Mollie Russell-Smith

Mollie Russell-Smith [21 April 1924 – 11 November 2014] is an authentic 20th Century British artist who produced a significant body of work during her long life.

As a member of the Benton End circle, in the 1940s, her art was intertwined with that of Cedric Morris, Kathleen Hale & Lucien Freud among others.

Mollie was a talented illustrator and wrote & published several books for children   She was also a long term associate of the Beckenham School of Art where she taught & led by example, making many hand-block prints, including abstract work.

Some of her pictures are in private collections but we, her heirs, are now able to offer a variety of pieces for sale.  Our aim in doing so is not to make a fortune, but to share the happiness that Mollie’s work conveys.

Shortly before she died Mollie appeared in the Grierson, Award winning documentary, Garnets Gold.  If you would like to see a short clip, from the film, of her singing the Dingle Dangle Scarecrow please click here

If you like any particular pieces please do get in touch via the contact page or click here; we would love to hear from you

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Born at Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1923, her mother’s maiden name was Moulton. She studied at Beckenham School of Art and was known as Mollie Russell-Smith. Just after the start of the Second World war, together with her mother and brother Geoffry Russell-Smith, moved to Hadleigh, Suffolk, where she attended Ipswich Art School and later at the East Anglian School of Painting at Benton End, Hadleigh. She married at Bromley, Kent in 1946, singer and composer John H. Frost and secondly at Bromley in 1962 Eric Lunggren, a dedicated gardener, and they lived at 31 Cromwell Road, Beckenham, Kent.
Source: suffolkpainters.co.uk

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I started evening classes at the age of fourteen while at school. A year later in 1938 I became a full time student.

It was bliss! Being encouraged to work hard at something so enjoyable.

I started by drawing from the cast. These were larger than life size replicas – in the first instance, of an eye, a nose, an ear, a foot and a hand. From these one graduated to drawing hedge sculptures of classic antiques: The Venus de Milo, The Discus Thrower, and The Belvedere Torso.

Mr Goodwin taught memory drawing. We had a limited time to look at a bicycle or a deck chair, which was then removed and we drew it from memory. Carel Weight taught plant drawing and Cas Cohen taught illustration. In those days students and tutors were not on Christian name terms; it was Mr Cohen and Miss Russell-Smith and the boys were addressed by their surnames only.

By my second year, studies included Perspective, taught by a quiet man named Alistair Dunnet, and Anatomy by Roland Gill. Mr Gill looked the part of a ‘proper artist’ wearing a faded blue smock and a floppy bow tie. We drew from the skeleton and had to know the names and function of all the bones. Also of the muscles, aided by diagrams.

One a week we trekked across to the Tech., to be taught The History of Architecture, by a fearsome philistine of a tutor called Jock Gillespie. This mostly consisted of copying minute illustrations from The Bannister Fletcher History of Architecture. Thus I was able to draw Salisbury Cathedral in detail and from memory, although it would be another forty years before I actually visited Salisbury and saw the real thing.

At last I got to do a life drawing, which I loved and have continued to do on and off throughout my life. The Principal of the School, Henry Carr took most of the life classes, also Laurie Norris and for a short while a mercurial man named Lesley Hurry who became a successful set designer for Covent Garden. We were encouraged by Mr Carr to make our own quill pens from goose or turkey feathers.

Many of the students were balletomanes, and we would go to London to queue for seats at Sadler’s Wells or Covent Garden. Back at the school, in tea break, Don Bewley and I would cavort about The Life Room doing improvised dance. Actually we had a real dancer in our midst; a part time student – a small red headed boy called Raymond (Tich) Cope whose ambition was to join Rambert.

In those days there was a piano in The Life Room, and my twelve-year-old brother, who could play anything by ear, would come in after school and do requests from the students.

Carel was a charming man; his slightly formal manner leavened by a quirky sense of humour. I remember him organising the students to paint the walls of the corridor dark red, on which to mount the annual exhibition. And I remember him lounging in the long grass at the edge of ‘the field’ with me and Keith Lucas listening to Bach on Keith’s windup gramophone.

