Often I’ve felt overwhelmed at the Summer Exhibitions by the crowds and the works massed together higgledy-piggledy, but this year the exhibition is themed and great. It’s absolutely a ‘MUST GO’.
This fabulous exhibition made me feel I ought to get out my paints and pastels and start painting and drawing again. After I retired in 1991 I went to a wide variety of classes including drawing and painting.
Hear about the Art Class at the Mary Ward Centre in Queen Square I attended after I retired in 1991 in this excerpt from my memoir Woman in a White Coat’ – Chapter 26 pp 355-356 and pp 361-363
Chapter 26 Woman in a White Coat
I enrolled for lots of classes, some at one Further Education college and some at another – painting, drawing, cooking, history of art, Spanish, creative writing, pottery, dressmaking, machine knitting, felt making – everything I hadn’t had time for when I was working. It wasn’t just that I hadn’t had the time, I hadn’t had the inclination. My mind was always so full of work. Even when I was at the theatre, I would find myself thinking about a difficult diagnosis or a hiccup in our research.
Now I enjoyed the freedom of doing things that weren’t important, things that weren’t a matter of life and death.
‘It’s wonderful,’ I said to my art teacher. ‘Nothing I do now is critical. If my drawing of the model looks like a human being, great. If not, at least I produced something. If my new cookery dish tastes good, or if I can’t eat it and have to throw it out, if I manage to remember whether Rubens came first or Constable, it just doesn’t matter. You can’t imagine the relief and feeling of freedom. My life is no longer constantly punctuated by drama, by death, by irrevocable mistakes – where every word I put in a report is critical. It could be a matter of life or death if what I said in my report was misinterpreted by the surgeons and the wrong treatment given.
Most of us in the art class were retired, but there were some younger people. A few weeks into the term, a new young man came to our life class. Tall, with bleached blond hair and green eyes fringed with long dark lashes, he was gorgeous. Instead of getting out an easel, he went over to chat with our tutor. Minutes later he vanished behind the screen and came back nude. Of course, I had seen lots of nude men, alive as well as dead – seen them, felt them, prodded them. But there was something very different about a beautiful young man posing naked.
The tutor fussed about, getting him in a crouching position on the rug, head pointing forward as if ready for a race.
‘Right. Ten-minute sketch only. This is a tough position for Nick to hold’.
I washed over my sheet of paper with water and began to draw in brown ink on the wet paper with firm strokes.
As I looked at the blond shining hair now fallen over the young man’s face, I saw him as a wolf, the curls of gold hair on his lower belly spreading over his body, forming a tawny pelt. His face became elongated and his ears pricked up, turning to catch the sound, his deep purple tongue hanging out of his mouth between sharp jagged teeth, tail swishing angrily, chest heaving as he panted, powerful and fierce.
The tutor released that pose and this time Nick lay on the couch resting on his elbow. I drew him in purple with washes of colour showing the angular curve of his hip, the muscles of his chest.
At the break Nick put on a dressing gown and wandered around looking at the drawings.
‘I like that,’ he said to me. ‘Powerful but controlled.’
‘Is that how you see yourself?’ I asked.
‘Perhaps,’ he said.
‘I’d like a portrait this time,’ the tutor said.’ You’ve got an hour’.
I changed to a soft pencil. My drawing was dark and brooding. Although it captured Nick’s features, it portrayed an older more serious man. As he pushed back his hair with the heel of his hand, someone groaned. He smiled ruefully, said sorry, and pulled his hair back down over his forehead.
Our class always had lunch together in the college canteen. Nick went down with us and sat next to me. We laughed when we saw we had chosen the same mixture of salads, the same brown rolls sprinkled with sunflower seeds and a bottle of sparkling mineral water. We chatted about this and that, and got onto our childhoods. When I mentioned I’d been brought up in the East End of London, Nick said he was going to an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and would I like to come with him.
I took Nick to Blooms, the famous salt beef restaurant nearby. He was hungry again and wolfed down a salt beef sandwich thickly spread with mustard, reminding me of my vision of him in the art class.
After we went round the exhibition of new work by young artists, I wanted to look at the children’s library from which I had borrowed six books every week.
It was horribly changed. Instead of thousands of books there were hundreds. The tall stacks that had stretched from floor to ceiling in the adult library were replaced by low bookshelves.
Dated 1892, the copper plaque at the foot of the stairs was as shiny as ever. It was dedicated to J Passmore Edwards Esquire, in recognition of his generosity in defraying the cost of the building. The little museum with its fierce stuffed animals, pottery and copper utensils had gone. The librarian said it had been dismantled twenty years before. I felt cheated of my memories.