Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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John Daly has to be a crucial figure in this remaking of Eileen’s life and work. We have met him earlier in the story, described by Eileen herself in her notebook at the start of her college course. He was her art history teacher, but his role, as we will see, was ambivalent.

John Daly was in his early thirties when he and Eileen met in that class during her first week in college. He was a Londoner born and bred and prided himself on his knowledge of the ‘best places to go’, the ‘hip joints’, the ‘best hangouts’ and other such insider tips. Both Linda and Charlotte described his manner as effusive. They both recall how he muscled into the students’ conversations at the start of their course, placing himself at the centre of things even out of class, when they were taking a break in the middle of his session. He displayed a talent for identifying and then occupying the focal point of relationships that were in the process of forming, as the new students warily investigated one another. At that stage, these new students were grateful for what they perceived as his leadership, his desire to gel the group. They had yet to conclude that his true motive was to control. In those first few weeks, they had yet also to learn his true talents.

As a teacher, he aimed at transferring a copy of his persona, complete with its mass of accumulated knowledge, like an injection into his class. He would often place himself, his feelings and his experience at the centre of his narrative, as if his students might uncover the content of his subject via their discovery of his person. In his lessons, content and style intermingled, but what this apparently intensely transparent manner largely omitted was any tangible contact with his real self.

He had been an evacuee during the war, but that was over by the time he was six, so it was an experience he barely remembered. As far as he was concerned, he has a Londoner through and through, someone who had never lived anywhere else, someone intimately in touch with this city that now led the cultural world. He was ever keen to show off all aspects of its life to anyone new to it and open to its experience.

What he did not have was the accent. He was raised in a middle-class household, at least during infancy, by an accountant father and a general practitioner mother in an era when it was not common for both parents to be in full-time work. The household had a full-time live-in nanny who also performed duties as a housekeeper. He had an older brother, David, who became a journalist, the six-year difference in ages meaning that he himself was often left in the care of his older brother, albeit with the nanny in attendance, if needed. David really did take his responsibilities seriously and spent many hours teaching his younger brother knowledge that schooling otherwise would have deemed beyond his years. John Daly thus grew up precocious, some might say arrogant.

What John could recall from their wartime years of exile in Gloucestershire were the walks they used to take together and, since David was already a keen artist, they often sketched together as well, the elder brother always displaying infinite patience whilst the younger did his infant scribbling. John’s head start in the visual arts undoubtedly arose from his brother’s tuition.

When their father was killed in Italy in 1944, David was devastated, while John was still perhaps too young to take it all in. It must be recognised as well that John had virtually no memory of his father, so when his mother remarried in 1950, there was a chance for him to make a new start, whereas for David, the task was much harder. The fact that neither brother could relate to their new stepfather clearly locates the blame for the breakdown.

By then David was already eighteen and destined for university. He spent just a few months at home after George Sullivan moved in and hardly ever got to know him. John, on the other hand, was still only twelve and had only recently started secondary school. Margaret Daly became Sullivan, but the two boys retained their father’s surname and this certainly contributed to the way in which George treated them. The Daly house was in a leafy part of Finchley, perhaps more Golders Green than Middlesex. It was quite large, apparently too big for a family of three. It originally had a self-contained top floor flat for the family nanny and still had ample space for the Dalys. But after George moved in, it became too small for John, not allowing him the space he craved, space to distance himself from the stepfather

Whether Margaret married George for the sake of her younger son, believing a father figure was essential for the boy’s stability, we will never know, for she developed an aggressive cancer and died just two years after the wedding. Wills had not been redrawn in favour of George and so the two boys inherited their father’s legacy and the substantial house, with George receiving a small stipend, but linked to a right to remain in residence. David was already twenty and looking forward to graduation and making his own way in the world, which is exactly what he did. He married at twenty-one, did postgraduate study funded by his share of the legacy and went on from a first job on a newspaper to develop a successful career in the media. It would be accurate to say that David never knew George Sullivan and perhaps never appreciated the life his younger brother was being forced to lead.

It was that same legacy that funded John’s attendance at Shortlands, later Challoner School, an institution that aspired to a public school ethos whilst admitting day students. Pupils were expected to be academic, and the pursuit of a predictable excellence was the institution’s myopic goal, an outcome that John simply could not deliver, despite his brother’s tuition in the early years. In the 1950s it was the way of the world that this particular young man simply could not do the work and little attempt was made by the school to identify the problems, the barriers to learning that John Daly might be experiencing. So he was allowed to drift.

