Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Swiss women vote!

Swiss Women Vote!

This was a piece from Eileen’s first year, imagined but never completed during the second term, probably during March 1971. In fact, suffrage in Switzerland to include women had only just become law the previous month, so this particular work is perhaps the first work by Eileen that could be described as deliberately topical.

Eileen left notes and sketches for the work. Unusually, she left quite a collection of notes, but actually no evidence that the work was ever started, though we have a recollection from Linda that it was, at least over a weekend. It is unclear whether any part of the work or even the ideas themselves were ever submitted to her tutor for assessment, though I suspect not.

Linda explained, “It was hard to know where to start. We sat and listened, convinced she was just having a laugh, but we soon realised she was taking herself quite seriously. I suppose it could have been quite funny, had it ever been made. But what gallery is going to exhibit something like that? I mean, in its original conception, it was potentially lethal, because she had the idea of using a real crossbow! We soon persuaded her to change it to a toy, shooting arrows with rubber stickers, but her original idea was that it should be dangerous. I mean…

“From the perspective of thirty years, I think Eileen could have been described as a cartoonist in three dimensions. Swiss Women Vote! was about as strange an idea as I have ever come across. It started in the February, when we were listening to the news on the radio after college, while we were together in the kitchen preparing our meal. I do remember it exactly, because it’s not every day you hear a story like that. All three of us listened intently, because it came as such a surprise. Charlotte had even been there on holiday and still had no idea.

“None of us knew that Swiss women had never - never! - had the vote. And that was nineteen seventy-one, for God’s sake! The news story described how there had been a debate as to whether the law should be changed. We were flabbergasted! We had a laugh trying to imagine exactly what it was they had debated! A couple of days later, Eileen already had her sketches for the work.

“She was going to sculpt a Swiss man. You would know he was Swiss because she had him in lederhosen, complete with braces with a breast-band, shorts, woolly socks, knobbly knees, boots, the lot. None of your stereotypes there! But she was going to make him out of cheese. Sculpted cheese, for God’s sake! I’m serious! He would be sitting in a chair, strapped to it like it was an electric chair, and out of the fly of his shorts would emerge a giant alpenhorn, which would protrude a good ten feet along a mat made of artificial grass. And the whole thing would be painted. I have no idea - and I am sure Eileen had no idea herself - what kind of paint she would use to cover real cheese.

“On his head there was to be a felt hat with a feather, and on top of that she planned to balance an apple with a significant bite already missing. If she had completed the work and patented the image, she would be very rich by now.

“At the end of the grass mat she planned to place her crossbow, with a supply of arrows in an embroidered quiver that was to hang from the stand.

“Next to the crossbow was to be a controller housed in a little booth with a curtain drawn back so you could see inside. Across the top was the instruction, Swiss Women Vote! and inside there was a lever on a ratchet that would move the crossbow a little at a time with the options, Left, Right, Up, Down - it takes true imagination! One vote, one little movement was the idea. Every hundred votes or so, a button labelled Fire was to light up and the next lucky viewer could dispatch the arrow in whatever direction the previous people had elected.

“Eileen was completely serious. She went to Sainsbury’s and spent a fortune on cheese, Emmental, obviously, because it was the only Swiss cheese available in Britain at the time. She stuck the pieces together until she had a block from which she could usefully sculpt a head, and she did just that. It looked really impressive, a realistic Swiss gentleman, sculpted in cheese, full of holes. You don’t easily forget an image like that! She painted it as well using acrylic. Surreal was not the word. I am not sure what the right word might have been, but I do remember being suddenly convinced that the finished work would be thoroughly impressive. But it wouldn’t go in the fridge because it was too big. We had to put it outside the kitchen on the fire escape.

“It stayed there for the weekend, was attacked by something that ate significant parts and the rest went mouldy. And that’s as far as it got, because she couldn’t afford any more cheese.”

Charlotte, as ever, was reluctant to discuss any of Eileen’s work. I realised early on in the remaking of this life that there existed memories associated with some of these pieces, memories that Charlotte would rather not recall. Eventually, I relied heavily on Charlotte’s recollections, but she was always more willing to discuss the events of their shared life, rather than her reactions to them. Eileen’s own sketchbooks did contain some notes on the work, but they are particularly scant. “A Swiss man full of holes, with all the holes full of shit,” she wrote.

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