Frederick William Elwell was born in 1870 in Beverley, a market town situated seven miles from Hull. His father James was a cabinet-maker, and it is to him that Fred owed his high standards of achievement and his love of craftsmanship. Fred began to study art at evening classes at the Lincoln School of Art. In 1887 he won a scholarship which enabled him to embark upon full time studies. It was during his period at Lincoln that he developed an interest in the work of the French Impressionist painters.
In 1889 he became a student overseas at the Antwerp Academy, where his interest and immense skill in portraiture and still life developed under the influence of the work of 17th century Dutch and Flemish artists. Following a further period of study at the Academie Julian in Paris he moved to London, having had his first work accepted for display at the Royal Academy.
Back to Beverley
Failing to make a living in London, he returned to Beverley where he began to establish a successful reputation as a painter of portraits for a wealthy Edwardian clientele. He continued to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy. In 1914 he married Mary Dawson Holmes (Mary Elwell), herself an artist of considerable talent. Her wealth enabled them to travel extensively, giving rise to Fred's impressionistic continental landscapes.
Beyond Beverley, the Elwells were part of a fashionable circle of artists, which included Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) and Alfred Munnings (1878-1959). More crucially, however, the Elwells' wealth enabled Fred to paint what he wanted and he pursued the theme of working life in Beverley through numerous interiors featuring kitchen maids, woodcarvers and other local craftsmen. He eventually achieved national recognition in 1919 when his painting 'The Beverley Arms Kitchen' was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the national collection held at the Tate Gallery in London.
Fred continued to undertake commissions, including a portrait of King George V. His close family and friends also remained his subjects throughout his life, and he gave encouragement, tuition and financial support to several young artists. He acquired a London studio in 1935, and in 1938 was elected to the Royal Academy. He served on its Council and on the Selection and Hanging Committee, the latter being the subject of his Diploma work. Despite his ties with Beverley he was a stalwart of the Academy. His flirtations with Impressionism and Modernism belied his steadfastly traditional working methods and subject matter. In his will he left 1000 pounds to the Academy Schools to endow an annual prize for still life painting. Fred Elwell died in Beverley in 1958 and was still painting three weeks before his death.