Helen Kapp (1901-1978)

Helen Kapp

Written by David A Cross

Occupations: Artist, Illustrator and Museum Director

Family Background and Early Life

Born in Hampstead, Helen Kapp’s emigre parents were Emil Benjamin Kapp (1861-1929), a wine merchant and importer of Russian produce and Bella Wolff (1867-1936), an American citizen.  They were both of German-Jewish extraction and Emil was also the vice president of the London Jewish Hospital. Her brother, the portraitist and caricaturist Edmond Xavier Kapp (1890-1978; ODNB), was a graduate of Christ’s College, Cambridge and drew inter alia portraits of Sir Oliver Lodge FRS (1851-1940; ODNB) and Sir Julian Huxley FRS (1887-1975; ODNB) (both at the Barber Institute, Birmingham).  Coming from a culturally aware background Helen was also interested in music, languages and literature and had a repertoire of European folk songs.

She studied at the Slade and the Central School for Arts and Crafts in London and then at the Ecole de la Grand Chaumiere in Paris.  There followed activities as a designer and a fashion artist.  As a book illustrator she enhanced Gerald Bullett’s Seed of Israel: Tales for the English Bible (1927) and John Collier’s The Scandal and Incredulities of John Aubrey (1931). In 1938 she co-wrote and illustrated an amusing Surrealist cookbook Take 40 Eggs, perhaps inspired by the illustrated menus of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) published by Maurice Joyant (1864-1930) in The Art of Cuisine (1901).

In 1939 Kapp held in London a one woman show of her paintings in both oils and watercolours, which also featured wood engravings.  In 1940 she contributed four prints, including My Marmaduke and Blackout: Listening to Beethoven to the Everyman Series of 52 works by the Artists International Association (AIA), in company with her near contemporaries John Piper (1903-1992), Rowland  Hilder (1905-1989) and Feliks Topolski (1907-1989).  The AIA had been established in London in 1933 as a left of centre exhibition vehicle for those who disapproved of the vast sums squandered on the military-industrial complex.  (In 1935 they had mounted the exhibition Artists Against Fascism and from 1936-1939 their fund raising supported the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.  The AIA later became the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) which was the precursor of the Arts Council).  The organisation was determined to raise awareness of the visual arts, especially among children and working people, and Helen was very much influenced by their philosophy.  Later in the war, having been a guide lecturer for CEMA, she was head of an art department at an army education centre in the Middle East.  She subsequently lectured at Harrogate art gallery.

In 1945 her watercolours included From my Window at Eastleigh and from 1950 is the rather unusual and witty subject Mending the Chandelier and a surviving lino block Wander in the Woods (art market c.2020). Most of her surviving work appears to have been figurative, despite her strong curatorial engagement with abstraction. Helen’s prose was often memorable and she described her book Toying with a Fancy (1948) as a work of ‘uninhibited phantasy’ arising ‘out of a cloud of Drambuie on a crisp snowy Yorkshire night’.  It was illustrated with her own figurative prints, which are as edgy as those of George Grosz (1893-1959).  The dust jacket bears the words: ‘to those for whom Rabelais, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, James Thurber, Tommy Handley and the Marx Brothers are welcome and intimate friends, this book will hold no complexity’; it was dedicated: ‘In gratitude to all those who have made me laugh’.  That James Laver (1899-1975), for twenty years keeper of Prints, Drawings and Paintings at the V and A, wrote the introduction is a potent indication of the distinguished level of her network in the world of art.

Director of Wakefield Art Gallery

For a short period c.1950-1951 she worked as assistant to the dynamic Frank Atkinson (1924-2014; ODNB) who was briefly from 1949-1951 the director of Wakefield Art Gallery, when the collection was housed in Avenue House, on Wentworth Terrace.  Atkinson had worked there with his predecessor (the ‘forward thinking’ Ernest Illingworth Musgrave (1901-1957)); he subsequently ran the Bowes Museum from 1958-1966 and was then the founder of Beamish Open Air Museum, inspired by a tour of Nordic outdoor museums.  Appointed the 4th director at Wakefield in 1951, Helen was the first woman in that post.  She had a transforming impact upon the organisation and built upon Ernest Musgrave’s purchases of work by Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) by adding work by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Josef Herman (1911-2000) and Reg Butler (1913-1981).  Her exhibitions ranged across contemporary Italian, Polish and Dutch art. Musgrave averred that British art was often better known in other countries than in the north of England; he and his successors Atkinson and Kapp did much to offset that deficiency.

