Reflecting

Self Portrait with Pink Hair

During a recent conversation, I was prompted to dig out an old self-portrait of myself, made in May 1994, when as may be apparent I was strongly influenced by the portraits of Lucian Freud. When I drew it I was still recovering from a serious case of pneumonia some months earlier which had seen me miss most of the winter term and had left me very thin and weak. It took me quite a while to recover my strength. In May 1994 Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. I had been in a state that I might call quasi-living – I only just managed to exist when I was ill and I think the illness made me recognise with some urgency the shortness of life. Certainly, as Heidegger suggests, my greater consciousness of death allowed me a greater consciousness of my free will and so it was that I decided to cut off all my hair and have it dyed pink and do other radical things in my life. The pink hair was partly in reaction to the death of Kurt Cobain and partly to the feminist texts I was studying, partly in reaction to a lot of the Riot Grrrl culture that was increasingly apparent and partly, it has to be said, inspired by a photograph of a woman with a pixie cut dyed pale blue in Parisian Vogue.

I didn’t have very much money so I opted for a £5 student cut at Vidal Sassoon in central Glasgow. I had very long hair and the girl was pretty nervous when I told her what I wanted and she kept saying “Are you sure”? “Are you really sure?” I felt a bit like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, when she repeatedly tells the reluctant hairdresser “All off!”

It took hours, first cutting the hair and then bleaching it – which took quite a lot as my hair is dark and then the dye. It was beautiful, she had mixed the bright pink with little marblings of purple. On my way back from the salon I popped into King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut where I had enquired about a job, Frankie, the bar manager, saw me straight away and I walked out with a job.

I drew this picture shortly afterwards. It was the beginning of a new and exciting phase of my life where looking back, I was incredibly brave. The shoulders look large because I was wearing my brother’s striped t-shirt and it hung off my shoulders, which are quite square due to my love of swimming! I wish I had worn something daintier now!

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Lead Kindly Light

The coincidences are often manifold. I have had some spiritual counselling about them, but sometimes I think I need more.  Often it isn’t just one phenomenon but a series of things which all resonate with one another like sentences in a book. Sometimes the crossover of things is so complex and far reaching into my past that it feels like a series of machine gun bullets, bullets of realisation through my very soul. This is one set of these things which although may count against my sanity, and any future employment, I recount here hopefully to give hope.

It is hard to draw a line as to when these started but for storytelling’s sake (and I must stress that all of this is true) I will begin at the moment I sat down at the kitchen table on the first day of the school holidays in 2015 with no work in hand, no money for a summer holiday and feeling utterly alone. I have two children but I lacked adult company, my children quite naturally and properly have their own friends. So I had sat down to a very lonely lunch – my daughter in town with friends, my son upstairs working on his latest creative scheme. I missed my friends from university – we have drifted apart and live all over the world – I’ve never really bonded in the same way with any other set of people. Possibly my own fault, but I’d been a single parent for 13 years and had little social life. In any case I was in one of those deeply morbid self pitying states and tears of long time loneliness were beginning to well in my eyes. In a moment of desperation, (was it?) I fished a prayer card out of my purse. I’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about “The Light of the World” by Holman Hunt but what followed and continued to follow in the subsequent months has rather changed my mind about it. It’s a very pretty, even elegant, painting but I always found it ever so slightly cloying and precious – no more. It is deeply holy or perhaps it is because of what it illustrates. What happened was I turned the card over, on the other side is an extract from The Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine.

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Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

If it is possible to imagine it felt as though my soul urgently reached out to meet Christ, literally lurched out from inside me. I was so alone – I wanted someone to sup with!  At that split second the telephone rang. I was rather shocked: it was my father. We had been on bad terms over the past few weeks, but he was ringing to tell me that my Uncle and Aunt were at a family reunion of my Aunt’s American family in Northumberland, that we were all invited. My Aunt’s cousin is an Anglican priest in Newcastle and he had arranged for the family to stay in a large rambling Arts and Crafts Anglican retreat house. Many members of my aunts family had trekked across the globe to be there. They had been there two or three days already and we might catch the last couple of days. We were still welcome to join them if we wished. I have no idea why my father neglected to tell me about this sooner but I had to accept his apology. Thus immediately (we had to pack right away) we had an instant mini break, in the most beautiful Edwardian Arts & Crafts house, a house right out of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with panelling and huge fireplaces and William Morris wallpaper – the family welcomed us and we were all suddenly immersed in love. The house was set in beautiful grounds conducive to reflection. There was a bright little library where I found a book by my Granny’s cousin – the same side of the family about which I later relate! There was a croquet lawn and we had several games before we had to pack up and go home.

