Winifred Maria Louise Austen (1876 – 1964) – was an English illustrator, painter, etcher and aquatint engraver. She was widely admired and collected; even the naturalist Sir Peter Scott – himself so able a wildlife artist – said Austen was, ‘certainly the best bird-etcher of this (last) century’.
She was born in Ramsgate and, in 1892, the family moved to Hornsey, near London. Austen began her training as an artist, attending the Central School of Arts and Crafts under the tutelage of Cuthbert Swan, who had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, where the emphasis was on scrutinising an image, memorising, recalling and drawing from memory, until the student acquired considerable fluency
great accuracy, a mastery of dramatic composition, vigour and freedom in the manipulation of the paint.
She learned still more – especially about the business of being a young, female artist – from Louise Jopling, with whom she also studied. Jopling was a friend of fashionable artists and poets, including James McNeill Whistler (who executed a wonderful portrait of her in 1877) and Oscar Wilde. Jopling herself was a successful portrait painter and regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy; but she was also conscious of the constraints put on her career simply because she was a woman. She was keen to encourage young artists, and especially women; hence, in 1887, she set up her own school. She insisted on hard work and diligence. She encouraged the women to study from the life – which was hardly allowed anywhere else in England at this time.
Austen was probably also inspired by meeting the twins, Charles Maurice and Edward Julius Detmold, who reputedly introduced Austen to the rich colour, incisive line and striking compositions of Japanese prints including the woodblock prints, which had flooded into Britain from the 1860s.
With such support – and with regular trips to the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park – Winifred Austen developed into a skilful and expressive artist. She painted in oils and watercolour but was also, from the outset, interested in graphic media, working especially with etchings and dry-points.
From about 1906, Austen began to work on her own plates. Over her long life, she produced about 200. In 1902, she was elected to the Society of Women Artists, in 1907 to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, and to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1933. She was also a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society from 1903.
Driven by her own inclination and, perhaps, the demands of the market, she continued to explore the effects she could achieve with aquatint and colour printing and, from 1922, she increasingly worked with dry-point, rather than etching.
Austen increasingly focused on birds. Her images are always tremendously evocative, capturing the character of the bird – in flight, creeping through the undergrowth, singing, courting. At the same time, the compositions are often bold, dramatically asymmetrical, commanding the foreground, contrasting the strong, spiky black lines of the etched plate with the muffled greys of the dry-point. She kept a printing press in the kitchen and continued to work into old age. She had, without doubt, established herself as one of the foremost graphic artists of her generation.