The Dead Mother

All life is light and shadow and the struggle to hold those two in balance. I know that at the extremes, my preoccupations can seem hard to make sense of. One moment artworks I know viewers can find hard to look at, and the next, animations in which the characters of Victorian Harlequinade spring to joyful life.  Night versus day, dusk versus dawn, grief versus joy.

At the private view of my Autumn 2021 Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition, a man I barely knew began quizzing me. Gesturing to the walls teeming with illustrations for Simon Armitage’s about-to-be-published The Owl & the Nightingale, he said “So you don’t paint anymore.” (Note the statement, not a question.) I’m always taken aback when someone is challenging almost from the first sentence. I didn’t want to defend myself to a man putting words into my mouth, so I replied simply, “I paint every day.” He carried on regardless, again gesturing to the walls. “Yeah but not REAL paintings any more, you know…” and here he grappled for words … “… the BIG ones!”  Me, fixing his eye. ”I paint the things that I care about, and I always have. And now you’ll excuse me.”

The first subject matter that brought me serious attention as an artist was The Mare’s Tale in 2001. As an exploration of a nightmarish experience in my father’s childhood he carried with him for more than eighty years, the work has often been described by others as  ‘the son’s exploration of the father’s trauma’. It was partially that, but it was also grief, not only for my dad, but for the many of my family and friends who had gone.

In Simon Armitage’s extraordinary reworking of Hansel & Gretel, the children’s parents are not the malign mother and weak father of the Grimm Brothers’ original tale. Simon sets the story in an unnamed war-torn country, and the children are not abandoned but in an act of parental desperation, directed away from home and bombings. They’re migrant children. At the end of the story they return home to find their father broken, their home in ruins and their mother, dead and buried in a coffin made from their bomb-splintered beds. When making the illustrations for the book (Design for Today, 2019) I researched, made hundreds of studies and drew on memories that are always with me.

My mother’s health had been catastrophically compromised by childhood meningitis. I think she can only have been in her thirties when she had her first heart attack, and though she lived another three decades, the steady advance of heart and organ failure was unstoppable. She was courageous and fought to be well, and there were times of respite when illness didn’t shadow her so heavily.

But in the end, it got her. In those days visiting hours in hospital were strict. No matter how ill the patient, there were no exceptions to the rules. My mother died alone in a public ward without anyone she loved to hold her hand. It was the end she feared most, and not a damned thing that we could do to stop it. We were called at the crack of dawn and raced to the hospital. It would have been kinder of the nurse to tell us the truth in the phone call. Instead we drove like maniacs only to find my mother icy-cold in her bed, having died hours earlier. My father retreated to a corridor, buried his face in an alcove and howled like a dog. I held my mother’s hand and studied her face, careworn with illness but still beautiful. 

All life gets poured into my art. Here she is, recalled in the illustration in Hansel & Gretel of the dead mother in her unlined coffin, tenderly garlanded with flowers.

21 thoughts on “The Dead Mother

  1. I’ve arrived late at this post, (the email was hidden in Junk)……a beautiful, tenderly written post Clive, she was a lovely lady your mum, (and I especially love her frock!) So sad that you and your dad were denied the last final intimacy of being by her side at a time when it matters most. BTW, I think you dealt perfectly with that rather silly remark, what a pity people get these fixed ideas about artists into their heads! Non artists have no idea how much work is required to produce anything from small vignette to “big painting”. with love on a cold dreary day in France xxxxL

    • Dearest Lizzie. It’s touching that you recall and remember my mum. She died in 1984 and I’m guessing you can’t have met her many times because you and I didn’t know each other until 1983. The extraordinary thing is that I went to work the day she died. I recall sitting in an office at Princess Street drafting technical drawings for ‘Robin Hood’ for all the world as though nothing had happened. The workshop deadlines were crushing but nonetheless anyone would have understood had I not turned up that day. In a way the work helped. She’d been ill so long there was a sense of guilty relief. For the last stage of her journey she’d been in constant discomfort. We’d known for quite a while she was hanging by a thread.