As 1940 wore on, the war hotted up. There were air raids when we had to shelter. On my way to school I picked up still warm pieces of shrapnel.

At the time of Dunkirk, the students would abandon Life Drawing and rush down the field to the railway line to wave to the much bandaged soldiers hanging out of the windows of the troop trains coming up from the coast. On one evening Dorothy Hope had to walk all the way home to Slade Green at the time when the Woolwich Docks were on fire.

I am not sure whether it was the end of that year or the Spring of 41 that Henry Carr painted my portrait. Like Carol Weight he later became an official War Artist.

He gave me two good pieces of advice: to paint from the shoulder, rather than from the wrist, and always to accept compliments gracefully.

Soon after the portrait, I was devastated by having to leave the school and my friends. The war had not only damaged my house, but also rubbed out my family finances and we decamped to Suffolk.

I wept as I broke the news to Henry Carr. But that old building had not seen the last of me. I would be back; but it was some years before I walked through the front door again.

Mollie Russell-Smith
December 2005
Source beckenhamschoolart.org

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“Dingle Dangle Scarecrow” is a very popular children’s song. Most people believe that it is a traditional nursery rhyme but it’s not! In fact it’s a song written by Mollie Russell-Smith (lyrics) and her brother Geoffry Russell-Smith (music) from England. It was first published as “Wide Awake” in 1964 by Mills Music, London.

Many performances may be viewed on Youtube & we are engaged in the arduous process of trying to ensure that attribution is given to Mollie correctly as copyright is currently being massively infringed.  The assumption appears to be that it lies in the public domain, which is not true as royalties continue to be paid by Sony/ATV

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We are thrilled that several of Mollie’s paintings were included in the Holt Festival held in July 2017, as part of an exhibition entitled Benton End & Friends.   Her pictures were hung alongside works by Sir Cedric Morris, Lett Haines, Maggie Hambling, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud & others.   We understand that discussions are in progress regarding another exhibition, on the same theme, to be held in Ipswich in due course.  We will add photos shortly.

To coincide with the exhibition, the book Benton End Remembered, was republished & is now again for sale.

“In 1940, Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, both established artists with international reputations who had become disillusioned with the commercial aspects of the art world, moved to Benton End, overlooking the River Brett on the outskirts of Hadleigh, Suffolk. What they found there was a somewhat ramshackle but capacious sixteenth-century farmhouse, standing in over three acres of walled gardens lost beneath brambles and elder trees; the house had not been lived in for fifteen years. But Benton End became both their home and the new premises of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing which, in 1937, they had founded together in Dedham, Essex. From 1940 until Lett Haines died in 1978 and Cedric Morris in 1982, Benton End was an exotic world apart where art, literature, good food, gardening and lively conversation combined to produce an extraordinarily stimulating environment for amateurs and professionals alike. Ronald Blythe recalls that ‘there was a whiff of garlic and wine in the air. The atmosphere …was robust and coarse, and exquisite and tentative all at once. Rough and ready and fine mannered. Also faintly dangerous.’ The sharply contrasting characters and interests of Morris and Lett Haines ensured the widest range of contacts and visitors to Benton End who included Francis Bacon, Ronald Blythe, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, David Carr, Beth Chatto, Randolph Churchill, Elizabeth David, Lucian Freud, Kathleen Hale, Maggi Hambling, Lucy Harwood, Glyn Morgan, John Nash, and Vita Sackville-West. There was no formal teaching and students were left free to pursue their own enthusiasms and to show their work to Morris or Lett Haines for advice. Without formal teaching, they were free to pursue their own enthusiasms, while Morris’s skill as a plantsman and noted breeder of irises, contrasted with Lett Haines’s intellectual sophistication, interest in food and wine, artistic experimentation, and a general lack of enthusiasm for the outdoors.”

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