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More Than a Muse by Lawrence Hendra

When we hear the name Eileen Mayo many of us think of Dod Procter’s serene portrait painted c.1926-30 and on long-term loan to Penlee. Shown in a relaxed pose and glancing away from the viewer, Mayo is painted with great sensitivity, indicative of a close bond between the artist and sitter.

As well as modelling for Procter, Mayo, who herself had studied at the Slade School of Fine Art andthe Central School of Arts and Crafts, also sat for Laura Knight, Duncan Grant,Vanessa Bell, and Edith Lawrence and spent summers in Cornwall from 1926 to 1930. However, Mayo was more than just a muse to famous artists and used the opportunity of modelling to further her own ambitions as an artist: ‘All the time I have been posing for painters I have been studying their methods and listening to their talk…I have learned more than I ever learned in an art school’.

Mayo went on to forge a long and successful career as a multi-talented artist working in England in the 1930s and 1940s before moving to Australia and then New Zealand. Inspired by the natural world, she was a painter, tapestry designer, engraver, and illustrator and was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire just prior to her death in 1994.

Her extraordinary career was recently the subject of a major exhibition at Towner Eastbourne (Eileen Mayo: A Natural History, 12 February – July 2022) in which the Penlee portrait played a central role in the narrative of her early life.A book on her life and work by Sara Cooper was published by Eiderdown Books in February 2021.