As a teenager I painted portraits. I painted my friends and they painted me. We posed for each other in our various bedrooms, lying about in tracksuits and jerseys, among crumpled duvets, abandoned biscuits and fag packets.
I started with the eye and slowly moved outwards. With a fine brush or point of a pastel, I created shape and colour. Cautiously. I had to get the eye right in all its bruised splendour before committing to the cheek.
My friends sat for me with patience, trusting my gaze. I lost myself in the ease of these unified moments, their playfulness.
‘You’ll make me ugly.’
‘That doesn’t look anything like me.’
‘What have you done to my nose?’
I knew artists. I had sat for them. I was aware of their power to transpose what is before them, to create an image that attracts or repels. I had felt the intensity of an older man’s gaze, the discomfort of being younger, more vulnerable, female. I knew what it was to be an object of desire, and to be submissive. The nuanced dance of compulsion and danger.
Painting my friends was a way of taking back that power.
At school I loved Art History, and especially Lucian Freud. I was seduced by the melancholy of his early portraits, the strange harmony in their disproportion. His later work appealed in its daring; flesh so ugly and raw, the rebelliousness of distorted poses. His was a familiar art. One that could only belong to London with its grey walls and pale faces; domestic settings, beds and beaten-up sofas. I saw movement in those background spaces. I knew those scenes well: the long hours of discomfort, watching light shapes flicker across walls and floors, waiting for the day to end. Expensive lunches in Chelsea restaurants between sittings; stark white linen and paint stains on fingers.
I, like them, had been witness to a man in the throes of his passion. I’d seen the distance in an artist’s eyes, so focused as he measured up my body; the dedicated strokes as he touched canvas: I’d felt the thrill of creation, ideas made concrete, but not my own. Perhaps I didn’t yet know of the chasm between him and me. The position into which I’d been relegated.
The first time I sat for an artist, I was 14. He was a friend’s uncle, son of a famous British painter, but known better for appearing in Tatler’s society pages than his own portraiture. This was Jamie, who lived in a large house off Fulham Road.
Jamie gave his niece and I somewhere to go to when we bunked off school. He fed us. He took us to smart restaurants. He gave a tenner here and there. When I told my mother about him she was lulled by the thought that he was my friend’s family. We used the house as if it were an exotic extension of our own. We hung out in his bedroom, on a platform above his high-ceilinged studio when he was painting and rifled through his jar of coins. We snooped around, daring each other to touch the precious pictures on the walls: 1960s abstracts by his father; portraits by Francis Bacon; black-and-white photographs of a past girlfriend, fleshy in silk knickers. In the evening, Christopher Reeve dropped by from his house across the road; Bryan Ferry hung out over a glass of wine.
This is where Jamie first asked me to sit for him, in the lonely hours when I should have been at school. I sat mutely in his studio, in ripped 501s and a sweatshirt, and distracted myself by watching the retreating light. When he took me for lunch I was too nervous to eat. One time he told me that watching me so quiet and tentative in the chair, diaphanous in the white morning light, a halo of fine baby hairs glowing around my face, made him horny. When he asked me to join him at the canvas I shook, fearing he would kiss me. He suggested we go upstairs. He laid me on the sofa, and I let him, even though his lips were thin, with tiny barbs of bristle.
He invited me and his niece to his holiday home in Aix-en-Provence, and showed us off to his artist friends. We all three collapsed into a bed together after a party thrown by the Fry family, where Quentin Crewe hung out with Jasper Conran in a converted medieval hamlet above the Basses-Alpes. Jamie’s friends asked, ‘Where did you find them?’ He joked that he’d picked us up from the side of the road.
In the long hours back at the house, we left our knickers around, and laughed off the bemusement of this man nearly twice our age. We sat about in the cavernous kitchen, dark and thick-walled, lit by candlelight. We smoked cigarettes. We helped make food. We listened to Elvis Costello. We lay by the pool and fished out the drowning bumblebees and dried them out in the shade. We ate at the local cafe in the evening. An artist friend of his arrived, haughty and superior. Over dinner he leant forward on his elbows and spoke of the life of the hostess: ‘All you have to do is smile and be kind to lonely men,’ he directed at us. ‘And you’ll make a lot of money.’ This same man got drunk and stripped off his clothes, ran into the garden and swung from a rope, his shrunken willy pink in the moonlight. We thought it ridiculous. We thought it exhilarating.
