There isn’t much to learn about Nellie Elizabeth Isaac online and some of it’s inaccurate. But as always with the string of magic beads that is the internet – there is always something to discover.
Isaac was born in 1886 and grew up in respectable middle class Hampstead (not West Ham). Her father Percy Lewis Isaac was a naval architect and marine engineer with ship telegraph cable laying patents to his name. He was the son of the Liverpool ship portraitist and lithographer John Raphael Isaac. Her mother – Florence Maud Alexander – came from Clapham.
Nellie had a younger sister Rose Amelia and brother John Robert and in 1901 the family lived at 20 Dennington Park Road in what is now London NW6 with a cook and a housemaid. By the 1911 Census she and her sister were both still living at home and listed as artists. So much for the basic bio.
The Imperial War Museum has six of Isaac’s paintings including this delightful painting of workers watching a theatrical performance:
It shows women munitions workers at: Gordon, Watney & Co., Aeronautical Engineers, Weybridge – a large engineering works near Addleston that specialized in the complete strip-down and overhaul of cars and lorries. Their wartime production included aeronautics and munitions and the factory also worked with the Canadian army in refurbishing motor transport vehicles – cars, ambulances and lorries..
Watney – a member of the Watney brewing family – was a car racer who frequently entered events at the nearby Brooklands Race Track. Before the war he was also dealer and rebuilder who specialized in remodeling high-quality motor cars. Before or during World War I Watney turned the skills of his shop towards aero engines. An advertisement from 1917 lists the firm as Aeronautical and General Engineers who were Contractors to His Majesty’s War Office.
One of their products was the Type Z7 Clerget-Blin rotary aero engine designed by Pierre Clerget in France in 1911. Clergets were one of the more common engines in use during WW I and were fitted to a number of aircraft including the Avro, Beardmore and the Sopwith Pup.
Contemporary newspaper accounts report that Gordon Watney built the theater in the works canteen and that he often directed and performed in plays.
In 1904 – she had two watercolors “A Florentine” and “La Blonde” at the Royal Academy. In 1906 she won a second prize for “Providence and the Guitar”.
The Imperial War Museum came into existence in 1917 and in April of that year Agnes Conway – the daughter of the honorary director Sir Martin Conway – was invited to form a Women’s Work Sub-Committee.
Universal conscription – and the bottomless manpower needs of the war machine – had led to women’s employment in all kinds of laboring and clerical work hitherto the domain of men. They hauled coal, collected bus fares, mended roads, delivered the post and worked the land. And they worked in factories. Agnes Conway’s committee set out to capture and document this social change.
Nellie Isaac contacted Conway to contribute to the effort. She and Rose Isaac gave up their art and design business and for two years they worked at Gordon, Watney and Co in Weybridge – ” to do something that we felt would be of national importance”. The committee offered her a guinea per work. Isaac was eventually able to negotiate double that amount which was still – of course – a relative pittance.
When the armistice came Isaac was there to paint the scene of the announcement 11.11.1918 and the factory celebrations that followed:
At the start of the war Gordon Watney was appointed by the War Office to form a Mechanical Transport Supply Column within the Army Service Corps (MTASC), Home Counties Division afterwards attached to the 29th Division. He turned part of his factory into a drill hall and urged men – including his employees – to enlist. He enrolled over 250 men in “Watney’s Lot” aka “Watney Boys” who served as mechanics and drivers. On 7 November 1914, the ‘Watney Boys’ marched to St James’s church, Weybridge, for a farewell sermon before posting to Egypt and Salonika and to the Dardanelles.
After the war Gordon Watney returned to his race car business and Nellie and Rose Isaac went back to their illustration and design practice in London. In 1934 the London post office directory list the business of the Misses NE and RA Isaac, as decorative artists at 26 Wells Street, Fitzrovia – behind Oxford Street in the west end . On one side at 25 they had a turf accountant and an engraver at number 27.
Newspaper accounts in the 1930’s credit her with organizing art exhibitions and with inventing an eggshell veneer.
The sisters lived for a while at Rugby Mansions in Marylebone and then Bramham Gardens, Earls Court where they lived (with their mother until her death in 1938) for the rest of their lives. Percy Lewis had died in 1917. Brother Robert had emigrated to Canada while a teenager. .
Ship manifests show that they travelled fist class to Mombasa in 1949 and to Madeira in 1953.
Nelly Isaac died in1955. Her sister Rose in 1959
But before I leave Nellie Isaac I want to return the featured painting.
The local Surrey newspaper reported frequently on events at the factory and they included works sports days and outings. Presumably this painting is of such an occasion.
It’s easy to see this painting as a sly commentary on the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 abolished practically all property qualifications for men and enfranchised women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. This was in recognition of the contribution made by women’s war work. (Full electoral equality was finally enacted ten years later in 1928.) This tug-of-war between the sexes at the factory is a metaphor for that social change and shift in opportunity and power. WW1 was a total war – everyone was enjoined to “do their bit”. Women’s work was essential and recognition of that helped tilt the playing and working field just a little toward the level.
Photographs from WW1 show that tugs-of war were a familiar wartime pastime. Here are two where both teams are women.
Sources: Beyond the Battlefield: Women Artists of the Two World Wars 2014, Catherine Speck
Imperial War Museum
UK Census 1901, 1911
The British Newspaper Archive