The duck-egg blue linen curtains in the best guest room have a dishevelled look that suggests our friends prefer vodka in their coffee cups. It’s not the fault of the curtains, immaculate creations by Susan Carnegie, who lives a mile down the road, but the ‘track’, which is too flimsy for the weight needed to shut out daylight and muffle the siren of peacocks. John Carnegie warily predicted that the whizzy hooks would succumb to plastic fatigue. One by one, they’ve snapped, leaving gapes that look more dissolute than swish.
When I first came to Wyken, John ran the village post office. After 20 years, he decided that the bureaucratic demands of the post office outweighed its fiscal and civic pleasures, gave it up and joined forces with his wife. Their combined talents have rescued this house from the dereliction of a Molly Keane novel.
As John drills the new track, I ask for news about his daughter, Gillian, whose career I’ve followed from her days at Thurston, the local comprehensive, followed by Camberwell and then the Royal College of Art. We celebrated when she was taken on by a New York gallery and I made a special trip to London in 2003 when her paintings were in a small group show at Tate Britain. Gillian is that rare thing: a successful painter who is anti-celebrity, anti-publicity, anti-everything that isn’t the art itself, a reclusive and dedicated artist.
John lowers his voice confidentially. ‘It will be announced tomorrow that Gillian is on the shortlist for the Turner Prize.’ ‘Good Lord,’ I say, ‘GOOD LORD!’
He confesses that she saw more reasons not to do it than to do it, and only agreed after considerable persuasion from her tutor at the Royal College.
The next morning, the news on the front pages shouts: ‘Turner Prize shock! Woman painter on shortlist!’ A fuzzy photograph of a vase of flowers and the headlines make Gillian sound like Grandma Moses – ‘figurative painter, landscapes, flowers’. In the photograph of the artist, she looks like a woodland creature gazing into the barrel of a gun.
But the articles don’t stop there. And as I read on I cringe because I believe that Tom Wolfe got it right in his essay ‘The Painted Word’ when he opined that art is no longer a case of ‘seeing is believing’ but ‘believing is seeing’: that modern art has become completely literary, existing only to illustrate the text. One Turner Prize judge described Carnegie’s paintings as ‘conceptually rich . . . academic investigations of a much higher intellectual order’. The editor of Modern Painters continues: ‘It’s about the fragility of life, the desire to return to more innocent times.’ In Artforum, a critic writes: ‘Carnegie turns back toward the fusty hues of old pictures rotting beneath their old varnish, not to reclaim some former solidity, but all the better to verify her forms’ ultimate evanescense.’ Good Lord.
No wonder Gillian Carnegie had to be pushed onto the shortlist. A painter who loves to paint, she leaves her small flat in Highgate to go to her studio in Hackney every day to stand in front of a canvas and apply oils. I reckon the only words that really matter when judging a painting are ‘beautiful’ and ‘very difficult to execute’. On that front, Gillian’s pictures fulfil. I hope the daughter of the curtainmaker and postmaster wins the prize and can retreat to the sanctity and sanity of her true artist’s life.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 16, 2005.