Wild and free: inside the home of Sue Dunkley, pop art's forgotten gem
Source:the guardian Date: 2016-09-05 Size:
“My house was built in 1834,” Sue Dunkley told the Islington Express in 2003……

Marilyn, Yves and Simone (1974), by Sue Dunkley. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

“My house was built in 1834,” Sue Dunkley told the Islington Express in 2003, “It speaks to me and inspires me all the time. You can be anonymous here. Eight exhibitions have come out of this house since I’ve been here. And all the time only four people have knocked to ask what I’m doing.”

The day I knock at 437 Liverpool Road, Islington, the artist’s daughter, Jane, answers the door and leads me into the front room where her mother worked for 40 years. There are paintings and pastels covering every wall, others stacked under plastic sheets, notebooks, art reference books and magazines piled on tables and a paint-encrusted high stool, which she used as a makeshift mixing palette. It is every inch a working artist’s room, cluttered with materials and alive with works-in-progress.

Except they are no longer works-in-progess – all of them will remain unfinished, a testament to Dunkley’s relentless creativity but also evidence of the onset of dementia. She is currently in a care home, having been diagnosed with the condition seven years ago.

Pinterest Sue Dunkley at home in 1974. Photograph: Courtesy Sue Dunkley and Jane Bodie

“As far as I can ascertain, my mother stopped working 10 years ago and that was the moment her memory started to disintegrate,” says Jane, a playwright who now lives in Australia, but has returned to clear out and impose some order on the vast Georgian house in preparation for a retrospective of her mother’s work.

“When the work stopped, the house started to become chaotic. I’ve found notes and letters to doctors, so I think she was aware of what was happening to her. It’s been painful. I’ve collapsed crying on the floor a few times. I have had to clear the house, because I cannot let it go. But to pay for her care, we need to raise money.”

Even in the throes of a frantic clear out, the sprawling house evokes a bohemian life lived to the full. “My mother was a voracious talker and lover of language, as the writing in her sketchbooks attest,” says Jane. “She was obsessed with Seamus Heaney, who bought one of her paintings, and there is a book by him inscribed to her upstairs. The house was a gathering place for like-minded souls as well as a place of intense solitary creativity. She somehow balanced the two extremes.”

Pinterest Woman in Mirror (1968). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Born in 1942, Sue Dunkley came of age as an artist in the 1960s and, for a time, looked set to become as feted as the stylishly beautiful Pauline Boty, the lone female of Britain’s pop art scene. In 1966, Nova magazine, the arbiter of all things cool, profiled her in an article titled Woman in a Hurry: “She talks a great deal, very fast … She is clearly very gifted: the not-quite-abstract bodies swirling up though the bright talkative colours were very like their creator, wholly in character.”

Later, she had a successful one-woman show at the Thumb gallery on D’Arblay Street in Soho, which the Guardian described as “images of women and interiors” created from a sense of “disquiet”. She told the reviewer: “I knew as a young artist the roles I would have to enact would cause conflict. Women, artist. Mother, artist. I need to wrestle with the devil sometimes, and am aware that often the charge needed to realise an image is in conflict with other aspects of my life.”

Her daughter recalls that conflict first-hand. “Sometimes we were a bit overlooked as children because her work came first,” says Jane. “It’s what artists do. I remember I came home early from school one day because I wasn’t very well and I stuck a note under her door. I knew not to bother her. I thought that was the norm.”

The periods of intense creativity were broken by spells of entertaining in the basement kitchen. “She used to call herself a garrulous hermit,” says Jane, laughing. “She had big gatherings, lots of smoking and drinking and talking into the night. My brother and I would often find young men in the kitchen drinking wine and Nina Simone blaring out. She was wild and free.”

Regular visitors to the house included the artist Howard Hodgkin, who once painted Sue, and Roger Waters and his wife, Jude, who lived just around the corner in the early 70s. “My dad was a musician – he once toured with Dire Straits – and a builder. He did up Roger’s house and they became friends just before Dark Side of the Moon came out.”

Pinterest Gilbert and George Pink (1969). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

In the summer, the house was rented out while the family went on holiday. “One time the whole of Théâtre de Complicite moved in. When we came home, the furniture had been put back in the wrong places and the washing machine was broken because a pair of very large knickers were wrapped around the motor.”

Now, the house is eerily empty. Dunkley’s work from across the decades fills the rooms like ghostly reminders of another, wilder time. Upstairs, Jane guides me though an intriguing room that features a group of pop paintings made in the mid 60s, uncovered while clearing the house – vibrant figurative pieces that hum with bright colours and possess an unreal charge akin to the work of Alex Katz.

On one wall, a series, reminiscent of Gerald Laing’s Starlet series, features young laughing women in bright bikinis. On another, two mysterious portraits of Gilbert and George hang between a stark painting of Robert Kennedy, who, after his assassination in 1968, became a source of dark fascination to Dunkley. In the downstairs studio, a series of pastels of the Kennedy clan are arranged in a row. For Jane, they are unmistakably autobiographical.

Pinterest Robert K (1971). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

“So many of the men in the pictures look like my father,” she says, “When he left, she made all these pastel drawings about the aftermath of the Kennedy assassinations, many of which are of Ethel Kennedy, his widow, looking lost and horrified. I think they are also about my father leaving. When I was clearing out a room, I found one painting of Christ – and even he looked like my dad.”

Jane shows me some paintings made in 1992, brooding elemental landscapes that verge on the abstract. Her mother began the series in Donegal while working as a creative advisor on The Railway Station Man, which starred Julie Christie as a painter finding her creativity after her husband’s death. The paintings in the film are Dunkley’s. “She became good friends with Julie. She told me later that they didn’t smoke on set because Donald Sutherland was so anti-smoking, but I’ve found loads of pics of the two of them with roll-ups.” Sutherland even bought one of her paintings, as did Salman Rushdie.

Dunkley’s final series of pastels, made in 2006, are portraits of her own mother – Jane’s grandmother – in the grip of dementia. They remain on the wall where she pinned them, a cluster of small, impressionistic paintings that possess an almost unbearable poignancy given all that has happened since. They seem like premonitions. “Her dementia was like an axe falling on her life and on her creativity,” says Jane, “but even though she cannot be here in person for this final exhibition, she will be here in spirit. For me, and everyone who knew her, she is everywhere – in the house and in the work.”

[Editor] 孙涵