Willoughby, Vera, Biography

Biography of Vera Willoughby (1870-1939)

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Vera Willoughby was a Hungarian born artist who trained at the Slade and lived in England until her death in 1939. She was a successful artist and illustrator with a notable range of styles and contexts for her work. She worked mainly on paper with watercolour and gouache. There can be a distinct art deco quality to much of her output and though her oeuvre was varied it sometimes contained a recognisable and highly idiosyncratic way of rendering the human body which added an extra strangeness and exotic edge to some of her archaic, classical scenes. In a more conventional mode she was, between 1928 and 1935, a designer of posters for the London Underground and these can be viewed at the London Transport Museum.

Again in a more conventional style, though also with an art deco quality, she worked with ballet expert and publisher Cyril Beaumont, sometimes under the pseudonym of Vera Petrovna. Her illustrations for the Beaumont published album on the ballerina Lubov Tchernicheva were reproduced as pochoir prints, that is with a mechanical outline but with hand colouring (1921). A few years earlier similar albums on Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina had been published by Pierre Corrard in Paris with George Barbier as the pochoir artist. Such albums, which tended to be limited editions, are very attractive and highly collectible  There are also original watercolours by Willoughby that are almost identical to the pochoir images. Some of these are kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Her classical and mythological themes include illustrations for ‘The Odes of Horace’, and for her highly praised, ‘Vision of Greece’, which was an illustrated account of her travels in Greece in 1925.

Vera was married to the English actor Louis Willoughby from whom she was divorced. Their daughter was Althea Willoughby (1904-1982). Vera had a somewhat scandalous love relationship with Peter Llewelyn Davis. She was much older than him, by twenty seven years in fact. Llewelyn Davis became, much to his increasing despair, known to be the source, in name at least, of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Barrie had unofficially adopted him and his brothers. Llewelyn Davis’s life contained a number of tragedies and he committed suicide at sixty three years old in 1960. Vera had already pre-deceased him by twenty one years.

There is a quality to Willoughby’s imaginative work, particularly in the classical and mythological themes, which suggest that she was an unconventional woman of depth and complexity.

William Rose for Talisman Fine Art (January 2020)