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Born in Cape Town in 1927 Noelle Ora Georgette Sandwith was the only child of the English journalists and photographers Francis and Frieda Sandwith. Art UK has four of her pictures, all at the Royal Free. The British Museum has a collection of her oil paintings and other works. She produced large numbers of paintings, drawings and etchings in a variety of styles.

Sandwith grew up in Carshalton. Her painting Westcroft, Carhalton, Surrey shows her parents’ house, which survives today; and Francis Sandwith, Reading depicts her father. She trained at art schools in Kingston, Croydon and at Hatherley’s. Her first job was in an advertising agency, drawing portraits of film stars from photographs.

Aged 23 she travelled to Sydney to meet her uncle, with whom she soon embarked on a visit to Tonga during 1950–1951. From August 1952 over the summer to February 1953 she hitchhiked along the then remote Birdsville Track, a cattle droving route from southern Queensland to South Australia. Along the way she drew the characters and scenes of the outback, mostly in pencil, but with some pastels too; more than 100 of those works are in the National Museum Australia in Canberra, and a couple of the pastels are at the Royal Free. 

Later in 1953 she was off to the south Pacific again, to Fiji, Samoa and even Pitcairn Island, but also for an extended stay in Tonga. Sandwith was the first to paint Queen Salote’s portrait, required to await a cabinet meeting of Tongan nobles to be convened before permission could be granted. The oil painting of the Tongan hut dates from this trip: what had been a dark and vague scene has been transformed by cleaning into a rich contrast of shining colours and arboreal shade. New research matching this image exactly with one of her photographs now in the British Museum enables the subject to be specifically identified as ‘Manese Kavaliku’s fale, Nuku’alofa, Tonga’, a fale being a traditional thatched house. Sandwith came across this house on a hill behind the royal palace, asking the owners if they minded her painting it. The next day she put up her easel, the family spreading bananas and pineapples on a coconut mat for her refreshment. Manese was the schoolmaster of the Free Church of Tonga. Sandwith’s two oil portraits of his niece, Sina Kavaliku, are in the British Museum, and the interior of the same hut is the subject of another painting that was sold at Christie’s in New York in 2012. Tongan people called Sandwith ’ta’ahine tavali‘, meaning the drawing girl.

Back in London in 1955 Sandwith decided to study nursing, completing her training at the Royal Free Hospital in 1959. After practising as a hospital nurse she worked as a health visitor in east London until she retired in 1979. A working trip to Canada in 1965 produced more sketches. She exhibited from time to time, including in at least two Summer Exhibitions in the 1960s, and in gouache designed deliciously coloured book covers. She died in 2006.

William Marsden (1796–1867)

William Marsden (1796–1867) 1850

Thomas Henry Illidge (1799–1851)

That Sandwith worked at the Royal Free Hospital was fitting, since through her mother she was a fourth generation descendant of its founder, William Marsden. Her mother, Frieda Sandwith, née Johnson, published a biography of Marsden in 1960 entitled Surgeon Compassionate.

Kim Fleming
, Chairman, Works of Art Committee, The Royal Free