Selina Mills

Self-taught prodigy

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...Over her paint and her colours bent

Can paint what it is to be innocent.
Life, add thy wisdom, and at length bring us
Where springs the fountain of her genius.
Walter de la Mare

A few years ago, a couple found a small but elegant drawing of a young girl playing with her pets hanging at an art dealers. Intrigued by the intricate detail of the work, they brought the drawing home. The wife, Leonie Summers, an art-historian, established that their treasure was by an artist called Pamela Bianco, who died in New York in 1994.

For a while the story stopped there and searches to identify Bianco through English art books seemed fruitless. But fascinated by the young age of the artist (Pamela was only 12 when she had painted the picture) Summers decided to probe further and found that this gifted soul had been a child prodigy in the 1920s, who, aged six months, had been bathed by Picasso, and that by the age of 40 she had become an American modernist artist, beloved throughout her life by artists and patrons as wide ranging as Walter de la Mare, the Gershwin brothers, Mrs Whitney and Gabriel D’Annunzio.

So a decade after her death in New York, where she died a recluse, Pamela Bianco is now the subject of a brilliant and unusual exhibition at England & Co. After a mercurial, episodic and occasionally tragic career, Pamela and her art have been brought back to life in Britain, and given the chance to be assessed. It is a significant exhibition because, while Bianco may not be an artist of genius, her work has an edge that is genuine. It might be forced and too stylised for some, but none the less Bianco was talented and unusual — her work is held in the greatest art institutions in America: the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Chicago Institute of Arts, to name but a few.

Born in 1906 in Barnes, London, Pamela had a background that gave her a good training to be an artist. Her father, Francesco Bianco, was a poet and bibliographer who moved the family quickly on to Paris and Turin after her birth; her mother was Margery Williams, a children’s writer and illustrator famed for The Velveteen Rabbit. Educated at home, Pamela taught herself to paint.

‘This wonderful child,’ Gabriel D’Annunzio wrote after seeing a sketch she had done, aged eight, for the front of a catalogue of children’s paintings, ‘whose name is like the name of a new flower. The drawings of a phenomenal girl artist are like flowers, delicate, fragile, wind-blown, sprung from the enchanted soil of fairy land.’

Pamela’s father, who put pressure on his daughter to paint and who dominated much of her early career (and, ultimately, some say, caused her great nervous distress), was already promoting her in England by the time she was 12; her delicate and often eccentric drawings drew the press and crowds in droves to see her work. Her father wrote to her back in Italy that she was a great success, and that ‘soon you will be able to buy a house for all of us to go and live in’.

Unfortunately, Pamela never made enough money to achieve this dream for her family, let alone herself, but the Biancos did move back to England, and by 1920, when Pamela was 14, lived in Chelsea. The young girl with pigtails soon struck up a friendship with Walter de la Mare and collaborated on a book of his poems and her sketches called Flora. In the summers the family visited the poet Richard Hughes at Harlech in the Welsh hills, where they also got to know Robert Graves, William Nicholson and his family, including Ben Nicholson, whom she painted and sketched.

By 1921, with the ever-present pushy father, Pamela was offered her first show in New York, and was again f