Dorothy Una Ratcliffe

Familiar Patterns

Cecile Walton was an artist who worked in several flurries of activity as a book illustrator. Like many Scottish women artists at the beginning of the twentieth century, she turned her hand to book illustration. Overall, she produced a range of images in various media, from press material to theatre design, in writing and in sound (for the BBC in Scotland), as well as in paintings. The National Library of Scotland holds the manuscript of her unpublished memoir, More Lives Than One, dated 1 May 1950, which illuminates aspects of her connection with books and writers. Currently, it cannot be viewed without prior permission of the depositor, John Kemplay, the author of the most comprehensive account of her life to date, Two Companions: The Story of Two Scottish Artists, Eric Robertson and Cecile Walton (1991).

Educated privately by a series of governesses at home, Cecile Walton was privileged to have a family who believed in education and books. Her mother, Helen Henderson, wanted Cecile to develop her skills and not to abandon her career as an artist, as she herself had done after her first marriage. Widowed, Helen subsequently married the artist E.A. Walton, one of the ‘Glasgow Boys’.

In More Lives Than One, Cecile is less concerned with the historical sequence of her life than with her development as an artist. She notes that her father first gave her a pencil to encourage her to draw and that drawing became a ‘dominating habit’ of her childhood. She recalls ‘working steadily at my drawing whenever I got a moment’s peace in the nursery or when, after tea, I paid my regular visit to the studio’. She was ‘vividly impressed by all manner of pictures and illustrations’ in books such as ‘a mysterious book called Ver Sacrum and … a procession of Yellow Books, in which one day I found my portrait … painted by my father’.

Associating books with her earliest awareness of art and literature, she remembers the influence on her imagination of some of George MacDonald’s fantasy writing, including The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie and At the Back of the North Wind, as well as other children’s books such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, Little Women and Mary’s Meadow. She recalls the impression made on her by Ford’s illustrations in The Blue Poetry Book and by ‘the drawings of Tenniel that I found in Alice in Wonderland, or … du Maurier’s or Kean’s in Punch.

Her ‘indefatigable search for picture-books’ sometimes took her into adult territory:

I went over to my grandfather’s large, glass-fronted bookcase and deliberately pulled open the door. A heavy book fell out and, opening at my feet, divulged a large rainbow which unfolded concertina-wise – a large bright rainbow printed on black …

‘What is this?’ I asked.

‘A spectrograph,’ replied my grandfather ‘… it is to show whether or not poor men are suffering from white-lead poisoning.’

I returned time and again to the Rainbow Book, opening out the Graph and folding it up again many times with the picture of the poor man mixing white lead in the factory …

Cecile connects this experience of the social function of text and image with her belief that the artist in society can both interpret and transform suffering.

She learned about graphic design from pictures by Steinlen, Aubrey Beardsley and the Beggarstaff Brothers:

I saw what was meant by ‘decoration’ in the placing of a design within a given page without atmospheric effects. I saw how much could be done in black and white alone, and how certain colours carried well at a distance …


A very definite turn was given to my work by a visit from a most charming and remarkable personality, Jessie King, whose black and white work had attracted considerable attention. Although her style influenced me only for a short time, she introduced me to the use of a pen and black ink. This was both a discipline, in that it demanded an irretrievable ‘line’, and a contribution to a personal inclination of my own, an antipathy to the sketchy line employed by the impressionist …

Cecile Walton made an early debut in print, designing a programme for a pageant held at Craigmillar in June 1906 at the age of fifteen. From her bold linear illustrations of Mary Queen of Scots in this programme, it seems likely that she had met King before this. Impressed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt, she developed a style which was very different from the pre-Raphaelites, much less elaborate and not so concerned with pure aesthetics or beauty for its own sake. She ‘liked to see everything clearly’ and illustrated books in a predominantly narrative, graphic style; her images faithfully followed storylines, although they were in themselves imaginative creations, often drawn spontaneously.

In 1908-09, Cecile attended Edinburgh College of Art for only the second term of the annual session. During this brief period, however, she met many students who were to become members of the ‘Edinburgh Group’ of artists. At the age of seventeen, she went to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian, but she did not like their teaching methods. By contrast, in the galleries of Paris, the forms and colours of works by Gaugin, Matisse and Cézanne struck her as a ‘liberation from academic treatment and representational confinement’.

She also spent a year in Florence, chaperoned by an aunt. There she met Professor Agnoletti, an art connoisseur and lecturer in Italian at Glasgow University. He asked her to illustrate a book for him. Outraged at his gall in asking her daughter to work for him when he was openly conducting an affair with a mistress, her mother vetoed the project. Her mother’s ‘elaborate discretion’ on her behalf was a cause of a frustration which surfaces elsewhere in her memoir: ‘Never in her life had my mother more than one pretty toe in Bohemia’.

