Artist and Wood Engraver
1881 – 1959
Mabel Marguerite, daughter of the fifth Earl Annesley, was born in the family’s London home on 25th February 1881, but always regarded Castlewellan Castle in Co. Down as her real home. She was educated privately, but from the age of fourteen also studied at the Frank Calderon school of animal painting in London. At eighteen she was elected a member of the Belfast Art Society and exhibited with the Society for many years, as well as at numerous other venues. She married a naval officer, Gerald Sowerby in 1904; they had one son, Gerald (1904-1992). Her husband died in 1913, and a year later she inherited the Castle following the deaths of her husband and father, after which she resumed the name of Annesley.
She first learned the technique for which she became best known, wood engraving, at the Central School in London when she was about forty, and soon became regarded as one of its three or four leading exponents in Britain, especially in the field of book illustration (along with people like Gwen Raverat and Robert Gibbings). From the Ulster point of view, her illustrations of works like Richard Rowley’s Apollo In Mourne are particularly notable; she and William Conor also designed the costumes for a pageant which Rowley wrote in celebration of the 1500th anniversary of St Patrick’s landing in Ireland, performed at Castleward in 1932. In 1939 she presented the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery with a fine collection of contemporary wood-engravings, including twenty of her own works.
Ill health, from which she regularly suffered, did not prevent her from producing a continuous stream of artistic work, nor indeed from moving house several times: She lived in Connemara and in Rathfriland, Co. Down, as well as in England. During the Second World War, when Castlewellan was taken over for military purposes, she was bombed out of her Belfast house and emigrated to New Zealand, where for a number of years she was a trustee of the Bishop Suter Art Gallery in Nelson, South Island.. She exhibited in the Festival of Britain in 1952, and returned to England for good the following year, settling in Suffolk, where she died in 1959. She was buried in Long Melford. She left behind a remarkable, if unfinished autobiography called As The Sight Is Bent, which was published by the Museum Press with quotations from her equally remarkable letters filling in the gaps.
Annesley’s work is represented in the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the National Gallery of New Zealand in Wellington, as well as in Belfast, Nelson and many other places.