Marina Warner: Introduction to The Writers Series Exhibition, New Art Centre 2013

Sarah Pickstone
April 6 2013
Roche Court  
During these recent unrelenting days of ice and grey and winds with fangs – now magically dispelled by Roche Court’s enchanters – I went to Sarah Pickstone’s studio in Islington and I found that entering her workspace let me pass from one zone into another, different place where light and air exist as colour and clarity, as illumination in the strong and wide-ranging sense of the term.  We began talking about her Writers’ Series, which have been inspired by Regent’s Park, London, and by the writers – the women writers – who have walked there and thought there, and the way Sarah evoked the park in association with female creativity captured the sense I already had of stepping across a threshold into somewhere else – not because it was safe or warm or anything simply creaturely comfortable but because it was a place of delicate yet intense illumination – a diaphane, the sensitive texture of memories, that material immateriality of flames and rainbows.   As an aside, it is not uninteresting that The Illuminations, of Rimbaud, were written in London when he was living in Camden Town with Verlaine, not far from Regent’s park, and he intended the French title to be read in English.

Sarah began speaking of the park as a realm on its own terms, neither a garden nor the countryside, neither a landscape nor a wilderness, but something in-between. Regent’s Park is bounded, urban, and springs surprises: a multiplicity – her word – of possibilities exists within its boundaries. There are hidden enclaves– like the Secret Garden where Sarah has often gone to draw. The statue of Hylas there appears in several paintings, mirrored – drowned? - in the water.

Sarah has turned her observations of the park from urban pastoral into poetic summonses of writers and of the mood and feel of their work . She has portrayed in this way Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith – and evoked others through emblems-palettes, the theatre arch in the painting for Angela Carter’s Wise Children. The park was the writers’ haunt – to different degrees. In an unghostly way, they are coming back in the paintings not to haunt us or induce a spectral frisson, but as ravishing figments, the visual equivalent of their disembodied voice on the page. In the past Sarah has used ‘Figment’ as the title of a painting, and she likes to keep her paint facture flat and insubstantial, wraith-like, with affinities to transparent petals and sepals and the wings of moths – prime symbol of yearning, transience, and fragility. She sets questions stirring in us, about the touch of a woman, the eyes of a woman. Is there a female mark? Or a female sentence?

A park is a work in itself, she was saying, somewhat like a painting, somewhere we go to play, an unreal place, a metaphor of creativity. Regent’s Park was an innovation when it was first made for a city where thousands of people are all crowded together, but where , if so desired, each of them can enjoy solitude. In Sarah’s pantheon each woman appears as an artist must, a solitary, dwelling in the extended room of one’s own that is this in-between place, the urban park.  

Sarah uses large brushes, some as broad as brooms as well as smaller ones - no doubt a single hair of a goat or some such refinement - as well as aerosols in every colour – and with them she elicits fleeting, subtle epiphanies moving over the smooth non-absorbent aluminium plane of her pictures: here a flurry of notes, there a sudden vivid illuminated miniature of a duck, or a moth.

But it isn’t only the colours –or the light and motion of the paint - that make Sarah’s studio a different world from the one I left when she opened her door.

We also talked about painting and time. A park is a place where time changes rhythm, and you can take your time. Sarah has made images of the seasons and speaks of painting ‘being in the moment’, ‘making time happen’, and of ‘ a child-like obsession with making your own time.’ A park is an enclave where time opens up a funnel into time – and opening is a verb that Sarah likes – as action and as revelation. A painting is also like a novel or a poem in that it institutes another time: it overcomes the conditions of stillness and two-dimensionality, to carry us through time to see - the flicker of light in diaphanous willow fronds or the misty water in a fountain, Elizabeth Barrett Browning stealing mistletoe and Plath typing away. 

The philosopher Eugenio Trias, who sadly died just now (this February) talks about how the word for time in Latin, Tempus, comes from the same root as the word for Temple. Sacred spaces are places where time is ordered differently.  

I don’t want to attribute anything religious or spiritual to Sarah’s paintings in a literal way, but rather to propose that the way she illuminates her themes transports us into another dimension of time, which can be felt and experienced through the touch of the paint itself, the vitality of the colours. This experience is what the crowds going to the National Gallery or Tate Modern or the Walsall art gallery or at Nottingham or coming here to Roche Court are looking for from art, at least in part. They may have other intentions, too, of course. But solitude in the midst of assembly, transit to another place (temporary but with lasting transformational effect) can be the gifts an artist makes to us. It is painting that shows us how to look: it is more interesting to look at apples after seeing Cézanne’s; and Sarah remarked to me how dazzlingly Manet paints the rose on the bar at the Folies Bergères, and how she loves to paint roses, too. She has painted Fanny Burney as a full-blown orange rose rich in stamens. These artists reconfigure our vision from the inside, and colour above all needs artists to be revealed: Barocci’s delicate, glowing, and fluid fabrics and flesh at the National Gallery can be felt echoing in Sarah’s absorption in textiles, in plumage, in a single moth’s complicated, variegated shades and patterned wings. How long did it take for us to realize that the air itself is coloured? That shadows can be prismatic? The writer Annie Dillard says that by dint of intensive daily looking at the creek by her house, she ‘learned to recognize, slowing down, the difference in texture of the light reflected from mud bank, water, grass, or frog.’  

Most of us can’t do that without painters; we need them to show us how. 

There was a poem on the radio one morning last week, which Ruth Ewan put together with schoolchildren from Leyton on the theme ‘ How We Might Live’. The children imagined things like ‘The water is clear… Some people live in tree houses… There are trees and flowers everywhere… Some have different kinds of fruit at once…’ The poem ended, ‘The world is magic’. Half way through, someone had thought there might be houses, where ‘Inside there are no dividing walls … you can just walk through to see your neighbours…’ It caught my attention, that idea. In general the poem brought up images of yearning for a lost paradise of nature, but it also conveyed the hope painting offers: to open the walls between experiences and let us through. 

When I left the studio I thought of Lily Briscoe at the end of To the Lighthouse

"Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision."

Virginia Woolf is reflecting here on herself and her own dream of writing, and its possible disappointments as well as its triumphs, and she issues a lasting manifesto for why artists make their art.  I was touched and honoured to be asked to come – and we are all fortunate to be invited here to enter Sarah Pickstone’s vision – let us celebrate her!


Eugenio Trias, ‘Thinking Religion: the Symbol and the Sacred’, in Religion, eds. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo,  (Cambridge: Polity Press, l998), pp. 95-110:110, quoting Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (l955), Vol. 2. See also my letter in London Review of Books, Vol 34 No 12, 30 August 2012
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (l969) 
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, (1927)