Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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This was another assignment from Eileen’s first term in art college. It was submitted handwritten within the pages of a large-format sketchpad, which I obtained courtesy of the Colbrookes. They had come across it during the final clearance of Marion’s home when she was admitted to care. It was in a plastic bag under the stairs and it clearly would not fit into the box they had prepared for Marion. Fearing it would be lost or damaged if it were left loose, they kept it, still in its original Sainsbury’s bag. They said it reminded them of Eileen, of whom they were still fond. I am indebted to them, for this one book contained much of the material I have used to reconstruct Eileen’s work.

Exactly why Eileen chose to write this piece on unlined drawing paper is a mystery. I suspect that the brief for the task, which was not included, probably specified a mixed media study, with the student’s text interspersed with illustration or copies of the chosen artist’s work. Eileen, as ever, had her own personal approach.

Describe the life of your chosen artist and illustrate how the life influenced the art and how the art has influenced you.

The artist I want to describe is called Helen Wallace. She is not famous, but she is an artist. I think she may not even be known outside of my home area. She was my teacher. She is the reason I decided to become an artist.

Helen Wallace was born on July 10, 1933. I know the date exactly because I still have the cutting from the Wakefield Express. There are no books written about Helen Wallace. One day I will try to correct this. All I know about Helen’s early life is that she was born and brought up in Pontefract, which is famous for liquorice. The town is medium sized, neither big nor small, big enough to have most things, small enough not to have what you want. Like most towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire, it has different sides. I’ve thought about this long and hard and have not copied this from a book or written what someone else has said. This comes from me and my personal experience. I say this now because it is important for what I want to say. More than anyone else, it was Helen Wallace the person who convinced me I had something to say and Helen Wallace the artist that taught me a language to express it.

Pontefract is a mixed town. It’s a complicated place. The town centre is quite big, at least I thought it was until I came to London. Now it looks different. It has an indoor market and a small outdoor market a couple of times a week. The indoor market is exactly what you would expect to find in a West Riding town. It sells a lot of pork pies, bacon, fruit and veg, birthday cards, cheap clothes and everything else you would expect to be cheap. The outdoor market is more expensive than Wakefield and it’s a lot smaller. There aren’t really any big shops in Pontefract. They have a Marks, a BHS and a Boots, but they are all small.

Pontefract has a racecourse. You see it sometimes on Grandstand on Saturday afternoons, when Peter O’Sullivan does his usual vocal race alongside what the horses are doing in the last furlongs. I mention the races, because they are what make Pontefract that little bit different from the other towns in the area. It’s the last one before you leave the mining and industrial areas, where the places become rural and vote Conservative. Pontefract is very much on the edge.

It’s known as Ponte, pronounced like the Latin for bridge in the ablative - we did Latin at school, for some reason - and the second half means broken, which is interesting, given that I think it’s quite a confused sort of town.

Ponte also makes liquorice of all sorts. The phrase, for me, means Christmas. I always got a box of them in my stocking and I think I still have all the blue-beaded round ones they ever contained. I like them, but I like to look at them more than I like to eat them. I have a collection going back years in a tin that used to contain Oxo cubes.

Pontefract is also surrounded by pits. There’s Glasshoughton, Snydale, Featherstone, Ackton, Knottingley, where there is also a gas works and a brand-new pit. The one at Snydale used to have enormous slagheaps, where there was a contraption that carried buckets of muck up to the top of the heap so it could be tipped. The end of the run had a turning track for the buckets where they went round a semicircle. It was like a giant steel snake, with the tipping part forming its head, and when I was young, I really did think it was a snake. The gas works is like a living black monster. When you drive past, it seems to hiss at you like it’s going to pounce, but that’s gone now. There are no pits to the south of Pontefract, which is just a vast expanse of fields, real countryside. On the eastern side, before you get to Knottingley, there’s Ferrybridge, which has three power stations called A, B and C. A is for arms, because it looks like a giant one-armed bandit. You ought to be able to put a penny in one side, pull one of the chimneys and get something out of the long diagonal pipes that run up the main building. B is for boring and C is just bigger than the others, meaning you can see it for miles.

Also, on the south side of the town there is the middle-class area of big houses with gardens where the professional people live. They call themselves that so they can be something different from the miners, shop assistants, sweet makers, bus drivers and farm workers, who of course are all amateurs. They are amateurs because they don’t earn the money. That’s for the professionals.

Pontefract also has a castle. It’s a famous castle, but there’s nothing much left to see. There’s a few bits of wall and some mounds and gardens. But it’s not every town that had a king killed there. Pontefract did.

But Pontefract also has Baghill. It’s on the south side of the town, but it’s a place that’s a law unto itself. It’s the kind of place where middle-class people do not want to be after dark. They might meet someone.