I sat for Jamie in his white stone studio, drowsy from turps and oil paint. I felt small in the heat of the afternoon; sweat on my upper lip, saturating the back of my dress. He was impatient. He was unkind. He rarely showed me the painting as it emerged. He wasn’t happy with it and whited out the canvas before starting again. The chair was wooden and upright. It was uncomfortable to sit on for as long as he expected. I didn’t like his eyes on me, but despite this I said nothing. I worried that it was my fault that he couldn’t get it right.
Then he moved on to his niece, kissing her in the back of his hatchback when we put the seats down to spend the night at the seaside. The three of us fought for space beneath a single sleeping bag. I felt bereft.
We knew he was a creep; what he was doing wasn’t right. We knew that it was wrong of him to paint us and then try to kiss us, and to play us against each other. Who, today, did he give the most attention to? Which one did he want to share his bed with? Which one did he talk to more, compliment more? We knew all this, but only partly. We were children. The other parts of us yearned and hurt and doubted, vulnerable to his age, gender and wealth. We knew, but we also knew nothing.
I cried one night in France. As I sat on the hard-backed chair in his studio, blue with shadow, the rustle and hoo of the night and the chilled air circling through the paneless windows, I told him I felt rejected. I said I thought I was crying for him; though I knew they were also tears for my daddy. I wasn’t yet able to separate the two. He spurned me. Said I was too hung up on the past. Surely, I was old enough to let that go?
The summer before, aged 13, I discovered that I was attractive to a particular kind of man. One who was enchanted by the innocence of budding adolescence, made more vulnerable by paternal neglect and need; one who was able to objectify and manipulate for his own means. I was open and unprotected, entranced, thrilled and yet blinded by all that was new.
For the first time, I’d experienced how intensely beautiful a place could be: my father’s villa home and the landscape of Tuscany. I’d thrown back my head and closed my eyes to the hot sun, and inhaled deeply the smell of baked soil and dust from a passing storm. Open windows let in the air and light, and I walked barefoot from stone floor to pebble. I heard the swifts and house martins each morning, as if they were singing just for me. I discovered herbal tea, and coffee brewed Italian style, strong and milky with a dollop of honey. I smoked my first beedie and drank my first cup of wine. The Italian cook made omelette, and quiche and potatoes, and salads with radicchio, and laid it on the communal table beneath the umbrella pine; there were enough places for eight, or nine, ten, eleven, twelve. We ate under the stars, me beside my brother, my father with his wife, their friends, bright talk and mellifluous laughter. The cicadas sang our chorus.
I discovered the scent of the night, rich with tarragon, and the creeping darkness. Glimpses of fresh Indian silk; a glitter of gold; bells ringing from anklets and bracelets. The community were all part of a religious group that dressed in the colours of the sunset. We listened to Huey Lewis and the News, to Sade, to Peter Gabriel. Spinning around the kitchen table, we wound round and round, hands clasped, and laughed until our heads spun and cheeks hurt. I discovered the feeling of rapture, warm blood and eyes open to the light – all that they let in. This was happiness, but it was an ecstatic happiness that exploded in your heart, intense in its fragility. My father’s community appeared to have everything: joy, openness and warmth.
My father’s friends were on a crusade, a search for transcendence. This was the 1980s, when people where choosing alternative paths. Their eyes and minds open to Eastern philosophies and the promise of enlightenment through meditation and ersatz emotional honesty. Reject the strictures of modern life with its bills and mortgages and let yourself be free. Live it, feel it, be brave. If you love me, tell me. If you’re angry, shout. You wanna fuck me? Act on it. They all had a common guru who told them to ‘just be natural. Never feel guilty about anything.’ They took it literally. This was a place of no boundaries. My father and his wife would have a row and everyone would know. They would make up and everyone would be talking about it. A visitor would leave her shoes at the door, and make love in the afternoon. The window open.
My dad was immersed in this new life, but absent to his children, distracted. While my brother kept busy riding and fixing up his 50cc, I went in search of my father. There were tears, lots of them. Closed doors. The chill of rooms left empty. When I caught him, a fleeting moment when we could be alone, he’d put his bear arms around me and the longing would disappear.