Had the school, his housemaster, for instance, done any pastoral work with this underachieving student, the teacher might have discovered that George Sullivan drank, locked the boy in his room whenever he was in the house, and traded domestic services, such as the use of hot water, the use of the bathroom and the provision of food at an hourly rate that the boy had to hand over in cash. This was George’s way of augmenting his measly, in his estimation, stipend to finance his craving for whisky. Unhappy, alone and friendless, the teenager became ever more withdrawn, unable to relate to his peers and academically under-achieving.

But what he could do alone in his locked room was draw. John Daly thus became an isolated but exceptionally talented artist, copying in pencil many of the illustrations from his father’s art books, which George had consigned to John’s room to get such clutter out of the way. David Daly’s career blossomed, and he took up residence overseas as a foreign correspondent. The brothers spoke irregularly because of the exorbitant cost of international phone calls in that era, and when they did speak, it became a family affair with the stepfather always in attendance, so John’s scope for telling the truth was always limited. Throughout, David remained blissfully unaware of the problems at home.

John did well enough at school to go to art college. It was his portfolio rather than his exam results that secured the place and there was little doubt that he would eventually become a teacher. He continued to live in the family home during his college years and, as he grew into adulthood, he turned the tables on George and kicked him out. He was left, therefore, effectively the sole owner of a large, suburban Edwardian house in north London, which is more than many teachers achieve by the end of their careers.

If the1950s had been almost a complete decade of abuse at George Sullivan’s hands, the 1960s became ten years of parties, living it up, free sex, experimentation with drugs, flash cars and even flashier clothes. He was not rich, but he took to letting the house piecemeal, as two flats and a bedsit besides his own apartment across a complete floor, and thus he always had plenty of untaxable cash, which had to be spent.

He had his degree and a master’s in art history and was gratified to land a job just down the road almost a decade before Eileen McHugh began her studies. Over the years, he had become something of a fixture, a symbol of the progressive from within his increasingly protected niche, despite his teaching style being didactic and conservative. He had never married, wore kipper ties, lapels stretching from shoulder to shoulder, Cuban heels and flares, though a Peter Wyngarde moustache was not for him. In fiction, he would have been a history man, whereas in reality he became an art history man. He was also a sexual predator.

Blind eyes had been turned for several years. After all, what happened off campus was no business of anyone in the college, a private matter between the adults involved. John Daly’s exploits, however, were common knowledge as well as common occurrence. He did actually plan how he might go through as many of the new intake as he might manage. Not everyone would prove available, after all. A party at his home was the usual technique. His doors were always open to students who, believing that being close to one of their teachers might just guarantee a pass on a course that was assessed by essay, the very epitome of what art students hated. In many ways, John Daly’s pitch was perfectly prepared and expertly presented. He was a specialist in a compulsory part of the course, an acknowledged achiever in his area, having published strings of papers, and taught a subject that was a source of anxiety for most students. And, as his raw material, he was presented each year with a full room of predominantly young women, most of whom seemed to be attractive, which was no surprise, since John was one third of the interview panel that offered places. He was also bisexual, which is why most of the males were queer.

In the nineteen-sixties, John Daly was merely liberated, not a tyrant. It was a decade when, if it could hang, it hung out and batches of John’s students were regularly invited to hang out with him. It was he who organised trips to the galleries, using the excursions to identify and illustrate topics from his classes, but also to cross the teacher-student divide he maintained so strictly inside the classroom. By the end of a trip to the Tate, for instance, he knew which of the dozen or so accompanying students might offer fertile ground for his attention.

In the mornings, art students did things, such as life drawing, hammering, chiselling, learning to weld, cut fabric or mix epoxy resin. In the afternoons they also did things, but generally fewer, alongside any reading (perish the thought!), research and completion of anything left over from the morning except for one day each week, when they had a class in art history, for a whole afternoon. What saved John Daly’s academic, formal classes for most of these reluctant doers, however, were the gallery trips, once a month at least, and those often needed an extra hour at the start or end of that whole afternoon. The trips would terminate, by chance of course, around five-thirty, just in time for early doors at the pub and he had several regular haunts.

