21. "What kind of pictures did you sell?"
During the 1980s I sold a great number of flower paintings and still-lifes, and an occasional sketch of another subject: doves, or a scene in France, for example. I loaned the copyright of a few pictures, for limited periods, to some publishers, for Christmas and other greetings cards, and for a handful of book covers. It was flattering to see my work in print; but that turned out to be the aspect of art I least enjoyed, because of having to discuss fees and permissions, and technical problems. It is so much more pleasant for any artist to do what really makes the heart sing - and then, if someone likes that original work, to let it go, and to start another, knowing that you've given joy to an individual. I didn't want the 'glory' of having my pictures on hundreds of hotel walls, or on the shelves of thousands of newsagents. It was enough for me to be like a good carpenter who pleases a customer who likes the well-made table he sees in the carpenter's shop.
It did feel good to earn a little money of my own, though there was little profit, really, in that short time, when set against my expenses. Canvasses, oils, and good quality paper and water-colours are not cheap; and one decision I'd made earlier was that, if possible, I would not use shoddy materials. It seemed best to make work that would last; after all, I wouldn't spend a lot of time hand-sewing a dress if the fabric were going to fall apart a year or two later on.
22. "When did you first have a studio, and what was it like?"
A FIRST STUDIO
When my husband was more settled in his permanent job, he decided we could afford to convert our garage into an extra room, and to build a carport onto the other side of the house. So within a few months of his decision a new door led from our downstairs cloakroom to a rectangular, medium-sized room which we had agreed to share. He had the nearer end as his study, with worktops on which he could pile the notes he might need at a moment's notice. And I had the far end, next to the front window, with lots of light, for my paintings.
We were both content, though it was a bit cramped. We used to joke about the 'mid-line'. When I was involved in a big art project, my paraphernalia would creep towards his worktop; and when he was snowed under by paperwork, I would find my belongings pushed further into my half-studio; but it was all amicable; and I was grateful not to have to paint on the dining table.
My husband felt so settled in our town that he decided one day that we should move to an even nicer house; and so we went across town to a lovely road, closer to my local Catholic church that I'd already attended for years. But I was going to find other joys stemming from the move. My mother had been seriously ill, and came to live with us almost as soon as we had moved in; and since I had learned from experience that we each need to make our own 'space' in family life, if we are not to become gloomy about noise or lack of 'territory' for certain works, I plucked up courage and had a very tiny studio built.
All we did was to fill in a porch at the back of the house. I had blinds put in, and a radiator, and a table and chair. There was no room for much else; but I did dozens of water-colour paintings in that little space. Whenever domestic duties could halt for half-an-hour, I was able to do a water-colour wash or two, since my equipment hadn't had to be cleared away for a meal. And this lessened the risk of my feeling a bit martyred at being busy going up and down stairs to my sick mother, when I myself was unwell. I knew I had all sorts of blessings in my life, but I was glad I'd been pro-active at last, to make a bit of space for 'Art'.
A LARGER SPACE
Though I had never fulfilled my mother's dream of having a daughter at the Slade School of Art, I had been able, unexpectedly, to give her even greater joy, by having work chosen for the R.A.'s Summer Exhibition. She revelled in telling all her friends, as I mentioned earlier. And it was her delight in my artistic 'success', and the fact that several galleries then asked for my work, and my need for a larger space, that helped me in my next big decision.
Sad to say, my mother died later that year. But when we had sorted out my mother's belongings, I found that she had left me an amount of money which my husband generously doubled; and that's why I plucked up courage to have a little room built on to our breakfast room, and to furnish it as a proper studio for myself. My husband enjoyed chatting about my work to his friends. So this was a family project; and the children were interested in having a 'proper artist' for a Mum. They were teenagers, but I still preferred to paint mainly in their term-times, and tried never to 'shoo' anyone away.
Within a few years we had three armchairs in the studio, as well as my worktops, easel and equipment. It was and is a very cosy place for us to meet. It is far pleasanter than the living-room at the other end of the house. The studio has proved invaluable. It's a plain room, with a pitched roof, windows on one side, and a French window set in another wall. It has been thrilling to have somewhere of my own.
Whenever I've planned to do a large series of oil paintings, however, as I have done four or five times in the last fifteen years, I've asked my husband if I can take over the dining-room for a few months, so I can work on ten or twelve canvasses at once. We usually eat in the kitchen; and we no longer have formal dinner-parties; so he has kindly agreed. I have been able to spread an old carpet across the dining room, to spare the pale carpet already there; and it's been a great advantage to have that much room in which to do a series of related images, and to be able to see several of them at once, as they develop. Of course, it's important in oils to let the paint dry before you put on another layer. So that's why, if I'm waiting, I like to start another picture, then another, until I have a few that I can work on all together. I have no trouble at all in focusing on what's in front of me, at a moment's notice. I don't seem to need to 'immerse' myself in a single image, in order to make decisions about its progress.
23. "What kind of different mediums did you work in, and why did you choose to work in certain ones more than others?"
A housewife who decides to spend some of her time on a particular hobby or special interest has to learn what I've mentioned earlier: 'the Art of the Possible'; in other words, there are some parameters beyond which she cannot go - or does not wish to go - without neglecting her basic duties. So it was only after 'weighing' my ordinary duties, many years ago, that I made decisions about how long my painting sessions should last, and what sort of mediums I would use. And I've had to make changes and adjustments, of course, as the pattern of family life has changed.
Before I discuss the subject of materials, however, I need to say that the central idea in my life for nearly forty years, since I became a practising Christian, at twenty-one, and then a Catholic when I was twenty-five, has been to do God's Will, which includes - by my own free choice - pleasing my husband, and making my children happy, and caring for some relations. Painting could be 'fitted in', if I had time; but I was determined it would not lead to neglect of my duties. I've done a lot of home-cooking, which we have all enjoyed, and meals for visitors, and parties at home for my husband's work colleagues. We have had a hectic social life - and of course I have enjoyed some wonderful friendships, which have taken up some time. I have had correspondence and all sorts of other things to manage. So when I was too busy to cope with oils - which have to be used quite soon after they are squeezed out, or they become hard - I used to switch to water-colours. I tried pastels, and was riveted by the clear colours, and the swiftness with which I could cover a large area with a brilliant hue; but in a crowded house I wanted to make 'tamper-proof' artworks; and I knew that pastels would need immediate glazing, and very careful storage; so I gave up the idea of using them for any large body of work.
It was always enjoyable to use a drawing pen or a pencil, on holiday, if I had a spare minute, or at concerts. I used to sit and draw the instrumentalists. I once sat in our High Street sketching for an hour when a troupe of Morris dancers performed outside a local pub. I have hundreds of sketches, from such occasions; but two things held me back from doing more. First, the fact that I needed to spend most of my time at home. The children were older, but I was very unwell for long periods of time, and could not walk very far, by this stage of my life, in my forties. Secondly, I have almost always felt disappointed when looking at a monochrome work, even my own.
I could appreciate my own skill, as I could appreciate the skill of other artists who worked in pen, pencil, or charcoal - which I tried - or woodcut; but I had an inner unspoken yearning to see colour in each illustration before me. In choosing a book to read, as a child, I consciously avoided those that had only black and white illustrations. And in adult life I had never been able to see the 'artistic value' of black and white 'Art' films. After all, real life is in colour.
A PREFERENCE FOR PAINT
It seems to me that some of my pencil sketches are amongst the best work I've ever done, precisely because I dashed them off, with a vigour and confidence that came from not thinking about composing a picture but just from reacting to a stimulus, with great concentration and speed. Nevertheless, I feel disappointed because they are not full-colour works. So it would not occur to me to make a great 'series' of sketches. I've used paint at every possible opportunity.
24. "Did you do any sculpture at this time, or any other kind of art?"
As I reminisce about sculpture, I begin to see that marble-carving is not the only sort of 'real' sculpture I've done. I've come to see, in recent years, that many of the works I produced for the children and other people, for fun, were in fact sculptures.
The larger-than-life-size models I made for carnivals, Jazz dances and childrens' events would not have looked out of place in a modern art show; so I can say that, yes, I have made sculptures in chicken wire, and in papier-maché made from old newspapers and wall-paper paste, the mixture then being dried and carefully decorated. I also made wood frames on which to hang various fabrics, for special decorative figures for various occasions.
