1. "When did you start painting?"
As soon as I could hold a paintbrush, and found paints available, in childhood, I enjoyed making coloured marks. It was exciting to be able to reproduce what I saw, even though I did not recognise I was doing so in a childish way. This must have been at nursery school. I well remember, at primary school, using powder-paints every week to convey a scene suggested by the teacher, perhaps of a funfair, a mediaeval battle, or a market. I took this skill for granted, believing that everyone could draw and paint. It did not seem like a special gift, but was something as natural as brushing my hair or playing with Meccano; yet at the same time I was amazed, without being aware of it, that an object in front of me could 'appear' on the paper in front of me, through my own decision and thought, and the use of my hand and pencil. Part of the reason I did artwork, throughout my childhood, therefore, was because it was a pleasure to see that I could. Another reason was that I preferred to be busy rather than bored; and sitting still equalled boredom, to me, unless I was engrossed in a conversation, a picture, a book, or one of the innumerable projects I undertook in childhood, by myself or with friends. For example, we collected oddments for our natural history 'museum', made catapults, and invented codes for sending messages in a club.
As a child, I painted only what I could see: either on the spot, or from memory. I could 'compose' a scene - a mediaeval battlefield, for example - from disparate elements that I'd already seen in history books, or on the blackboard; but I could not paint fantasy pictures, or weird imaginings. My subjects were usually the house we lived in, or my pet mice - or members of the family, in scribbled portraits. It was not possible to be very adventurous, anyway, because of limited access to art materials.
It was thrilling to find a box of half-used water-colours in a jumble sale one Saturday afternoon, in the church hall. And I remember once being given a set of poster-paints at Christmas. But my idea of 'Art-Heaven' was to be in an art shop or a stationers, in later years, and be able to buy clean, new paper, and not have to draw on the back of old memos from my Dad's office. When I had more money, as a teenager, I spent it on a tin of Derwent colour pencils. I still feel a thrill when I see the landscape design on Derwent tin lids, and remember my first purchase.
My ability was seen and appreciated by others - who asked me to make posters, banners for school events - and illustrations for a sixth-form magazine. But I was too impulsive and disorganised to sit myself down and say: "This is what I seem to be good at. How can I best use it?" The people 'in charge' at home and art school rarely spoke to me without referring to exams and homework; so I saw painting only as a hobby, of not much importance to anyone else at the time.
ENCOURAGEMENT AT HOME
I was encouraged, at home, in art, though not in a very 'hands-on' way. My parents were very busy at work. My mother worked full-time and was rarely home till late, so her encouragement took the form of an occasional exclamation that perhaps one day I'd go to Art school. But I did receive an easel from my father one Christmas, as a surprise gift, and I was very moved by his generosity. He had made it himself from narrow lengths of timber: an A-frame shape at the front, with a bar on which to rest a board, and a hinged leg at the back.
He had even made a plywood board for me, with one side plain, for me to pin my paper on, and the other side painted with blackboard paint, so that I could use chalks, which were much cheaper than paints. I was about seven or eight at the time. Even by then, my father knew I had a gift, though I myself did not know it. I suppose part of the reason I thought everyone could draw was that my mother occasionally made a competent copy of a postcard scene she'd admired, and my father had once tried his hand at water-colours, with some admirable results. He stopped painting, however, to take up carpentry in his spare time. He could make or mend almost anything.
What came naturally to me was a realistic, figurative, almost photographic style; but it grew increasingly impressionistic and colourful. When I arrived at the Grammar school at eleven years old, there was no art-room; so I did little regular artwork there until a new tower block was built five years later. Then I painted all alone in the Art-room, near the roof, for my two years in the sixth form. I took Art 'O' level in the lower sixth, and 'A' level in the upper sixth - as well as other A-level exams. So I was able to paint huge images, in powder colour, with a freedom I'd never before experienced. Occasionally, I had to join in a drawing session with juniors; but for the most part our Art Master let me produce whatever came into my mind; and when I was not doing precise and muted studies of my fellow-pupils' faces, as they posed in gym-kit, according to the Art Master's instructions, I used a large brush to produce images that frankly amazed me. It was exhilarating to use such glorious colours. This was in response to his promptings.
I had rarely had any major difficulties with composition, proportions or perspective; but the main 'fault' he had seen, when he first saw my work, was my inclination to paint everything with a small brush, and to paint every facet of my subject in tremendous detail. He gave me large brushes, large tins of powder paint, and large sheets of sugar paper. So for the first time in my life I felt I could literally 'splash out' in paint. What I produced was very different from the almost monochrome, tidy studies I'd been doing at home for years.
AN UNHAPPY TIME
Many of my paintings evolved into images that were religious - and at a time when I was unhappy, as an Anglican, with the contradictory answers given to me on the subject of Church and Holy Communion. I had just stopped attending church on Sundays, in a deliberate decision, because I did not want to be a hypocrite and pretend to show allegiance to the Anglican church when I did not understand Anglican origins or doctrines. So I was puzzled to see three crosses appearing in my newest cricket scene - or the face of Christ appearing before me, in paint, when my initial intention had simply been to paint a portrait of an ordinary male.
I suppose a psychologist would say that my deep-rooted concerns about faith inevitably surfaced in something as profoundly personal as painting; but when I was not doing this sort of work, I was making very competent if pedestrian still-lifes, of skulls, bottles and books, arranged by our Art Master who had to get us through an art syllabus.