An early innovation at Wakefield was the founding of The Friends of the Wakefield Gallery in which she was supported by Dr Archibald Heron, a local GP and art collector who became the first chairman.  Dr Heron always admired Helen’s energy and enthusiasm and her ability to persuade conservative Yorkshiremen and women that modern art was not an abomination. In this she was aided by Bill (WT) Oliver (1903-1991), the art critic for the Yorkshire Post, who shared an acute eye for emerging talent and facilitated exhibitions for local artists such as Tom Whitehead (b.c.1905-1955), an artist with ‘a passionate and unique vision of the colliery landscape’ (Kapp).

At Wakefield her vision and confidence were reflected in her further purchases of recent work by LS Lowry (1887-1976), Lucie Rie (1902-1995), Prunella Clough (1919-1999), and Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993). These bold acquisitions were backed up by her innovative and creative exhibition programme, notably mounting solo shows for Patrick Heron (1920-1999) and Alan Davie (1920-2014) whose successful Whitechapel exhibition of 1958, curated by Kapp, had been initially presented at Wakefield.  As a 23 year old student, David Hockney (b.1937) wrote to her rather brazenly in 1951 asking her to travel to Skipton to see his early exhibition.  As she did not have a car she declined, spelling his name in her reply as ‘David Hackney’, a witty put down. She also established an annual Modern Art in Yorkshire exhibition and maintained a correspondence with artists including Keith Vaughan (1912-1977) and Terry Frost (1915-2003).  All this increased the strength of her reputation at Wakefield and, in time, nationally, so she was asked to speak on BBC Woman’s Hour and she gave hospitality to Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) when he was surveying architecture in the Wakefield area.  As an artist herself, she continued to paint and produced designs for several exhibition catalogues.

Ernest Musgrave had organised Barbara Hepworth’s first exhibition in Wakefield in 1944 but a later show elicited the comment from a Yorkshireman that he could not make much of it, ‘but if Miss Kapp gives it the say-so, this Hepworth lass will go far’, an indication of his faith in their curator’s wisdom.  She had a ‘steely determination’ making it difficult for Wakefield to be dismissed by the arts elite as ‘just a provincial backwater’ (Behrens). 

Kapp was a ‘visionary director with a deep sense of humanity and purpose’ who ‘placed education, access to art and the support of contemporary artists as the cornerstones of her vision for Wakefield’. In 1957 she wrote: ‘without any artists, the whole of civilised life dies…...it is they who not only embellish and transform our humdrum life but also…….make us more aware of life’.  She was passionate about connecting young people with culture and delighted in the socially unencumbered response of children to abstraction.  One boy reacted to a non-figurative painting that ‘it smells of beer’; the painting was unlabelled, but Helen knew that on the back its title was Bar Parlour and that the young observer was a local publican’s son.  Following her involvement with the AIA, Helen worked with the innovative Education Resource Service which arranged for loans of contemporary art to 1500 primary schools throughout the UK.

In 1959 she curated a seminal exhibition Living Today which displayed much of the best design in domestic furniture and decorative detail.  Eight architects were invited to re-furnish and decorate the galleries, former domestic spaces, at Avenue House. The large catalogue gave the usual curatorial details but was also a sales catalogue with contact details of key suppliers.  Helen was by then respected and revered throughout the West Riding where her opinion was often sought by owners and collectors. 

The Genesis of Abbot Hall

An advertisement for the director of a new gallery at Kendal in 1960 failed to elicit responses from suitable candidates until the director of the Cartwright Hall at Bradford suggested Helen Kapp.  In 1961 Helen’s application was supported by the director of the British Museum, Trenchard Cox (1905-1995) and the art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001).  So, as a strong candidate, she was soon appointed as the founding director of Abbot Hall art gallery which was a ‘sad loss for Wakefield but a tremendous gain for us’ (Hargreaves).  Sir Richard O’Brien (1920-2009), later head of the Manpower Services Commission, knew her in Wakefield and observed how she ‘bubbled with enthusiasm’ when she realised the potential of the elegant 18thc rooms of Abbot Hall’ (Hargreaves), a far more attractive building than the austere Victorian gallery building in Yorkshire.  To begin with she lived in a flat on site but soon moved to 3, Beckside, Barbon and later to Lune Cottage, Barbon where she became a member of the Brigflatts Quaker Meeting.