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On our return, perhaps out of pity,  my father offered us £200 to help us to go away for a little holiday – with two teenage children this does not go far, so we searched for inexpensive stays. We had longed to stay in Oxford for years and looked at the college accommodation. At the lower end of the price list was St. Edmund Hall  which had a triple room we could afford for a couple of nights but as I waited for the money to clear I watched those rooms slip out of reach. By the time I had the ready funds we had to move our dates and choose a different college –  the only one with suitable / affordable rooms was Keble. I had to ring my father to check the new dates were ok since he was looking after our elderly dog, he didn’t mind so we went ahead and booked to stay at Keble on 25th August. We were so excited!

Whenever my children and I travel I always try to make the holiday last longer by having mini adventures on the journey. In a previous year we had stopped off in Oxford on our way to stay with a relative. This time we decided to break our journey in Leicester. This was due to two strands of interest: firstly in Richard III who had recently been found in a car park there, and secondly because of some family research I had come across obliquely whilst researching background to our family for my book on Frances Darlington. Brought up with the belief about the Richard III conspiracy fostered by the Tudors, my parents and I had attended a talk in Ripon by Philippa Langley on her book on Richard III and her amazing journey of discovery, (more extraordinary coincidences). My ancestor, my granny’s uncle Sir Hayes Marriott had done a lot of family research and found the family tree going way back to the Plantagenets on one side and members of their court, the Tuchets, on the other. Intrigued and with all the new accessibility the internet affords I had found that they had joined the Yorkist cause when they met Edward and Richard in Flanders and had attended the coronations of both brothers. Under Edward, John Tuchet had been Master of the King’s Dogs which appealed greatly to my sensibilities. So a visit to Leicester seemed quite the most important thing to do, we planned our afternoon visit there so as to arrive in Oxford in time for dinner. It was as we went around the fascinating museum in Leicester that I began to realise how amazing our date change had been, for it was thought to be the anniversary of Richard’s original burial in the original grave by his Franciscan hosts.

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Standing on the glass floor which is now above the original grave of Richard III with projection of his skeleton as it was found.

If you know me, and my research on Frances Darlington, you will realise the tremendous significance of these being Franciscan monks. I have had a life long affection for St. Francis and his order. This was the first year in all those centuries that Richard had not been in that grave; the first anniversary of his original burial when he had been properly buried as a King in the Cathedral across the road.  The museum had thoughtfully put fresh white roses around the empty tomb and there was a tape of monks chanting which felt very moving and holy.  Prominent relatives such as Benedict Cumberbatch had attended the reburial and as we crossed the Cathedral precinct to pay our respects I mused upon the ordinariness of our visit which was really special to me but no one else.

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We entered the cathedral via a small path at the side and this felt small and humble, quite in keeping with the idea of Richard that has formed in my head, a man who liked St. Anthony of Egypt and his medieval celebrants who toured the country with those beloved pigs he took for his crest, the Richard who gave tax relief to booksellers and hoped to build universities in the North of England. The cathedral felt filled with quiet energy, cool and calm but powerful in an enduring and gentle way. It made me question my notion of “Peace” as nothingness. It is not nothingness, it is something very positive, gentle and beneficent, a golden calm, a warmth in quiet, a chorus in coolness, majesty in humility. When we say Rest in Peace – it is not death or the end at all, no, something much more like “be at ease in a place devoid of worry or harm and filled with kindly light”. The vergers were very welcoming and the place had bright contemporary tapestries.

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Modern Replica of the Bosworth Processional Cross

Looking around I thought of Bosworth field and of my valiant ancestors, of the loss and sorrow (and in one case a humiliating execution) they suffered under Henry VII. I wondered whether they had attended to the body of their dead King and whether they were present at the burial. The tomb is in an inner sanctuary of the church, right in the heart of the building. It was fairly busy with a light and quiet chatter among the visitors. I had quite a lump in my throat and faced with the white roses of York, there were more here on the tomb, pure white roses nestled into a crown of thorns. I thought of York where I went to school, and Richard, he of every rainbow I’d learned to spell out – as an artist this runs deep with me: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet – Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.