From the National he would migrate down the side of Charing Cross Station, towards the river along Villiers Street to the subterranean Gordon’s. From the Hayward, the Hole In The Wall was convenient. Round the back of the Tate, amongst the council blocks with their grimy brick uniformity there were several wonderful little dives. More resplendent was the Morpeth, which was almost next door. Near to the Courtauld on Woburn Place, he could access ULU, the University of London Union. This usually proved to be a fruitful hunting ground because the drinks were cheap and because trips to the Courtauld were made with only half a group to avoid any problems caused by repeated use of the lift, whose use was unavoidable and whose capacity was limited. The collection with its mix of the medieval, Renaissance and, for Britain, its almost unrivalled post-Impressionism was a must and he could spend almost all afternoon in there despite its limited number of works. From the V&A he liked to migrate towards Hyde Park rather than South Kensington because the Ennismore Arms was usually quiet, though pricey, but it could now double up as a venue because of its proximity to the newly opened Serpentine. It could, after a long walk, also serve as the watering hole after a visit to Lord Leighton’s house, but then they had plenty of time for the walk because that particular museum visit generally did not detain them for long. It was, after all, London and there was plenty of choice.

Expressions of interest were always followed by invitations to look at more materials which, inevitably, were in his apartment. It is perhaps hard for inhabitants of the twenty-first century to appreciate that this was a pre-electronic era. There were no mobile phones and no internet. The personal computer had yet to be invented. So to research the works of an artist, one either had to visit a gallery, where no photography was allowed and colour reproduction postcards were pricey, or access texts via libraries, some of which had to be ordered a week in advance This often might entail three trips by public transport, one to find the book not in stock and make an order, one to collect it and one to take it back. The art book, probably designed for weight-lifters, had to be lugged home in proper protective covering, because there was always the weather that might damage it, and then it had to be returned with a repeat trip a week later to avoid fines, which weren’t large, until you discovered a book under your bed that was supposed to have been returned three months ago. We can now appreciate how much easier it was to take a bus up the road to your tutor’s home, where a personal library, not to be loaned under any circumstances, however, could be accessed and discussed with the very person who would later mark your work, especially when he threw in a glass of wine, bread, cheese or an occasional spaghetti Bolognese. For some who took up John Daly’s open invitation, the experience led to substantially more than critical appraisal of reproduction, though it was, we have to admit, an era where aids to inhibit reproduction were already widely available.

Eileen’s personal introduction to the process followed a visit to the Tate, where for the first time she encountered the paintings of Mark Rothko. It was their emptiness that captivated. For her, this was the art of absence, of void, of spaces emptied so that imagination could fill them. It was Charlotte who remembered the conversation. That afternoon, they had not stayed close to the gallery for their early doors. In fact, the three flat sharers had decided to go home, largely because it was a foul afternoon, dark, wet and windy and staying out was less than attractive. Only Linda made it to the flat, however, because she had to get Alan’s tea ready. When they arrived on The Broadway, the rain had stopped and it was still only six o’clock, so Charlotte and Eileen, plus a couple of the others who like them lived up the hill decided to go to the Green Man. John Daly had tagged along, ostensibly to continue discussion on the art. It was Charlotte, of course, who provided this detailed account.

“For me, it’s the randomness that attracts. It feels like these works could not have happened twice,” said Eileen.

A laconic John Daly leaned back in his seat. He looked interested. He was. “Where do you detect the random in Rothko?”

“It’s in his use of space and light.” Eileen stopped, looked around as if garnering support for her idea. People wanted to hear more, not really out of interest, merely because they could sense someone about to tread on a dick she didn’t have. “When I was a kid…” There was a little titter from somewhere. “…I can remember looking up at the sun coming in through our sitting room window. I closed my eyes, because it was too bright, but there, behind closed eyes, I could see flashing patches of colour. But you couldn’t look at them. If you tried, they moved, flashed away from your gaze. They faded all the time, and as they faded, they changed colour. They started yellow, turned orange and then red, that dark red, surrounded by grey and black. Sometimes everything inverted and the colours reversed. It could have been a visual memory of anything, a landscape, a face, a garden, a painting… But the memory of whatever had been seen was now just patches of light that flashed, faded and ran away.”

“There are people who do that in the park…” I can’t remember who said that, which is probably a good thing. But it was said.

“Give Eileen a chance…” This was John Daly. His antennae were active.

“Fuck off,” said Eileen to whoever it was. We knew one another quite well by then. “It’s the same with Rothko. He has seen something and he’s painting it. But he’s not telling you what it was. He’s only showing us a memory of something that was in his eye. All you get are the colours that are left behind closed eyes, with blurred edges where they are fading, flashing to nothing as we try to look at them. The challenge for us is to imagine what the original vision was. And that has to come from within ourselves. And that’s why it’s a random process. We can imagine whatever we please.”

