For the first page inside the cover of my Family Album I made a portrait of my father as a young boy, on gossamer thin semi-transparent 10gm Japanese Kozo paper. At the bottom, I printed an extract from his poem ‘Dear Mum, or Growing Pains’
Some sketches of the boy helped me observe him and commit the lines to mind. I used a process of drawing the main lines with thinned oil paint on a glass plate, transferring them to the sketchbook page, and completing the portrait in watercolour wash. When I repeated the process on the kozo paper the watercolour washes soaked straight in, but the oil lines formed a barrier to them spreading completely, allowing me some control.
For the second page I printed the whole poem (Dear Mum, a poem about dad coming of age and needing to spread his wings and leave home) on waxed paper and burnished it on to Japanese 36 gm Kitakata, a smooth shiny surface, then over that I made an oil monotype seated figure portrait of him as a young man, sailing a boat. The last lines of the same poem also appear at the bottom of the Boy portait.
The reverse side of the kozo was an almost exact mirror image of the front, the pigment having soaked straight through. This unexpectedly gave two views – the first, the man seen through the veil of the boy’s portrait; the second, viewing the two side by side when page 1 was turned.
The reverse of the kitakata was unappealing with splotches of paint soaked through at random – I would think about that and return to it. Later – I machine-printed and hand-burnished ‘The Rose of the Bud’, over which I painted a rosebud in watercolour.
Page 3 started as a monoprint in oils with added paint on a silk support, made from an image of my mother entering her wedding car, dad standing behind to help her. The silk worked in tandem with the subject, reminiscent of her wedding dress, but the oils became messy and felt inappropriate for the delicate support and subject. So I rejected it and in its place I made a free-flowing abstract representation of the same image, again on washed silk, but this time in watercolour. I ironed the piece of silk dry before painting, and a happy accident resulted in it wrinkling with the heat; the texture in the gold painted area looks beautiful. I stitched this piece of silk with gold embroidery silk onto the back of 10g kozo, onto which I printed ‘Love Blue Sky’, an ecstatic expression of the beauty and longing Dad felt contemplating the sky.
My book was now started and I felt encouraged but fearful too. The plan of pages, media, subject, support etc was complex, and I could see I’d need to be prepared to change and adapt the plan as the book grew. Id need to work on more than one page at a time, particularly in selecting and weaving the script around the images. I’d also need to respond to the unexpected as I was using unfamiliar supports. I’d also want to respond to my own feelings and ideas for expressing them.
On the fourth page, on 40gm Kozo, a head and shoulders oil monotype portrait of my mother as a happy young woman, sailing, the sea green behind her, was made simply, with very light pigment washes, and an extract from the poem ‘In the Sunny Air’. Her eyes and smile are bright and open. She appears even lighter but perfectly on the reverse side, where she is juxtaposed with a head and shoulders of my dad on page 5, monoprinted and painted on stiffened linen, like the canvas of the sails he handled.
This portrait of my mum is veiled with a piece of washed silk, stained blue and yellow, and printed with a sweet and touching, but faded letter my dad sent home to her from Scotland, where he’d been sent by his employer to train some customers. Life at this time seems light, simple and happy, finding joy in each other and their small children. The silk is stiched on to the mulberry paper with a gold metallic thread which I’ve taken through and linked to the portrait of my dad.
Page 6 is a three quarter figure of my mum with my older sister and me. The 10g kozo is laid onto Japanese Shiramine onto the from of which is printed a stock parts list and cost sheet from my dad’s employer. On the other side of the Shiramine is a facsimile of a page from my mum’s housekeeping accounts. Money was tight and everything had to be planned and itemised – ‘Jane, skirt; Helen, vests; Potatoes’ – to the last penny. Over the household accounts I’ve pasted a piece of watercolour-stained tissue paper – a fruit wrapper – with abstract blobs of light pigment – evoking a landscape – and overprinted with ‘Around me Lie the South Downs’. The poem isn’t really legible, but we can catch glimpses of odd words; more important to me was the look of the page, with its loose, flowing coloured stains, and the closely packed script.
Page 7 is blank, except for the inclusions in the Japanese Mango paper, and a curl of gold thread. On the reverse (page 8) is the centre spread of the book, a trace monoprint of us four sisters, before our brother came along. We are sweet, open, happy, direct; we felt secure, as if nothing in our world could or would change. The golden thread that linked us all appears again, and is taken through to a small portrait of my brother, running towards mum with outstretched arms; the thread continues, linked to her too (page 9). Her portrait is a watercolour monotype, made by painting on a Perspex plate and transferring to damp paper when the original painting was dry. On the reverse of page 9, in the ghost image of my mother’s portrait, the thread ends, the link is broken. She dies a few months later.
Here starts my dad’s fervent spiritual/religious response, expressed in his letters and poems, and our, his children’s, bemusement and isolation, as he outlaws our grief, sublimating Stella’s death into ‘the most wonderful experience of my life’. Maybe it was a necessary survival strategy; with sole responsibility for five children, he may have felt we couldn’t afford the luxury of grief.
On page 10 is another portrait of my dad on canvas, more sombre, gaunt and hollow-eyed. It’s how I saw him at that time, rather than being based on a photographic likeness. Under the semi-transparent painting, an extract from a letter to his yoga guru, Iyengar, written in the days after Stella’s death.
The following months became dark and lonely in my memories of the time. Page 11 has a portrait of the family the next springtime on a bluebell-picking outing. I’ve been strongly influenced by Laura Lancaster’s work while making this series of paintings; like many of hers, it is a portrait made from a photo of a group – in this case the whole family. What should be a painting full of light pleasure looks dark and confused with an atmosphere of anxiety. Dad is isolated, standing tall as a pillar behind his subdued, seated brood of five; he must have been struggling, trying to establish a new family dynamic, to hold his family together by willpower, without the golden thread.
On the back of the family portrait is pasted a sheet of script and pigment, a poem that links with the very very faint one on page 12, and with the portrait of me with my mum on page 13. This is something new I’ve learned while making this book; that for many years, decades even, after the death, I had a repeating occasional dream of being alone (by the sea) with another person. That person loved me unconditionally. I’d wake up feeling deeply calm and whole. It was no romantic love, as I thought, but my mother in the dream, with her hand on my shoulder. This is my favourite portrait of the book, a reminder.
That should’ve been the end of the book, but I kept going to fill the last pages, with portraits of my sisters and me. The four sisters lineup is influenced by Eleanor Moreton’s ‘Sisters’, with a similar composition, although her sisters are happy and carefree, and of course in monochrome. At the end, printed on stained silk and fixed inside back cover, the last poem, ‘She is my Helm’
Finally I bound and stitched my book.