Authors: A.S. Byatt
Debbie has not decided whether to leave Robin alone with Shona McRury, or to stay and put in a word here and there. Mrs Brown’s odd behaviour decides her, and is perhaps altogether too decisive. It is not in Debbie ‘s power to say anything like, ‘You may go now, Mrs Brown,’ but she can say to her, ‘Come on, let’s leave them to it,’ so she does, and she and Mrs Brown go downstairs together.
Shona McRury prowls in Robin’s studio in her topaz ear-rings and lizard shoes. She rearranges the fetishes absentmindedly, rattling the Monet dish in its saucer. Robin puts up a series of paintings of the fetishes on different backgrounds, in different numbers, in different lights. White silk like a glacier, crumpled newspaper, dark boards, pale boards. Her mouth is large and soft and brown. She lights a cigarette. She says, ‘I
that,’ and ‘I
that,’ and nothing else for a bit, and then begins to read the paintings as allegories. ‘They’re modern
, I see,’ says Shona McRury, ‘they’re about the
of our life.’ Robin tries to keep quiet. He cannot overbear her as if she were Mrs Brown, he cannot tell her that they are not about littleness but about the infinite terror of the brilliance of colour, of which he could almost die, he doesn’t think those things in words anyway. He does at first say things like, ‘Hmn, well, this one is solving a different kind of problem, d’you see?’ and then he doesn’t say anything because he can see she doesn’t see, she isn’t the slightest bit interested in the fact that the pictures, of which there are a very large number, never repeat, though they are all in a sense the same, they never set themselves exactly the same problem. She doesn’t see that. She says, ‘It’s a bit frightening, a bit depressing, all that empty space, isn’t it, it reminds you of coffins and bare kitchen tables with no food, no sustenance, all those bare boards, don’t they?’
‘I don’t think of it that way,’ says Robin.
‘How do you think of it?’
‘Well, as a series of problems, really, inexhaustible problems, of light and colour, you know.’
He does not say, because he does not articulate, the sense he has that he is
his patch of brilliance
he has dutifully and accurately and even beautifully painted all these null and neutral tones, the doves, the dusts, the dead leaves.
‘Do you have any inkling of a change of direction, a next phase coming up, you know, a new focus of interest, anything like that?’
‘I think if I had a big show—if it were all on
, all the different—hm—aspects—hm—solutions, so to speak, temporary solutions—I might want to—move on to something else. It’s hard to imagine, really.’
He does not see how crucial this little question is. Oh yes. One thing at a time. I seem to have my work cut out, cut out, you know, for me, as it were, yes.’
Shona McRury says, ‘All those prints of lonely deckchairs in little winds, in gardens and on beaches. When you see the first, you think, how moving, how interesting. And when you see the tenth, or the twentieth, you think, oh,
solitary deckchair with a bit of wind in it, what else is there? You know?’
‘I think so.’
‘I can see your work isn’t like that.’
‘Oh no. Not at all like that.’
‘But it might look like that. To the uneducated eye.’
Debbie watches Shona McRury walk away down Alma Road. How beautifully her olive skirt sits on her thin haunches, how perfectly, how expensively, those pleats are coerced to caress. Robin says his talk with her went well, but Debbie thinks nothing of Robin’s judgement, and he does not seem seized with hope or vigour. Shona McRury’s long straight band of hair flaps and sidles. Mrs Brown, in her trench-coat, catches up with Shona McRury. Mrs Brown’s hair stands up like a wiry plant in a pot, inside a coil of plaited scarves, orange and lime. Mrs Brown says something to Shona McRury who varies her pace, turns her head, strokes her head, answers. Mrs Brown says something else. What can Mrs Brown have to say to Shona McRury? Debbie’s mind fantastically meditates treason, subversion, sabotage. But Mrs Brown has always been so good, so patient, despite her disdainful
, to which she has a right. Mrs Brown could not want to
Robin? Mrs Brown is in no
position to hurt Robin, surely, if she did. Why should Shona McRury listen, more than out of politeness, to anything Mrs Brown has to say? They turn the corner. Debbie feels tears bursting, somewhere inside the flesh of her cheeks, in the ducts round her nose and eyes. She hears Robin’s voice on the stairs, saying it
is just like that woman
to go home without removing the wineglasses or wiping up the rings on his desk and drawing table.
