Antony Williams: The portraits of Margaret Robinson

by Dr Claudia Milburn


July 2022

The series of portraits that Antony Williams produced of his studio landlady, artist Margaret Robinson, over the last sixteen years of her life, are an extraordinary documentation of her final decades offering a narrative of the passage and passing of time.

Williams met Margaret when he joined the art classes in portraiture and life drawing at Chertsey Studios. Margaret greatly admired Antony’s work which led to an invitation for him to use a studio at her house. This arrangement was of mutual benefit creating a reciprocally supportive relationship for Williams and Margaret; she enjoyed the company of an artist she respected, and Williams gained both a studio and a willing model for his portraiture. Antony painted her over many sittings in a portrait series which began in 2000 and continued until her death in 2016, aged 96. Each work painted in the exacting medium of egg tempera and directly from the model, with sittings taking place once or sometimes several times per week for long sessions and up to six months in duration, these intimate portraits provide a touching visual record of her gradual ageing. Building pigment layer upon layer in his skilful handling of the tempera process with each brushmark carefully considered and deliberate, Williams’ conveys the history of Margaret’s accrued years with a sense of deep thought and reflection in her character emanating from the surface of the paint. Typical of his distinctive style, Williams forensically examines her head as a subject using acute observation and with meticulous scrutiny of detail. By depicting the minutia of skin tone, facial features and every subtle mark that tells life’s story, he conveys the humanity of his subject. Focusing intensely on the head of Margaret in each portrait with little beyond, these painting evoke her living, thinking presence. As an accomplished artist herself, Margaret constantly engaged with Williams’ practice and was inspired by the virtuoso of his approach. In a self-portrait she experimented with the medium of tempera and planned to paint him at some stage too.

Margaret Robinson, née Carter, was born in 1920 in Louth, Lincolnshire. Her own career in the art world was rich in interesting areas of exploration. She began her art education early, attending the Derby Art School aged 12. This was furthered at Leeds Art College and subsequently a scholarship to the Slade School of Art (relocated to the Ashmolean Museum during the Second World War). She taught art in schools including Moulton Grammar School in Lancashire and West Leeds High School though her teaching options were restricted as women, at the time, were not permitted to teach Fine Art in art schools. Margaret’s creative career extended from her own practice and teaching to theatre, film and television where she explored her fascination with puppets and mask-making. In 1950 she became a mask maker for the Northern Children’s Theatre & School and ran a puppet theatre which travelled throughout Yorkshire, giving shows. In 1957, she moved to London and initially worked with Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth, the husband-and-wife team of puppeteers behind Muffin the Mule.

In the late 1950s, while Margaret was working as a mask-maker for the theatrical costumiers Theatre Zoo, she met her future husband, Bernard Robinson, who was the Production Designer for Hammer Films based at Bray Studios. Initiating a career for herself with Hammer Films, Margaret produced masks and models for numerous films including the hound in the 1959 production of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy (1959) and The Brides of Dracula (1960). She and Bernard married in 1960 and moved to Chertsey while continuing to work for Hammer Films. After Bernard’s death in 1970 Margaret returned to teaching, this time within art colleges where regulations now allowed women to teach Fine Art at further education level. Aged 60 she added yet another branch to her art career, embarking on a new post as an art therapist in a psychiatric ward, a role which she held for six years whilst also continuing to run art classes at her home studio and furthering her commitment to her own painting practice.

Margaret died on 3 October 2016, in her Chertsey home at the age of 96. A retrospective of her work was held at Chertsey Museum the following year. Antony Williams final portrait of her was painted in the last year of her life and holds her in the stillness of time.

There is a quiet meditative energy and a serenity to Williams’ portraits of Margaret. In honestly revealing the reality of that which he sees, the portraits transcend likeness and connect to the essence and commanding spirit of his subject. The tenderness of Williams’ portrayal of Margaret coupled with his characteristic observational intensity is also a reflection of his own nature and temperament conveying a deep sense of connection between one human and another.