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The Tomb of Richard III – Loyalty Binds Me

To the shock and consternation of everyone around me I knelt by the side of his tomb and prayed. This was of course hugely embarrassing to my two teens and I was possibly blushing myself, but I felt so much – I was so overwhelmed by it all. When I read this back it is quite comical, I don’t think I can write it properly, I was a clown dabbing my eyes as I got back into the car and drove the rest of our journey to Oxford.

I always tend to do a bit of research as to where I’m going and I had been intrigued by the coincidence that Keble was intrinsically connected to The Oxford Movement. I have been heavily absorbed by the Pre-Raphaelites on and off since I was a teenager when I wrote my A-level art dissertation on Pre-Raphaelite influences on the Aesthetic Movement. The Pre-Raphaelites of course have connections to this religious movement and John Keble may be a familiar name to some from hymn books. I’d also had spiritual experiences connected with John Henry Newman – also connected with my research into Frances Darlington – I’d come across an autographed letter in a scrap book in the West Yorkshire archive and could not resist stroking my hand across his original handwriting. It was opposite the most exquisitely ornamented work where the scrapbook owner had written out the lyrics to Lead Kindly Light in careful calligraphy and painted embellishments around the edge. I had felt tremendous beatification in the moment and had a waking dream about Newman the following morning which was also incidentally my birthday, in it Newman, apparently outside the walls of my school, (what used to be the Bar Convent) was waving vigorously, cheerfully with such nervous energy I felt exhilarated and enormously happy. It was with some shock I realised my children had bought me one of his texts for my birthday which they presented to me soon after this dream.

We were exhausted by the time we had found dinner in Oxford and decided to explore more the next day. The first thing, perhaps to be expected in a college so closely connected with The Oxford Movement, was a wonderful and fairly casual looking portrait of Cardinal Newman – not in Cardinal robes as I had seen him before, but in ordinary priest clothes – normal, much much more accessible, I ate my breakfast opposite this painting in some deep thought!

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After breakfast we decided to explore the college and visited the chapel. perhaps it is common knowledge and anyone reading this will have been waiting for this point, but it was to my own personal amazement to see a side chapel extended to the right of the main chapel dedicated to the painting “The Light of the World”. That which had been on my prayer card, still in my purse. This had not been our first choice of college or our first choice of date, outside factors had chosen for us!

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It seems only appropriate to include the lyrics to Lead Kindly Light. My last little coincidence is that I have always referred to my best and dearest as “Angel-face”. Perhaps that will stick now. Apologies for any embarrassment caused.

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,–

Lead thou me on!

Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene,–one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou

Shouldst lead me on:

I loved to choose and see my path, but now

Lead thou me on!

I loved the garish days, and, spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still

Will lead me on;

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till

The night is gone;

And with the morn those angel faces smile

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile. 

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

 

 

An article about the poem and hymn is here https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3668066/The-story-behind-the-hymn.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ-wST3Ej0g

Hylas & The Nymphs

Up until I was 17 this was the only image I had ever seen of Waterhouse’s masterpiece, Hylas and the Nymphs. Even so it captivated me when I saw it and strengthened my resolve to become a painter. There was something so poetic about the half submerged forms, like classical statues in still, clear water. The non-verbal communication, the magnetic gaze of the nymphs, is so intensely powerful that it has a quality one usually finds in music or poetry. The black and white image is from a collection of Royal Academy annuals that belonged to my grandmother’s father. I would spend hours looking at the annuals on Sunday afternoons after lunch when we had returned from our usual Sunday walk with my grandparents.  Hylas and the Nymphs featured in the 1897 annual and the book was always my favourite because of this painting. As a result the year 1897 became synonymous in my mind with a type of velvet aestheticism, old gilt and deeply scented roses. Later when I was in Sixth Form the piece informed my A-level dissertation on Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement.

The annuals are filled with similar Victorian narrative paintings, such as La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee which illustrated the poem of the same title by Keats. Such paintings describe a type of sensuality typical of the late Victorian era. It is a type of wooziness first seen in the work of the Rossettis, in the poetry of Christina Rossetti e.g. Goblin Market (1859-62), and then in the paintings and poetry of her brother Dante Gabriel, e.g. Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70). This is what Jan Marsh in her excellent biography of Christina Rossetti calls “the dominant late-Victorian poetic mode, with its intense but dream like imaginative world.”

