Writing fiction made up of documents like letters and diary entries is a great way of excusing bad writing. It’s okay if that sentence is badly constructed or that image is a little cliché — you didn’t write it, your character did! I wrote this one for a creative writing assignment, and hopefully it’s worth your time to read it. It has everything from rich bohemian artists languishing in Paris to an unhinged would-be heiress working in a nursing home. Not to be missed. Enjoy.
A LETTER FROM ANNE STANTON TO HER SISTER LIZA – 28th July, 1951
I have been Mrs. Stanton for two months now, and in Paris for three weeks. The weather has been glorious for the entire duration, in our honour I think. Ed blindfolded me as we stepped into the new apartment so that its grandeur would take me by surprise, and my God, how it did! It’s nestled above a very sweet café on the Rue Montorgueil, and leaning out of the window one catches the most sublime wafts of fresh pastry and coffee and herbs and vegetables from the market just down from us. You would be in heaven here. You must come and visit. There’s a large room at the rear, which I believe was once a bedroom, in which I spend hours painting, and Ed has very cleverly fashioned its en-suite bathroom into a darkroom where he can work on his photographs. We’re terribly bohemian, as you can tell, as if we leapt straight out of the libretto of La Boheme. Although I do hope that consumption isn’t on the cards — a very unfashionable disease, I think.
We are attending quite remarkable parties with the most enchanting and strange people I have ever met; other artists (who would have thought!), photographers with whom Ed has worked, singers, musicians, actors and cabaret performers; even prostitutes and queers, who are some of the most amicable and wise people I have spoken with in months! What would Dad say!?
I would like to tell you more but I must dash, because Ed is taking me dancing in a beautiful new green dress from Lanvin (LANVIN!!) and we are running a little late. Liza, tell me everything that has happened since I left! We love your wedding present, I might add, and it hangs with pride in our entrance hall. Thank you, my sweet!
‘ANNE STANTON, A BIOGRAPHY’: PREFACE
Anne Elizabeth Stanton, my grandmother, was born in a small Farringdon flat during the winter of 1930. Her father was a stockbroker (his profits dwindling in the years leading up to her birth), and her mother was a school teacher (dying just hours after it). When the Second World War broke out her father became a teacher, too, to avoid fighting, and he took his daughter to rural Hertfordshire for a more peaceful life. That’s where she picked up a paintbrush and discovered her talent for art. Her career began with a series of exquisite portraits of her father that finally captured the attention of a London art dealer after appearing in several church hall exhibitions amongst more mundane landscapes and rococo-imitations. My grandmother spoke often of her gratitude to her father, and of never knowing her mother, and I believe that they were both a great influence on her art (see chapter four). Take, for instance, the Greenwood Triptych and its moon swollen like a pregnant belly, the blood-red veins bleeding through the clouds, and the man walking the hills below whose identity is so debated, but whom I can firmly ascertain is my great-grandfather. I know that a myriad of other relationships also made profound impressions on her and her work—namely those with family-members including myself (see chapter six), although there are those who wish to tell you differently. To me, there is no ‘Anne Stanton: revolutionary artist’. There is only Anne Stanton: devoted grandmother, moral guide, dependable friend. It is about this Anne Stanton, and her distinguished work, that this book intends to speak.
You might have heard of another biography about my grandmother by a Professor Arthur Romeril. It’s a real academic affair written in a language which most people wouldn’t understand; half of it bibliography, all of it pretentious. Andrew Romeril, however, didn’t know my grandmother, so I’d be wary of accepting what he presents as fact.
You wouldn’t believe the amount of letters which my mother and I received from biographers and scholars after she died. We were overwhelmed, spending hours reading and rejecting each one personally. But as we worked through them one slow evening, there appeared Professor A. Romeril, OBE, fished from the depths of a heavy mail-bag, asking to write Grandma Stanton’s biography. Apparently he’d published some important papers about Rothko in the 80s; was some sort of revolutionary, changed the face of art academia. Well, I’d never heard of him before, and nor had anyone whose opinion I cared about. My mother was somehow impressed, and though I fought my corner, she wouldn’t even consider turning him down. That was when I decided that I’d write my grandmother’s story myself. Nobody else could do it; not my drunken mother and not some dusty academic who’d never met her. In a way I’d been writing it my whole life, absorbing her anecdotes as a girl and turning them over and over in my head for years after, committing them to the sturdiest vaults of my memory. If for no better reason, I thought that working on a book might go some way to enliven the protracted silence of life alone with my mother. I suppose Grandma Anne began to paint for a similar reason, although her silence was already broken by the occasional thrill of a passing bomber plane. She was lucky.
I remember distinctly how she looked as she painted. I was the only person who was allowed to sit by while she did. Even my grandfather was banished to the rest of the house when she closed the studio door. To begin, she would lay an enormous canvas on the floor and hang over it with a stub of blue chalk, sketching in broad strokes, crawling onto it, jumping back to survey it, soaking areas with turpentine, then smearing on paint with her fists and scratching bits off with her fingernails. The process went on for days, weeks, sometimes years, and it was enchanting. It was as if the fumes of wet paint made her wild, instilled her with some primal creativity until she was lurching on all fours, practically rolling in paint, and then suddenly calm and picking at tiny details for hours at a time with a miniscule brush. It is often remarked that her paintings show an impressive breadth of expression; from vast screams to intimate hums. My grandmother herself embodied this breadth. On the one hand she was a stormy genius, unfathomable and aloof, but on the other she was a steadfast family woman; a listener and a friend. One moment her hands were throwing fistfuls of paint at the wall, and the next they were wiping tears from my cheek with all their comforting softness. Professor Romeril, for all his qualifications, could never tell you that.
I met him once, when he spent the day interviewing my grandmother’s friends in the nursing home where I work and where she spent the last years of her life. He wasn’t what I expected; he didn’t wear musty tweed and thick-lensed little glasses or carry a scuffed leather briefcase. Rather, he wore a flattering cable-knit jumper in navy, denim jeans and a pair of brogues. Admittedly, I forgot my anger for an hour or two, charmed by his friendly way with the old folks and the louche charisma which it seemed to conceal. I don’t know how, but he commanded every room as soon as he entered it, and I was completely taken in. I even let him interview me, which was never part of the plan. It was only in the solace of my own flat later on as I skimmed through my grandmother’s photo albums and old exhibition catalogues that I remembered he was an intruder. Before deleting his number from my phone, I left him a message warning that the details I’d revealed about my grandmother were confidential, and that it would be treachery to include them in his book. But guess what; he did. It seems to slip Mr.Romeril’s mind that a book about an artist should chiefly concern her art. I’ve flicked through his unsubstantiated pages, and as you probably know already, he makes some pretty far-fetched claims about what my grandmother got up to in her lifetime. Dinner parties with criminals, forgeries, drugs, sexual promiscuity and some scandalised love affair with a woman (which is a ridiculous claim, because anyone could see how devoted she was to my grandfather and to the male sex in general). The thing is, Professor A. Romeril, OBE, doesn’t know anything. He can read whichever books he wants, study whichever police reports and letters and diary entries that find their way into his self-righteous grasp, but he will never know the real Anne Stanton. Professor A. Romeril, OBE, wasn’t there. He didn’t sit for hours watching her wrinkled mouth tell its beautiful stories before bed; he didn’t smell the paint as she prised off its lid in the studio, or see the portrait of the Queen glisten when it was still wet; he wasn’t there with her to celebrate the damehood and the retrospective. Nor did he feel the grip of her fingers loosen around his wrist as she took her final breaths. And he didn’t throw clutches of soil onto her coffin a week later, all the while wanting to throw himself into that grave with it, feeling how it feels to lose the one person in the world who was there for you, and the last person who ever would be. Professor A. Romeril, OBE, knows nothing.
A TRANSCRIBED AUDIO TAPE
INTERVIEWEE: Elsa Bowen
INTERVIEWER: Professor Arthur Romeril
ALSO PRESENT: a supervising nurse
Arthur Romeril: Good morning, Elsa.
Elsa Bowen: Good morning, dear.
AR: So, would you like to tell me a bit about meeting Anne Stanton?
EB: Well, She was a funny old girl. Of course, we’d all heard of her, but reputation isn’t much to–
It doesn’t prepare you for how a person actually is.
AR: Quite. So, how was she, actually?
EB: As I was about to say, she was a funny old girl. I’m afraid I only knew her when her mind was already fairly unravelled, but she did come out with some extraordinary things; stories from way back in the 50s and 60s when she lived in Paris and was just beginning to get her taste of success. Oh, and she was always dressed up fabulously in old dresses and makeup and a lot of jewellery. Very glitzy, was Anne.
AR: Did she paint here?
EB: Oh, yes, but it was never very good. They always encouraged her to, you see, just like they force me into these God-awful games of bridge, but she’d lost her way with the brush. Then, later, when they confronted her with these sprawling daubs she had absolutely no idea they were hers and ranted about how terrible art has become and how whoever had painted them was a fool.
NURSE: Just a moment, Mr. Romeril, could you stop the tape?
AR: Oh yes, of–.
[Tape recorder turned off and back on]
AR: Shall we go on?
