Tuesday, August 26, 2014
In Search of Camille Souter
A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 24 August 2014
Camille Souter seems a mysterious almost mythical figure in Irish art. This impression is reinforced by a visit to the exhibition Irish Women Artists 1870-1970. There she is on display amongst long dead figures such as Evie Hone and Letitia Hamilton. Garrett Cormican, in his illuminating biography Camille Souter: Mirror in the Sea, described her as "a fish: restless, elusive, and hard to catch." That may sound a little unflattering but she plainly concurs as one of her best-known works is entitled "Self-portrait as a Cod's Head". Apart from her annual trip to Aosdána (she was elected as Saoi in 2008) she is rarely to be seen at art events and casual callers are not encouraged at her Dooagh retreat. A sign outside her studio says "Working - Private". Most visual artists, starved of recognition, welcome the attention of the media, but not Souter. She made it clear that she didn't want a photographer present and that a look around her studio is not an option. Her first comment on my arrival at her white-washed cottage was "I'm all grumpy".
This however turned out to be far from the case. Warmed up by a couple of glasses of The Famous Grouse (her favourite tipple), and smoking her rollups, she was amiable and talkative - happy, it seemed, to discuss her long and fascinating life. Although the very model of the bohemian artist, her English origins and her middle-class background still linger in what used to be called an ascendancy accent. Around her neck she sported two large silver ornaments: a fish and an aeroplane, both life-long interests. It was a surprise to see her without her distinctive crotched beret. Her daughter had cut her hair recently, she explained. "I feel sort of naked without it". She initially used it to keep her long hair out of her face while she was painting and then it became a habit. The local fishermen favoured them when she came to Achill first and she decided to crochet one for herself. When one wears out she simply crotchets another.
At the age of 84 she is still an active and resourceful woman, and shows no signs of flagging. She has given up flying (she learned while on a residency at Shannon in the early 80s) because it's too expensive and because the advanced automation these days makes it less fun. She still drives her venerable white van however. It's emblazoned with a quote from Joseph Campbell that could never be applied to its admirably industrious owner:
The Silence of unlaboured fields
Lies like a judgement on the air
Her vegetable garden is well tended and we enjoy a cucumber from it in the cheese sandwich she prepares. In her living room lies an open copy of Simon Schama's The Story of the Jews. She's much engaged by the situation in Gaza, and in the Middle-East generally, and decided she needed to do some background reading.
For someone who's had an artistic career of nearly sixty years, it's downright peculiar that she's had so few solo shows. She's had only three in all and two of those were in Dublin restaurants in the Fifties. Her last commercial solo show was in the Dawson Gallery in 1977. There have been a few retrospectives and plenty of group shows but generally she has sold her work piecemeal. The reason for this is very simple she explains. She had to do so to survive. She is proud of the fact that she brought up five children solely on her painting. "Very few artists have reared their family on their work alone". Her exacting quality control may also be a factor in this dearth of shows.
Souter's earliest break through was at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1957. She had four works on show all of which sold. Sir Basil Goulding was a significant figure in the development of her career. His early faith in her work was influential in building her reputation and in enabling her to make a living. "He was a lovely man" she recalled with feeling when his name is mentioned. She remembered his first visit to her studio in the gate lodge of Charleville House in Enniskerry in the early Sixties. He "humbly" scrutinised the work and ended up buying "quite a few" pieces. As he was writing the cheque she was so broke that she asked "do you think I could have ten shillings of it in money". Those early works all went for a guinea - she was initially going to charge a pound but decided to squeeze the extra shilling out of it. Goulding continued to buy her work throughout his life and also introduced her to other collectors such as Gordon Lambert. More significantly he ensured through his art world connections that her work was bought by institutions such as the Hugh Lane Gallery and later by the Arts Council and Trinity. Michael Scott, the architect, was another early patron who introduced her work to a wide circle of his influential friends.
Souter was born plain Betty Holmes in Northampton in 1929. Her father came to Dublin in 1932 and she went to school in Glengara Park (subsequently subsumed into what's now Rathdown School). Although no scholar ("I was a ding dong" she observed quaintly) she found someone there who recognised where her talents lay. "I'm so thankful we had Miss Garrett who taught art". She went to London after school to study nursing at Guy's Hospital. "From the age of nine or ten I wanted to save the world". Her studies were interrupted when she contracted TB and she spent nearly a year in a sanatorium. There she read voraciously, especially the Russians. After qualifying she gave up nursing, took up painting and plunged into the raffish world of Fifties Soho. She never went to college but learned her art from days spent in the National Gallery and from mixing with other artists. Perhaps some of the magic of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud rubbed off on her in places like the French House and the Colony Club. She met and married, briefly, the actor Gordon Souter. They had a daughter together and he was responsible for changing her first name - suggesting that she adopt the name of the tubercular heroine of Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camelias. After leaving Gordon Souter she went off to Italy with the artist Ralph Rumney, later to marry Peggy Guggenheim's ill-fated daughter Pegeen. He proved fickle. "He was quite ruthless" she recalled, "he had to have money". Rumney flitted off elsewhere but her Italian adventure yielded her first sales and she returned to Ireland and threw herself into the local art scene.
She had her first solo show at El Habano restaurant on Grafton Street in 1956. She also met the sculptor Frank Morris who she was later to marry. The period she spent with him in Calary, County Wicklow, she describes as the happiest of her life - and many of her finest paintings come from that period. She had four more children with Morris but their idyll was shattered by his tragic early death at 40 from septicaemia following an operation for appendicitis. Her garden in Achill contains a poignant reminder of this neglected artist's talent.
She lived on in Wicklow for another 16 years years but the combination of his lingering memory and the depredations of a newly arrived farmer on adjacent land persuaded her to leave eventually. She relocated to Dooagh on Achill Island in 1986. Achill looms large in her biography. She initially went there on holiday with her parents and had lived there for a brief period in the late Fifties before moving to Enniskerry with Morris. She moved back there, built a new studio, and has lived there ever since. It's interesting to see how many Irish women artists lived on Achill from the Irish Women Artists show. In addition to Souter, they include Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet, Letitia Hamilton, and Barbara Warren.
Souter talked very little about her own work and wasn't too responsive to questions about it. Her paintings, to use Brian Fallon's wonderful phrase, are about: "evanescence and the essential fragility and temporality of things". She steers clear of anything grandiose and chooses ordinary subjects such as flowers, fish, and unspectacular landscapes. The human figure appears only occasionally (in her boxing and circus pictures), although there is one striking painting of a pregnant woman. There was an early flirtation with Paul Klee, and a more prolonged period where she was influenced by abstract expressionism, before she settled into her mature style. Some of her very best paintings are landscapes from her two most permanent homes: Calary and Achill. She only paints in natural light and is adamant that her work is best viewed in that light also. She was critical of the RHA's artificial lighting of her work at her retrospective in 2001, she claimed that the Niland in Sligo was a more suitable venue. She doesn't use photographs or sketch pads when she's planning a work but does take notes and adds the odd "squiggle". She is fastidious about the quality of her work and famously borrowed back from Basil Goulding a painting she was dissatisfied with and then destroyed it.
She lives alone these days. Her five children have produced ten grandchildren and three great grand-children and she likes to spend time with them during the summer months. However now that they have departed she is eager to get painting again. She's hoping an impending visit to Portland Bill with the Irish Geological Association will provide some inspiration. Then it's back to the studio. "By the second week of September if anyone comes near me I'll eat them." You have been warned.