Shona McRury sends a gallery postcard to Robin and Debbie jointly, saying that she really
seeing the pictures, which have
, and that things are very crowded and confused in the life of her gallery just now. Debbie knows that this means no, and suspects that the kindnesses are for her, Debbie ‘s, possible future usefulness, that is,
A Woman’s Places
possible future usefulness, to the Callisto Gallery. She does not say that to Robin, whom she is beginning to treat like a backward and stupid child, which worries her, since that is not what he is. And when
A Woman’s Place
sends her off a month or two later to the Callisto Gallery with a photographer, a nice-enough on-the-make Liverpudlian called Tom Sprot, to illustrate an article on a new feminist
installation, she goes in a friendly enough mood. She is a reasonable woman, she could not have expected more from Shona McRury, and knows it.
Tom Sprot has brilliantined blond hair and baggy tartan trousers. He is very laid-back, very calm. When he gets inside the gallery, which is normally creamy and airy, he says, ‘Wow!’ and starts rushing about, peering through his lens, with alacrity. The whole space has been transformed into a kind of soft, even squashy, brilliantly coloured Aladdin’s Cave. The walls are hung with what seem like huge tapestries, partly knitted, partly made like rag rugs, with shifting streams and islands of colour, which when looked at closely reveal little peering mad embroidered faces, green with blue eyes, black with red eyes, pink with silver eyes. Swaying crocheted cobwebs hang from the ceiling, inhabited by dusky spiders and swarms of sequined blue flies with gauzy wings. These things are brilliantly pretty, but not like a stage set, they are elegant and sinister, there is something horrid about the netted pockets with the heaped blue bodies. The spiders themselves are menaced by phalanxes of feather dusters, all kinds of feathers, a peacock fan, a fluffy nylon cyan-blue and shocking-pink tube, a lime-green and
orange palm tree on a golden staff, wound with lame. The cavern has a crazy kind of resemblance to a lived-in room. Chests of drawers, made of orange boxes covered with patchworks of wallpaper, from vulgar silver roses to William Morris birds, from Regency plum stripes to Laura Ashley pink sprigs, reveal half-open treasure chests with mazy compartments containing crazy collections of things. White bone buttons. Glass stoppers. Chicken bones. Cufflinks, all single. Medicine bottles with lacquered labels, full of iridescent beads and codliver-oil capsules. Pearlised plastic poppet beads and sunflower seeds, dolls’ teaspoons and drifts of variegated tealeaves and dead rose-petals. Sugar mice, some half-chewed. String, bright green, waxed red, hairy brown, running from compartment to compartment.
There are pieces of furniture, or creatures, standing about in all this. A large tump, or possibly a giant pouffe, layered in skirts of scarlet and orange, grass-green and emerald, dazzlingly juxtaposed, reveals, if the wools are parted, a circle of twenty or thirty little knitted pink breasts, and above that another of little chocolate-coloured satin ones, a kind of squat Diana of Ephesus without face or hands. A long bolster-like creature
might be a thin woman or a kind of lizard or even a piece of the seashore. It is mostly knitted, in rich browns and greens, with scalloped fronds and trailing, weedy ‘limbs’ or maybe tentacles—there are more, when it has been walked round, than four. From a distance it has a pleasing look of rock-pools crusted with limpets and anemones. Closer, it can be seen to be plated with a kind of armour of crocheted bosses, violet and saffron, some tufted with crimson, or trailing threads of blood-coloured embroidery-silks.
The centrepiece is a kind of dragon and chained lady, St George and the Princess Saba. Perseus and Andromeda. The dragon has a cubic blue body and a long concertina neck. It has a crest of mulberry taffeta plates, blanket-stitched, something like the horrent scallops of the Stegosaurus. It is an odd dragon, recumbent amongst its own coils, a dragon related to a millipede, with hundreds of black shining wiry tentacular legs, which expose their scarlet linings and metal filaments. It is knitted yet solid, it raises a square jaw with a woollen beard and some teeth dripping with matted hair and broken hairpins, multicoloured fluffy foam and cotton spittie.
Its eyes are bland blue rounds with soft chenille lashes. It is a Hoover and a dragon, inert and suffocating.
