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’ 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.