Abbot Hall had been re-built by Col George Wilson (1723-1776) in 1759 but by the 1950s, having been sorely neglected by the local authority, the house was described by Peter Crewdson (d.2007; DCB) as a ‘damp and dry-rotted carcase’ having the ‘remains of nursery school plumbing and institutional paint’.  Eric Nicholson (b.1891), an eccentric and amiable Kendalian who had lobbied since before the 1st World War for the restoration of the building, eventually persuaded Alderman Thomas H Dobie  (fl.1936-1970) to meet the local arts patron Sir Francis Scott (1881-1979; DCB) to discuss the project. Then, following the formation of a working party chaired by Chandos, 6th Earl Temple of Stowe (1909-1966), Nicholson broached the idea of having an exhibition to ‘fire the imagination of a wider group of people’.  This was achieved within the building in its unrestored state and exhibits were borrowed locally.  Next, led by a formal committee, a lively fund-raising campaign achieved a sum of £65,000 and the new Lake District Art Gallery and Museum Trust was inaugurated to prevent the demolition, restore the fabric and establish a gallery for Kendal.  The Arts Council was encouraging and offered to provide any revenue deficit. The restoration, led by the architect Michael JH Bunney (fl.1937-1973), was completed by 1961.  The importance of Eric Nicholson’s advocacy for art in Westmorland is powerfully illustrated by the realisation that Tullie House had opened in Cumberland as early as 1893, whilst Barrow-in-Furness had to wait until 1994 for the completion of the Dock Museum, albeit modestly endowed with artworks, and until 2002 for the Nan Tait Centre as an exhibition centre on a larger scale.

Founding and setting her seal on a new art gallery was a challenge Helen Kapp welcomed and ‘she appreciated being accountable to people who were informed, interested and understanding’ (Hargreaves), being all too aware that this was not always the case.  From the beginning Helen supported the plan to retain the Georgian interior on the ground floor and to create white cube spaces for contemporary exhibitions on the first floor: a potent duality which has been a key element of the gallery’s success.  Local enthusiasts were approached for gifts and loans and whilst Eric Nicholson gave the Stewardson portrait Mr Jackson, at least one other treasured canvas was rejected by Helen as being unauthentic.  Being well known nationally and in London commercial galleries, she had access to good quality works and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation donated a purchase fund of £6,500. 

Kendal Collections and Exhibitions

Soon after her arrival, she researched the life of the Kendal artist Daniel Gardner (1750-1805; ODNB), briefly a pupil of George Romney (1734-1802; ODNB), for an exhibition catalogue at Kenwood in 1962. This became part of the Four Exhibitions to Celebrate the Opening of Abbot Hall later the same year. Doubtless, she aspired to purchase a good quality Romney for the collection but the prices were at that point beyond the available budget.  In November of that year she employed the energetic Mary Burkett (1924-2014; DCB) as a part time assistant.  Then in 1963 she exhibited A Survey of 20thc Scots Artists, which included Elizabeth Blackadder (1931-2021) and Ian McKenzie Smith (b.1935) and drew attention to the important contribution this group had made to the development of British Modernism. In these early years she also arranged for high quality speakers to visit the gallery including her earlier contact Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) and Richard St Barbe-Baker (1889-1982).

The condition of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau in the barn at Langdale had been giving cause for concern since 1958 and Helen aspired from 1962 to secure it for Abbot Hall.  She strove with great energy to raise the funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation once more, though she was unaware that Harry Fischer (1903-1977) at the Marlborough Gallery, was negotiating with MOMA and the South Bank Centre on his own account.  The Friends of Abbot Hall paid for Dr Tony Werner (1911-2006) of the British Museum Research Laboratory to assess the Merzbau’s condition but his rather depressing report denied them Gulbenkian support. Helen’s own enthusiasm then rather ebbed and she recorded in a letter to the secretary of the Foundation her observation of Harry Fischer’s Machiavellian approach, writing that ‘Mr Fischer is a devious gentleman’ (letter cited Airey).  Harry Pierce (qv), who owned the Schwitters, was also annoyed at all the chicanery and the upshot was that Newcastle university secured the funding both to purchase the Merzbau and for John Laing in 1965 to execute the challenging move of this immensely heavy work.

Early on in her tenure, having benefited from the support of the Friends of Wakefield Art Gallery, Helen knew that she needed to set up the Friends of Abbot Hall, a plan which was ably executed by Peter Crewdson (d.2007; DCB).  (This organisation gave sterling service for more than thirty years until in the 1990s when a later director, regrettably, decided to close it down and establish a new organisation under his own control.)  Helen made it clear that the Friends were not to have any say in the choice of exhibitions but could arrange a programme of social events and lectures and establish a painting loan scheme.  They also edited and distributed the magazine Quarto, helped to buy a significant number of works for the collection and had plenty of fun along the way.  (Quarto was also axed by the same rather unscrupulous director, who failed to establish a replacement).  Among the early purchases supported by the Friends was Barbara Hepworth’s Trezion (1966), which was installed on the lawn outside the front door of the new gallery. 

