Beatrice Offor, Tottenham’s forgotten female pioneer of the art world

A major exhibition of Tottenham artist Beatrice Offor shows how this pioneering female creative pushed boundaries and made space for overlooked women

By Lara Bryant

Haringey has historically boasted a rich creative culture, with its female artists alone including the likes of Althea McNish and Elisabetta del Ponte. With March being Women’s History Month, now is a great opportunity to discover the work of some of Haringey’s most talented women. Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham is commemorating the work of one particular female artist in Haringey with its exhibition Sisters, Sirens and Saints: Imagining the Women of Beatrice Offor.

Beatrice Offor was a painter and artist from Sydenham who resided in Tottenham, and her work primarily consisted of portraits of young women. The exhibition explores these portraits and creates a narrative by dividing her subjects into the three categories of sisters, saints and sirens. The exhibition draws on new research and the recent invigorated interest in her work.

Bruce Castle Museum has been working closely with relatives of Offor to create the exhibition and to uncover new research and art pieces. Deborah Hedgecock, the curator at the museum, is keen to expose the influences behind Offor’s work. Offor began her artistic career when she was accepted into the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. She left her Baptist upbringing for a life in London and is celebrated as one of the first female students who trained there. She went on to become a commercially successful artist – a feat uncommon for most artists at the time, let alone a female artist.

Apart from two surviving interviews, there is no known evidence to show who Offor used as models in her paintings. Despite this, her work is highly symbolic and explores themes of women’s passion, freedom, and frustration. Women in theatre were a source of inspiration for Offor and this is apparent in many of her paintings, including A Melody (1886–1906).

The exhibition begins with Offor’s collection of ‘sisters’, which includes A Melody along with a portrait of an older woman sitting at a spinning wheel. The exhibition then moves along to ‘sirens’ – portraits of bewitching and magical women who are often of an esoteric
nature. These portraits include witches in fairy tales, folklore, and classical mythology.

These paintings include Circe (1911), a beguiling temptress from Homer’s Odyssey, and Esme Dancing (undated), a portrait of a young woman dancing that expresses joy and freedom. Circe continues to be a popular painting with people all over the world.

Deborah, the curator of the exhibition, explains the attraction of Offor’s Sirens is that they often push boundaries. “She was quite experimental; maybe she’s playing around with messages,” Deborah says. “Some things may look quite conventional but actually she’s testing things. You have quite a few women who she paints who are nude.

“There’s Esme Dancing, which is quite a departure for her in that it’s someone that is freely dancing and is wearing a lot of loose clothes. You’ve got this Victorian into Edwardian society; things are kind of loosening up literally.”

Following her time at art school, Offor moved in a wide range of social and cultural circles. She was friends with Annie Horniman, artist Moina Berguson, and her brother, French philosopher Henry Berguson. Horniman and Berguson joined the newly formed ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’, a secret society devoted to the study and practice of the occult. Although Offor was not a member of this society, it was likely she was attracted to the romantic and bohemian lifestyles of its members and enjoyed meeting radical thinkers. She was curious about the supernatural, and her first husband, the artist William Farran Littler, had experimented in spiritualism.

Offor’s paintings often rebelled against the constraints of a male dominated society along with portraying the bohemian lifestyles of those she surrounded herself with. She commented on the lives and treatment of women through her paintings. “I do think by her choice of subjects she is commenting on the state of women,” says Deborah. “She hasn’t written anything down, but it is a nudge towards being critically aware.”

The final part of the exhibition depicts Offor’s ‘saints’ which are believed to have been completed towards the latter part of her life. Following the deaths of her and Littler’s infant sons in 1893 and 1896, Littler was admitted to an asylum where he remained until his death in 1899. In order to support herself, Offor took on more commercial work, including commissions for portraits of public figures.
She met her second husband, local alderman and businessman James Beavan, around this time and they married in 1907 and resided in Bruce Grove, Tottenham.

Offor, now adopting a quieter life, painted more religious subjects reflecting Christian and saintly symbolism. One within this category is St Agnes, which can be seen in the exhibition at Bruce Castle Museum. It was not until 2023 that the name of the saint depicted in the portrait was discovered on a postcard sent to the museum.

Many of Offor’s paintings from this time are seen around the local area of Tottenham. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane hangs in St Mary’s Church, and her last public piece, a depiction of a triptych altarpiece, hangs in St Matthew’s Church, Ponders End.

Throughout her life, Offor’s art remained financially viable through commercialisation. This was not common for artists at the time. “Artistically it doesn’t always look like she’s being radical, but really just being at art school and becoming commercial and popular in her day is actually very progressive,” says Deborah. “She was meeting a demand in the market. It’s the idea behind it, of commercialisation and being a female artist being paid to do this.”

Offor died in 1920 after falling from a window. Her death was ruled as suicide at an inquest. She is now buried at Brockwell and Ladywell Cemetery in Lewisham.

Although the story of Offor’s life is deeply troubled, her legacy lives on and Deborah is determined to keep it alive through the exhibition. “Her story is a tragic one but also influential and encouraging at the same time”, she says. “What she went through is kind of what a lot of artists may go through today.”

Bruce Castle Museum is committed to showcasing the local art of Tottenham and the surrounding area. For LGBTQ+ History Month, an oil painting by Haringey-based artist Sadie Lee called An Eligible Spinster was displayed within the Beatrice Offor exhibition. A further addition to the exhibition has been added for Women’s History Month with an installation of Al Johnson’s Land of Laundries. Al’s work
suggests that, despite a century of feminism, laundry and washing continues to be women’s work.

“I made a series of pillories and I cast my own arms and there’s seven sets of pillories for the seven days of the week,” Al tells HCP. “The arms are all doing washing activities. Then I collected lots of white linen, sheets, blankets, and then I embroidered the stories onto them, onto the textiles.”

Al explores political and social issues in her work and believes it is highly important for the work of local artists in Haringey to be presented at places such as the Bruce Castle Museum: “I think it’s a really good jumping off point for local artists. It’s very important that local art is shown. There’s a lot of local artists in the area. There’s the Crouch End Open Studio and I have been a part of that.”

It’s unusual to see a large body of work by one artist at a museum and Deborah is eager to continue bringing Offor’s work to life. The Offor exhibition, then, is a testament to the continuing power of this Tottenham artist.

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