In Sixth Form in York I had a group of friends and we were all equally bewitched by this vein of painting and the poetry it frequently illustrated, e.g. Keats, Tennyson (especially The Lady of Shallot). We were of our time, Athena and other card and design companies had done much to boost the fashion for the Pre-Raphaelites in the late 1980s which also saw us grow our hair into Rossetti-like tresses and seek out the most Medieval looking clothes. We all related to Anne of Green Gables. One weekend this rather eccentric group of seventeen year olds made a pilgrimage to see Hylas and the Nymphs and other Victorian paintings at Manchester City Art Gallery (as well as the various alternative hip emporiums then to be found in the Corn Exchange). We all stood transfixed in front of Waterhouse’s work. I was the only pupil in my year to be taking Art at A-level and seeing the original painting after so many years of looking at it in reduced black and white print had a tremendous effect upon me, emotionally, intellectually and creatively.  I remember my eyes welling up at the use of greens and browns, the vividity and depth of the colours, the water, the green, green water, the passages of flesh so deftly rendered, and the overall effect of the painting which seduces the eye and bewitches, perfectly capturing the subject matter, the intoxication of the verse it illustrates. It is still in my mind one of the most beautiful paintings in the world.

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Quite naturally I bought a poster of the work for my room and it is the only poster that I have had professionally framed. With my wages from my part time job at a local bookshop I chose a dark wood frame carved with an Art-Nouveau pattern, and this is still one of my most treasured possessions despite the print not quite getting the colours right! It is redolent of a ground breaking moment in my life as a painter and a very happy day out with my friends from Sixth Form.

My last blog post on here almost anticipates my reaction to the grounds for the removal of this incredible work from Manchester City Art Gallery this week. Apparently this was a “creative act” by the “artist” Sonia Boyce, who sees the women as “pubescent” and the work as sexual. My previous blog was in response to the reaction to Emma Watson’s photoshoot for Tim Walker which I did not see as at all sexual or a reversal of her role as feminist ambassador. I consider myself a feminist but think Sonia Boyce’s recent intervention to be a clumsy ham-fisted reaction, one completely lacking in any discernment or subtlety.

In 2015 I submitted a proposal for a piece in the International Women’s Day event at Manchester City Art Gallery, “In Case of Emergency Break Glass,” a one day gallery takeover event. I wanted to make something in response to the Waterhouse but my proposal was rejected. I’m pretty glad it was because making the proposal and continuing with the work I had begun for it forced me to examine some delicate questions about my own reactions to this work and the real reasons I wanted to be involved. My proposal had centred on the notion of the femme fatale, of the woman temptress, who since Eve offered Adam a bite of her apple has traditionally led man to his doom. I was not angry about any sexuality present in the painting, and I think there is very little, but at the continuance of the myth that women are somehow an evil and unreliable presence in the world. An attitude I have sadly met with again and again in my relationships with men. One man likened me to a siren, a figure tempting him to his downfall and let’s face it, it takes two.

When the piece was rejected I continued with the work and the real reasons for my wanting to pursue the venture emerged. It was pure admiration of Waterhouse’s work, which is a masterpiece and nothing less. Copying a work forces the artist to recognise composition in a very physical way. In the pre-internet days of 1991 my mother had gone to extreme lengths to obtain an out-of-print book on Waterhouse by Anthony Hobson for my birthday. Hobson relates what he refers to as Waterhouse’s “key-hole” composition which he employs in several of his paintings, where the figures or a room encircle the protagonist. This composition format is employed in Hylas and the Nymphs. The gentle lilt and curve of the women amidst the repeated oval motif of the waterlilies does much to render music to this composition, a gentleness so precipitous of poor Hylas’s fate. It is so much more than a “nymph titty” painting as one of Boyce’s collaborators so eloquently put it on a post-it note that replaced the painting. My reaction to the removal of the work and its replacement with such ignorant commentary is pure anger. This anger stems not only from the removal of my favourite painting but an increased trend I see for eradicating the presence of talent and a celebration of the banal in the interests of some ill thought out “democratising” of the art world.

I don’t know but I suspect that Boyce comes from London where there is a wealth of painting to look at. Anyone who lives within affordable travel distance of London (from here it costs £100 for a day return) is enormously privileged in a way only those who do not can fully understand. Da Vincis, Titians, Waterhouses, Monets, Van Dycks, all within walking distance of each other. Art gallery collections in the North are miles apart from each other and a trip to each one a great excursion. If you remove a significant piece from any regional collection you are not democratising art you are robbing the demos itself.

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