- c1920s-1930s (Creation)
Level of description
Content and Structure
Scope and content
Pencil drawing of three figures/sculptures which all appear to be female. Sculptures looking in three different directions. The word "futile" seems to be written to the right of the women. Four drawn eyes that seem to be similar to the Egyptian Eye of Horus verso.
Appraisal, destruction and scheduling
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Name of creator
Helen Biggar was born on 25 May 1909 in Glasgow, Scotland and died suddenly on 28 Mar 1953 at age 43 in London, England. She was the eldest of three girls; her two younger sisters were named Mary (Mamie) and Florence (Flossie). She was known for being active, determined, beautiful, attractive, tiny, courageous, humorous, radiant, colourful, charming, intelligent, affectionate, loyal, compassionate, and interested in large social issues. She played the violin and knew Russian.
A series of accidents left her short in stature and with a humped back which was considered to be disabled. She was likely only around 4'9". At a young age, she had an operation to remove a tuberculosis gland in her neck. As a young infant later on, she fell off the couch damaging her spine and consequently, had to live in a spinal carriage for a while. Doctors believed she would be paralyzed forever but she eventually learned to walk again. Finally, at the age of 7, she was pushed on stairs damaging her spine again and had to wear a spinal jacket. She learned how to walk again for the third time after this event. She had also suffered from polio.
She transferred to a private school after the stairs accident, then later transferred to The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) at age 16 in 1926 because she showed an affinity for the arts. She was a student at the GSA from 1925 to 1932. At The Glasgow School of Art, she studied heraldry and textile design. She made designs for the Corporation of Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries. She was involved in life-drawings, fashion, plant drawings, cartoons, stage design, and book illustrations. She was awarded a diploma in Textile Design in 1929. She started a two-year sculpture post-grad course but never finished it and left the school in 1931. Ceramics were Helen's favourite form of art. She made illustrations for a fairy story called "Red Shoes" and "The Forerunner" by Dimitri Merezhkovsky who was a historical novelist and symbolist. Regarding extracurriculars at the GSA, she made designs for the school cabaret group and would often attend theatre productions. She also went to the GSA school balls despite not being able to dance. In 1930, she won a £10 Minor Traveller Award for modelling which would be worth roughly £835 in 2023.
Regarding her clothing, as a child, she had made clothes for her dolls. Whilst at GSA, Helen began to make her own clothes. This included wearing long wide trousers or long skirts to disguise her thin legs, even when hemlines were shortening, and was one of first girls to wear trousers in her program. She also dressed in full-sleeve blouses to hide her deformity and liked wearing sandals. She often wore long skirts or dresses to the school balls.
She lived on St. Vincent St in Glasgow which had a studio for her to work in. Often, she would frequent Charles Rennie Macintosh buildings.
Helen was very active in politics. She was a member of the Independent Labour Party in Great Britain. She was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Her uncle, John Biggar was a politician with the Scottish Labour Party and was Lord Provost of Glasgow between 1941 to 1943. She was also politically active during the Second World War.
She joined the Kino Film Society and GSA Kinecraft Society with Norman McLaren and produced numerous films starting in approximately 1933. He also had studied at GSA. Many of the Kino films were politically influenced. She was also involved in the Glasgow Worker’s Theatre Group.
Helen Biggar's wartime Glasgow art circle included refugee artists like Josef Herman and Jankel Adler, and talented locals like Robert Frame and Eli Montlake, some of whom joined her in London when she moved there permanently in 1945. They exhibited as the New Scottish Group at the Edinburgh Festival in 1947; and as the Gorbals Artists when Glasgow Unity brought their famous production of The Gorbals Story (1946) to London in 1948. On 11 Oct 1948 Helen Biggar married Eli Montlake at Wandsworth register office.
In 1945, she moved to London, living near the British Museum, she found work as a milliner for a French owned business and started making fancy hats for high society ladies. In 1950, she became a wardrobe mistress for Saville Theatre in London for a season of Jewish plays. Later on in the year, she joined and toured with the Ballet Rambert as a wardrobe mistress where she designed and made costumes.
Unfortunately, on 28 Mar 1953, Helen suffered a brain haemorrhage and was rushed St Mary Abbots Hospital in London. She fell into a coma and died soon after. Her cremation at Golders Green was attended by luminaries from the artistic, theatrical, and ballet worlds of London and Glasgow. She was survived by her husband.
Helen Biggar had a niece named Anna Shepherd. Anna was the daughter of Helen’s sister Flossie and Sydney d’Horne Shepherd. Anna published a novel about Helen in 2014 called Helen Unlimited: A Little Biggar. She also wrote an unpublished novel called Traces Left which was used as the primary source for the Birmingham Film and Video Workshop film called “Traces Left.” This 1983 documentary traced Helen’s work as a sculptor, film maker, and set designer. It also highlighted her work with Norman McLaren, the Glasgow Unity Theatre Group, and Glasgow Kino Group, an independent and politically active film production group. From Nov 2022 to Mar 2023, part of Biggar's GSA archive collection, including a drawing, a letter, some newspaper clippings, and the Kino Film Group minute book, were featured at the GLEAN exhibition in the Edinburgh City Art Centre.
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Language of material
Script of material
Language and script notes
Pencil on white paper
Dimensions: 228 x 181 mm
Existence and location of originals
Existence and location of copies
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Catalogued by Ella Grad-Arndt, work placement, Feb 2023
Finding Aid Authors: The Glasgow School of Art Archives and Collections.
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