And the lady is flesh-coloured and twisted, her body is broken and concertinaed, she is draped flat on a large stone, her long limbs are pink nylon, her chains are twisted brassieres and demented petticoats, pyjama cords and sinister strained tights. She has a cubist aspect, crossed with Diana of Ephesus again, her breasts are a string of detached and battered shoulder-pads, three above two, her pubic hair is shrunk angora bonnet. Her face is embroidered on petit-point canvas on a round embroidery-frame, it is half-done, a Botticelli Venus with a chalk outline, a few blonde tresses, cut-out eyeholes, stitched round with spiky black lashes. At first you think that the male figure is totally absent, and then you see him, them, minuscule in the crannies of the rock, a plastic knight on a horse, once silver, now mud-green, a toy soldier with a broken sword and a battered helmet, who have both obviously been through the wheel of the washing-machine, more than once.
There is someone in the window hanging a series of
letters, gold on rich chocolate, on a kind of hi-tech washing-line with tiny crimson pegs. It says,
SHEBA BROWN WORK IN VARIOUS MATERIALS
Underneath the line of letters a photograph goes up. Debbie goes out into the street to look at it, a photograph of Mrs Brown under a kind of wild crown of woven scarves, with her old carved look and an added look of sly amusement, in the corners of mouth and eyes. Her skin has come out duskier than it ‘really’ is, her bones are sculpted, she resembles a cross between the Mona Lisa and a Benin bronze.
As far as Debbie knows, Mrs Brown is at this moment hoovering her stairs. She cannot think. She thinks several things at once. She thinks with pure delight of the unexpectedness and splendour of Sheba, for Mrs Brown. She thinks inconsequentially of a ball she once went to, a Chelsea Arts Ball, in the mulberry-coloured dress which is now the dragon-scales. She thinks, with a terrible flutter of unreadiness to think about this, that Mrs Brown will now for certain leave. She wonders why Mrs Brown said nothing—was it a desire to shock, or a
simpler desire to startle, or the courtesy of the old Mrs Brown, aware that Debbie could not do without her, thinking how to break the news, or was she—she certainly is in part—
secretive and cautious? She thinks with terrible protectiveness of Robin in his attic, explaining his fetishes to Mrs Brown, and roaring as he will roar no more, about her forays into his workplace. She does not feel for a moment that Mrs Brown has ‘stolen’ Robin’s exhibition, but she has a miserable fear that Robin may think that.
And she feels something else, looking at Sheba Brown’s apparently inexhaustible and profligate energy of colourful invention. She feels a kind of subdued envy which carries with it an invigorating sting. She thinks of the feel of the wooden blocks she used to cut.
Tom Sprot comes up, full of excitement. He has discovered a chest of drawers full of tangled thread and smaller chests of drawers all full of tangled thread and smaller still chests of drawers. He has got the text of an interview done by an art critic for
A Woman’s Place
, the text of which has just been delivered hot to the gallery by a messenger on a motorbike.
Debbie skims through it.
Sheba Brown lives in a council flat, surrounded by her own work, wall-hangings and cushions. She is in her forties, of part-Guyanese, part-Irish ancestry, and has had a hard life. Her work is full of feminist comments on the trivia of our daily life, on the boredom of the quotidian, but she has no sour reflections, no chip on her shoulder, she simply makes everything absurd and surprisingly beautiful with an excess of inventive wit. Some of her hangings resemble the work of Richard Dadd, with their intricate woven backgrounds, though they obviously owe something also to the luxurious innovations of Kaffe Fasset. But Sheba Brown, unlike Richard Dadd, is not mad or obsessed; she is richly sane and her conversation is good-humoured and funny.
She has brought up two sons, and gathered the materials for her work on a mixture of Social Security and her meagre earnings as a cleaner. She gets her materials from everywhere—skips, jumble sales, cast-offs, going through other people ‘s rubbish, clearing up after school fetes. She says she began on her ‘soft sculpture’ by accident really—she had an ‘urge to construct’ but had to make things that could be packed away into small spaces at night. Her two most prized possessions are a knitting-machine and a lockup room in the basement of her block of flats which she has by arrangement with the caretaker. Once I had the room, I could make boxlike things as well as squashy ones,’ she says, smiling with satisfaction.
She says she owes a great deal to one family for whom she has worked, an ‘artistic family’ who taught her about colours (not that she needed ‘teaching’—her instinct for new shocking effects and juxtapositions is staggering) and broadened her ideas of what a work of art might be …