“I Know You Understand.” A Letter Across Time from Celia Paul to Fellow Artist Gwen John
"Please help me, Gwen, to work my way through these feelings of panic and fear.”
The following letter from British artist Celia Paul to the Welsh painter Gwen John (1876-1939), a “tutelary spirit for Paul,” appears in Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul, published by New York Review of Books.
Great Russell Street, 24 January 2020
I woke again from a night of sad dreams. I can’t remember them—they drift away from me like smoke that leaves an acrid taste in my mouth and mind. I drank too much wine again yesterday. I had two glasses in the restaurant with my husband and then I bought a bottle to drink alone on my little balcony, looking at the most beautiful sickle-moon with its accompanying bright star. The air was very clear and cold.
This morning, when I looked in the mirror, there were deep lines scored into the bags under my eyes. How to catch hold of this time, which is running through my fingers like water?
I need to prepare now for my painting. I need to return to My Father’s House. Now that Kate won’t be sitting for me for another year, I would like these letters to you, from now on, to be like the conversations I had with her during our breaks. I want to be honest with you.
It is the next day. I lie awake most of the night, feeling flayed with longing and loneliness. My insides are still burning with the most abject feelings of abandonment and loss. I wish I could regain my calm and self-sufficiency.“Please help me, Gwen, to work my way through these feelings of panic and fear—of ageing, of loneliness—somehow.”
Yesterday I worked very hard on My Father’s House. I need to look and see what I have done. I need to leave it then, until the paint has dried, and then rework it and unify it. After I finished work on this painting, I put my Willow Reflected in Water back onto the easel. I heightened the tones of the water around the head of the willow. It still isn’t right, but I think I know how to bring it together into one luminous whole. The paint is getting thick and I need to put the canvas to one side. Then I need to mix Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Yellow, Venetian Red, Nickel Titanium Yellow and spread it thinly over the surface to make a golden glow. I have put my Copper Beech back onto the easel. I need to resume work on it, if I dare. Of course I dare. It is already so strong that I need to keep the fire alight. Everything is to do with balance. One wrong move and the whole burning edifice of the tree will crumble away and die. The tree is its own balancing act: the leaves are stacked like plates on its many arms.
I read in your book of letters the one you wrote to Ursula after your father had visited you in Paris:
I think if we are to do beautiful pictures we ought to be free of family conventions and ties.
My father is here—not because he wished to see me or I to see him, but because other relations and people he knows think better of him if he has been to Paris to see me! And for that I have to be tired out and unable to paint for days. And he never helps me to live materially—or cares how I live.
Enough of this. I think the family has had its day. Don’t you think so? We don’t go to Heaven in families now, but one by one.
I have been thinking of painting a good deal lately. I think I shall do something good soon—if I am left to myself and not absolutely destroyed.
Please help me, Gwen, to work my way through these feelings of panic and fear—of ageing, of loneliness—somehow. Please help me “to care and not to care.”
On 2 June 1925 you wrote to Ursula:
Tragedies have happened in my home lately and the cat I loved best has died, and another. It has stopped me in my work and all the flowers I was going to do pictures of have passed now. There remains the acacia trees that I see from my window but I cannot do them yet.
You continue, in the same letter: “I liked the washed Ingres paper very much. Thank you so much for telling me about it. I have difficulty in pressing it but that may be because I needed big sheets, little sheets will come out flat better.”
Ursula had recommended that you soak Ingres paper in water and press five or six sheets of it together, and then keep them flattened under a heavy weight. You had been upset that a particular sort of Japanese paper that you had been using was no longer available. You had written about the paper to Ursula:
it is so exquisite for my drawings. The colour doesn’t run into each other. The paper absorbs the colour and each touch of the brush has to be final, no retouching can be done. I feel quite ill when I realize that I’ve got to use some other paper.
The materiality of the painting process has always helped to stabilise me, too. I love the way that, in this letter, you move away from talking about the death of your cat and describe instead your delight in this new technique of pressing sheets of paper together to make a more absorbent surface for your watercolours.
I have just returned from buying paints from two shops near to my studio that sell artists’ materials. Both shops are in short supply of a paint that I rely on. It has two names, depending on the manufacturer: Old Holland Yellow Light or Roberson’s Naples Yellow Extra Pale. I managed to scrape together six small tubes from both suppliers. I hope and pray that their orders will arrive in the shops soon.
As I was returning to my flat, I noticed a couple walking in front of me: an old woman being supported by a younger, though grey-haired man. He held on to her arm solicitously. I recognised them as Paula Rego and her partner Anthony Rudolf. They were deep in conversation as they walked and I thought it would interrupt them if I caught up with them.
I stood and waited. I watched them walking slowly to the end of the street. When they turned the corner, I continued on my way.
I thought how much we need to cherish each other. I thought of my husband and how sad it is that we spend so little time together. We both need our separate space but, over the years, this distance has grown wider and wider. I love him very much. He has always understood me, and he has allowed me all the freedom in the world without once trying to own me or to compromise my art for his sake.“You and I are tragically wedded to our solitude. Our reclusiveness powers our art: it is what drives it.”
In your letter to Ursula, dated 7 August 1911 you write, “I should like to go somewhere where I meet nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not effect [sic ] me beyond reason,” but in the same letter you also write, “If you possibly can, Ursula, do come soon! I could now spend time every day with you . . .” I have often been daunted by how uncompromising you are, compared to me, but here you betray that you are as conflicted about loneliness versus companionship as I am.
I have been wondering how Paula Rego has balanced her life since the death of her husband, the painter Victor Willing, with whom she had three children.
But you and I are tragically wedded to our solitude. Our reclusiveness powers our art: it is what drives it.
You wrote in your notebook, “Leave everybody and let them leave you. Then only will you be without fear.” You also wrote, “Aloneness is nearer God, nearer réalité.”
We both crave and fear attention. We both lead solitary lives so that when we meet someone who understands us, we are swept away.
I once rang Hilton on his cell phone. I hadn’t heard from him for a while and I was anxious. When I heard his voice, I cried. He was alarmed and concerned. He asked me if I was very lonely. I cried out, “I AM lonely!” I felt a deep sense of shame to admit my loneliness. Why is this such a shameful emotion?
When Jeanne went back to New York, she was often very slow to respond to your entreating letters. You called her “My sweet, my beautiful little Jeanne.” And you wrote, “you will see how I love you always and have never ceased to though I pretended to (because I was hurt).”
I sometimes envy you the peace you must be experiencing now that you are dead. How you are no longer racked with longing. I know this is wrong of me.
I wish I wasn’t always so lonely, yet unable to be in company for long. Even the company of my most beloved husband, who I know I will miss unbearably when he’s gone.
I know you understand and would forgive me my contrariness because I can’t seem to help it. It’s how I’ve always been, and so have you.
With a handshake,
Excerpted from Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul, published by New York Review of Books.