Watercolourist, book illustrator, printer and painter in oils, Isabel Alexander was born in Birmingham (1910) and educated at King Edward’s High School for Girls before attending Birmingham School of Art (1929-33) and the Slade, London (1934-5). She married Scottish documentary film director Donald Alexander (1939), and they had one son, Robin, before separating (1941). Alexander was, therefore, a single mother during the war years, but she taught part-time, and having participated with her erstwhile husband on documentaries, she continued to worked as art director on educational and medical films.
During the war years Alexander also travelled to Wales where, in drawings mostly, she documented the conditions of the coal miners. Some of these drawings were used as illustrations for the ‘Miner’s Day’, by Bert L. Coombes. Coombes was himself a miner, and the book recounts the bleak everyday activities inside and outside the pit, but Alexander’s drawings, with their attention to detail, highlight the human element, making poignant the experience of the individuals concerned.
In 1946 Puffin Picture Books contracted Alexander to write and illustrate ‘The Story of Plant Life’. She wrote the text, but also prepared the lithographs for the book’s illustrations – a process in which she was helped by Barnett Freedman, master lithographer who worked at the Curwen Press – and along with others in the series, this book today remains a collector’s item.
In 1949, Alexander took up full-time employment as a trainer of art teachers at Saffron Walden Teacher’s Training College. Over the next 40 years she turned, in her private work, to paint – mostly to the painting of landscapes and seascapes, and whilst staying principally within a realist framework, she became interested, latterly, in abstraction. She travelled extensively, in Britain and continental Europe, but much of her time was spent in Scotland’s Hebridean islands.
Over her lifetime there were 36 public exhibitions of Alexander’s work, with nine solo exhibitions. Most of her work is in private collections – mainly in Britain, the US, Australia and China, but there are public holdings at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea; the Tulley House Museum, Carlisle, Mercer Gallery, Harrogate, and at the University of Cambridge.