John Daly was clearly surprised with this. “So what do you think he was trying to say?”

She did not hesitate. “It has to come from inside ourselves. It’s not a blank canvas. It’s filled with memories of light. You have to look, then close your eyes and fill in the image. You have to remake the memory that left that light. It’s not telling you to see something. It’s inviting you to find something to see, something that you saw in the past and remembered. And that’s why it’s random. It has to be random. If you ask people who have looked at these paintings what they have seen, you could tell who has really looked at them. Anyone who answers red, black, grey, yellow has seen nothing. People who say Blackpool 1965, the moon landing, my auntie’s wedding, they are the people who have really looked, because they have found a link to their own memories. That’s where the unpredictability and the randomness come in.”

“What about spirituality?”

“If that’s the way you are, then religion might come into your head…”

“I didn’t say religion - I said spirituality.”

Eileen did pause here. “If you have stirred a memory, then that’s enough. If anyone has a spirit, then it’s locked in their memory.”

John Daly seemed genuinely impressed, Charlotte told me. I was impressed, she continued, because here was a young woman with a northern accent that sounded positively inane, coupled with an inferiority complex the size of a county, apparently holding the attention of an accomplished academic art historian. With hindsight, we know what he was up to and there’s no doubt he was very practiced at it. We’d heard from students in other years that he had something of a reputation, but none of us were conscious that this was all part of the plan. He was totally convincing. But at the time I can recall feeling just a little taken aback, bewildered, but perhaps I was just a little jealous, because the attention was not mine.

Early in their flat share, Eileen did not yet know Charlotte well enough to realise that there was a sense of unease, perhaps even envy, across the table. They had yet to learn the nuances of silence that communicate one’s feelings. There, that evening in February, with the rain starting again to beat against the Green Man’s windows, Eileen had become locked in a private conversation with her teacher, so private it began to exclude Charlotte. Over the next half hour, one by one the others left until only Eileen, Charlotte and John Daly remained, with Charlotte still largely silent, but equally unable or unwilling to break away.

“I’ve got some really interesting books on Rothko, if you fancy a trip to Finchley. It’s not that far…”

“Maybe at the weekend.” Eileen sounded positive.

“How about Friday night, after college?”

Eileen nodded.

She went to his place at six-thirty that Friday. By ten o’ clock she was already on her way home, having been greeted, wined, fed, read to and fucked in that order. It wasn’t her first time, but it was her first experience with a mature man who knew what he was doing. The other times, it had been with Martin and then a fellow foundation course student, who boasted much and achieved little. Here, in Finchley, in the second term of her Fine Art degree course, there had been no cajoling, no force, not even a hint of anything but consent, but it was an unequal encounter, with all the power on one side of the pairing. Though it was cold, she decided to walk home, because at that time of night she would have to wait ages for a bus anyway. A couple of them did pass her on the way, but she felt warm inside, wanted, desired, possibly even a little special, a star student praised for her insight. It all changed a fortnight later when John Daly fucked Charlotte after a trip to the Courtauld.

Things had to come to a head and they did, immediately. Charlotte had barely walked in the room, late that Saturday night, before Eileen snapped, “Did you fuck him?” There was an air of confidence about her flatmate, detectable even before they had seen one another. It could be heard in Charlotte’s uncharacteristic firmness in the closing of the door, the way she lingered in the bathroom, no doubt inspecting herself in the mirror, the attempted silent entry into their shared room via the calculatedly ponderous twist of a handle that usually squeaked.

Charlotte did not answer at first, preferring to smile a little in silence, indicating the two of them had returned to par. The repeated question, firmer, closer to, though not reaching, a shout, elicited a formal, “Yes. So what?” which rendered Eileen speechless. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out, all of the rehearsed words apparently erased from her memory. She was hurt, humiliated, angry, resentful, envious and spiteful, all at the same confused time. It was an era where you could call him a callous bastard, but take it no further, because that was what men did. But then Charlotte and Eileen almost came to blows. There were no more words, some raised forearms, some tears. After what felt like an age but was in fact only a couple of minutes of tension, they were on Charlotte’s bed in one another’s arms, sobbing. Strangely, only some ten minutes later, neither of them was any longer perturbed, nor even at all surprised.

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