Painted in 1939, on the eve of War, Oskar Kokoschka’s Posy Croft is a major new addition to the National Gallery of Scotland’s collection. Many of our visitors will recognise the painting, which has been on loan to us for more than thirty years. But it now joins the collection permanently, having been accepted in Lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government, following Posy Croft’s death in 2015. A remarkable ‘Expressionist’ portrait, it has a fascinating history, which Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, investigates here.
Born in 1886, Oskar Kokoschka grew up in Vienna. In 1934 he moved to Prague, where he took Czech citizenship. After the Munich Agreement of September 1938, which effectively delivered Czechoslovakia into the hands of the Nazis, Kokoschka flew to London with his future wife, Olda Palkovská. He arrived at Croydon Airport on 18th October with just £5, a spare suit, an unfinished painting and all his painting gear. With no other money, he pawned the painting and equipment for £4. 4s. He was fifty-two years old, and while famous on the continent, was little known in Britain.
Soon after arriving in London, Kokoschka met Manfred Uhlman, a lawyer and artist. Uhlman had recently married Diana Croft, the eldest daughter of the Conservative MP Henry Page Croft. Diana Croft and Uhlman could scarcely have been more different: she was from a die-hard Conservative background; he was German-Jewish and fiercely left-wing. Together, they created the Artists’ Refugee Committee and the Free German League of Culture, which helped Jewish artists escape from Germany and Austria. Their house in Hampstead became a meeting place for émigré and exiled artists: this is what brought Kokoschka into their orbit.
On one visit, Kokoschka met Diana’s brother, Michael Croft, who was then just twenty-two years old. Michael gave Kokoschka his first commission in Britain: to paint portraits of himself and his sister Rosemary, who was known to everyone as Posy. Michael sat for his portrait late in 1938, and said that he and Kokoschka spoke about ‘every conceivable subject’. His portrait was finished by February 1939 and Kokoschka began the portrait of Posy in the spring of 1939. Posy, the fourth and last child in the Croft family, was born in April 1918, and would have been twenty years old when the portrait was begun, and twenty-one when it was finished. The two paintings were commissioned for the sum of £300 for the pair – a substantial sum at the time.
Posy sat for Kokoschka at least half a dozen times. She recalled: ‘The experience of meeting and being painted by OK [Oskar Kokoschka] was unforgettable. It was important for him to get to know the beliefs and feelings, likes and dislikes of the person he was painting. He liked me to read to him while he worked, something of my own choosing. During the sittings I read William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, which he liked as much as he disliked Blake’s paintings. I remember I also read David Garnett’s ‘Lady into Fox’ which caused him to paint a fox into the landscape background of the portrait. I was very much a London girl at the time but OK always insisted that I ought to live in the country, hence the fields and village church in the picture. Years later I settled happily to bring up my family and live for the rest of my life in just such a landscape.’ Posy said that the flowers pinned to her breast were Kokoschka’s invention (presumably an allusion to her nickname), as was the décolleté blue dress. Her parents were deeply conservative and she knew that they would not approve of the painting, so she kept it hidden from them, hanging it in her bedroom.
Posy qualified as a nurse during the war. In 1948 she married Edmund Poole, who became an expert on the history of printing. They lived in Hampstead, before moving to Hertfordshire in 1951. They had three sons. She retrained as a psychiatric social worker, specialising in the mentally disturbed. Following her husband’s death in 1984 she took to writing and painting. Her memoirs were published privately in 2004. She died on 25 June 2015, aged 97, requesting, in her Will, that her portrait be offered to the National Galleries of Scotland, through the Government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme.