Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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We had all suddenly woken up to Caspar David Friedrich. I don’t know how it all started. We went to the exhibition about a year later, but we felt we had done it already. I can’t remember when that was. We didn’t buy the catalogue because we couldn’t afford it. The college library had some books that gave him a mention, but everything was so focused on what we thought were the standards - Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, French, Impressionism and the like, and almost always from an Italian or French perspective - there was very little about German art until Expressionism in the twentieth century, apart from Dürer and Grunewald. So we very much took everything at face value and looked at things with open minds, without presumption. Until then Eileen and I had not seen eye to eye about many things - perhaps most. Eileen had latched onto Linda. I think now she needed a mother figure. At the time I thought she was just being bitchy, trying to shut me out, resentful of the fact we had to share a room. Even though we had it divided down the middle with a pair of side-by-side wardrobes - one opening onto her half and one onto mine - Eileen often used to leave things on the little table at my side, dropped things there as she passed through into her half. When I complained, she would say she was only putting them there for a moment, that she would pick them up when she went past on the way out, but often she put things there and just left them. She definitely did some things deliberately to wind me up. There was once a book on Dada from the college library. She didn’t read it. She didn’t even look at it, as far as I could see. But she did put it on my bedside table, opened it, stood it up like a tent so the cover was facing my bed. She knew what she was doing. She thought that what I was doing was boring, conventional, uninspired and wanted to shock me out of what she thought was a rut. Well she did that, all right.

We used to go to galleries on Sunday afternoons, when they were open from two to five. On a particular dark and rainy day, we went to look at some Friedrichs. The bus seemed to take an age to get down to Finsbury Park and we had to change there. I remember vividly that the bus we got on was ancient and that the windows were so caked with muck we couldn’t even see out. Those old buses were an absolute pain. They weren’t just slow, they were also noisy, with every gear change causing a loud, almost scraping bang that you could feel through the panelling, and then the engine would get noisier until the gears went bang again. They could only do about twenty miles an hour and stopped every two hundred yards. Travelling was probably how concrete feels when it’s being mixed. The conductor was quite a young bloke and he kept walking past us, clicking his ticket machine and asking if we were all right and if we knew where we were going. Linda smiled and was nice to him. I tried to ignore him. Eileen eventually told him to fuck off and then he left us alone.

And so we went to the exhibition. The German Romantic Tradition, at least in painting, was new to us. I knew about Beethoven, Schubert, Schiller and the like, but had not previously registered that there was a visual art movement based on the same aesthetic. Linda said that she had never heard of any of them, whereas Eileen said she recognised some of the names, but didn’t know anything about their style. We didn’t believe her.

Now I had been to a Girls’ High School and had something of an academic education, but the others had not, so I played teacher and told them what I knew. Linda said she was interested in the compositions and settings, especially the landscapes, but Eileen, of course, immediately latched onto the idea of the individual emotional response to experience. It was right up her street, at least ideologically, except she couldn’t find the expression in the paintings themselves, which she thought were old fashioned and stuffy. Until, that is, we reached the sunlit crosses on hilltops.

Linda, who had been brought up in a very Christian household, thought the crosses out of place. But Eileen and I were bowled over, Eileen because it symbolised the individual sacrificed for a greater good and me because I thought they looked nice. For weeks afterwards, Eileen and I had crosses, the more dramatically lit the better, in everything we did. I dressed mine up like Gustave Moreau gone Christian, with serpents, flowers, gnomes, nudes, pre-Raph gardens, Beardsley graphics and all kinds of mess. Eileen just put crosses in the middle of sheets of A3 and that was that, until she did Time.

Linda remembers Eileen’s Time. “I thought it was crap, pure crap. But then, I thought everything that Eileen did was crap. After filling a complete sketch block with little coloured crosses, Time was supposed to sum up their combined meaning. Crap. Bullshit. But she did it. She had a bottle opener she brought from home. She insisted, when we moved into the flat, that it should hang on the wall. She said it was one of her favourite things and it reminded her of home. It was brass. The handle part was a naked woman, complete with buttocks and breasts. Her raised arms and bunched hair became the loop of the opener, with her hands clasped at the top. She had found a child’s toy - a plastic windmill in lurid red and green mounted on a stick which, if you secured the spinner, became a cross because it had four spokes. She tied the bottle opener to the stick so it looked like the woman was being crucified and then stuck the whole thing into a plant pot full of soil, with the word ‘Grow!’ written on the front in green paint. Crap.”

For Charlotte, the work formed a kind of new start with Eileen. “I remember her saying how the bottle opener had hardly ever been used. It had usually hung on a hook by the back door in their kitchen and that Eileen liked to touch it on her way out of the house. When I asked her why she had brought it to London, she told me without embarrassment, without hesitation that she liked to stroke the woman’s bum. She used that word specifically, not bottom, not rump, but bum. She said she found it strangely reassuring. It was the word and the sentiment that made me listen. Great oak trees from little acorns grow.” Given Time, things do grow. And from that day, the day of the Friedrich crosses, Eileen’s relationship with Charlotte began to change.

Time was Eileen’s first real expression of what she had come to describe as ‘Women’s’ Lib’. It was, obviously, a rather crude comment, if it was a comment at all. Perhaps she was trying to represent a summation of the past rather than a hope for the future. But Eileen’s own notebook stated: “She’s being crucified as all women have been since the start of time. She is mother, not only mother nature, but also mother to the boy child, to all boy children who threw away history. She is strung up on her own child’s plaything and is herself just a tool so that men can access their desires. Like Christ started a religion which grew to dominate human thinking, the sacrifice of this woman, her use as an object, her role as a mother will take root in this pot and, in Time, will grow into a movement that will liberate her and her kind.” She probably copied some of the phrases.

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