Helen Wallace lived in one of the big houses near to King’s School. I went to visit her there several times. It was an enormous house. It had four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The entrance was a porch that was about the same size as our sitting room. It had three rooms on the ground floor and they all seemed to echo. Helen had been an only child, just like me. But Helen’s father died in the war. He was a pilot based at Finningley. All she could remember about him was that he was very tall and walked with a stoop. She didn’t see a lot of him after the war started. Helen’s mother brought her up.

She went to the High School and then art college. Her mother got cancer and died in 1955, and Helen inherited the house, where she lived alone with her artwork. She became a teacher after college and she was my art teacher in Browns School until I left to do my Foundation.

I first met Helen Wallace when I was eleven. She became a kind of goddess. The rest of the teachers always wore dull, formal clothes, ties, suits, blouses, skirts and polished shoes. Helen Wallace always wore bright, vivid colours. She bleached her hair. She was blonde with a parting down the middle. She wore plain, pleated skirts in pale blue, green and sometimes red. She had long sleeved blouses that fit her and had buttoned cuffs, often multicoloured. She had a good figure and wore a lot of makeup, face powder, rouge, lipstick, eye shadow and liner, none of which we girls were allowed to wear, of course. And I am a woman, so there is no problem in my saying that she had a big bust and always wore those pointed bras that sold themselves with the slogan of lift and separate. She was a big woman, but not fat. When she walked along the school corridor towards you with her flouncy skirt rustling, you felt you had to get out of the way. She was direct, quick rather than fast, determined rather than loud, dominating rather than domineering.

She never had any problems with the kids in her class, but she was never what might be called strict. Her classes were different from the others. In her class she let us talk when we were doing practicals, but if we talked too much all she had to do was look at us and we would be quiet. She would come round the room to see what you were doing, and she would talk about your work like she was interested in it. We usually didn’t start anything until she had led a class discussion about the topic, but that didn’t happen too often because we often carried on from where we had left off last time. But things like that never happened in any other class at that school.

Sometimes she would demonstrate at the front. She had real style. Whenever she used paint, she put on a big, loose, brown smock that went over her head rather than wrapped around. I’ve seen pictures of Rembrandt wearing something similar. Even the word, smock, makes me think of her.

Her work was what we would now call the brutalist end of abstract expressionism, though I did not know terms like that for most of the time she taught me. She wanted every artwork to be an expression of her personality, to be an external representation of her inner feelings. I remember her words exactly. “In art it’s more important that you know who you are rather than know what you want to paint.” She used to lead discussions with the class based on a question. She would often start with something we had seen on television.

I was young, eleven or twelve, when she gave a class on what later became known as ‘the big freeze’. She came into class and wrote the word COLD on her blackboard, which was very old and pitted. I distinctly remember the chalk hitting a rough spot and breaking. She had to get down on her hands and knees to get the piece that rolled under her desk. She kept talking all the time and didn’t notice all the boys on the other side of the room standing up and trying to look down the front of her blouse.

She asked us to think about the word and say related things that came to mind. She wrote the words around COLD in no particular order. But she would not accept words like snow or icicle or frost. She told us we had to use words describing what we felt. Then she said we had to choose one of the feelings and make it visible in paint. She chose shiver and did a quick demonstration using poster paints. In under five minutes she had painted a brilliant picture, where layer on layer of almost dry paint created a wonderful idea of someone shaking. The moment she described what we should do, I was clear what my picture should show, and I had finished it before the end of the lesson. Miss Wallace came to look at it and she immediately asked me to talk about it. I did.

The painting was a self-portrait. The paper was a vertical sheet of A3 and I placed myself off-centre, standing, unnaturally tall and thin and completely black, apart from my face. I put a hint of a horizon which suggested I was being seen almost from ground level. I told Miss Wallace I was trying to represent shivering, but then it became loneliness and separation, like the idea of a cold shoulder. The idea of coldness came to mean the way other people treated me, which was why I was alone and stretched. She asked me to repeat what I had said to the class and it made me feel very important.

Miss Wallace created my love of art, because she was so clear that it would become a voice that would express my inner feelings. She often gave me extra classes after school. Because I lived so near the school, I could be home in five minutes, so staying late caused no problems. She regularly let me stay until half past five and told me I could use any materials I wanted, which was a bonus because in that school we had to pay for the things we would use in subjects like art and cookery. She used to do her own work for an hour after school and we would often paint together, try to represent the same ideas and talk about what we had done.

