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Dame Ethel Walker ARA, Portrait of Flora Robson

Portrait of Flora Robson, ca. 1933-34

Dame Ethel Walker ARA (1861 - 1951)

RA Collection: Art

Flora Robson, D.B.E. (1902-1984) was born in South Shields, Durham. As a teenager she trained at RADA and went on to become a leading character actress in theatre and cinema. She is perhaps best remembered for her performance as Elizabeth I in Fire over England (1937). Her other roles included the Empress Elizabeth of Russia in Alexander Korda's Catherine the Great (1934) and Mother Superior in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947).

Walker met Flora Robson and fellow actor Charles Laughton in the autumn of 1933. According to Grace English, she painted two portraits of Robson at this time, though it now appears that she may have painted at least three (see below). At this time Laughton commissioned Walker to paint a portrait of his wife Elsa Lanchester as “Prue” in Congreve’s Love for Love, the play which all three actors starred in at Sadler’s Wells in March 1934.

Although a keen portraitist, Ethel Walker preferred painting female subjects to male. Among her sitters were Vanessa Bell, Orovida Pissarro, Barbara Hepworth, Nicholette Devas and Nancy Astor. As a “character” actress Robson would particularly have appealed to Walker, whose aesthetic abhorrence of make-up was well known. A friend recollected:

‘She executed commissions when she liked the look of the would-be sitters but before painting her women she would say “Take that filthy stuff off your lips” for, always faithful to the motif, she could not tolerate the sudden assault of red upon an eye so sensitive to tone.’ (L.B.Introduction to Distinguished British paintings 1875-1950: an accent on Ethel Walker, London: Roland, Browse, and Delbanco, 1974)

Walker was a prolific painter of flower-pieces and she often incorporated still-life details within her portraits. In this painting of Flora Robson, she includes the decoratively domestic motifs of a bowl of apples and teacup and saucer.

Object details

Portrait of Flora Robson
Dame Ethel Walker ARA (1861 - 1951)
ca. 1933-34
Object type
Copyright owner
Oil on canvas

610 mm x 510 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Bequeathed by Carel Weight RA 1999
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