Saturday, 10 December 2011


copyright Frieda Hughes

Mayor  Gallery

Sylvia Plath is perhaps known best for her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar - and as one of the most gifted  poets of the last century. She hoped that her pen and ink drawings would illustrate the articles and stories that she wrote for publication. Now for the first time (and probably the last) her drawings are on public display. I think this was the first time that I have walked into a gallery and seen a small red spot stuck on every one of the art works. A sell out.

The drawings were given to Plath’s daughter Frieda by Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, a former Poet Laureate. The unveiling of Hughes’ memorial in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, took place four days after the Mayor Gallery exhibition opened on December 2nd.It was only after I’d visited the gallery and gained permission to use the image that I realised I had broken one of my own rules. My blog is strictly about living artists - but not this time.

Plath and I  both went up to Newnham College Cambridge in October 1955, I an undergraduate, she a prestigious Fulbright scholar. I suspect we were all writing letters home to our mothers that first term, but they did not get published, as Plath’s did, nor, I suspect, did they have anything like Plath’s astonishing capacity to bring to life the college, the city, the rooms we occupied and the maelstrom of emotions running through our veins. 

Over the years I’ve read her poetry, her letters and some of the many books written about her, but never seen her art. I was told that View...from Room 26 1956  illustrated above is of Cambridge rooftops, but I'm not sure. Most of her fresh, calm, almost calligraphic drawings were executed around that time or a year or two later. She drew single objects: bottles, trees, flowers, even The Ubiquitous Umbrella (was that a reference to the gloomy Fens?) as well as agglomerations, such as a harbour or roof tops.

I too was a young mother struggling with depression in an unfamiliar place when I heard on the wireless in February 1963  that Sylvia had killed herself. She was 31. It’s an event which still lives with me. She clearly loved drawing, took lessons and was serious about it. She said 'I have a visual imagination. For instance, my inspiration is painting and not music when I go to some other art form. I see these things very clearly'. It's comforting to walk  through the Mayor Gallery and glimpse a serene, absorbed young woman during that part of her life when she was not being shipwrecked by family relationships  and her own inner turmoil.


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