A BRONZE HEAD
I have done quite a lot of modelling in plasticine over the years, though it was not my main preoccupation. It was suggested to me by a local doctor that I could sculpt a head of Thomas Hodgkin, of Hodgkin's disease fame. The bust I made was eventually cast in bronze; and in the 1990's a copy of it was on display in a Radiotherapy Department in London.
A MODEL OF JERUSALEM
When my daughter was small, I modelled a head of a little girl in Plasticine - but not as a portrait, just as a tender glimpse of young girl-hood. And when I returned from my first visit to Israel, overwhelmed by the wonderful sights I'd seen, connected with Christ's life, I attempted a scale model of Jerusalem in ancient times. It took about a month to make - about fourteen inches square, on a wooden board; but none of us really knows what the city walls were like, in Jesus's lifetime. I hope I was right about the topography, however - the walls and valleys, and open spaces. It was certainly instructive for me, as I did the modelling, to learn even more about the various palaces and tombs and other features of the city in Biblical days. This too was modelled in Plasticine; but I have not yet thought about having it cast. And high on one of my shelves I have a Christ-figure I modelled a few years ago, at Christ's request, so that a crucifix can be made one day with that particular 'corpus'. But I cannot pursue too many art 'avenues' at once, and have no plans to do further modelling.
25. "At this time, was any of your art abstract, and did you do much religious artwork?"
As far as I remember, I've never produced any totally abstract art-work. For me, painting is about communicating what I see, know or feel about an idea, person, or object. So although I respect the intentions of certain well-known abstract painters, and even enjoy the calm colours of a Rothko, for example, and the bright areas of a Sandra Blow, I cannot really study a Gillian Ayres, for example, without wishing she'd made it all a bit clearer; and I've no desire to produce abstract work. For me, it goes against what I think art is 'for'. I feel towards it what I feel towards modern a-tonal music. I can see that it is 'clever' and interesting; and I respect the composers. But I don't like to listen to it. Music, for me, should be stirring, invigorating, or beautiful or deeply moving; and I am merely irritated by listening to the sounds made by dustbin lids and other 'found' objects, or to a composition that has no discernible melody.
In the years when I was busy with gallery work each summer, producing very detailed flower-paintings, occasional family portraits, and - for my own enjoyment - these miniature landscapes I've mentioned, I did almost no religious work. I produced only a few 'Madonna' pictures now and then, for Christmas cards; and I did this simply by painting 'every-woman' with a pleasant face and a veil. I did nothing that spoke of my search for and knowledge of God, though I did do a few illustrations to please an old friend.
STATIONS OF THE CROSS
It was in the 1980's, and someone requested a favour of me, which I could not refuse. I made no money from it, though I hope that the writer did, for his church. A Catholic priest whom I'd known for many years asked if I'd do some sketches of 'The Stations of the Cross', so that he could make a pamphlet for his parishioners, for Lenten meditations. These were drawings which pictured Christ in the week before His suffering and death - and in His Resurrection. Of course, I can't 'dream up' scenes, as I've said; so I asked my children to pose, with all sorts of drapery, as I took photos; and I juggled the figures to suggest groups of Apostles or Holy Women, and did a series of drawings. It was very pedestrian, but my friend was pleased with it; and when I produced some monochrome water-colours of the same scenes, at his request, the following year, I learned that Collins the publishers were willing to make a booklet of my illustrations, with the priest's written meditations.
I was glad to hear that it had helped his parishioners; but once again, I realised that I prefer not to work to commission, even though I want to be helpful. So I decided not to do any more illustrations, but to do only what really fascinated me. Life was hectic enough, without doing work that I thought was not particularly good, and not strictly necessary.
26. "In the late 1980's your style changed a lot, and you began doing more religious work. Can you tell me why this change came about?"
A great change came about in my painting, in the late 1980s, for a simple reason. I was ill and rather weak, and found it difficult to sit up for long. In total, it used to take me about eighteen hours to paint one of the detailed flower-paintings I'd produced for a few years. The quality of my work diminished, simple because of the physical demands of that sort of work. And since I could not offer anyone second-best, I deliberately decided to stop painting flowers and still-lifes and therefore to stop sending such work to exhibitions. But since the sharing of beauty with others, through paint, was important to me I also decided to try something new.
