Rachel Cassels Brown
(1875 - 1953)
Scottish artist, children's illustrator, lithographer and etcher; born 29th December 1875 at Castle Park, Huntly in Aberdeenshire, Scotland; died 30th November 1953 at Holloway House, Heybridge, near Maldon in Essex.
Rachel Cassels Brown, née Wilson, was born on 29th December 1875, the ninth in a family of 16 children produced almost continuously over a period of just 21 years by her remarkable mother, Anna. Her father was Factor to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon's considerable estates around Huntly in Aberdeenshire, and her uncle was the (until recently) somewhat forgotten late Pre-Raphaelite adherent painter, George Wilson (1848-1890). Rachel evidently inherited the gene that blessed her uncle, as she undertook formal musical and art training, first in London for two years and then - at the inspiringly early age of 18 - in
Paris for a further four years. In Paris, she initially attended the Académie Delacluse and then later became Assistante in the private studio of the painter and illustrator Émile Barau-Bacou (1851-1930).
Rachel Cassels Brown, ca 1895, photographed possibly around the time that she commenced her art training at the Académie Delacluse in Paris
It was under Barau that she was encouraged to pursue her evident natural talent as an illustrator, when her master instructed her to sit at his studio window and sketch very quickly the people passing by in the street. But equally excitingly, she had arrived in Paris at the height of the European Belle Époque to find herself among the later and Post Impressionists. Once she had finally returned home, and much influenced by the Art Nouveau movement, Rachel found a natural affinity with the Glasgow School and, while living in Rock Ferry near Liverpool, she became acquainted with the two Macdonald sisters - in particular, with Frances MacNair, who invited her to work in her studio.
On 25th July, 1901, Rachel married Andrew Cassels Brown, as they had agreed, just as soon as he had qualified fully as a doctor, and they settled into married life in Rock Ferry, near Birkenhead in the Wirral, where he had taken a junior partnership in his first general medical practice. Andrew was also a recreational author, and so contributed the verse that accompanied Rachel's illustrations for her children's books. They undertook this joint enterprise under the pen acronym of 'RAB' (Rachel and Andrew Brown) - an acronym that Rachel was to adopt for other illustrative work that she undertook, such as her later series of lithographed and hand coloured nursery rhymes.
During her short professional career, Rachel designed and illustrated three original children's books (only one of which - The Story of the StubbyDub - was published quite successfully) and two series of lithographed and hand-coloured nursery rhyme illustrations. She also worked in many of the media available to the practical 'commercial' application of the Art Nouveau movement, including pottery, jewellery design, and bookplate and Christmas card production, but her ultimate attainment was to become a highly accomplished etcher. For this, she studied under her friend, the acclaimed etcher and collector, Dr Samuel Nazeby Harrington, and produced some excellent impressions of both landscape and allegorical subjects. In a short period, she managed to hone her skills and techniques in the medium, employing stopping-out to create great subtlety in effects of light and shade and, particularly, delicacy and depth of distance to her backgrounds through careful control of the etching process.
Impossible to categorise or 'slot' into any particular mould or following, Rachel's work varies quite widely in relation to the subject matter being pursued. Occasionally at times, one may see in her nursery rhyme and book illustrations, elements of Charles Ricketts or Aubrey Beardsley, and perhaps more so, the Heath Robinson brothers and Jessie King, as well as the Glasgow school. But her designs always remain entirely original in concept and quite individual in style.
Throughout her working life, Rachel endured an unfortunate, but completely understandable, uphill battle in order to maintain the momentum of all that she wished to achieve. Initially, her career was partially curtailed by her familial and social duties surrounding her husband's busy General Practice life, as well as bringing up an active young family during his absences with the Royal Army Medical Corps throughout the First World War. Although she had carried all three of her proposed children's book designs through to a near completed stage before war broke out, the ultimate length of the conflict and the impact this had on her husband's and her lives, meant that the first book, The Story of the StubbyDub, was eventually not published until Christmas 1917.
Although her publishers, Westall & Co, were pressing her for the final manuscripts and illustrations for the other two books during the following year, the company appears to have fallen by the wayside before publication could take place. Rachel tried to find an alternative publisher, but post-war life in general and the early beginnings of the Great Depression put all such projects into jeopardy, Then, only shortly afterwards, and at a still relatively young age, she found that her ability to accomplish her often extraordinarily detailed work became crippled by her rapidly failing eyesight.
Although her first and only published book did sell very successfully, and while she seems also to have managed to sell her hand-coloured nursery rhyme drawings and many impressions of her etchings, only a small portfolio of her work remains within her descendant family. Self-evidently, her Christmas card and bookplate designs were purely utilitarian and few will have survived. Nevertheless, there is sufficient material to give a good flavour to the extent and breadth of her work, and so now the life and work of Rachel Cassels Brown is the subject of a new short biography entitled Of Nymphs and Pans and ... a StubbyDub ? - The Story of 'RAB'. This book sets out, somewhat belatedly, to place into the public domain examples and descriptions of the now neglected œuvre of this very proficient and gifted artist, whose identification has sometimes not been helped by the adoption of her acronym 'RAB'. As the book is also the first and only work on the subject to date, it may also enable one or two fortunate owners of her work to place this in closer context within the time in which she worked and the circle of artists with whom she was acquainted at that time. An online gallery of some examples of her work can be found on the following page, while a selection of sample pages from the book may be downloaded in pdf form here.