Iona Glen reflects on Celia Paul’s memoir, Self Portrait, the significance of the British Museum and Bloomsbury to the artist’s work, and her subversive vanquishing of “muse-dom” and patriarchal conventions through painting.
Whenever I walk into work at the British Museum, pre-lockdown, I pass by the flats of Great Russell Street. They line the road, some perched on shop fronts, facing the black gates and forecourt leading up to the Museum’s temple façade. If it is sunny, I spend part of my breaks near the entrance, on the bench beyond a visitors’ barrier, sitting against Portland stone while the pleated columns throw slabs of shadow upon the ground. I can observe the BT tower in the distance, the pigeons stepping out for crumbs, the way visitors arrange themselves for photographs, and the classical architectural flourishes on the terraces opposite, behind the sentinel rows of plane trees.
Someone who lived there, I think, would have the ideal set-up, especially if they were any kind of artist. Bookshops, galleries, museums, libraries, and parks in easy reach, Regent’s Park to Southbank within walking distance. I wonder how many steps it is up to a top flat, an eyrie nestled against the sky, both separate and a part of the bustling cityscape. Now I know it is exactly eighty steps, as the painter Celia Paul relates in her memoir Self-Portrait (2019). She has made her home there since the 1980s, when her lover and fellow-artist, Lucian Freud, bought her a studio flat.
Self-Portrait draws from old diaries and poems to present Paul’s autobiography, a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Born in India to a British clerical family, her precocious talent is catalysed by a competitive female friendship at a Devon boarding school. She arrives at the Slade School of Art in London at the age of sixteen, where two years later she begins a ten-year relationship with the fifty-five-year-old Freud. He is using a role as visiting tutor to pick up girls, indulged by the Slade’s Director. The book details Paul’s personal turmoil with Freud but also includes beautiful and illuminating discussions of art and descriptions of her family and student life. When they have a child together, with no prospect of Freud sharing responsibility, Paul makes the wrenching decision to allow her mother to become her son Frank’s primary carer. This allows her to continue painting full-time, although she travels to see him every other day. Her Bloomsbury flat becomes both a living and working space. Paul considers isolation essential for creativity: ‘My flat is sacrosanct. No-one can enter without my permission’.
Paul hates the term ‘muse’, a person (usually a woman) who is the source of inspiration for an artist. In the context of modern art, it is burdened with connotations of extorted devotion, sexual availability, under-appreciated work, and eventual abandonment. A muse is the figure represented in the artwork, not the one who creates it. Yet the label seems almost inescapable. Paul lives next to a museum, after all, a word taken from the Ancient Greek Mouseion, which means ‘the home of the muses.’ Their monumental forms are carved into the building’s sculptural pediment as personifications of the arts, symbolising the progress of Man from ‘primitive’ to ‘civilised’; Painting is depicted as a slender young woman looking down, holding a staff and palette. The impetus for writing Self-Portrait was reading the obituaries of Freud after his death in 2011, referring to Paul as one of innumerable muses, without acknowledging her own painting career.
Illustrating such a relentless quandary for creative women, it is no surprise that writers like Zadie Smith and Rachel Cusk wrote about Self-Portrait on its publication, in the New York Review of Books and New York Times Magazine respectively. They both provide compelling, if differently weighted, analyses of Paul’s disquieting relationship with the predatory Freud, the double standards of expectations that Paul nurture others before herself, and the boundaries she puts up to protect her own work. Cusk is remorseless in her interpretation of Paul’s life as hamstrung by Freud to the point of hostility, characterising her as living a mimicry of ‘great male artist’ asceticism in a ‘part cell, part hermit’s refuge’; a vulnerable woman who ‘gave away motherhood’. It is hard to escape the feeling that Cusk is baffled by Paul’s ‘lifestyle’ and inability to be empowered in a way that she would personally like (this involves moving to California and driving a fast car). Smith’s essay is sympathetic and perhaps more delicately attuned to the book’s ambiguous power dynamics, its ‘subtle methods of … insinuation, creating new feminist genealogies and hierarchies by implication.’ Smith highlights how Paul’s chosen subjects, her mother and sisters particularly, realise more expansive realms of ‘muse-dom’, existing ‘beyond the naked girl’. Without explicit recrimination or comparison, Self-Portrait gives the reader space to contemplate the differences between the two artists. Freud is gently devastated. There is the disclosure, for example, that his famous painting W11 (after Watteau) (c.1981-83) is partly inspired by Paul’s student work, in a reversal of their perceived dynamic. But much of this comes from the eloquence of the reproduced paintings themselves: where Paul’s mystical images contain charged emotional relationships between her subjects, Freud’s group paintings are clinical, with no animating spark. The mottled style and dominance of muted pinks, browns and greys in his work make me think of a butcher’s shop.
Prompted by my quotidian experiences of working and spending time in the area, I was most interested by the way Self-Portrait situates Paul in relation to the British Museum and its surroundings, creating a kind of personal geography. Paul writes how she is ‘inspired by the visionary legacy of the place’ and the ‘other spirits who have lived nearby’, including Virginia Woolf, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, and Gwen John. At the end of the book, words give way to image in a series of paintings of views from her window. They are entities so familiar to me: the Museum, the BT tower, the plane trees, the local churches.
In the first chapter, Paul writes: ‘I agree with Virginia Woolf that the vital thing for a woman artist is “a room of one’s own”’. The British Museum provides a key setting for Woolf’s seminal feminist text, A Room of One’s Own (1928). Her narrator visits the Reading Room of the British Library (as it then was) and is amused and frustrated by a stack of male-authored books ‘On Women’. She identifies a feeling of male anger, ‘the attendant sprite on power’, that fears relinquishing its ability to use women as ‘looking glasses … possessing the delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’. Inside the Room itself, the narrator feels ‘as if one were a thought in the huge bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names.’ The idea of the museum as ‘an enormous mind’ appears in Woolf’s earlier novel Jacob’s Room (1922), when Julia Hedge ‘the feminist’ looks up and grumbles: ‘why didn’t they make room for an Eliot or a Brontë?’ Women’s forms may be sculpted outside as welcoming abstractions of human achievement, but inside the names of great men are commemorated in a crown of individual names. A place devoted to the supposedly neutral pursuit of truth, open to everyone, represents an exclusive patriarchal (and imperial) culture. Paul explicitly evokes Woolf’s conception of the Museum as ‘a male brain’ in an interview with Katy Hessel for The Great Women Artists podcast, adding that she is constantly aware of ‘what is happening outside my window … being surrounded by male iconic buildings.’
The two north-facing rooms of Paul’s that look out on to the Museum are private, hushed, and bare, as opposed to the bustling, object-laden and exterior public building. In the same interview, Paul describes them as having a ‘completely sealed’ and ‘very interior quality.’ In Room and Ghost of the British Museum (2015), the Museum flickers into existence, haunting Paul’s four walls with the suggestion of those stone muses. Yet this dynamic is also subverted, the hulking edifice diminished into ethereality. If the weight of muse-dom and patriarchal conventions have overshadowed Paul’s work in the past, its threat is almost vanquished by the opalescence of the interior, the luminous brass bed. What matters most is the room.
The work reminds me of a painting by Gwen John, a heroine of Paul’s who was also an alumna of the Slade and conducted an affair with the much older Rodin. It shows a corner of her room in Paris; a wicker chair, a desk, and an open book are touched with sunlight from the open window. Both works manifest a balance of reserve and intensity, the wellspring of creative potential to be found in the sanctuary of your own private space. An imaginative as well as physical habitation. Paul and John have both; for many people it yet remains a dwelling of the mind. In Self-Portrait, Paul writes: ‘A painting that has been done slowly is like a room that has been quietly lived in: it acquires a mysterious stillness.’
In this way, Paul is allied with a feminist legacy and history of place. Virginia Woolf herself, along with her painter sister Vanessa Bell, achieved her first taste of creative freedom by leaving the oak-panelled Victorian gloom of their late father’s house in Kensington to live in 46 Gordon Square, close by the Museum and the Slade. Self-Portrait is not only an act of redress but an encampment in a specific space, one that represents a paradoxical legacy of inclusion and exclusion. Paul asserts both artistic autonomy and proximity to the cultural canon, like the way in which her memoir takes control of her past with Freud as merely one element but not the entirety of her story.
This remaining proximity to such a powerful and controversial national institution, its contents and imperialist legacy fiercely contested, however fraught it may be, does suggest some of the limitations of this mode of female emancipation beyond the individual. Paul’s background and life trajectory undeniably lies within the privilege of the middle-class and propertied, as did Virginia Woolf’s, with personal ties to the Freud cultural dynasty. It is hard to imagine a promising young artist able to pitch up in their own Great Russell Street flat nowadays. Nevertheless, I feel inspired by Paul’s evocation of her environment as an emotional world, both holding innumerable histories and infused with subjective meaning. While painting her four sisters in mourning following their mother’s death, Paul describes her feeling of ‘the supernatural empathy that ran like an invisible skein between them.’ I like to imagine a similar slender thread looping the city’s environs, connecting visitors and residents alike.
On the very last page of the book, beyond the acknowledgements, is a self-portrait of Paul against the backdrop of the Main Entrance to the Museum. Heavy stone appears illusory, pale and slightly vaporous. The pediment statues have been reduced to one luminous central idol, like a household goddess on a domestic altar. In contrast to the frontwards facing portico, the human figure is in profile, almost completely a silhouette. She conveys an inward, self-contained feeling, as if musing to herself. Her lips are slightly parted, as though she is just about to sigh, or smile.
About Iona Glen
Iona Glen is an aspiring writer based in London, working in museums’ visitor services. She loves writing about women artists, nature, memory, and people’s relationships to their environments.
Her creative non-fiction has been published by DearDamsels’ (SEALSKIN | Iona Glen explores her changing relationship with the skin she exists in. (deardamsels.com)) and her analysis of Margaret Tait’s film Blue Black Permanent was published by Girls’ on Top’s blog Read Me (Selkie Song: Female Creativity in Margaret Tait’s Blue Black Permanent — Girls on Tops (girlsontopstees.com)).
She recently launched a newsletter called ‘natural longings’ on substack, exploring humankind’s complex relationships to the natural and non-human world. Her most recent essay, ‘Earth-born companions’ was about the appeal of wild animal-human companionship narratives (Earth-born companions pt. 1 – natural longings (substack.com)).