Hannah Frank by Gordon Casely


 by Gordon Casely – reproduced with permission (Appeared in the Herald Dec 27 2008)

Artist, sculptress and a last survivor of Glasgow’s Art Nouveau blossoming

Artist and sculptor; Born August 23, 1908; Died December 18, 2008.

HANNAH Frank, who has died aged 100, was the last living link with the art nouveau period, when Glasgow style became a global hallmark.

In an artistic career that endured for an astonishing 80 years, her distinctive style overcame the vagaries of fashion, and her work, like that of art nouveau classicists Margaret MacDonald, Aubrey Beardsley and Jessie M King, proves constantly both modern and dateless.

The daughter of Jewish Russian emigres fleeing persecution, Frank was born in Glasgow and grew up in the expanding Jewish community in Gorbals. Her mother, Miriam Lipetz, married Charles Frank, a scientific instrument maker whose shop in Saltmarket later became a byword for excellence in cameras and telescopes.

From her father, Hannah inherited dexterity and the art of sustained concentration. A tiny bird-like person with piercing observation, Frank grew up in a loving home as someone who loved people, and made friends easily.

Destined in her own mind to be an artist, and encouraged in her talents by Miriam and Charles – the latter was a friend of John Quinton Pringle, a Glasgow colleague of the colourists Peploe, Hunter and Cadell – she went on to graduate from Glasgow University in English and Latin, and, after teacher training at Jordanhill, taught for a time at Campbellfield School in the city’s east end.

During this period, she attended evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, studying lithography and drawing, widening her interests to include wood engraving, for which she received the James McBey Prize for 1930. Her drawings were a regular feature of annual exhibitions of the Royal Glasgow Institute.

At Glasgow School of Art, she discovered a talent for sculpture, taking up clay modelling under Paul Zunterstein. But it was Benno Schotz who really propelled her. Under his genial direction, she concentrated solely on sculpture, exhibiting at the RGI and the Royal Scottish Academy, with shows at Stirling University, the Portico in Manchester, the Edinburgh Fringe and the Royal Academy in London

Her black and white illustrations with their elongated structures, medieval romanticism and melancholy air bear the instantly recognisable stamp of Frank. Four years ago, Sandy Moffatt, head of painting and printmaking at Glasgow School of Art, described her work as bearing “a kind of romantic idealism”, adding: “I can understand why in the sixties and why today her work is speaking to a new audience. There’s a youthfulness about it”.

Frank had begun her trademark monochrome line drawings while still at Strathbungo School, and her skills were such that in the five years from 1927, GUM, the Glasgow University Magazine, under the editorship of Gilbert Highet (later professor of Latin at Columbia University), rarely appeared without a drawing from Al Aaraaf, her pen-name based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Her emerging talent was reported by the Jewish Echo in 1929: “The current issue of GUM contains some splendid art work by Miss Hannah Frank, a young Jewish student whose work in this sphere is attracting much favourable comment.”Her drawings possess an austerity and stylisation, elongated figures in long flowing dresses expressing pensive melancholy, or filled with sunshine and capturing youthful exuberance. Painter Alma Wolfson, recent president of the Glasgow Society of Women Artists, confirms that Frank’s oeuvre bears “very definite Glasgow influences”.

Wolfson cites both Margaret MacDonald, wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Jessie King as influences, with Frank producing lettering in the intricately detailed fashion beloved of those two artists, and goes on: “As a young artist in her twenties, she created a sort of poetic parallel universe, fantasy but beautifully realised. Like Jessie King, I think people love (her drawings) as much now as when they were done”.

Her last drawings are dated 1952, by which time her earliest sculptures appear – small-scale figure studies in plaster, terracotta and bronze, with the influences of Benno Schotz, Paul Zunterstein and Henry Moore evident, yet continuing a style that remained markedly her own into her largest torso- sized pieces.

The standard of her work drew covetous eyes from Sydney Goodsir Smith, who, when reviewing the 1965 Royal Scottish Academy exhibition, wrote of her work: “Hannah Frank’s voluptuous Reclining Woman is classical in her ease of pose and perfect calm, a lovely wee thing.” He went on: “One of the most covetable pieces is a tiny green bronze, Woman Resting.”

Frank continued to sculpt into her early 90s. In 2002, aged 94, she moved with her husband Lionel Levy to a care home in Newton Mearns, where her drawings and sculpture became much admired. Her 100th birthday was celebrated with the opening of an exhibition of her work at Glasgow University, and a reception a month later in the Scottish Parliament.

Throughout her long life, Frank maintained diaries, voluminous material that, along with the rest of her papers, has been archived by her niece Fiona Frank as part of a permanent memorial to Hannah and her work. The recognition now given to Hannah Frank emerges almost entirely to the efforts of Fiona, tirelessly promoting her aunt’s creations through a succession of galleries and broadcasts. Like a veteran trouper, she took all this attention in her stride.

The Levys were active members of the Glasgow committee of the Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and she contributed sculptures and drawings for its fundraising appeals. She also leant on Lionel, a maths and science teacher, for technical expertise in defining spatial aspects of her sculpture.

Lionel predeceased her five years ago after 65 years of marriage. They had no children, but are survived by a loving and wide family of cousins, in-laws, nieces, nephews and their children.

Among the mourners at Hannah’s burial in Cathcart Jewish Cemetery was her constituency MP Jim Murphy, her visitor when she turned 100 in August, and who shares the same birthday.

The day before she died – unfortunately, too late for her to know – a letter had been sent from Glasgow University offering her the award of an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of her “international distinction”.

Hannah in 1984 with "Bird Woman" (1969)
Hannah in 1984 with “Bird Woman” (1969)