Everyone who met Ophelia Gordon Bell was struck by her. Even if they did not know of her artistic skill, they were witnesses to her great vitality and kindness. And on the day, in 1940, that she and her aura entered William’s studio for the first time, with hair streaming wet from the rain, all William had to do was what any living, breathing bachelor would have done and notice it.
Born in London in 1915, the daughter of society animal painter Winifred Joan Ophelia Gordon Bell, she knew that she wanted to be a sculptor by the time she was 15. So she went to Regent Street Polytechnic Sculpture School in London. There she was taught by the eminent names of the day to work with stone, wood, metal, clay and plaster.
Her talent was soon recognized. By the time she was 23 she was already receiving numerous portrait commissions and had exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and the Royal Scottish Academy. Then, when she was 25, while on a trip to see her aunt in the Lakes, that meeting with Heaton.
Marriage and four children followed. In one of those deals that looks to modern eyes like no sort of deal at all, the artist brought up the children, looked after her mother-in-law, ran the home under conditions of scarcity, and sold the paintings and prints of her husband and father-in-law.
Heaton described Ophelia as ‘a very talented sculptor’. And once the children were old enough, the work could continue in earnest. In 1955 they exhibited together at the Fine Art Society in London’s Bond Street. She began accepting commissions again too.
Among them were two huge sculptures for the HQ of the Atomic Energy Authority in Lancashire. Together they were called Thought in Action and they are still there today. One depicted a man holding an atom; the other was a man controlling its power with a reactor. Each was made from a three-and-a-half-ton block of Portland Stone.
Ophelia was fascinated by the oyster shells and fossils in the stone, but said of the medium:
Stone speaks less of the artist than does bronze, of his feelings, his transient physical touch. It speaks more slowly, colder, quieter, more impersonal and out of time, less human and more elemental.
Despite this, one of her next sculptures, created in the early 1960s, was of St Bede, and it was made out of hard, white Roman stone. It was for a tower of the new Catholic Church in Carlisle, and it remains there. Wonderfully sensitive, not in the least cold or impersonal – to these eyes it is better even than the artist’s personal favourite: Sir Edmund Hillary, which she made in the mid 1950s.
Generally, though, the work that she is best remembered for is that which she created latterly and which showed just how firmly rooted in the Lakes she had become: shepherds, farmers, hound trailers. Here were echoes of that other offcomer, her father-in-law, Alfred. Differently realised, of course, and in three dimensions, but the same people nevertheless.
In case we were in any doubt about the importance of art to those who have been forced to make it fit in, this from Ophelia. ‘Art must be the spurs, the seeking,’ she once said. ‘the signposts, the signs.’