Remembering my old art-master's slogan - "Use a big brush!"- I hoped that if I returned to oil paints, using large brushes that could cover the canvas quickly, I wouldn't become so tired. Of course, I couldn't do flowers in that way. Some painters had managed to do so, but it didn't attract me; so I had to think of another subject for my experiment. My free time was still limited; so I was not prepared to spend my time on subjects which were simply frivolous or silly. That's why I thought carefully about what was most important in my life, besides God, and the family; and I hit upon the subject of prayer. Was it possible, I asked myself, just to 'put down' in oils what I knew of prayer?
THINKING ABOUT PRAYER
At that moment I was thinking solely of what those of us who pray describe as the 'light' and 'darkness' of prayer. I knew from experience that if we approach God in imageless adoration, in sorrow for sin, combined with gratitude for His love and for all His gifts, He leads us on a spiritual journey closer towards Himself. It is true that, in one sense, He is already close, holding everyone in existence; yet He is especially close to those in Whom He dwells by Baptism; and there are times when He is experienced almost as a light at the end of a tunnel of loneliness, in the soul. It was that light that I decided to paint, with large brushes, using yellows and dark blues, in what was, temporarily, an abstract painting.
I was thrilled with the result, which, as a completed painting, would become No. 2 on the 'Holy Sacrifice of the Mass' poster: "LORD, HAVE MERCY." It seemed to convey something of the awe I'd felt on being drawn closer to God. It hinted at the contrast between His holiness - shown as light - and the sad, oppressive darkness of the human condition, in which He works to transform us. Yet I knew that another person, seeing my picture, would need to have it explained, or it could be mistaken for a storm at sea, or anything else connected with light and darkness; and, as I said earlier, I believe paintings should not usually need long explanations. That's why I was not prepared to leave it abstract, but decided to put in a row of figures, just to show that this was about people hesitantly approaching the Source of all glory, which is to say, the Godhead.
As soon as I'd done that, I was content. The picture now spoke for itself; and so I decided to tackle a new aspect of prayer, by painting a figure bowing down in adoration before an unseen Being. That eventually became "GLORY BE TO GOD", in cool blues, with pale yellow light.
THE MASS PAINTINGS
I was so excited at producing a vivid image, and doing it so swiftly, that I decided to embark on a series of prayer-pictures, indeed, on a series about what Catholics know as The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
At around that time, I made a short artistic 'detour' by using painting knives and oils, to produce a further version of the 'LORD HAVE MERCY' - and a semi-abstract river-bank scene, and two views of the Sea of Marmara, that I'd sketched on a family holiday in Turkey. I liked the results, but knew I could do more exciting work if I used brushes; so I went back to my new series, to concentrate on the Mass. This was purely for the joy of it. I had not a thought in my head about sales or book-covers. It was undertaken out of love for painting, love for God and for the Mass, and love for beauty in colour and line.
As I planned the next painting and pondered the whole matter of making religious images, I felt compelled to face up to a new development in my spiritual life which had been puzzling me, and which I had spoken about to no-one. I would still not speak about it, for a further five or six years; but I suddenly realised how peculiar it was, that on one level of my mind I was asking myself how to 'paint' prayer, while in my memory I now held dozens of images about God and prayer and the spiritual life: images that had sometimes been placed by God 'into' my soul as I had prayed, in the past few years, and which I had honestly tried to ignore.
For those who read this, who are sceptical about religious experience, I have to say that it is part of the Catholic tradition that although we might be surprised by various experiences of God, we should be cautious about personal religious phenomena, and unusual prayer-experiences. That is why I had instinctively pushed these images aside, to concentrate on loving and adoring God. But I could not eject them from my memory. And now I saw that since I believed it was God Who had given me such simple yet wonderful images, and since I was a painter, it would be frankly silly not to record them - even if it was not yet appropriate to tell anyone. I had no wish to boast about a special inspiration for my pictures, although that was in fact the truth of it. So the new pictures I now decided to do were oil versions of what had already been given to me in prayer, at times when my thoughts were wholly on God, not on myself or my leisure time.