I spent much of the day on my own, lying on my mattress in the cool of white walls. I found my own expression through words, stories earnestly written on scraps of paper. From the belvedere I leant into the wind that whipped over the hills. I let it embrace me, believed it might hold me.
The years that had come before had been my gift. I lived in London with my brother and mum, and went to school each day. My friends and I hung out in kitchens and made tea and rounds of toast. We were tiptoeing into our first flirtations, the nerves of our fingers still too fine to grip hold of anything. My world was not the colour of the sunset; it was neutral. A clear patch of all-rightness. Of just so.
Italy. Tuscany. This house with its thick walls and stone floors, green shutters and heavy mahogany doors. A dusty path leading through olive groves, wild cats skulking beneath bushes, and an orchard of almonds. Our freedom. Driving mopeds at speed around blind corners. Being thrown off. Getting lost. The heart and its acrobatics. Fresh mornings in early shadow. The dead heat of the day. Warm winds. A greying, yellowing, to sudden flash floods. It was a place of extremes. It was where I learned to feel.
Like tender new shoots unfurling into the light, the air, so fine, on our new skin. We tremble in the soft breeze, and as the sun shines, we open up some more. We take it, what is given to us, because it is all that we know; we might even think it will help us grow.
A man arrived one hot summer morning. My father’s friend. His eyes lingered on me from across the table. I noticed him too, so dapper in his white suit. White against brown. His skin brown like leather. He was elegant and tall and he made himself known. That first day when we went back to my father’s villa he invited me into his camper van and we lay together on the bed. I stared up at the ceiling as he read me his poetry. He told me that I inspired him. I was aware that the door was open, as I could feel the air on my feet; I could hear my brother kicking a ball against the house, the dull thud thud thud. I didn’t feel comfortable, and yet that need, that longing, overpowered everything else. I knew where this was leading, and yet there was a part of me that wanted his attention.
It was only days later that he kissed me, late at night when everyone was asleep. I held myself stiffly as he pressed his naked chest against the new breasts under my T-shirt. He whispered that he wanted to have sex with me. I was a virgin. I found him sexually revolting. A scorpion scuttled across the floor.
Despite this, I felt an awful longing to be with him that week. We went on walks. We sat beneath the stars. He spoke of his love life and its troubles. I had no answers for him, but was oddly soothed by his company. As long as I didn’t have to kiss him again.
One night, confused and desperate, I confided in my father. ‘You could learn something,’ he said. ‘He’s a good man. He’ll be gentle.’ Their cult believed in sexual initiation – the benefits of the older and wiser, usually men, as guide for the inexperienced, mostly underage girls. I knew it was wrong, and I also took pride in my virginity. He was not going to take that away from me. But in absence of my father’s protection, I resigned myself to my only defence: I learned, over the course of this week, to disappear. When he overstepped the line, a tentative kiss or his fingers tracing the fine skin on my arm or knee, I turned into shell, deliberating over this dissonance. That fragmentary need for significance, that craving, only not for this.
Feelings can be so powerful that you don’t know what to do with them. The birds outside sounded harsh to me then. The light that flooded in sliced my eyes. I squinted when he touched me. I held my chest and tried to smother my beating heart. I didn’t like the sound of it on my breath, how it might show itself up in my words, so I said nothing.
‘You are shaking because you love me.’
‘The light, as it rests on your face.’
‘It is only skin. Only a body.’
‘Colour on a canvas.’
He took me away for a day, lay me down on a pebbled shore and kissed me, and I was aware only of the birds spiralling up above in the vastness of the sky. There’d been others there when we’d arrived, black figures on the opposite edge of the lake, and I don’t know if they’d stayed. What would they have seen? A pretty setting of tranquil water lapping the shore, the hard afternoon sun startling in its shape and colour, the subtle gradations of shade. A Cézanne, a Seurat. But there’s something happening in those dark background movements. A middle-aged man with thin hips and trunks, leaning over a child and putting his hand on her flesh, his tongue in her mouth. In that moment, she exists for his pleasure alone, not her, but an idea. A girl. A virgin. A body, truncated by a frame. Faceless. Eyeless.
This was not me.