None the less, on her return to Edinburgh, her parents’ Saturday soirées provided Cecile with a milieu where she met a stimulating circle of people involved in the arts. John Duncan, her former tutor at Edinburgh College of Art, introduced her to other artists including Eric Robertson, a notoriously priapic painter of nudes. Cecile’s parents did their best, to no avail, to discourage his evident interest in their teenage daughter.

In her memoir, Cecile describes her mentor John Duncan, ‘one of a group intensely concerned with a Scottish Celtic Renaissance’ in music, dance and art. However, she did not identify with his preoccupation with the ‘realm of fairy and decorative convention’. She was drawn to a simpler, narrative style.

She was very much a member of the ‘Edinburgh Group’ of artists, by the time of their first major exhibition in 1912; two years later, she married Eric Robertson. Their sons Gavril and Edward were born in 1915 and 1919 respectively.

In 1916 Cecile was commissioned to illustrate a book of Polish fairy tales translated by her aunt, Maude Ashurst Biggs. Her images for the book were shown at an Edinburgh Group exhibition in the New Gallery in 1920 and were reviewed in the Scots Pictorial:

Miss Cecile Walton has designed a charming series of illustrations for a book of Polish Fairy Tales … The original watercolours, some twenty of them, exquisite in delicacy of colour and design and in wealth of poetic fancy, lying together, for a show in themselves, [are] worth going far to see.

The early 1920s were busy and successful years for Cecile and her husband, but their marriage did not survive the divergent desires of two energetic and gregarious individuals. They parted in 1923.

As well as producing numerous paintings, Cecile continued to work as a book illustrator and produced a logo for the Broadsheets Series, I, for the Porpoise Press in 1922. In 1926 she illustrated Child Verses and Poems by Austin Priestman and in the same year helped to produce Atlanta’s Garland, a publication marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Edinburgh University Women’s Union. It included her essay ‘Atlanta in Caledonia’, a short account of female artists working in Scotland since the sixteenth-century calligrapher Esther Inglis.

In 1929 she illustrated a collection of poems by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe: Nightlights was popular and was reprinted in 1931.

In 1936 Cecile married again. Her second husband was a retired naval commander, Gordon Gildard, with whom she had worked at the bbc in Edinburgh. Their marriage lasted nine years and in 1945 she divorced for the second time.

In 1949 her Children’s Theatre Book for Young Dancers and Actors – with plates and drawings by her son Edward W. Robertson – was published by A. & C. Black. She had kept in touch with Dorothy Una Ratcliffe and provided the illustrations for Jingling Lane: A Dramatised Idyll in a Yorkshire Dale (Percy Lund Humphries, 1954).

In More Lives Than One Cecile Walton is critical of the general attitude to the arts in Scotland:

The Scots are indifferent to Art unless it takes some form of entertainment; and I mean familiar entertainment that needs no growing intelligence to bear upon its presentation … It is not a question so much of Guns or Butter, but Whisky or Fine Art, or Fur coat or Theatre. If a nation deprives itself of art, its lack of experience will disqualify it as a judge …

Her comments have a similar tenor to the nationalist jeremiads of Hugh MacDiarmid, but her concern was more with the position of women and their representation in the arts:

I married at a time when Joyce and D.H. Lawrence were expressing and acting the extreme measure of their ego-centricity, creative in the sense that they forced the issues of emotional experience. They totally ignored the problems of the world, economic and community interests. A girl who married onto their stage, so to speak, was expected to take her place in the drama. The ‘script’ was put into her hand, perhaps Joyce’s Exiles, perhaps Sons and Lovers. She was chosen. She was cast for a part. That she might have conceived a play of her own was not considered …

For her, ‘Maternal concern has a longer view than that of rumpling the hair of a lover; nor is it quite satisfied by the multiplication of the family, but demands a share in the exaltation of intelligence.’

On her life in Kirkcudbright, where she moved in 1948, she comments:

I live on a slender income, but at least have a roof over my head. The surrounding country is unparalleled in Scotland for its romantic, diverse beauty, which commences each year with the flight of swans and the white snowdrops piercing last Autumn’s fall of leaves beneath the oak scrub.

At the end of More Lives Than One, Cecile Walton seems to accept, relatively philosophically, that she had not succeeded as an artist:

With my female propensity for preservation, I have turned to many a ‘job’ outwith my own, rather than face working under the pressure of financial anxiety. Also, perhaps, considering that I was not necessarily destined (as my parents hoped) to be an artist … my main interest has been in living in and with more lives than one.

A difficulty with Cecile’s memoir is that it was written late in her life. In spite of the selective and indeed partial nature of her recollections, they capture something of the spirit of the woman. Her book illustrations signify a small but significant thread in the tapestry of twentieth century publishing.

Copyright Rosemary Addison 2005.