My artistic mother

HELsculpt2

 

My late mother died at the age of 60 in 1980. Her mother, who was born late in the 19th century in South Africa, held an old-fashioned opinion that girls should not attend university however bright they were. My mother would certainly have been able to cope with a university course of study, but, instead, she enrolled in the prestigious Michaelis  School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Founded in 1925, it is now ironically a department of the University of Cape Town.

Mom studied commercial art. Her first employment was hand painting posters, advertising cinema films. When I began visiting India in the 1990s, many film posters were still being painted by hand. Often, we saw workers perched on rickety bamboo scaffolding, painting the details of huge posters. Two years ago while visiting Bhuj in Kutch (part of Gujarat), we found a workshop where two men produced hand painted posters. They told us that the demand for these was dying out rapidly. It is interesting to note that, like my mother, the great Indian artist MF Hussain began his creative life as a painter of cinema posters.

Returning to my mother, she designed and painted advertising material for the Red Cross in Cape Town during WW2. In 1947, she followed her fiancé, my father, to the UK. She married in 1948, and I arrived a few years later. According to my father, Mom took painting classes with the the famous Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).  Sometime after that, she began creating sculptures.

When I was born, I had a torticollis (twisting of muscles of the neck beyond their normal position) that caused my head to be bent to one side. At that time in the early 1950s, the doctors told my mother that there was nothing to be done about this, and we would just have to live with it. My feisty mother refused to believe this. Every day, she manipulated my head and neck and gradually corrected the situation. Whether it was this manipulation that caused my mother to become a sculptor, I cannot say. However, one of her first sculpures was a terracotta mother and child, which she reproduced much later as an alabaster carving (see photo above).

When I was a young child, my mother used to attend the sculture studios at the St Martin School of Art in London’s Tottenham Court Road. She was not a student; she used the facilities and received advice from other sculptors including Philip King and Antony Caro. At that time, she became a close friend of the sculptor Dame Elizabeth Frink, who visited our home regularly. At St Martins, Mom learnt how to weld and work with metal. She created several quite attractive abstract metal artworks. Being a perfectionist, she destroyed much of what she made, but not before having it photographed by a competent photographer. Sadly, these photos have gone missing.

By the time I was a teenager, my mother had ceased working at St Martins, possibly not of her own volition. She rented a large garage in Golders Green and used it as a studio, where she created huge abstract sculptures in timber. She found working on her own to be lonely. However, without the benefit of proper lifting equipment, she produced quite a few sculptures.

Around about 1970, Mom began complaining of back pains, which she thought were the result of the heavy work she was doing in her garage. She abandoned the garage and more or less stopped creating any artworks except for a very few abstract pen and ink drawings, which she considered good enough to be framed.

The back pains continued. My mother became disillusioned with the contemporary art scene. She was familiar with the great renaissance  works of art which she visited every year in Florence (Italy), and comparing these with what she and her contemporaries were producing added to her disinclination to produce any more art of her own. For the last ten years of her life, Mom continued to search (unsuccessfully) for an interest to replace the creation of art. Tragically, she died young because of a cancer, which might well have been contributing to her long-lasting back pain.

Whatever the reason, if an artist loses the urge to create, it must produce a huge hole in his or her life, something like losing a loved one.

Matterhorn

It is hard to say which is my earliest memory. I believe it was going to St Albans church hall in Golders Green (in north-west London) to collect orange juice with my parents. I was born in 1952. In the early 1950s, the government supplied young children orange juice free of charge. The juice, which was free of the ‘bits’ that are found in many of today’s orange juices, was supplied in glass medicine bottles with cork stoppers.

 

MATTER 1

St Albans church hall in 2017

Another early memory dates back to 1955. We had just disembarked from an ocean liner in Cape Town. There were tram-like tracks embedded into the concrete of the quay. Adventurously, I put my foot into the groove of one of the rails, and then could not remove it. This caused quite a commotion as my mother carefully detached me from the rail along which large cranes travelled. This might be an actual memory, or someone may have told me about it later.

I do remember my first morning at primary school, which I entered aged 4 years. My parents took me to Golders Hill School on the first day along with my little friend Anthony. We stood next to each other in the front row of the assembled school. Suddenly, another boy, a complete stranger, pushed himself between Anthony and me. He said: “I want to be your friend.” He was Nick, and we remained friends for almost twenty years. I have only seen Anthony once since that day at school.

Every day at Golders Hill began with assembly. We were lined up in rows while our names were called out. We were required to answer in Latin: “Adsum”. As I did not start learning Latin until after I had left the school, I had no idea why we were required to say this peculiar word, which I later discovered means ‘I am present’.

Following the roll-call, we had to recite something, which to my young mind began with something that sounded like “Our father widgeartahev’n”. This recitation included many other words that were new to me. No one ever explained why we were saying this, or what it was. It was years later that I realised that we had been saying the Lords Prayer at high speed.

 

MAT 2

Golders Hill School in 2017

During the morning assembly, we stood facing the teachers and the then Head Mistress, Miss Davis. The latter used to cycle to school with her three corgi dogs stuffed into the basket at the front of her bicycle. The dogs spent the day resting in her office. On the wall behind the teachers and facing us pupils there was a black and photograph of a snow-topped mountain. Why it was there, I never found out, but unlike the other mysteries of roll-call, we learned that the mountain in the picture was the Matterhorn.