Illustrating people at their best: Francis Marshall

November 14, 2023

While the Archive of Art & Design looks forward to the opening of its new home at V&A East Storehouse in 2025, its staff have been busily working to improve discoverability of its collections. One such task has been to publish more catalogue information on Search the Archives, our online database. The cataloguing of archives often involves a great deal of research into the people who kept them before you, until one feels as though you are inhabiting their minds. While my task of editing and publishing catalogues is not as involved, it does tend to form a tiny obsession! I have just published the catalogue for the Francis Marshall Archive, and I have lots to say on the subject.

The archive contains more than a hundred sketchbooks, loose drawings, personal letters, and scores of book jackets featuring his work. Francis Marshall was a prolific commercial illustrator for Vogue, the Daily Mail, Harper’s Bazaar, Everybody’s Weekly and more. He produced many wonderful drawings from fashion shows during the golden age of couture. The huge body of work contained in his archive is a credit to a long and diligent career of over 40 years. An homage to this archive was made in print by the V&A’s own senior curator, Oriole Cullen: her book Francis Marshall: Drawing Fashion is available to consult at the National Art Library, in the museum at South Kensington. She has written a wonderful account of Marshall’s life and career, and selected a gallery of works for the chapter ‘Portfolio of Fashion Drawings’.

Francis Marshall’s style was instantly recognisable among commercial illustrators. The ‘Marshall Girl’ featured heavily in his fashion drawings, for which he drew heavy inspiration from his wife, Margaret. Long legs, brunette hair and a slightly up-turned nose formed his early ‘type’. The Marshall Girl was drawn in countless different attitudes and in a variety of fashionable clothes.

Woman wearing a hooded coat
Working sketch for an advertisement, ‘Twink for Jaeger’, about 1939. Twink was Margaret’s pet name. AAD/1990/2/6/10/3/30A

Margaret (nee Chambers) was an enviable partner who provided strong critique as well as inspiration. Their close relationship is memorialised by the letters she kept. One of these, from the time of their courtship, features an endearing sketch of a windswept and red-cheeked Margaret, as Francis imagined her, going about her day.

Illustration of a woman in a brown coat on a windy day
Letter to Margaret Chambers from Francis Marshall, about 1929. AAD/1990/2/1/2/90

Looking across the body of his work, I was struck by the easy poise of Francis Marshall’s women. They are drawn with dynamism, always doing, and seeing. The clothes are often captured in state of animation, which demonstrates their loose-fitting quality in the best way. And what better to carry off the confidence of bold fashions than the comfortable stance of the model? Marshall’s illustrations in Vogue and the Daily Mail display a recognition of their audiences at the time as women in search for practical ways to look and feel their best.

Three women in different poses
Working sketch for a double page spread on summer fashions in the Daily Mail, 6 June 1947. AAD/1990/2/6/10/2/2

I was curious about how Francis Marshall worked to produce such confident attitudes. It seemed to me that his drawings betrayed a certain empathy for his subjects. Perhaps formed in his early history of people-watching, Marshall demonstrated a talent for life-drawing that informed all of his work. The National Art Library holds a few of the titles he authored, including Drawing the Female Figure. This book is as witty as it is instructive and would provide a great afternoon’s reading to a budding artist. He dedicates a chapter to the model, emphasising the importance of working harmoniously with them. He advises the artist to communicate clearly, to be considerate of uncomfortable poses and crucially, to keep the room warm! The advice certainly demands that artists give the model respect, foremost. This respectful approach has produced a wonderful portfolio of sketches: from life-drawing to people-watching, capturing the couture industry, the world of ballet performance, and society beyond.

Seated woman in different poses
Sketches of a female figure, from an undated sketchbook. AAD/1990/2/5/127
A group of people arriving at a party through an opening door
Pen and ink sketch of Jacques Fath show, 1946. AAD/1990/2/7/17

The charm of his drawings earned Marshall a long-standing reputation as a masterful illustrator. The result of this was a long, friendly working relationship with the best-selling romance author Barbara Cartland. The artwork he produced for the covers of Cartland’s novels frequently show off the dashing romance heroine in the best fashions for her setting. Cartland’s late son, Ian McCorquodale, wrote of their close affinity in a fascinating blog piece for the Barbara Cartland website, which also shows examples of Marshall’s artwork for book covers.

You can explore the books I mentioned and other selected titles by Francis Marshall at the National Art Library on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Sign up for a free Library Account online today!

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