Monday, 12 August 2013

Sitting for Rose Hilton: the artist as model

Brushmarks on glass in Rose's studio
I am in Rose Hilton's conservatory in Cornwall.

She rootles through her pastels. 'Ooh, where are my whites? I'm going to run out,' she coos, surveying my glistening alabaster, my Antarctic shelves.

Rose and her beau settle down to sketch me. A vine with darkening grapes shades the worst of the sun and I re-apply factor 30 during short breaks. Rose is slender and elegant in a chartreuse linen dress.

My left leg goes numb. I stand on it with all my weight. The leg returns. How lucky I am - up to this day, at least - to have a body that works.

A mutual friend is pottering around the house. When I leave the room briefly, I hear her explain to Rose: 'She looks like that because she hasn't had children.'

Next day I sit for Rose in her Victorian schoolroom studio in Newlyn.

Rose is abstractly figurative. Her effects this morning are gauzy, dreamy and luscious.

We chat. 'You've got pepper and salt in you,' says Rose. 'Do you wear stockings?'

An artist's studio has its own codes. A factory preserving a mystery. It's dangerous to interrupt the collusion between artist and model, but Rose is expecting visitors. A young friend of hers has asked if he may drop in. He phones. He's bringing a hearty cricket-playing Australian.

Rose and I are setting a trap without mentioning it to each other. The boys don't know I'm there. We go quiet.

A tap on the door. 'Come in,' trills Rose.

I am wearing coral leather driving gloves, a freshwater pearl necklace and lipstick. I am sitting on a velvet chaise longue. The weather is hot, the studio pleasantly airy.

I am motionless and silent but appear to be emanating a force field which roots the visitors to the doorway. I think of cartoon characters spatchcocked against a wall.

'I'm afraid I don't know much about cricket,' says Rose as she carries on painting. Dab dab pink dab white.

I say that I used to live next door to Phil Edmonds. It doesn't lead anywhere.

I try to be helpful: 'Slow left arm spin bowler.'

Dab dab dab.

Of course, this is just the view from the chaise longue. I can't tell if horror and pity are somewhere in the reaction. The artist's model is patinated with the victimhood of centuries. Nor am I young.

The situation eases. Chitchat ensues. The model falls silent.

'Right,' says Rose, 'I've finished for the day.

'Are you sure?' I ask, flexing my right hand (pins and needles).


I peel off my gloves and get dressed.

We all leave the studio. Our visitors walk towards the sea.

It's no big deal.

The Maenads would have torn them apart with bloody hands.

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