North West England: Artists and Subjects, Sculpture 28 Who sculpted this portrait head of artist Helen Bradley (1900–1979)?

Topic: Artist

Could anyone give us further information about this portrait of Lancashire artist Helen Bradley? We would like to know the name of the sculptor and the date.

Bradley, who only began painting in her sixties, worked mainly in oils, specialising in scenes of Edwardian daily life in Oldham, Manchester and Blackpool.

Marion Richards, Art Detective Manager, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Kieran Owens,

Marion, can you post a close-up photo of the inscription on the back of the sitter's neck. I'm sure it reads "Helen Bradley" but is that a small monogram to the right of her name?

Osmund Bullock,

The symbol to the right of the signature is the famous 'fly' which she put next to -and sometimes instead of - her signature. See attached examples.

This rather suggests the bust is actually *by* her, though possibly a self-portrait - hard to know, as photos of her are hard to come by online (three poor ones attached). Could this be the same woman a bit younger? Quite possibly, but we need to see a better and younger image.

Anyway, it is not unusual for artists in two dimensions to have a crack at three - I've come across them before, and the results are often competent if a little uninspired. I was actually going to say that I thought it might be the work of an amateur.

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Osmund Bullock,

I've found a few more photos of Helen Bradley, mostly small or poor quality. But one is excellent - I think from the clothes it's about 1970 - and (along with another) shows exactly the same hairstyle as our sitter. From that and facial resemblance I now feel sure our head does indeed show her. I attach another composite for comparison.

But is this, as the fly symbol suggests, a small, perhaps experimental self-portrait (it's less than 8 in high**)? In her paintings Bradley's signature seems always to be in capitals, but I can imagine she might have done something different if she was trying something new. And would anyone else have presumed to copy her personal motif? Possibly in honour of her, I suppose - especially if it was (as it might be) a posthumous portrait.

But my main problem with the idea of another artist is the lack of another signature. I've seen a lot of mid/late C20th portrait busts over the years, amateur and professional. Talking specifically of those created originally in clay, some have nothing on them at all; many have just a signature or monogram (all too often illegible); a few have both signature and subject's name; but ones that have a sitter name but no mark at all relating to the artist must be rare - in fact I can't off-hand recall one.

(**The measurements on Art Detective are a bit odd - see the full ones on Art UK.)

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Tim Williams,

I wonder how many bronze foundries there are in the North West of England? One of them must either remember casting it (very much living memory and Bradley was a celebrity) or have some paperwork.

Jacinto Regalado,

The odds are this bust was by Bradley herself, though I suppose she might have had help of some sort, and if she was the sculptor, that makes the piece clearly more interesting and significant.

Thank you everyone for these very helpful comments and suggestions.

Osmund, we will look into why the dimensions haven't reproduced properly in Art Detective.

Jacinto Regalado,

It may or may not apply here, but I am reminded of the collaboration between Renoir and the sculptor Richard Guino, which resulted in sculptures "by Renoir" which were really transcriptions of his two-dimensional work or ideas into sculpture by Guino.

Kieran Owens,

From the 8th July until the 1st August 1982, a commemorative exhibition of Helen Bradley's works was held at the gallery of W. H. Patterson on Albermarle Street. In 20o4 they were bought over by Gladwell & Co., and now operate as Gladwell & Patterson, from 5 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London. A catalogue was produced for the 1982 show. Perhaps one of the older members of this establishment might recall if Bradley was ever know for sculpting works of this discussion's decent quality.

Kieran Owens,

Marion, as the work has an accession number of 2010.123, perhaps Gallery Oldham has a record of how it was that the piece came into the collection. If by donation, maybe the donor might be contacted to see if they have any information about the origins of the piece.

Osmund Bullock,

Re Tim's point, foundry marks can sometimes be found near or beneath the bottom of bronze casts (though it's less likely on such a small piece). A late 1960s example attached (and if anyone recognises the signature next to it, let me know!). But I'm afraid many long-established art bronze foundries have disappeared in recent years, though an equal number of new ones seem to have started up (several in Lancs/Yorks). And when previously contacting two older (south-east) survivors I received negative responses about their records from around the same period: it is very rare for any business (except huge ones with proper archives) to retain records for 40 or 50 years.

Could we in any case check with the Collection that this definitely is actually bronze, not "cold-cast bronze" (i.e. resin mixed with metal powder)? If done well (and weighted) it can look surprisingly like the real thing, though it has no 'ring' and is not cool to the touch. You can always check by scraping a tiny hidden area with a nail file.

