Valerie Thornton NDD, RE (1931-1991)

Langham, 1971, Colour etching on paper, 15 ½ x 24 in, Signed and dated, Edition number: 12/35

[CAS 17]


Valerie Thornton NDD, RE (1931-1991)

The Prior’s Door, 1973, Colour etching on paper, 15 ½ x 24 ½ in, Signed and dated

[CAS 29] Acquired in 1976



Valerie Thornton was born in London on 13 April 1931, the daughter of Nigel Heber Thornton and his wife Margaret née Gault, who married in Hanover Square, London in 1929. Valerie first went to Elinor Birley’s Primary School, Charterhouse, before being evacuated with her two brothers to Montreal where she attended the Montreal Girl’s High School. After the war she returned to London where later, in 1949, she began her art studies at the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting (1). She later qualified at Regent Street Polytechnic where she studied under Patrick Ferguson Millard (2) between 1950 and 1953. It is during that period that she became attracted tothe work of Winifred Nicholson (3) after receiving one of her paintings as a 21st birthday present. At that time too she became interested in architecture and in the works of one of the most original painters of the 20th century, Stanley Spencer (1891-1957) and the Romantic visionary painter Graham Sutherland (1903-1980).

In 1954, Valerie spent eight months at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17 (4) in Paris, studying etching and engraving. On her return to England, the same year, she bought her first etching press but soon afterwards went on a six-week Grand Tour of Italy before becoming an Assistant Art Teacher at Charterhouse, Godalming (1955).  During that time she became acquainted with Cedric Morris (q.v.) and Lett-Haines (q.v.) at their Art School at Benton End. It was also there that she met the stained glass artist Rosemary Rutherford (1912-1972), who became a frequent travelling companion to Paris.

In 1956 Valerie exhibited at the Zwemmer Gallery, London, upon the invitation of Michael Chase (1915-2001), Director of the Gallery (5).  This was followed by a ten-month residency at the Pratt Graphic Art Centre Workshop in New York and a study trip to Mexico.

In 1965 she was a founder member of the Printmakers Council, along with artists such as Michael Rothenstein RA (1908-1993), a member of the Great Bardfield Artists community which also included Eric Ravilious (1903-1942).  That same year she was invited to Winifred Nicholson’s home in Cumbria and consequently became a close friend. Valerie married Michael Chase in 1966 and moved in the Minories in Colchester, where he had just been appointed Curator (6). 

In 1969 she became Associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, and the following year she was made a Fellow of the Society. She was also a member of the Print Club of Philadelphia and a member of Colchester Art Society. She had many exhibitions in the UK and abroad including in New York, and her work is represented in many public collections too (see details below). In 1974 she and her husband settled at Lower Common Farmhouse, Chelsworth, Suffolk, where she died on 23 March 1991.



Valerie Thornton was an internationally recognised etcher and print-maker, whose etchings were said by John Rothenstein, Director at the Tate Gallery, London, from 1938 to 1964, and the brother of Michael Rothenstein, to have an almost sculpted presence. Although she tended to be more figurative at the end of her life, she was mainly interested in architectural features such as the texture of flint, brick and stone, merging in weathered walls. This is the case here in this etching of buildings in Langham. Langham is a village in the Stour Valley in Essex, a village essentially agricultural until the 20th century, with large farms dating to the 14th to the 17th centuries.

The Prior’s Door

Valerie Thornton first began drawing architectural edifices in 1952, having been inspired by a show of photographs of church buildings and enthused by her love for Romanesque churches and priories in Britain, France, Italy and Spain. She developed a unique use of the etching technique, encouraging acid to erode plates in such a way that it made the stone look weathered. Within clearly delineated areas she allowed acid to roam and create the same erosion as rain, frost or wind.

However despite the gritty walls and the worn stones her churches or buildings still look solid and give a sense of the place. There are neither people nor animals in her work, an aspect of her work which she defended, when remarked upon, by saying that the stones in her etchings were the living elements.The Prior’s Door is an etching of the 12th century carved door connecting the Cathedral of Ely to its Medieval Cloister. The central carving shows Christ enthroned. Around the doorway some of the carvings depict the signs of the Zodiac. The arcade, now bricked up, was originally open.

Selected Exhibitions

1960 The Minories, Colchester

1961 Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford

1961 Print Club, Philadelphia

1965 Zwemmer Gallery, London (also 1970, 1981, 1982, 1984)

1974, 1976, 1982, The Minories, Colchester: Patterns in Stone and Brick, 1974; Etchings, 1976; Faces of Stone II: Valerie Thornton, 1982

1980 Gilbert Parr, Gallery, London

1992 and 2004 The Redfern Gallery, London

1998 Chappel Galleries, Chappel, Essex

Also group exhibitions at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions, The Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and Colchester Art Society

Works in Public Collections in the UK

The Tate Gallery, London

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The British Museum, London

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (45 drawings)

Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham

Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, Bolton

Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, Cheltenham

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow

Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield

Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester

Norwich Museum, Norwich

Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Rugby (one painting)

Southampton Art Gallery, Southampton

The University of York, York (one painting)

The Victor Batte-Lay Foundation, Colchester (see link below)

Usher Gallery, Lincoln

Works in Public Collections Abroad

Metropolitan Museum, New York

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Smithsonian Institution, Washington

Library of Congress, Washington

National Gallery, Ottawa

And many others in the USA

Also in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland


BUCKMAN, David, Dictionary of artists in Britain since 1945, Art Dictionaries Ltd, Bristol, 1998, p. 1189

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [Ronald Blythe, Thornton, Valerie Musgrave (1931 - 1991), first published 2004, 950 words]

Interview in Arts Review, vol. 34, periodical, March 1982

The Victor Batte-Lay Foundation

Government Art Collection

Art UK 

(1)  The Byam School of Art was later absorbed by Central St Martins College of Arts and Designs. Blair Hughes-Stanton (1902-1981) (q.v.) studied there too in 1919-22.

(2) Patrick Ferguson Millard (1902-1977) shared a studio with John Piper in the 1930’s. One of his students was the painter and sculptor Michael Ayrton (1921-1975).

(3) Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) was the wife of Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). She was a Christian Scientist, a religious movement which Valerie Thornton followed until her death at the age of 60.

(4) Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) was a surrealist painter and printmaker.

(5) Michael Chase was Director of the Zwemmer Gallery between 1954 and 1965.

(6) Michael Chase was Curator of the Minories from 1966 to 1974.