Later acquisitions by Kapp included watercolours by Anthony Devis, John Varley and Thomas Sunderland, Jean Arp’s Oiseau-Chute, three works by Hilde Goldschmidt, a Hans Coper Tall-Waisted Stoneware Pot and a satinwood table by Gillow of Lancaster.  These were achieved with the assistance of the V and A Museum Purchase Fund and the National Art Collections Fund (now the Art Fund). Helen was also one of the first museum directors to recognise the importance of Joan Eardley (1921-1963; ODNB), Anne Redpath (1895-1965; ODNB) and Sheila Fell (1931-1979; ODNB). Her extraordinary intuition was manifest when she arranged, unassisted by the artist, a sequence of his paintings in precise chronological order.  This process was all the more remarkable as even he had no official record. Her letters survive in several archives including those from John Piper (1903-1992; ODNB) (Tate Britain) and others from Percy Kelly (Abbot Hall).  

Final Years

Though widely appreciated both as a professional and as a friend, by patrons, donors and the Friends of Abbot Hall, she was forced by the Trustees to retire at 65, although she wanted to stay in post.  This pressure may have been compounded by the fact that she had falsified her date of birth on arrival.  So she moved to 17, Carr Avenue, Leiston, Suffolk, where in 1975 she wrote Enjoying Pictures, a book for children in which a reviewer wrote that she ‘reminds us that pictures should stir the emotions, deepen feelings, widen our experience, to look not only with our eyes but with our minds and so increase our understanding’ (cited Hargreaves). 

Helen Kapp died in 1978, the same year as her brother Edmond Xavier.  In her will she bequeathed LS Lowry’s Five Ships to the Royal Academy. The following year Abbot Hall acknowledged her contribution to the gallery’s success by holding an exhibition which highlighted her range of purchases.  Ten years later, in 1989, Sir Richard O’Brien spoke warmly at the unveiling of Sinai, a painting by Lynton Lamb (1907-1977) which had been purchased in memory of her directorship.  He had known her at Wakefield and had followed her subsequent achievements with great interest.0

Her Personality and Achievement

Helen Kapp was a courageous character with a rich personality who ‘never allowed her artistic integrity to be tarnished by a desire to please’ (Hargreaves).  Her controversial opinions and choices both in Yorkshire and Cumbria were often vindicated many years later. After she moved to Kendal, a Wakefield councillor confessed to a Kendalian contact that he had ‘fought her tooth and nail over every modern item she wanted in the Gallery’ but now admitted that if he had bought them himself he would be ‘sitting on gold now’.  He acknowledged that it was ‘a good thing she sometimes got her own way’ and that she was ‘a wizard at finding a private donor’.  At Abbot Hall she laid secure foundations for a small regional gallery which has achieved a reputation as a centre of excellence and continued to punch above its weight.

Helen’s successors at Wakefield have referred to her as being ‘something of an inspiration’. She was ‘incredibly radical’ and felt that Wakefield Art Gallery could be ‘somewhere people could really see the newest and the best’. She was ‘an extraordinarily formidable woman’, whose features are recorded inter alia in a pencil portrait by Bardy Crewdson (DCB) and an elegant photograph of her standing in the 18thc interior of Abbot Hall (Quarto October 1991).


  • Yorkshire Post, 31 May 2019, review by David Behrens
  • The Guardian, 12 October 2019
  • Country Life, 27 November 2019
  • Robert Airey, Opinion Here is Doubtful, 2013
  • Peter Crewdson, Early Days: Some Recollections (of Abbot Hall), Quarto, Kendal, vol.xxix no 3, October 1991, 10-11
  • David A Cross, Dear Mary Love Percy: The Letters of Percy Kelly to Mary Burkett, 2011, 39n
  • Sarah Gray, British Women Artists: A Biographical Dictionary, 2019
  • Mollie Hargreaves, Helen Kapp: A Personal Appreciation, Quarto, Kendal, vol. xxix no 3, October 1991, 12-15
  • Alan Horne, A Dictionary of British Book Illustrators, 1994
  • The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry on Edmond Xavier Kapp
  • Rubenstein and Jolles, Palgrave’s Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, 2016
  • Suffolk Artists website
  • The History of Wakefield Art Gallery (2002)
  • Hockney, Davie and Helen Kapp, exhibition catalogue Hepworth Wakefield and the Towner, Eastbourne, 2019, viewed online at patrickgoff.com, posted 19 February 2020
  • Conversation with Dr Frank Heron in Richmond, Yorkshire, the son of Dr Archibald Heron of Wakefield in March 2022