Saturday, January 12, 2013
Bunce, Kate Elizabeth (1856–1927), painter, was born on 25 August 1856 at 312 Green Lane, Aston, Warwickshire, the daughter of John Thackray Bunce (1828–1899) and Rebecca Ann (d. 1891), daughter of Richard Cheesewright of Gosberton, Lincolnshire. Her father was the editor of the Birmingham Daily Post and a prominent local citizen closely associated with the new municipal museum and art gallery and Birmingham School of Art, and was granted the freedom of the city for his services to art. Two other sisters having died in infancy, Kate (as she was baptized) grew up with Myra Louisa (1854–1919) and Edith, who died in early adulthood. She was educated at home.
Bunce ‘inherited literary ability from her father’ (Birmingham Post, 22 Dec 1927) and published a certain amount of verse (none has yet been traced) but her principal interest lay in painting, to which she devoted her career, making her exhibition début with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in 1874. With her sister Myra, a metalworker and watercolour artist, she trained at Birmingham School of Art through the 1880s, under its energetic principal Edward Taylor during a period when the Birmingham school of painting, illustration, and decorative art established its distinct identity. According to the Birmingham School of Art's historian, both Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris (who visited the school in 1880 and 1894) were interested in and hopeful of this generation of students, who included the painters Joseph Southall and Charles Gere, the embroiderer Mary Newill, and the illustrators and jewellery designers Arthur Gaskin and Georgie France (later Gaskin) (Catterson Smith, 294).
Bunce's earliest extant picture is a large watercolour, The Sitting Room (1887; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), produced in the same year as her Royal Academy début (with the unlocated How may I, when he Shall Ask—a title from D. G. Rossetti's poetry, a regular source of inspiration). Working mainly in oils and tempera, she exhibited regularly at the major English venues in Birmingham, London, Liverpool, and Manchester until 1912. In 1895 she furnished illustrations for Fairbrass: a Child's Story by T. E. Pemberton, and in 1903 she contributed to a volume of drawings for E. R. Taylor's retirement.
Artistically Bunce possessed a personally recognizable but not innovative style comparable to that of her Birmingham colleagues, and that of London-based Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. Typically, she produced single-figure subjects on late romantic and religious themes, in which the secular female figures are pale and languid (‘dyspeptic’ in the Athenaeum's view; 21 May 1892, 672) in a static manner more suited to sacred subjects. The chief stylistic development of her career was towards simpler forms and lighter tones, which may be attributed to the use of and influence of tempera. From 1888 she was an associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, and in 1901 a founder member of the Society of Painters in Tempera, although she never exhibited with them. In 1898 her young cousin Margaret Wright recorded how Bunce worked in the studio every morning, giving the rest of the day to social and cultural activities, including regular theatregoing (MS diary, priv. coll., Canada). In 1893 she was one of two female and eight male painters commissioned to produce large-scale historical works for Birmingham town hall; allocated two panels, her subjects were the medieval Guild of the Holy Cross and the early Tudor almshouses (all panels disappeared in the Second World War). She often painted on a heroic scale, such as the single figure The Minstrel (exh. RA, 1890; priv. coll.) and the four devotional pictures (c.1900) painted for Sts Mary and Ambrose, Edgbaston. Her most ambitious work is The Chance Meeting (exh. New Gallery, London, 1907; formerly with Frost and Reed, London) showing the legendary encounter between Dante and Beatrice in a busy Florentine setting.
Bunce's work often received critical favour, The Childhood of St Warburga (1898; formerly with Christopher Wood, London) being described as ‘frankly archaic in style but … charming in its delicate colouring and subtle suggestion of medieval illumination’ (The Artist, Dec 1898). The Keepsake (exh. New Gallery, 1901; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) was chosen as ‘Picture of the Year’ by the Pall Mall Gazette. Medium-sized pictures like these and Melody (1901; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) are commonly strong in line and colour, with a wealth of decorative detail often directly linked to arts and crafts production. Several of her works either depict or are framed by Myra Bunce's metalwork, as, for example, multi-panel altarpieces at St Mary's, Longworth, Oxfordshire (1904; commemorating the artists' parents and sister Edith), and St Alban's, Bordesley, Birmingham (installed 1919). Bunce was a devout high-church Anglican, and her sacred art reflected her deep religious and spiritual temperament; picture titles suggest she especially revered English saints, while the deployment of stylized flat-planed figures whose gold leaf aureoles glow in rows is reminiscent of early Italian art and contemporary mural work such as that by Phoebe Traquair. In 1919 Bunce completed a war memorial diptych for Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon, and at the time of her death she was engaged on a picture of St Alban for the cathedral in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Little is known of Bunce's personal life and opinions. She lived all her life in Edgbaston, with a considerable local acquaintance, and seems seldom to have travelled. It would appear that she was temperamentally reserved—family members recall a certain severity of aspect in old age—while her class position, private income, and religious faith precluded overt pursuit of artistic fame, although family papers attest to pride in the critical success of The Keepsake, which was also shown in 1903 at Manchester City Art Gallery and in 1905 at the Société National des Beaux-arts, Paris, the only known overseas exhibition of her work. Some works were sold to regional patrons, others being gifted to local institutions, for example, The Puritan Maiden (1893; priv. coll., USA) which was presented to Birmingham General Hospital.
After her sister Myra's death in 1919, Kate Bunce lived on at 10 Holly Road, Edgbaston, where she died, unmarried, on 24 December 1927. Still identified locally as the ‘last surviving daughter’ of J. Thackray Bunce, she was buried on 28 December at Edgbaston Old Church. In her will she bequeathed The Keepsake to Birmingham Art Gallery, with the residue of her estate (about £6000 after personal bequests) being divided between the gallery and Birmingham University.
While in her lifetime Bunce's work was generally well if not enthusiastically received, its old-fashioned style and subjects fell entirely from favour in the following half century; only subsequently has it been rediscovered, chiefly by curators at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and feminist art historians interested in the late Victorian period.
Sources A. Crawford, ed., By hammer and hand: the arts and crafts movement in Birmingham (1984) · J. Marsh and P. G. Nunn, Women artists and the Pre-Raphaelite movement (1989) · J. Christian, ed., The last Romantics: the Romantic tradition in British art (1989) [exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 9 Feb – 9 April 1989] · J. Marsh and P. G. Nunn, Pre-Raphaelite women artists (1997) [exhibition catalogue, Manchester, Birmingham, and Southampton, 22 Nov 1997 – 2 Aug 1998] · R. Catterson Smith, ‘Birmingham Municipal School of Art’, Birmingham institutions, ed. J. H. Muirhead (1911) · b. cert. · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1928) · private information (2004) · Birmingham Post (27 June 1919) · Birmingham Post (27 Dec 1927) · Birmingham Despatch (28 Dec 1927)
Archives Birm. CL, papers · Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, papers · Christies, papers, photographs · Courtauld Inst., Witt Library, papers, photographs · Sothebys, London, papers, photographs
Likenesses photograph, repro. in Marsh and Nunn, Pre-Raphaelite women artists, 145
Wealth at death £15,528 4s. 5d.: probate, 3 Feb 1928, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
© Oxford University Press 2004–13 All rights reserved