A COMPLETE SET
When I'd painted eighteen large oils in this series, I paused - then did two more to complete the set. They were colourful and impressionistic, rather like the large joyful images I'd done in powder-colour as a teenager; yet there was something more about them. I was awed, looking at the whole set. I had never dreamed I could produce work of such power and beauty - and I was grateful both for the powerful images I'd received from God, and for the opportunity to have made some of them 'concrete'. I had dozens more, all held in my memory, ready for when I had time to record them.
27. "Why did you stop your commercial work at a certain point?"
At around that time my energy was flagging. I decided to call a halt to all commercial work. I no longer did greetings cards. And though I was persuaded to allow the 'LORD HAVE MERCY' to be used as a cover, on a religious book, I realised that I could not use the other pictures, the God-given pictures, for commercial gain. So I asked my accountant to wind up my little business. It was a relief no longer to have to keep accounts, or correspond with people about sales. Indeed, it was wonderful just to be free to paint what I genuinely thought was significant; and it was plain to me that my God-given images were tremendously important to encourage people in the Faith, even though I had only managed to put a few down, so far.
AT A SPECIAL STAGE
It might help some people who are interested in the paintings if I explain something about the time of life at which I received the images. I mean the precise time in my spiritual life, when I was in my early forties. It was a point of greater knowledge of my own nature and my own weaknesses yet, at the same moment, of greater awareness of God's goodness, mercy and generosity. I said earlier that the Lord had taught me for many years, in soundless, non-visual 'teachings', long before He began to give me images which He later told me were for sharing with other people. He later showed me, also, that He had not just chosen any passing artist, to 'zap' her with pictures for a few years, so that she could do a particular job then go back to her old way of prayer. The 'teachings' I had been receiving in a silent and extraordinary manner were a 'normal' part of the contemplative journey to which He had called me, and which I had undertaken, if reluctantly at times. Then I learned that the images He next gave me were also a 'normal' feature - but 'normal' for a further stage of the spiritual life: a stage which I did not reach until 1985, when Christ amazed me by an experience that, He later assured me, had been our 'spiritual Betrothal'.
A SPECIAL ROLE
On the 11th of December of that year, after I had made a new surrender to Christ, out of love for Him, when this meant enduring specific difficulties, I met Him in Person, in prayer, in a new way. I was utterly astonished by His radiance and kindness, by our intimacy, and by His gifts to me, and His words of comfort and reassurance. And I received a gift of joy from Him which was the fruit of our closer communion. It is a joy that has carried me through every trial since then, including some really horrible physical and spiritual experiences. Only when that new stage was well-established, in 1986, in a period that some classical authors of prayerbooks label a time of 'Illumination', did the Lord give me images in prayer. Then He began to explain, little by little, the special role He was inviting me to fulfil after a long spiritual training. And when I really understood what He was saying about His gifts, I understood what He meant when He also said that His gifts of teachings and images will continue all my life, for as long as I am able to pray, and to receive them, if God chooses.
This is the way of life I lead, daily, with Christ. It is one in which, after many years of trials and spiritual training in union with Christ and His Church, I find I have an on-going conversation with Christ, in which He chooses to give me daily encouragement, and also teachings to share with other people. In it, He gives me gifts to share with other people, at a time of special need in the Church's long history.
TIME FOR PRAYER
Christ has told me that other people have received 'teachings'. But those were mostly given in past times, when people prayed more. He has given me a great many, however, for especially-troubled times. He has said that He wants people today to grow in communion with Him, but even many Catholics need to give more time to prayer.
I cannot feel proud at having prayed a lot. I've only been able to do this, first, because I am very conscious of how much God does for all of us. After all, He is our Creator and Saviour; and it seems rude just to give Him bits of left-over time, on a whim. That's why I felt I must make a firm commitment to daily prayer, a commitment I've never broken, no matter what turmoil or messes I've created in my life. Secondly, I know I'm a weak person who needs God's help, if I am to change in the way He wishes. Thirdly, I've been ill a great deal, which, weirdly, has meant I've had more time for prayer than if I had been a healthy woman working an eighteen hour day; and my illness has even driven me to Christ more frequently, for help in my pain and misery. Fourthly, I've recognised that if I made anything at all in my life more important than Christ and the ordinary duties He expects His friends to fulfil, I would be putting up a barrier between Himself and myself. That is why I could not let painting become a private obsession that took me away from my duties instead of a wonderful occupation that I could enjoy whenever possible, or leave on one side until times were more auspicious.
