Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul review – a woman in her own image | Autobiography and memoir

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As its title somewhat suggests, the artist Celia Paul’s second book takes the form of a series of letters to Gwen John, whose life, she believes, was “stamped with a similar pattern” to her own, and a postcard of whose painting The Convalescent she keeps in her studio (just one look at it, she says, and her breathing becomes easier). But this description is also – happily, I think – misleading. As anyone who has ever written a love letter will know, such notes inevitably say more about correspondent than recipient. If love is, as Paul suggests, the highest form of attention, it’s also a mirror: a means, marvellous and occasionally highly dangerous, of seeing ourselves anew.

I don’t mean at all to suggest that Paul is in love with John. But these are intimate letters, their author seemingly having taken to heart Colette’s writing advice (look at what gives you pleasure, but look longest at what gives you pain), and it’s this that enables me to forgive, if not quite to overlook, the rather fey idea of a one-sided conversation with a woman who died in 1939. When Paul writes as if John were a living, breathing friend – “I am excited that I have begun to communicate with you and don’t want there to be a pause just now” – something in me is embarrassed. I also know a great deal about John already, courtesy of numerous biographers and critics (her brother, her lover, her painfully unquiet heart). In the end, though, neither of these things matter one bit. It is really Paul who’s centre stage, and she is fascinating; I do not feel, at this point, that I could ever tire of her mind, and the unlikely, singular way it turns. I want to know as much about her as I possibly can.

To the casual observer, it’s obvious what she and John share: an obsession with, and deep ambition for, their work; the fact that both of them had “complicated, painful love affairs with much older men” (John was, famously, the lover of Auguste Rodin; Paul had a decade-long relationship with Lucian Freud, with whom she had a son, Frank). But these things are really only a kind of impasto: surface layers concealing far finer lines beneath. Both of them speak what Paul calls the “subterranean language” of painting, a dialect that in its most fluent form enables them to express turbulent, unbidden passions, and which, should it break down, becoming stuttering and incoherent, can also cause them great distress. To this, we must add their common asceticism, an extreme unworldliness. It is as if they live almost on air. Paul, whose small flat-cum-studio close to the British Museum is almost devoid of furniture and trinkets, seems sometimes to belong to another age entirely: when, at one point, she describes lying on a chaise longue and turning her face to the wall, I pictured someone in a corset and a long dress. Like John, she will not – she cannot – value material success above love. When Freud was alive, and still in her life, she felt she could not possibly work if he was feeling hostile towards her.

‘Frail and steely, shy and determined’: Celia Paul in her studio in London, October 2019
‘Frail and steely, shy and determined’: Celia Paul in her studio in London, October 2019. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Freud is in this book, of course. A spectre. She is still trying to make sense of him (they met when she was a student at the Slade). Attempting to make a portrait of her husband, Steven, who’s dying of cancer, she is alarmed to find that she has painted not his face but Lucian’s; even when the picture is finally finished, she feels her sable brush might have been dipped in smoke rather than paint. But her mother and sisters appear, too, and her son, Frank, who never hugs her (he was brought up by his grandmother, so that Paul might be free to work). Unreciprocated desire, and how – if – it might be quelled, is a theme of this book, as is the notion that, as Gwen John’s brother Augustus once noted, people are apt to mistake independence for fragility in a woman (Gwen didn’t “steal” through life, he said; she was haughty and amorous and proud). Paul, like John, appears before us as frail and steely, shy and determined. So much about her is paradoxical, not least her tendency to paralysing homesickness, a condition that seems so much at odds with her careful avoidance of domesticity.

Paul’s memoir, Self-Portrait, which came out in 2019, is to me among the greatest ever books by an artist: up there with Keith Vaughan’s Journals and Outline by Paul Nash. Letters to Gwen John doesn’t quite reach it, but in the end it is also very much an artist’s book, its author at her most insightful when she is writing about her practice (the stink of turps, the right paints and paper), or describing beloved pictures in the National Gallery (Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Robert Campin). It’s rarer than one imagines, this: so few artists are able to articulate why, and how, they work. Then again, this is a volume born of battles that are, to a degree, universal in the case of women: the cruelty of men, the shame of ambition, the struggle (always!) to find space to think, to be free. Paul is 62 now; this book has been gestating for a long time. Its conception may be traced, I believe, all the way back to the days when Freud kept a headless version of Rodin’s sculpture Iris on his sitting room table. Sitting for him, Paul “feared” the belt he wore, with its sharp buckle. The rag on which he wiped his brushes came gradually to look, she writes, like a butcher’s apron, smeared all over with blood.

Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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