quite finished.’ ‘Summer Doorway with African Lilies.’ 1948.

By 1964 both Douglas and Phyllis were more than happy to retire south to their Windley home and get back to making full-time art.  The years at Hillside Cottage were happy, productive times for both Douglas and Phyllis. They had already had a joint exhibition at Derby Museum and Galley in 1947 now another joint venture followed at St Michael’s Gallery, Derby, 1983. 

Douglas Percy Bliss: ‘Phyllis at Windley.’ 1951.

In 1979 the BBC were filming a programme of “The Front Garden” at Hillside, Douglas suffered a stroke shortly after this. He endured a final stroke in March 1984 and passed away six days later, the 11th of March.

Phyllis Dodd: ‘Portrait of Douglas Percy Bliss.’ 1963 the year before Douglas retired.

Phyllis survived her husband by eleven years, a mostly frustrating time as Glaucoma was diagnosed in 1976. In 1986 Phyllis had a minor stroke and went to live with Prudence in Newcastle upon Tyne for the rest of her life, except for holidays spent in Windley. Shingles took her remaining eyesight.

Phyllis had a successful ninetieth-birthday show at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, 1989; and a retrospective at the public gallery, Derby, in 1995. She tackled one last canvas in 1985, a portrait of Godfrey Meynell. In 1992 she became totally blind. Phyllis died aged 96 on the 17th of May 1995 missing an exhibition of her work at the Newport Museum and Art gallery, South Wales, which opened in October.

Portrait of Godfrey Meynell

Phyllis’ portraits could well take up a book alone. Here to conclude are just some of them.

F Rogers, 1927. Olga in her flounced dress, 1930. Portrait of a lady seated wearing white. Sheila the model.

Top Row: David M Bonner Provost 1950. Adam Gowan, 1951. Arnold Duncan McNair,1955. Brian Westerdale Downs.

Bottom Row: Sir Ian Bolton 1959. Victoria Catherine (‘Cathy’ or ‘Cath’) Honeyman, née Burnett, a gifted pianist who could have had a professional musical career were it not for domestic obligations, was the wife of Dr T J Honeyman.

Many thanks go to Rosalind and Prudence Bliss who kindly read the script and made many helpful insertions.

Another great help: Gargoyles & Tattie-Bogles, The lives and work of
Douglas Percy Bliss and Phyllis Dodd by Malcolm Yorke. Published by the Fleece Press.

Graham Bennison, October 2022.

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