Ethel Gabain was born in le Havre in 1883, half French, half Scottish. She trained at the Slade and at the Central School of Art and Design, and by 1906 was exhibiting at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. By then she had already turned to lithography which became her chief occupation thereafter. In 1909 she spent some time in Paris and, when the Senefelder club. From then on, her career was one of steady progress; adopted by Colnaghi’s, she regularly had prints selected for “Fine Prints of the Year” right through the 1930’s; and with Copley held regular exhibitions. She was also a regular exhibitor, showing some 52 works at the Royal Academy, and 26 at various Paris salons between 1907 and 1932.
Gabain was a masterly technician, and spent years perfecting the differing methods of producing an image from a stone, becoming far more proficient than those for whom lithography was a minor sideline. She not only studied with French artists, she studied with French printers as well, and gained a proficiency which was probably superior initially to that of her husband. What she and her husband attempted was unique, not to say foolhardy: up to that point, no-one in England had been rash enough to try and make a living out of lithographs, still the most despised of the graphic arts. Few have made the attempt since.
As a draughtswoman she was extraordinary, and her constant theme was that of femininity. It would be wrong, of course, to consider her a “feminist” artist; it is likely she would have snorted in derision at the very idea. Yet, in essence, that is what she was, one of the most insightful and important of her age. A large number of her lithographs are of solitude, of women isolated, fearful and bored, staring into mirrors in empty rooms, sitting on the edge of a bath-tub with no-one to talk to, diminutive figures in a large and bleak space. Even a depiction of a woman on her wedding morning (1914) has nothing cheerful or optimistic about it – there is no bustle or activity around her, simply the woman herself in apprehensive solitude.
That the feminine condition itself was the abiding concern can be seen from her development in the last decade of her life. Both she and Copley changed greatly in this period, and it is one of the more remarkable aspects of their production that both managed to retain a distinctive style throughout their careers. Very often in artistic marriages, one comes to dominate and even overwhelm the other; Copley and Gabain, even though they collaborated and criticised each other, never fell into this trap. Towards the end, indeed, they began to diverge ever more notably. While Copley began to do strange, almost mystical subjects, Gabain headed in the other direction entirely.