Express & Star

Wolverhampton playwright appeals for help to seek mystery behind painting

For Jefny Ashcroft, it is all about the hands.

Playwright Jefny Ashcroft is trying to find out more about Nurse Ivy Brown, who featured in a 1956 painting at Wolverhampton Art Gallery

From the moment she first clapped eyes on Irene Welburn’s 1956 painting entitled Nurse Brown from Jamaica, the Wolverhampton playwright has been mesmerised by the way the subject positioned her hands.

Now Jefny is hoping Express & Star readers can finally shed some light on the identity of the young Caribbean nurse in the painting.

The picture shows the nurse in full uniform, clasping her hands in an apparent diamond gesture.

Jefny, a former schoolteacher who has written a number of plays tackling local social history, says she was fixated by the painting from the first time she noticed it at Wolverhampton Art Gallery about four years ago.

“It wasn’t only the surprise of seeing a painting that celebrated a young black woman, in an era of race riots and discrimination, but also the fact that her hands looked so unusual,” she says. “Nurse Brown’s hands are very prominent and seem to be making a diamond shape.”

Jefny, who was so intrigued that she wrote a play called The Gesture, which has just finished a run at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, is appealing to Express & Star readers to solve the mystery of what became of Nurse Ivy Brown.

“I find it very frustrating that we know a good deal about the artist, but almost nothing about the attractive, confident young woman who she captured so well,” says Jefny.

Irene Welburn was born in Birmingham in 1910, and did her initial training at Moseley School of Art, and later continuing studies at Birmingham School of Art. The painting helped Welburn secure her place in the prestigious Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. For a time she served as secretary of the RBSA, and regularly contributed to shows at Wolverhampton Society of Artists, before her death in 2000. By contrast, we know next to nothing about Nurse Ivy Brown.

“We don’t know who Nurse Brown was, where she worked, or if she is, possibly in her late 80s, still alive,” says Jefny. After seeing the painting, Jefny organised an event at the 2020 Wolverhampton Literature Festival. The Art Gallery put the painting on display for three days and invited people to ask questions and make suggestions, but no information was forthcoming.

She was joined by Stafford artist Joy Baines who specialises in portraits of black people.

But while the exhibition attracted a lively audience, with lots of attention on the hand gesture, little light was shed on the identity of Nurse Brown.

Various suggestions were put forward about the possible meaning of the hand gesture, which Jefny used to create a short play. However, despite inquiries with the Royal College of Nursing, and an appeal in The Voice newspaper, which is aimed at the black community, the mystery remains.

Jefny’s play, The Gesture, finished a run at Wolverhampton Art Gallery this month.

“Sadly no new ideas about Nurse Brown were inspired by the play,” says Jefny.

“However she remains a thrilling reminder of the women who came from the Caribbean during the infancy of the NHS and played such a vital role. “We don’t know if she and Irene were friends – or perhaps Irene had been her patient – but we are indebted to both artist and sitter for a special reminder of those times.”

l Do you know who Nurse Ivy Brown was? Please email or telephone 01952 241491.