And those times arrived, to my surprise. Then it became plain why Christ has given me so many teachings and images about prayer.
He has shown me, many times, that unless we pray regularly we cannot come to know Him well. That is the simple truth, despite the 'glow' we might feel if we do a lot of active work for love of Him. Through prayer, we come to know Him in Person - if we approach Him with humility and reverence. If we look lightly upon our sins, and are not prepared to give them up, or if we show little reverence towards Him, Who is our God and Creator, and died for us, we shall be putting up barriers between Him and ourselves and proving that we do not put Him very high on our list of priorities.
28. "While you were doing the first of the 'prayer paintings', did you continue with your other artwork, such as flower painting and portraits, or landscapes?"
ONLY RELIGIOUS WORK
The prayer-paintings were so satisfying to do that I rarely painted flowers again, or portraits; and if I did so it was rarely up to my old standard of detailed work. Just as I'd decided not to exhibit at galleries all round the country, I now decided not to keep working in several mediums, but to stick to oils, and to do prayer-paintings for a while, and to see where that led me. Besides, there simply hasn't been time - though I've 'made' time for occasional posters, quick sketches, anniversary cards or miniatures as gifts.
I hardly ever read a novel; and I watch very few films nowadays, compared with earlier years, now that I know how important the work is, for encouraging people in the Faith. I'm aware that for every idle half-hour I pass, I could have done a couple more religious sketches from the backlog that has built up in recent illness. Though I try to make time for friends, and leisure, I'm always aware of the work still unfinished.
29. "Can you explain how Johannes von Itten's colour theory has influenced your painting?"
A NEW CONFIDENCE
In the late 1980's, around the time when I was producing the first Mass paintings, I undertook a determined study of colour theory, so that I would waste less time on what some call experiment and I call guess-work. My father taught me to 'look things up' if ever I found myself ignorant of one thing or another. So I took a train to London, and found what I wanted on the shelves of Foyles bookshop. I should have done it, years before; but I bought a book by Johannes von Itten on his own colour theory – which seems better to me than Goethe's theory, or someone else's. Von Itten's seemed the most coherent and easy-to-follow. And during several months, at home, that winter, I learned a lot about split complementaries, analogous tones, and simultaneous contrasts, and all sorts of fascinating aspects of the subject. It was almost like a conversion, or the experience of being able to speak in another language, suddenly to be able to see some reasoning and clarity in an aspect of art that had always seemed to give rise to puzzlement or confusion.
When I began to use all sorts of rectangles and squares, superimposed upon a twelve-segment colour-wheel, I realised that there were sound reasons for my excitement on seeing one colour combination whilst feeling distaste for another combination. In discovering the logic of colour harmony and contrast - as a musician might learn musical theory - I was freed from the need to make endless unhappy guesses, about what to put where, in order to capture the mood or the experience I wanted to share. I made dozens of little colour charts, in accordance with von Itten's advice; and everything I did and learned contributed to the power of some of my later paintings, and left me full of gratitude for having uncovered such knowledge, so late in my life.
A NEW DISCOVERY
The only reason I came across Von Itten was because I went to the 'Art' section in a bookshop, and looked for a sub-section called 'Colour' - and found what I needed. That's what life is like sometimes. Something suddenly occurs that has never occurred before; and if you follow up that thought, and act upon it, you make a discovery that can change your life, or some aspect of it, for the better.
30. "How did your pictures change after you started to apply von Itten's colour theory?"
Plainly, my pictures changed a lot. I no longer felt I should stick to 'safe' colour combinations, but was given courage to use all sorts of hues and tones that I'd never used before. Then I decided to prepare for each new oil painting by making a few full-colour water-colour notes on a single sheet of paper, so that I could choose the most appropriate colour theme for a particular subject, rather than launch straight into a huge oil, only to find I'd made a bad colour choice. I now have hundreds of these little colour notes and find them very useful.