TOO BUSY TO PAINT
Life was so hectic when I left home to earn my living that I painted nothing for about two years - though I sketched miniature portraits in the border of my notebooks, at lectures. I was once 'roped in' to paint some 'ancestral portraits' to decorate a dance-room, for a social event; but I didn't have any time to think seriously about art, because of my hectic social life, yet I found this 'lack' so sad that I realised that 'Art' was what I was born for - as well as for marriage and motherhood, if I could have the good fortune to be proposed to by the right man. So I took a portfolio of art-work to an interview with the Principal of Wimbledon Art College, with some references, and was overjoyed to be accepted.
Unfortunately, I became ill for months, and could not start the academic year. That spelt the end of my dream of formal training, because when I recovered I had to find a job; and I was too exhausted to start again, coping with applications, interviews, grants, and materials.
It was disheartening to find things going wrong. But I was determined not to give in, and to return 'home to Mum'. I was glad to have found work; and somewhere to live, still in London. On the bright side, I had already met the man who is now my husband of over forty years. He lived and studied elsewhere in the Capital. And when I had recovered from my illness, and he had passed his final examinations, we were able to marry. We found a little bedsitter, still in London, and were very happy there. I now began cooking as well as working, however, and was leading a busy life meeting my husband's old friends; so I didn't have a second in which to paint.
QUIET TIME AT HOME
When I was pregnant with my first child, I eventually gave up paid work, in order to prepare for the birth and be ready to look after the child, and my husband, full-time. There is a steep learning-curve, with a first baby - fitting in feeds with household chores, meals, social life, and family visits and celebrations. But when I grew more competent, I found enough free time, when the child was asleep, to be able to attempt some paintings, at home. That reasonably quiet time of life with my first baby didn't last very long, however, partly because I became a convinced Christian, which meant that it was important to devote some of my meagre leisure to prayer, not just hobbies.
PRAYER AND PAINTING
Few mothers are able to pray first thing in the morning; yet regular prayer became both an obligation and - for a while - a joy to me. So the precious hour when the baby was asleep in the afternoons had to be devoted first to prayer, and then to painting, for the short period of time I had before life became much more hectic.
My husband had a demanding job - with intermittent exams, and late nights studying. This meant that I looked after the baby almost alone; and we also had to move from house to house for a few years, around the country - with myself as chief packer, unpacker, babyminder and curtain-maker. My husband was submerged in his responsibilities in each new promotion.
LOOKING AFTER THE CHILDREN
There were no relatives nearby who could have helped me, if I had tried to take 'time out' to do an Art degree. Anyway, I wanted to look after our babies myself, since much of motherhood is about teaching as well as showing love; and that was so important that I have never wanted to entrust it to anyone else, unless strictly necessary, such as when I was ill, and my daughter went to a nearby nursery at three years old. The same reasons kept me from doing a theology degree, when I had developed a sincere fascination about God, and the Catholic Faith. But I've never regretted having looked after my own children; and I'm aware how fortunate I've been, that my husband could support us, and that I wasn't one of those women forced to go out to do paid work.
I'm also grateful that I've been able to look after our old parents, even though it has meant not being able to paint for long periods - even years. I couldn't have lived with my conscience if I'd said "No" to them; and since the most important moment for me was the present moment, I painted when I could; but when it was impossible to find time for painting I forgot about it, and concentrated on my duties.
I produced several paintings in the few months when my first baby was asleep, and when we were living in a huge rented house. It had been made available by my husband's employers - with no furniture to fill it. That's why I had a whole empty room in which to set out some paints; and I painted 'from the heart', first in powder colours and then in oils. I bought a book about oil painting, and taught myself how to make canvasses, and mix colours.
My inspiration for my subject-matter came from my inner journey, at that time. I had just decided to ask to be received into the Catholic Church, from the conviction that her teachings were true, and that God was inviting me to accept the truth, and to enter. So when I painted, and first wondered what to paint, I chose to attempt a few Madonnas, using my own face simply for the bone structure, the eyes and the nostrils. It was impossible to do landscapes, with a baby to care for; so I was content to paint whatever seemed possible, at home; and I was always learning, reading everything I could afford to buy: a few paper-back 'how-to' books; and I made and primed my own cotton or linen canvasses, partly because I wanted to use good-quality surfaces, and also because I could not afford to buy ready-made ones.
FLOWERS, IN WATER-COLOUR
A few years later, when we had settled in a house and garden of our own, knowing we'd probably be there for ten or twenty years, I became even more enthusiastic about the gardening I'd always done; and it occurred to me that I should try to paint the flowers I so much admired. From then on, I painted hundreds of flower pictures - in both oils and water-colours, learning as I went along. I even did very detailed work again, now that my old art-master was no longer hovering at my elbow talking about big brushes and big paper.
In explaining what I painted, and why, I must mention my own children. They were so precious to me, and so beautiful in my eyes, that I paused to sketch them at odd moments; and I was surprised to find I could 'catch' a likeness in a few strokes of pencil. Later, I painted the boys in oils, as well as their grandfathers (- my mother refused to be painted, and my mother-in-law had died). And it was when I had framed these pictures and had hung them in our home that I began to receive requests to paint the children of several friends.
The question about 'juggling' the children and the artwork revives a lot of painful memories. I most certainly did not resent the lack of time in which to paint. The children, and my husband, were my greatest joy, after God. But as I learned how to look after a family, I had to learn how to allot reasonable amounts of time to various things; and when it was quite impossible to find time to paint I accepted the fact; but it felt as painful for my spirit as if I had been a singer who was forbidden to open her mouth to sing, so strong was the yearning I had to record and to share what I saw of beauty in the places and people around me.
Of course, I realised that no gift or hobby can be more important than the care of one's own dearest relations; so I learned to be patient. I supposed that a time might come when I would be able to paint again, perhaps when the children were older.