The Creole

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Catalogue information based on the catalogue raisonné by David Cleall. For this and full details of the exhibitions cited, see the links below. Any auction prices quoted may not include all fees and taxes, such as VAT and Artist's Resale Right charges.

The Creole

The Creole (aka Portrait of a Negress Hélène Yelin), 1923
Oil on canvas, 60.7 cm x 50.5 cm

The Tate Gallery 1965 catalogue states, 'The model for [The Creole] was Mrs Helène Yelin, who also posed for a bust by Epstein of 1919.' In his Jacob Epstein Sculptor (London: Faber and Faber, 1963) Richard Buckle says of this bust (Hélène), 'Hélène was a half-caste married to a musician named W. Yellin [sic]' (p. 102), and this is echoed in the catalogue raisonné in Evelyn Silber's The Sculpture of Epstein: With a Complete Catalogue (Oxford: Phaidon, 1986): 'Wife of W. Yellin, musician' (p. 145).
She is also depicted with Jacob Kramer at the Harlequin Café, in Soho, in WR's The Joke 1923, and in his memoir 'The Twenties' WR recalled, 'The Harlequin was becoming popular, due no doubt to its feminine patrons, whose vocal talents turned the place at times into a sort of Café Chantant, when the dark-skinned Helene sang the 'Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, O!' or Gypsy Lang sang Casey Jones the engine-driver's lament . . . ' Autobiographical notes by John Roberts in the Tate archive recall that Hélène and her two sons were neighbours of the Robertses in Albany Street in the early 1920s, and also 'camping holidays and cycling holidays. One with Helene, cycling. There was much laughter; she was looking for her forbears [sic] or relations, presumably white, in G[loucester]shire.'
She later moved to Brussels, and in her memoir The Dark and the Bright (1989/2007) the Austrian writer and journalist Hilde Spiel mentions a mid-1930s trip to Antwerp with Hélène, whom she believed to be Egyptian. Yale University Library holds a letter from Hélène to Alice B. Toklas dated 15 August 1946 and commiserating with Toklas on the death of her partner Gertrude Stein, Hélène having apparently met the couple in Brussels.
A cast of the Epstein bust is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
PROVENANCE: Contemporary Art Society (1923) > City Museum and Art Gallery (now the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery), Stoke-on-Trent (1936/7)
EXHIBITION HISTORY: Chenil Galleries 1923, Manchester 1930, Tate Gallery (1) 1935, Wolverhampton 1937, Whitechapel Gallery 1937, Tate Gallery 1946, Arts Council 1948, Tate Gallery 1965, Leeds/Ben Uri Gallery 2003, Tate Britain 2014, Tate Britain 'Walk Through British Art' display 2022–3

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