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Dame Werburg Welch (1894-1990)

'A surprising wood-carver'



Eileen Grace Welch was born in Cheltenham in 1894 and brought up in Kidderminster and Boscombe. She attended the Southampton School of Art, and after her family moved to Clifton, the Bristol Art School. In Clifton, her mother became friends with the mother of Desmond Chute, who later became a member of Eric Gill's Ditchling community. Eileen entered Stanbrook in 1915, receiving the name Werburg. Expecting to give up art altogether, she found herself instead being encouraged to extend her scope to vestment designs and wood-engravings for the Stanbrook Abbey Press. Desmond Chute and Eric Gill gave her postal tuition. As a result she adopted Gill's angular style, which was a life-long influence on her own work.

After her paintings, vestment designs and wood-carvings received favourable reviews at exhibitions of the Guild of Catholic Artists and Craftsmen in the 1930s and 1940s, commissions came in from churches and private individuals all over the country. Illustrations appeared in contemporary Catholic magazines such as Art Notes and L'Artisan Liturgique.

Stations of the Cross painted by Dame Werburg include a set painted on wood for the Church of Christ the King, Bromborough, Cheshire (c.1950); those painted for the Catholic Chaplaincy at Birmingham University c.1961; and c.1956 the set for St. Edmunds, Isle of Dogs. The Isle of Dogs paintings, along with the church building, suffered severe deterioration from damp but were restored for the new church in 1998. The Stations of the Cross carved in wood by Dom Vincent Dupr�f Farnborough Abbey for the Anglican church of All Saints, Weston-super-Mare, were designed by Dame Werburg, as were the Douai Abbey Stations carved in stone by Dom Aloysius Bloor. Other major works include several large hanging crucifixes and the carved oak crucifix commissioned c. 1982 for the Czech chaplaincy in London.

Dame Werburg's art had to be fitted in with attendance at divine office and a share in the manual work of the community. Over the years she served as chantress, portress, and assistant sacristan, as well as being subprioress from 1956 to 1968. During the war she volunteered to take charge of the orchards and was still climbing ladders in her 80s. She suffered a severe stroke in November 1989 and died the following February at the age of 95.

The National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum has an information file on the work of Dame Werburg Welch, containing a brief biographical outline and a collection of wood-engravings and linocuts, with some contemporary photographs of carvings and paintings. Photocopies of working drawings are included. Another collection of her wood engravings and other prints forms part of the Stanbrook Abbey Press collection of printed ephemera in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Dame Werburg has an entry in the 'Oxford Dictionary of National Biography'.       

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