The horse-shoe-shaped interior of the Royal Academy’s new lecture theatre feels a bit grimly clinical as if it were the old operating theatre that it almost appears to be. How much blood-letting are we about to witness? The audience of two hundred – 80% of which is female – looms over the two speakers, expectant. Are we about to witness a gentle evisceration on this mild Saturday afternoon in February? Far from it.
Today it is a conversation between Rose Wylie, painter, and Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern. They sit comfortably across from each other, side-on, like two old friends reunited for a few precious snatched minutes at a blazing fireside. Rose is wearing her over-large sneakers for the occasion. Tousled grey hair only partially conceals the ox-blood-fierce hue of her lipstick, which almost over-brims the mouth.
Frances, brief-scanning her notes, mentions that Rose was born in 1934 – ‘blinking old’ interjects Rose in mock-disgust – and that it was just before she celebrated her 76th birthday that Rose was officially declared England’s ‘hottest new artist’. The two smile at each other rather wickedly. ‘Daubs worthy of a child of four’ is how the late Brian Sewell once described your paintings, mentions Frances. His renegade voice is sorely missed these days, they both conspire to agree.
Frances takes us through the story of Rose’s life. She grew up a lone female child in a household which seemed not to give a damn about what she got up to. ‘Nobody listens. Nobody gives a fuck,’ comments Rose with some relish. ‘You get on with your own business.’ Her father, a civil engineer, thought painting should be inconsequential.
Art school at Folkestone was a masculine environment in those days. The model, Rose tells us, was called ‘model’. The male students were addressed by their surnames. The only female members of staff lived in a small, neglected and undervalued ghetto called Fashion and Textiles. Rose wondered to herself about all those famous male names: Picasso, Leger, Matisse. What would she, Rose, need to do to achieve greatness? She settled for painting forget-me-nots in the garage.
By 1955 she had become such a looker of a girl that Rowntree Chocolates spotted her, and made her Aerogirl of the year. Rose tells us that she kept that photograph out of the newly published monograph because she didn’t want to be remembered as ‘the model for chocs’. Then came her marriage to the male painter Roy Oxlade, three children, and the long interregnum, when she stopped doing work of her own altogether. What exactly did she do in those years? She read French literature, she looked…no, she observed… All those kinds of things were possible with small children.
Her passion for – or perhaps her obsession with – painting was re-ignited at the Royal College of Art, where she went in 1970, twenty years after she had finished art school. She remembers starting all over again. There is such a feeling of exhilaration when you think you have finished a work! she comments with some vehemence. One important matter requires clarification. ‘I have never been a militant feminist. My ambition has been to make a painting with quality. Money is an irrelevance.’
With those matters clarified, giant projections of new paintings begin to come and go at the speakers’ backs: ‘Yellow Bathing Costume’, ‘Black Frock, the Modest Corset’, ‘Snow White with Duster’. Rose comments in a fairly desultory way on this and that as the images waft along.
She’s generally hazy about dates, she tells us. These are some of the other things she says: My life is real for me. I use my diaries. Diary paintings are history paintings. I like to stick bits on. How do I know it is finished? I think to myself: I can leave it! Bold outlines – black, for example – make the work more certain, more primitive. One painting comments upon another. Black does isolate. You do too much of one thing. I’m not quite sure why I did that one. One works with contrasts. I bought that frock when I was seventeen or eighteen and never wore it. Now it’s in a picture. Nothing is wasted. I don’t like sleaze. I’ve done corsets. Madonna did them very well.’
Film plays an important part in Rose’s work too. It is an important source of imagery. Her paintings, singly or in cycles, often jump-cut from scene to scene, with Disney-like close-ups.
On one important matter Rose and Frances are in profound agreement. ‘I love men’s legs. They’re fine,’ comments Rose, looking up at a particularly well-made pair in a painting by Rose Wylie.
Frances draws back a little now, to coax a wider view into being.
‘Are you part of the continuum of painting, would you say?’
‘I love that idea,’ replies Rose as she wonders about her footwear, and perhaps even the turn of the ankle.
‘The whole history of art is up for grabs now’ proceeds Frances, cleaving to the high ground. ‘Myth feeds into the story.’
Rose sighs gently. ‘It’s always a bother’.
It’s very difficult, of course, commenting on one’s own work after the event, every poet and painter has known that – with the exception, of course, of the natural self-publicists with the gift of the gab, who are often not the best of the bunch anyway. Writers and painters are often moles, burrowing away in the dark. When they emerge, blinking into the light, someone clips on a microphone and demands the skills of a brazen, top-hatted impresario.
A questioner from the audience enquires after her influences. Rose looks a little helpless as she stares into the misty vastness of it all. ‘You learn from, you feed from… I don’t copy. What influences me?’ She looks across at Frances. No help there. ‘Stuff, people, buildings…’ And what role does drawing play? Does she value drawing?
‘Do I value drawing? Completely! More and more. Drawing comes first. I draw a lot. Painting uses the drawing…’
And how did you get into the Royal College of Art after such a long gap? asks someone else.
Rose blows at her hair, seems a little perplexed. ‘Well, I produced some work, and it was ok.’
Now most people tend to agree that it is just a tad more than ok.