IRENE FOORD-KELCEY - SCULPTOR AND PAINTER
Irene Marion Ethel Foord-Kelcey (née Payne) was born in 1887, the youngest of three sisters. Her family were affluent wine merchants whose business was based in St James's Street, London. Her grandfather, William Payne, was a member of the Royal Household - Gentleman of Her Majesty's and the Prince of Wales's Wines Cellars. In the early years of her childhood her father, Alexander Payne, was declared bankrupt when the Prince of Wales failed to pay back a loan he had underwritten. Alexander spent the rest of his life trying, with little success, to turn his energy and enterprise into money
Irene was educated at St Catherine's Bramley, a recently founded boarding school for girls in Guildford. The school offered the girls "an education of sound and liberal character, including such useful accomplishments as may seem fitting." After leaving school she moved to Cornwall, where her father was trying his hand at tin mining, and attended the art school in Newlyn established in 1899 by Stanhope Forbes
. She began writing and illustrating children's books, and had several published under the name, Irene Payne, using her trademark signature, IMP, on the illustrations. Published titles included Baby Bunting and Co (1905), Burbling Billy and the Bubble Bee and What Happened to Hannah.
Later, while living at Bourne End on the river Thames, Irene met her future husband, William Foord-Kelcey, a young lawyer who lived on a houseboat nearby. We know she had her own punt so we like to think that they enjoyed romantic trysts on the river. In 1910 William emigrated to Canada. He bought a piece of prairie land in Viking, Alberta, built a house on it, and set up a law firm and a real estate business. He then proposed marriage to Irene by letter. She accepted, travelled to Canada unchaperoned (unusual for young ladies at the time), and they were married in Winnipeg immediately on her arrival. Two sons followed in quick succession: Alick in 1913 (named, albeit mispelt by Irene, after her father who died earlier that year) and Jimmy in 1914. At the start of World War One, William joined a Canadian regiment and returned to the UK. Irene followed with her two small boys. Tragically, William was killed in 1918, having received a Military Cross for extreme bravery.
After the war Irene returned to Viking with her sons and ran the farm and the real estate business with the help of a brother-in-law. The climate is extreme in Alberta - freezing winters and baking hot summers - so life was tough. In 1923 Irene sold up and returned to the UK to educate her sons at English schools. She lived in Mayford, near Woking, close to her mother. Irene became a competent golfer and sailor, and these skills, combined with her charm and good humour, meant that she soon had a wide circle of friends.
We have no record of Irene's artistic development until 1933 when she moved to Horsham and opened a shop called, simply, Irene Foord-Kelcey. She sold decorative items for the home - vases, lamps, candlesticks, cushions, bookends, boxes, cocktail cabinets and figurines; many of which she either made or decorated. It was known locally as 'the little shop of beautiful things'.
Between 1938 and 1939 Irene studied sculpture at the distinguished Westminster School of Art
while living in a flat in Greek Street, Soho. In 1939 she bought a plot of land in Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, on which she and her son Jimmy designed and built a house. This had two studios - a ground floor stone-cutting studio and a painting studio on an upper floor. The house was called Peacock's Wood.
During the war years Irene worked as an occupational therapist at a military hospital set up at Ashridge House, now a business school. Ashridge had been the site of a medieval priory, where it is said the monks grew grapes and made wine. We know that Irene painted humorous murals of these scenes in one of the cellars, but we are not sure what the room was used for.
When the war ended, Irene became a full-time sculptor, working in stone. She received commissions for Madonnas and Stations of the Cross from several churches, including St Wilfrid's Halton in Leeds and churches in Harlow New Town and Letchworth. Unfortunately we do not have a complete list of commissions. In the 1950's one of her sculptures was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. She also carved portraits, figures, animals and some decorative work, especially mantle-pieces. She took up oil painting and painted many exuberant pictures - mostly landscapes and still lives. She continued working as an artist all her life, although arthritis in her hands forced her to give up stone cutting earlier.
In 1953 Jimmy built another, smaller house with an 'en suite' studio for Irene at Peacock's Wood and moved into the original house with his wife and young family.
In 1973 Irene's son, Alick, died, another tragic loss.
Irene was a much-loved woman who attracted people like bees around a honey pot. Handsome rather than beautiful, she was amusing, wise, philosophical, bohemian, talented and very hospitable. She died in 1976, aged nearly ninety.
Sally Foord-Kelcey, September 2007