      It’s staggering how people you don’t know feel free to march straight up and launch in with comments clearly intended to provoke a reaction. From the moment the man at my exhibition PV opened his mouth I knew what I was in for. All the clues were in his approach, his body language, confidence, self-absorption and incapacity to see – or care – about how the artist might feel about what was being said. Although I know how to extricate myself from such things both swiftly and politely, it DID rattle me. He didn’t so much ask questions than demand I agree with his assertions. It’s a technique aggressive journalist use, beginning a sentence with “So you…”, followed by THEIR take on the matter and adding a question mark at the end of it by way of requiring you to agree or defend yourself. He’d also declared himself disappointed that Simon Armitage wasn’t present (it had never been suggested he would be) and started the conversation by saying he’d hoped to meet him but presumably now he was Laureate he was too big to bother with me! Truly! He SAID that! I smiled – albeit glacially – and left him in no doubt that was emphatically not the case, and my relationship with Simon was no different to how it was before his appointment. But when things are put to you in this way, whatever you say sounds defensive, because the other person is aggressive from the start. Tell you what though, if I see him coming at me again he’ll have to chase me round the gallery, because I won’t have another conversation with him.

  2. Oh dear far away Instagram friend, thank you so much for the story of your mother and her picture. I have the same. You make sad things shine softly and beautifully.

  3. No matter how many times I hear the recounted details of your mother’s death, my heart breaks for you both… and your father. To have been denied the chance to comfort her in her last moments was so cruel. Tragically, I know the same heartbreak is happening in hospital wards all over the world during COVID… a fate I fear, not so much for myself, but for my wife and children should they become seriously ill with it.

  4. Thank You Clive !!!
    This is a beautiful story, sad but not reproachful, and loving at the same time. And the picture of the dead mother, your dead mother, and of all dead mothers, is great.

    You are an Artist, and a Poet, and I am sure, a Musician, at the same time. In your work it is not just the texture that matters; the feeling, and the idea under it is just as important.
    Love from Madrid

    • Maria, thank you. I appreciate your thoughts on this. New Year is always for me a time of reflection. I leave the celebrations and hedonism to the young. I want to think about my loved ones at the turn of the year, both those not present, and those who have gone. It is a time of missing. I know how much you will understand this, because it is the same for you.

  5. Dear Clive

    I love your work always happy to hear your thoughts and inspirations and reasoning. Happy New Year

    Sent from the all-new AOL app for iOS

  6. Such a powerful, heart rending image Clive. It’s difficult to put into words how it makes me feel; so personal and tender, but there’s some dark, eternal force about it too.
    As for that odd comment by the person at your exhibition – one of the many things I admire about you and your work is how you’ve managed to evade the fate that quite a few artists succumb to, which is doing a particular thing well, having success with it, and then getting tied to it. Your work always seems a product of an incredibly lively and inquisitive creativity, and whatever you do, the amazing quality never wavers – you’re an inspiration!

    • Phil, you and I share the loss of loved ones, and my guess is that midwinter is a poignant time because we all feel these things much more strongly at New Year, when the sadnesses come back to haunt us.

      I must tell you that I do sometimes have my doubts, and it is not a nice thing when those with Teflon-armoured plating feel they can pretty much say whatever crap comes into their heads when they have you trapped at an exhibition opening, because they imagine you won’t feel their pinching, or they don’t care. (I’m not sure which is worse.) Another thing you and I share is a persistent need to push our own boundaries. I’m so glad we’ve occasionally got to do that together, and I hope we may do so again one day.

      • Indeed Clive, I do feel the loss more keenly at this time of year, perhaps because I’m a bit more hunkered down at home and have more time with myself and my thoughts, indoors, in the gloom.
        And thank you for talking about doubts, and being a sensitive human being; it’s always heartening to hear artists talk about the more difficult feelings that we all feel and that come with the territory. You’ve taught me the value of pushing boundaries, and I’m very grateful!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s