It would also, as Kieran suggests, be helpful to learn more of its provenance – did it come from the family, perhaps? And any hint from any source that Helen ever tried her hand at sculpture (irrespective of quality) would be a big plus. I imagine the Collection would be better placed than us to find local artists or art societies who might have known her.

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Osmund Bullock,

Sorry, I've no idea why that image appears upside-down. Very odd, as it's the right way up on my computer...

Gallery Oldham,

Hello, Rebecca here, from the curatorial team at Gallery Oldham. Thank you very much for all your work on this. Apologies for the fact we haven't been more proactive in supplying info this week - we're (as ever) at a super busy period of moving collections/installing exhibitions.

To answer Keiran's question relating to the 2010 accession number, it came as an anonymous donation via the executors of the donor's estate, with nothing in the way of supporting information, unfortunately.

Gallery Oldham,

With regard to Osmund's point about the material, we will look into that when we next take change our displays - it is on semi-permanent display in our gallery.

Many thanks for your interest in this piece.

Manto Psarelli,

Hello Rebecca,
Many thanks for looking into this. Most appreciated.
I was wondering whether you (or a colleague) could perhaps also have a look into the provenance & medium of another sculpture in the collection.
There is another active discussion around the bust of 'Head of a Woman'; please see link below for reference.

With many thanks in advance.

Manto Psarelli,

Given that there is no information on provenance from the collection -and with the ongoing pandemic situation which makes access to the gallery very problematic- I am wondering whether the collection or anyone else who has already contributed to this discussion has any further thoughts on material?

Osmund Bullock,

Yes, even if we get nowhere with the artist (who may or may not be Bradley herself - I now suspect not), it would be nice to know if this portrait is cast in bronze or in resin with bronze powder (as queried above at 15/03/2019 07:03). But the boat has been missed there, I'm afraid, at least until lockdown eases.

Marion, the measurements given here are still rather odd (see your post of 14/03/2019 16:33), and are either unchanged or (if they have been) still confusing. The main Art UK ones make clear which are the head and which the plinth. Also, while checking the comparison image I posted 13/03/2019 06:46 I find that the Art Detective techno-gremlin has been active, and has again substituted a comparison image of mine from this quite different discussion: (see post there of 19/01/2020 05:23).

Osmund, sorry the dimensions weren't sorted out two years ago.

The comparison image issue is very odd. The Aaron Eccles comparison image was linked to your comment of 13/03/2019 06:46 in our database, so the connection from database to website was functioning fine. I have deleted that image from the database for that comment. Could you re-send the correct image for me to link, please, as we don't have it on file?

Osmund Bullock,

It is extremely odd, isn't it?! We had another example a month or two back (perhaps longer), but I forget where.

The first comparison collage of Helen Bradley images I posted wasn't very helpful, to be honest, and was entirely superseded by the much better group that came with the very next post...but here it is anyway. I suspect that the image-swap problem only occurs when the two attachments have exactly the same name, albeit uploaded to different discussions, so this time I've given it a more specific title than 'Comparison'. Perhaps we should always do that.

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Susan Glassford,

Have you thought about the sculptor Meryl Evans who was a member of the Lake Artists Society and lived in Keswick? She made two busts of Dame Judy Dench and her husband which are in the theatre in Keswick. The style and dates are similar.

Osmund Bullock,

Susan, I cannot find a single image of sculpture by Meryll (two L's) Evans online - not even the ones of Judi Dench and her late husband, the only busts by Evans of which I can see mention. Do you have any examples?

In truth there is really nothing distinctive about the workaday style of our bust - it's typical of clay-sculpted portraits by dozens of sculptors, professional and amateur, in the 60s & 70s. As far as I can see, Evans (who before and after her African years, lived and worked in Keswick) had no connection with Helen Bradley's stomping ground of Oldham / Manchester / Wilmslow. Given the distance between the two (well over 100 miles), there seems on the face of it no reason to associate the bust of Bradley with Evans, I'm afraid.

Kieran Owens,

Attached is a composite of Helen Bradley's signatures with that of hers as it appears on her 1926 marriage certificate (her maiden name was Nellie Layfield). I believe that there are sufficient similarities between the latter and the other two to suggest that the signature on the bust is by Bradley. I am also convinced by Osmund's photograph collage of the 13/03/2019 that this bust is a self-portrait signed by the artist.

Marcie Doran,

Earlier today, I heard back from the owner of a Bradley family tree on Ancestry. She knows the history of the bust but not the name of the sculptor – a student. I am just seeking her approval to quote her.

Marcie Doran,

I have received permission to post the following as a final statement from my contact: “… the best information to put out … is just that Helen was the subject of the sculpture and not the maker, that it was made in the mid to late 1970's, and many years later the original was recast in bronze as a gift and remained in private ownership.”

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