Paul Oppé Archive: Norah & Vivien Gribble

  • 18 August 2021

Reflections on the Paul Oppé Archive

Norah & Vivien Gribble: female artists and the domestic impact of the First World War

The Paul Oppé archive catalogue was recently completed and published online. Most of the collection focuses on Oppé’s work as an art historian and collector, but there is also a substantial amount of material relating to his personal life, and the life of his family. In this series of posts, Anthony Day, who catalogued the collection, shares some of the human stories he uncovered in the archive.

For my first post, I’m going to talk about a small file containing seventeen letters sent to Paul Oppé’s wife, Valentine, by her friend Norah Gribble and her daughter, Vivien, dating between 1917 and 1923.

Norah Gribble (née Royds) had been an artist when she was younger. Her murals can still be found on the walls of the family home at Henlow Grange (now a health spa). There is little other evidence of her art practice remaining but she was known within the art scene of late nineteenth-century Britain. A striking and highly regarded society portrait of Norah was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1888, titled Mrs George Gribble (Norah Royds). It depicts a confident young woman, staring directly out from the canvas.

Full length portrait of a woman in a long black dress.

Digital image courtesy of JSS Gallery, Mrs George Gribble, John Singer Sargent, 1888, oil on canvas, 89 × 46 ¾ in. Collection of Art Museum of Western Virginia.

Vivien, born the year the portrait was completed, followed in her mother’s footsteps and also studied at the Slade. She was taught by Noel Rooke at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and enjoyed some success making woodcuts, including providing all the illustrations for MacMillan’s 1926 edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Engraving from Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Digital image courtesy of Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images, A Pure Woman, Illustration for Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, with engravings by Vivien Gribble (Macmillan, 1926). Private Collection.

Vivien also designed the cover for Campbell Dodgson’s Contemporary English Woodcuts (1922), receiving a favourable mention in the book’s introduction, and contributing two further works for inclusion (the full volume – sadly, without the original cover – can be viewed here). Some of her illustrations were exhibited in 1935, three years after her death, by the Arts & Crafts Society.

Contained in the file of letters in the Oppé archive is a letter from Vivien to Valentine Oppé, dated circa 1917–23, which gives a good sense of her artistic character. In it, she offers advice about a stall that Valentine was planning for an upcoming toy fair. Vivien was unable to attend as she was busy painting a mural, but she describes the best places to buy toys at bargain prices. In the process, she paints an evocative picture of the West End of London in this period:

Most letters in the file are from Vivan’s mother, Norah. They are often undated and always written in haste with a scrawled hand and in something of a tempestuous tone (often directed towards her domestic staff). One letter particularly stands out. Written in 1918, it describes the disappearance and eventual loss of her son, Julian Royds Gribble, who was wounded while fighting in Beaumetz, France during the First World War, and was taken to a prisoner of war camp in Mainz, Germany where he spent the remainder of the war. Julian was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in battle and was expected home by his family, but contracted influenza and died in a German hospital on 25 November 1918, a week after the war ended. In the letter, Norah talks of her son with pride, recounting a telegram she received from the War Office saying that ‘he was satisfied to be doing what he did’ and ‘he had a splendid & utterly brave fight’. In a letter from Vivien, dated 6 October 1918, we are offered further insight into the aftermath of Julian’s death. She describes how some of his friends and fellow soldiers visited Norah to talk of their respect for her son. She also evokes something of the impact Julian’s death had on her mother. These letters document an important aspect of war – that of the emotional toll imposed upon those waiting anxiously at home. Throughout the correspondence sent to Valentine Oppé, many similar stories emerge.

If you are interested to learn more about the Paul Oppé Archive, the catalogue is available online. If you have any queries or would like to make an appointment to view the material in person, please contact us.