John Frye Bourne (1912-1991)

Harpenden artist, glimpsed from a newspaper cutting from 1948

John Frye Bourne putting the finishing touches to “The Resting Land Girl”, 1948

John Frye Bourne was the son of the former Congregational minister, the Rev. A A Bourne of 32 Milton Road, Harpenden. Born in Hampstead in 1912, he studied at the Royal Academy and had his first portrait exhibited at the Academy in May 1932, and a second one a year later – according to a cutting from the Harpenden Free Press (HFP) on 15 October 1948.

The HFP article was prompted by an exhibition of Bourne’s paintings, including his full-length portrait of “Diana” which had been shown at the Royal Academy (Summer?) exhibition in 1948. The Harpenden exhibition consisted of 15 oil paintings and a number of water colours and was on view in a room adjoining the offices of Harpenden Water Company for two days in October 1948.

John Frye Bourne: The Lacrosse Girl, 1950

The exhibition included “The Resting Land-Girl”, a lunch-time scene in a cornfield. According to the report, Mr Bourne’s land-girl came from Harpenden, “as did most of his other models, and though the portraits only appear under christian names or other titles, most faces are familiar to Harpenden people”. All but two of the portraits on show featured women. Many had been done in Mr Bourne’s studio in the garden of his home ‘Broom Cottage’ on West Common (see photo below) to which he had moved in 1948.  The “Land Girl” posed there with two corn-sheaves borrowed from a farmer. The actual cornfield and the background were painted from imagination.

The HFP article illustration is all we have at present, but perhaps his paintings of “Peggy”, “Pamela”, “Rosemary”, “Elizabeth”, or even “Diana” (“a tall striking woman in an evening gown of rich burgundy, standing side-face to a mirror”) have remained in Harpenden?* see Comment below.

His wife, formerly Miss Norah Hett of Aldwickbury, was a water colourist who exhibited at several Hertfordshire Art Society shows. She had been Honorary Secretary of the Society when John joined, and she asked him to give her some lessons.

The war years

According to the report, Mr Bourne served as a major in a camouflage unit in Italy during the 1939-45 war, and he had been in North Africa both before and after Alamein. He had also served in Egypt. He told the Free Press reporter that he had decided to paint as many portraits as possible in a year, in an attempt to regain his skill after his long war-time absence in the Army.

Attempts to find more information about John Frye Bourne on the internet showed him listed in various auction houses but with no biographical details at all, and no paintings in current auctions. Just two paintings are illustrated, including one of of a girl with a lacrosse stick, who appears to be wearing St George’s School sportswear. However, Google points to the portrait of Sir Halley Stewart, dated 1930, on this website. If the date is correct, this would have been while he was still a student.

John Frye Bourne painting Daisy on Nomansland Common


Broom Cottage, West Common Grove, home of John Frye Bourne from 1948-1956


John and Norah Frye Bourne moved away from Harpenden in 1956, when they bought a farm at Sidbury in Devon.

Farming, and then caring for his invalid wife meant that he did little painting after 1969.

PS – another Harpenden girl?

An image of a Woman in blue has been added to the website by Tom Reid – can anyone identify her?

Comments about this page

  • John Frye Bourne was a Trustee of the Chelsea Arts Club for many years. There is more information about him in Tom Cross’s history of the Club “Artists and Bohemians” pub. 1992. I held the 1987 retrospective exhibition in my gallery in Chelsea.
    It was curated by John “Jack” Warner who was a long-standing friend of the artist and past Chair of the CAC.

    By Stephen Bartley (06/10/2022)
  • I’m delighted to have been successful in purchasing The Lacrosse Girl by John Frye Bourne at auction, in May 2021. The painting will be much enjoyed here in Edinburgh, further to receiving minor conservation treatment – bringing back memories of times on the lacrosse pitch!

    By Imogen Gibbon (06/10/2021)
  • A catalogue of a retrospective exhibition of John Frye Bourne’s work in 1987 has recently been added to our archives. The flyleaf is inscribed “To Margaret from John, Christmas 1987”. It contains reproductions of several of his studies of Harpenden girls, pupils at St George’s School, as confirmed by Bridget Cobb: the Lacrosse Girl was Kay Sanders. Among the illustrations is a colour reproduction of “Diana: Portrait of a Lady in Red”, which has been added to the page above. 

    The biographical note explains that John Frye’s father sought advice from Frank O Salisbury, when John was applying to the Royal Academy – where he became the youngest student, aged 16. After finishing his studies he set up a studio at St John’s Wood. Meanwhile in the early 1930s his parents had moved to Harpenden. They persuaded him to join them at their house, 32 Milton Road, where he converted the garage into a studio and worked on many commissioned portraits.

    On his marriage to Norah Hett, the daughter of a wealthy local family, the couple moved to a small cottage where Norah was unable to cope with domestic trivia. The need to employ a house-keeper put a strain on their finances.

    By Rosemary Ross (10/03/2016)

    We are delighted to receive this comment with links to more about one of our local artists. Ed

    John Frye Bourne was a contemporary of my mother’s at the Royal Academy Schools in the early 1930s. He and his wife Norah lived for many years at Sidbury in Devon.

    This link has a biography which mentions him living in Hertfordshire.

    This link gives an index to a publication which apparently has 4 pages devoted to John Frye Bourne.

    The Bourne Footpath near Sidmouth was created in memory of John Frye and Norah Bourne.

    Ed. Please note defra could not confirm that this permissive path is still available (2017)


    By Sue Castle-Henry (05/07/2013)

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