Mari HowardNovember 28, 2019

Self Portrait

by Celia Paul

I love this book, and began reading it avidly the day it arrived. Celia Paul is an artist, a painter, and, as the book documents, we learn what it can be like when creativity is the driver in your life. 

“You need to give yourself completely, while at the same time seeing things from a distance" she writes (prologue page 7) “…every important creative act has this duality of giving everything and then of letting go, so that the creative work can have a life of its own."

And her son Frank, also painter, writes (also page 7) that "isolation is important both to my mum’s work and to her peace of mind… yet she feels separation keenly, as well as a deep guilt that her need for solitude precludes her from being as hospitable as she would like to be."

That second quote is something I can't deal with, the desire for so much solitude. Indeed the word gives me a frisson. Yet I know many many artists and other creatives crave solitude. They must crave it as I crave time – the fate of creatives is to never have time (unless they are also good at finding and tolerating space to be alone). As the author herself says (page 198) “My flat in sacrosanct. No one can enter without my permission.”

Born in India in 1959 to parents who could be described as “missionaries” (her father headed a theological college for many years) Celia Paul is the fourth of five sisters. And her family is important to her. Many of her paintings are portraits of family, especially at first of her mother, and later of her sisters, particularly her younger sister Kate.

Her talent was discerned by her art teacher at boarding school, and she was referred to the well-known Slade School in London. They accepted her at the age of 16, when she moved to London and so to the more adult and independent life of a student at a young age. Lucian Freud was a visiting tutor at the time, and soon she became romantically involved with him.

The book, produced attractively and to the standard of an exhibition catalogue, with excellent reproductions, reveals through her paintings that her style has been much influenced by Freud's work. And in the light of present day thinking, I cannot not feel and comment that it seems this relationship was one of groomer and groomed. Freud was already middle-aged and Celia Paul not yet 20. Her emotional relationship (indeed dependence?) on Fried runs through the book, and is clearly giving her as much grief as happiness. But again, this is not unusual in creative lives. Though a reviewer (Jan Daley, Financial Times) has noted that the book tells "A story of obsession and manipulation that sends our feelings on a rollercoaster... [Self-Portrait] turns into a sort of myth about the misuse of fame and the male ego, about the struggles faced by creative women..." I feel this may well be true, though Paul still accepts that she went willingly. Her attachment to her mother also continues, with Mother happy to pose both clothed and nude for her daughter. And when Frank, her grandson, is born (Freud is his father) Paul's mother willingly took over raising him as his primary carer, in order that her daughter could continue painting. She was living alone in her studio flat (bought for her by Freud in 1982), Mother travelling to London for sittings and daughter to Cambridge to visit her son at weekends.

She writes herself about the relationship, she feels now that "I was emotionally dependent on him to begin with, but I became more independent as I became sure of my own talents and direction as an artist. My attraction to the juxtaposition of the mystical with direct observation is so different from Lucian’s approach.” Although not overtly religious, Celia Paul's background, her father priest and as adults one of her sisters a theologian (and wife to Archbishop Rowan Williams) and one ordained as a priest, and her mother's fondness to use settings for paintings as an opportunity for prayer, suggest a strong influence towards some kind of mysticism if not belief from within the family.

After her relationship with Freud was over (she decided to break with him in 1988, though he remained a close friend until his death in 2011), Celia Paul’s paintings undergo change. The meditative, dark and rather sombre paintings, often of women (her mother, her sisters especially Kate) give way to more abstract work: seascapes, and London landscapes. She writes about not knowing where to go, and finding an means of expression from the sea. These works, maybe, are a charting of grief for the loss of both her lover and her mother. Indeed she paints her four sisters together, in a work entitled My Sisters in Mourning. I wonder if, and when, she may return to the human figure, if at all.

So what captivated me about this memoir? It is definitely the way that Self Portrait reveals a personality which feels familiar, which recalls art students I knew at University, friends who have made Fine Art or writing their career, and whose lives are driven not by the desire for success in monetary terms but in achieving the actualisation of inner concepts and ideas. Sometimes to the detriment of family, health, social life, the opinions of others. It is entirely understandable. It can be frustrating. It can appear selfish in extreme. It can wreck marriages. But it is strong, genuine, and irremovable. I wouldn't like to call it an "artistic personality"– it's bigger, deeper, more compelling, than an “-istic”. It is deviant from the tidiness of “neuro typical" organised life. Whether it is selfish or not depends on what we value – it is the personality which gives us music, poetry, novels, artefacts and paintings which enrich our lives, and its constraints are inbuilt and necessary. It also often involves unwise liasons, obsessions, grief and troubled minds. Art, of all kinds, is never a quick or easy fix.