Stella Steyn 1907-1987

Stella Steyn was an Irish-Jewish artist.


Born in Dublin in 1907 to William Steyn, a dentist, and Bertha Jaffe, who had moved to Ireland from Akmené, Lithuania, the couple having met and married in Limerick.


Steyn studied at Alexandra College and in 1924 the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now the National College of Art and Design). In 1926, aged 18, in the company of her mother and fellow artist Hilda Roberts, she went to Paris to study at the Académie Scandinave and at La Grande Chaumière. When she decided to go to the French capital, her painting tutor Patrick Tuohy (1894–1930) arranged for Steyn to have an introduction to James Joycewhose portrait Tuohy had painted in 1924.


When Steyn met Joyce she thought the controversial writer appeared fragile, with his languid manner and eye patch. She remembered an encounter with him: 'One late afternoon I had called for Lucia and was sitting waiting for her when he came into the room and, taking no notice of me, he went to the piano and with his head bowed over his hands, accompanying himself, he sang some melancholy Irish songs in a low, sad, voice. I said "You must miss Ireland." He replied, "I do." I said "Would you not like to go back?" He replied, "No. They jeer too much."' Despite his air of melancholy, though, Steyn remembered Joyce as a disconcerting figure and was afraid of him.


Joyce, however, liked Steyn's work enough to ask her to teach his daughter Lucia art, and the two women became friends. Lucia was talented – a professional dancer – but she was also troubled, and was eventually to be institutionalised. Although the Joyce family made efforts to downplay Lucia's importance in James Joyce's life and deter outside interest in her, to the extent, even, of destroying her letters, more recent research has suggested that Lucia Joyce was in fact a major influence on her father's novel 'Finnegan's Wake' (1939). Her personality and even her speech patterns echo on its pages.


Steyn knew the Joyces during the years when Joyce was writing his magnum opus 'Finnegan's Wake', and he invited her to make illustrations for an instalment of the work in progress – Anna Livia Plurabelle – to appear in the experimental modernist magazine TransitionSteyn accepted the commission, but when she read the excerpt she found it incomprehensible and was brave enough to tell the author so. 'Today I would have said that I understood him,' she wrote, 'but I am afraid at that age I did not lie, and so had to admit to him that I did not.' He advised her to respond instead to the musicality of the language and explained something of the characters, setting and plot, and the prints she made were published in 1929 in an edition with a cover by Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948).


While in Paris she met Samuel Beckett, and in 1928, Steyn was awarded the Tailteann Silver Medal at the Metropolitan in Dublin. She also competed in the art competitions at the 1928 Summer Olympics. After leaving France, she enrolled at the Bauhaus in Germany in 1931.


In 1938, she married David Ross, a Professor of French at the University of London, whom she had met in Germany in 1933. They lived in England, where Ross worked as an academic in a number of universities. Steyn had a one-woman exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1951, and three years later a joint show was held there with Ivon Hitchens (1893–1979).


Steyn disappeared from the public eye for many years, until the 1990s, when exhibitions of her work were held at the Gorry Gallery, Dublin, and in London.