Still Life: An Audience with Henrietta Moraes

... began life in 1990 with a traditional stage adaptation of Henrietta Moraes autobiography. Henrietta was model and muse to Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and latterly, Maggi Hambling.  She was the uncrowned Queen of the 1950's Soho set. Hers was an itinerant and rackety life, sustained by the tolerance of friends, oiled by alcohol and fuelled by an astonishing variety of drugs.  The Guardian obituary, after her death in 1999, gave her profession as Bohemian.

In 2010 I returned to Henrietta as subject matter.  My own pratice had developed considerably and I felt there was more to be done.  When I originally read Henrietta’s obituary in the Guardian in 1999 I was intrigued by two things, first her occupation being given as ‘Bohemian’ and secondly by the disjuncture between the photographs of her younger and older self. On reading her autobiography I began to think about the dynamic relationship between artist and model.  The question was then asked: if someone cannot inhabit their own life, does the artist’s portrayal of the person fill the gap? My thinking then turned to the composition of still life paintings and how the founding more of such paintings is the absence of human form and the presence of domestic trivia.  I imagined the re-figured performance as a still life painting of Henrietta’s life but with Henrietta within the painting disrupting the stasis and therefore influencing the drawings that are being made of her.

 The White Room life-drawing studio at Phoenix Gallery hosted weekend performances of Still Life, with Henrietta Moraes as model-in-residence.  The production blended performance with life-drawing, encouraging those attending to engage with this intriguing woman as both audience member and artist.

Audience are welcomed into a domain that is mutually an art studio (here is where the model sits) and domestic space (here is where the woman lives).  Henrietta, with characteristic wit and candour, told stories from her life and re-created poses from her illustrious career.

Click above to see an illustrated excerpt of the script

Click above to see an illustrated excerpt of the script

Through the performance the line between subject and object, artist and model, public and private, blurred; influencing the dynamic relationship between audience and performer.  To date, the performance has taken place at the National Portrait Gallery (London), Wimbledon College of Art, Modern Art Oxford with Oxford Playhouse, Warwick Arts Centre as well as the Whitespace Gallery in Edinburgh, the Phoenix Gallery with the Brighton Dome and most recently at The Pulse Festival.

The show has always received excellent reviews from both critics and audience and was shortlisted for a Total Theatre award in 2012 and received 'Most Groundbreaking Act' award in the Brighton Festival 2011.

The performance lasts for 65 minutes, including periods of drawing and can be performed twice a day.

REVIEW FROM Pallant HousE, Chichester
BY Trudy Barber
May 2015

Pallant House Gallery in Chichester ... were doing an event that really intrigued me. It was an afternoon life drawing session with a performance artist, Sue Maclaine. She does a fabulous performed study of\the artist model, muse, writer, mother, lover and drug addict Henrietta Moraes. She was of course the model and lover for one of my favourite painters, Maggi Hambling. As a student at Central Saint Martins in the early 1990's I used to gate crash all the Friday night art private views down in Cork Street, and I was lucky enough one Friday evening to gate crash one of Maggi's. I met George Melly, one of Maggi's close friends and saw all sorts of wonderful people along with meeting wonderful paintings (when you see one of Maggi's paintings and drawings in the flesh, it's like introducing new friends into your life). So, getting an opportunity to see how this interpretation of Henrietta would be portrayed was an opportunity not to be missed - I also think I owed myself a treat after all my marking at the end of an academic year.

The performance was fabulous. Sue really managed to capture the sense of a bohemian life in both language and the poses she held. There were about 20 people in the audience in the Pallant House lecture/studio; all with their sketch books (I managed to grab an easel), drawing away, whilst Sue gave us an inkling as to what happened to Henrietta, and her life as muse, model and all round bon viveur. The first few sketches were all done on one sheet of paper. Sue, in becoming Henrietta, gave an outline and introduction as to the contents and nature of the performance - we did lots of short poses.

All the time, she was changing pose to imply conversation with Deakin or Bacon, and the poses flowed within the narrative of the piece as a whole. Eventually you almost forgot you were drawing, and were simply drawn in by the pictures painted in your mind by Sue and her very carefully observed poses that have been well documented of Henrietta. She was spot-on! The next series of poses were a little longer and more complex. Sue Maclaine had totally become Henrietta for me.

She (Henrietta) then sat, with her robe casually wrapped about her, and talked to us about her relationships, her drug and alcohol consumption and her awkward attempt at burglary.

This was then followed by a longer pose, and a telling of relationships, including that with Maggi. In this time of micro-celebrity and the 'selfie' - this sort of work, describing our  relationship to notions of the self and contexts in culture - contains so much depth, it may be in danger of becoming sadly obsolete in our chase to be lost in the 'cloud' of data where so much of our contemporary selves appear to be living. I suggest that Drawing (with a capital D) consolidates self and others. Sue then adopted a classic Henrietta pose - (for 8 minutes) - which was a great finale to the all-too-short session! I was sad, as I had to let Henrietta go...

Well... this just makes me want to do loads more life drawing sessions.

Still Life - Henrietta Moraes - Art School without audience - wide shot.jpg