She also gave me classes at weekends. I used to visit her at home on Saturdays and she used to give me tea and sandwiches for lunch. She had a big room upstairs in her house that she used as a studio, so I could leave work out until the next week. I couldn’t do that at home. There was never enough space, and my mother didn’t like having mess around. So if I did things there, I spent most of my time setting up and clearing away. In Miss Wallace’s house, she even had a dedicated bathroom next to her studio which was only used for cleaning brushes and the like. It meant I could use the whole time to paint. I trusted her and she gave me my love of art.

Her own painting, because she never wanted to do anything but paint, was, as I have said, abstract expressionist. She didn’t do random things, however. She had no time for Pollack’s splashing, dripping or riding bicycles through dabs to spread them. She described her own style as contemplative, and it was very sparse. She hardly used any paint until the end.

She would sit in front of a blank canvas for an hour, smoking in her smock, just looking at the blank space. She might get up and walk around the room looking at the canvas, which was still blank, from distance, from close up, from ansub-she would mix paint to get a colour she wanted and then thin it and thin it and thin it, until she had what was almost a wash. She always used acrylic. And then she would get a wide brush, the sort you might use to emulsion a wall, and put a glaze over the entire canvas. It would dry quite fast because she layered it very thin. Then she would change the colour, but not by much, by adding just a touch of something different, and then she would get another big brush, but smaller than the first, and overpaint part of what she had done. Where the lower layer was dry, it would cover, but if there was anything still even slightly wet, the new layer would blend. But she didn’t go over the whole canvas, so some areas still had the original wash. I suppose this was a random element in her style. She would then repeat the process many times, but only adding new layers to the canvas selectively, this area but not that, thin here, thicker there, and so on.

She would work on a canvas for many hours, sometimes more than one session, sometimes working on one she had propped up against a wall weeks before because she hadn’t been able to decide how to continue. She kept adding layers after adding new paint to her existing mix, which got thicker as time passed. Of course, it also got darker as the tertiary effects dominated. After twenty or thirty applications of overpainting, she would use thick paint, almost like paste straight from the tube and a palette knife to score lines of colour across the surface. The results were brilliant, expressive. They looked like they had been alive and had been attacked, the scouring like open wounds.

She said the final painting had become an expression of the inner self, the subconscious mind, the part of her personality that ultimately controlled not only what she thought, but how she thought, which itself was both uncontrollable and inaccessible. And it was this that she explored in her work. She told me that if I wanted to be an artist, then I should work at developing a similar idea, an overall approach to my work which would be personal to me, that could underpin everything I did. That’s how I came to develop my idea of assembling objects to create stories, stories without start or end or plot. Just stories.

When I left school to do my foundation course, I made sure I went back to visit her. Over the summer after I left, I noticed she had lost some weight. She said something about slimming, but I didn’t think she was telling the truth. By October, she had lost more weight and was looking ill. By the start of the next term, she was not at school when I visited one day. I asked where she was and I was told she was in Pontefract Infirmary. I went to visit her in the February, and she was like a skeleton. She died three weeks later. I asked what it was that she had, but nobody could tell me, or perhaps no-one was willing to tell me.

There was a little piece in the Wakefield Express. It was the owner of the school who made the announcement. It said:

Death – Helen Wallace (Miss), 8 July 1933 – 17 February 1970 in Pontefract Infirmary, cause unspecified. Funeral 23 February 10:30, Pontefract Crematorium. No flowers.

I looked at those few words and thought of that upstairs room full of her work. There must have been a hundred canvases and they were all superb. I think the house and its contents were passed to a relative, perhaps an aunt or an uncle. In the years I knew her, Helen Wallace never mentioned anyone else in her family, though there were some photos in the living room. I went to the funeral, but there were only the undertakers and a couple of my old teachers. There was no-one else. No Family. No friends.

I often think that one day in my rummaging through other people’s junk that I will discover one of Helen’s paintings and I can rescue it. It seems to me as if both herself as a person and her work has been cast aside, burnt to ash and, for all I know, put in one of those buckets that goes up the muck heap at Snydale pit through the steel snake to be tipped out at the top.

What she taught me was to look within myself and, more importantly, to trust what I found there and then to express those feelings, make them real in art. She also taught me to value the here and now, to let the future look after itself and that our idea of permanence is mere illusion.

There was a comment in a different hand.

I cannot grade this paper. It does not address the brief you were given. This was designed to be an exercise in Art History, a critical examination of the work of a chosen artist, based on research and published opinions of the artist’s work. This piece is autobiographical, cites an artist with no exhibited work and someone who was a teacher, not an artist. You will need to resubmit, Eileen. We can discuss a topic. JD

Eileen then continued in a large scrawl.

Your class! An artist’s only inevitable country is himself, e e cummings. A telegram from Robert Rauschenberg that said, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say it is.” Marcel Duchamp’s remark that any object can be elevated to the status of art. It seems that what I learnt from Helen for five years was not art. I wonder what it was.

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