Lucian Freud painted some of his children naked. Soon after he died, I watched a documentary of interviews with some of his daughters, and it showed a painting of one of them with her legs apart and face obscured, the focal point her genitals. She was 19 at the time. I was shocked at the passivity of this pose, shocked at his blatant gaze over his child. Shocked, I suppose, that no one, not even her, had stopped it from happening. As I learned more about his single-mindedness and commitment to his art, his controlling behaviour around his various children, I understood that the studio was one of the few places they got to spend time with him – Lucian Freud: powerful, talented, selfish, cruel. But he was their father, and a daughter who feels rejected can be overwhelmed with longing. Longing, I had realised, lodges in your heart and makes you believe you need something, despite it being the thing that causes you harm.
I read an interview with his eldest daughter, in which she tells of when she finally said no to him. It was over her own daughter, then very young, who he’d planned to use as a model for an ambitious painting. At the last minute she said no. Naturally, she found it easier to protect her daughter from his gaze than she was able to protect herself as a child, all those years before when he’d painted her naked at 14. He rejected her, saying he never wanted to see her again. He punished her and she spent years trying to make up to him. My father did the same. When I finally confronted him over the way he allowed his friend to groom me that summer when I was 13, he told me to never contact him again.
John Ward had a reputation for painting the royal family and beautiful women. My mother had won a portrait by him as a prize. John, later a good family friend, was to relay the moment that she first walked through the door. She was beautiful, elegant, refined. The prize was not hers, he said, but his. It was pure gold. She sat for him for many important portraits and the relationship bloomed. In recompense he suggested he draw my brother and me. He offered me money to come back again and sit for him alone.
I was 17 by then. He and his wife looked after me. I sat for him each morning and we shared meals together. He was a gentleman, and was consciously sensitive to his models. He fed off the interaction. Comfort. Care. Respect. And it made for a better painting. He educated me on his fine knowledge of the arts: the importance of drawing, and a need to give yourself up to the work. He let me take breaks. He let me stand. He asked me my opinion. Sometimes he encouraged me to set up a canvas of my own. He let me use his oil paints and brushes, and this is where I learned to paint. I was my own subject, but I was also the creator. Painter. Model. Director. When I stood back I saw myself in a different light.
I have since thought about this relationship. The intimacy of the confined space: being a subject for an artist to respond to. A female subject, a male artist. The passivity: a face, a body made up of angles and contours, shadows, contrasts, shapes. The deceit of an object of beauty meant to be hung on the wall and admired. One’s role as a model is active in as far as it is an interaction, and it is demanding in a nuanced way: you do little more than sit or lie down and be still, for hours at a time, with your eyes set at a point somewhere in the distance; and yet the need for trust is paramount. Sometimes I was given a book to read as a prop, though I rarely saw the type. Sometimes I listened to choral music from a CD. But mostly I let myself dream. When John Ward painted me I was not on guard. I was able to enter that internal place where rich worlds are made, and things could be as I wanted them to be. My face, with John, was serene.
John asked me to pose topless for him only once. I didn’t want to, but I did it. So is the power of that gaze. His age. His artistry. His status. My youth and eagerness to please. I took off my pretty silk blouse and bra, and sat for him, but hated every moment of it. He asked me to drop an arm, to turn ever so slightly, to sit back just a fraction. The voices in my head had become loud with my advancing years and I was no longer able to drift away and hide my awkwardness. Not even if I’d wanted to. So he did the right thing and asked me to put my bra and blouse back on.
It was summer and I was tanned and happy, on my way to university. Aged 19 and at the Chelsea Arts Club. Jamie was there, all smirk and slime.
‘You’ve grown up,’ he said, coming closer. ‘Look at you now, so pretty. You were always a funny looking girl.’
I felt my heart yelp and my blood warm; I knew the warning signs. I was shaking when I spoke. But something else took hold. Was it that voice again, clearer now, braver? I welcomed it. ‘What did you think you were doing?’ I said. ‘You were the adult.’ He turned red and glanced around. ‘I was 14. Not only that. You tried it on with your own niece.’ I laughed. ‘It’s just so gross.’ I saw him shrink before me and felt myself grow. There were people around, the doors open to the garden outside, a woman he was with walking towards us with two glasses of champagne. He was red faced and sweaty, the straight line and bite of hard lips.
‘You used my house,’ he said like a hiss. ‘I let you.’
We stood, the two of us, there in that space, for what felt like a lifetime.
Image detail from John Singer Sargent’s The Model.