EB: Yes, and thank God she’s gone. That nurse is Anne’s granddaughter.
EB: I know! But it’s true. Was always buzzing around Anne. There’s something odd about her. She’s a pretty girl, mind you, but so gloomy.
AR: What do you mean by ‘buzzing round’?
EB: Well, she didn’t give any of us any help at all. She was just following Anne about everywhere; fussing with her hair, taking her aside for long talks, cutting up her food, putting her to bed. Thing is, Anne was so senile that she had no idea who her granddaughter was — her name’s Ellie, by the way — and just spat insults at her and batted her off. It was very sad, but Ellie just kept on and on and– and– well, she went about things in a very strange way, that’s all. Edie saw her reduced to tears about it a few times, poor thing. She’s a shy girl; I can’t imagine she has anything in the way of romance, either.
AR: So Eleanor Stanton is working in a nursing home?
EB: Yes; Ellie Stanton. Apparently her mother spent all the money on booze, and she got a job here as a sort of refuge. You can ask her yourself if you don’t believe me.
AR: So, back to Anne, perhaps. Did she ever talk about–.
EB: Oh, and you won’t believe what Gerard was saying the other day. I called him crazy, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Well, Anne was killed wasn’t she? Why else would we have had the police in for so long? Gerard thinks it was Ellie after the inheritance, or maybe her awful mother, if she’s a drunk like everyone says. Anyway, nobody got the bloody inheritance because it all went to Ormond Street, didn’t it.
AR: I think I’d be wary of gossip.
EB: You’re telling me! I’ve had eighty-odd years of gossip, dear, but this is something more, I think.
AR: I think– Yes, I think I’ve got everything I need here. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Mrs Bowen.
EB: It’s no trouble, professor.
AR: Could you send Ellie in as you leave, please?
[End of recording]
THE DIARY OF ANNE STANTON – 9th November, 2011
Dinner today was dire. That awful brunette nurse who hovers around me like a fly to shit (her name escapes me) tried to spoon-feed me whatever grey slop it was that we ate.
Is she my daughter? I remember her little pink dress flapping in the wind along the Rue Montorgueil. She was a sweet girl.
I should like some roses on my desk. I should like to paint them. Perhaps that’s what I’ll do this evening, after dinner. I’ll paint some roses.
Oh, to be painting on the Rue Montorgueil with the clack of Ed’s shutter as he darts around the studio. Where has he got to? Ed, so handsome and wonderful. Liza said he was no good, but he was every inch good. An angel.
Eleanor. Is that it?
I must eat dinner, now. Starving in this place. It’s a care home and there’s not a damn moment of ‘care’ at all, as far as I can see. I’ll be spoon-fed some awful grey slop again, no doubt.
I’m sure I asked for some roses. Where are my roses?
OBITUARY OF ANNE ELIZABETH STANTON (1930-2011)
Anne Stanton was a major British artist with a level of success comparable to the likes of Paula Rego, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. She is heralded as one of the finest interpreters of the female experience, enjoying an illustrious and critically acclaimed career before passing away in the Autumn of 2011, a Dame and an indispensable national treasure. She will be greatly missed.
She was born Anne Elizabeth Belle in 1930 to middle-class parents in London. Her mother died tragically during childbirth, but Anne enjoyed a happy childhood with her father. The pair moved to the countryside during World War II, which is where Anne discovered her natural talent for drawing and painting. Her early portraits of her father were snapped up by an art dealer who was scouting for new names across the country, and he encouraged her to pursue a serious career in art. She studied for just a year at the Slade in London, where she met photographer Edmund Stanton. The pair fell in love and dropped out of the school early to pursue their creative dreams in Paris. They remained there for twelve years, giving birth to their daughter, Rose, during that time. She was still a child when they returned to London to live out their remaining days in a large house in Knightsbridge’s Cadogan Square. Edmund passed away in the summer of 1998, leaving his wife deeply grieved but inspired, and she created her most famous work, The Greenwood Triptych, in the months following his death. It was bought by the Tate Britain a year later, having been kept private in the meantime.
Stanton’s visual style, as characterised by The Greenwood Triptych, is as confrontational and bold as it is delicate and controlled. She worked on huge canvases using oil paint which was often thinned into pale glazes and layered repeatedly for long periods of time until apparition-like figures appeared in their hazy surface. Closer details were then picked out carefully with thicker paint, giving the effect of a focussed foreground and a blurred background, perhaps an aesthetic influenced by Edmund Stanton’s photographical work.
Anne Stanton’s oeuvre has influenced a myriad of artists working today, and the fine art world would be a very different place had she never burst into it and given it the vitalising shake that it so needed. It is difficult to imagine the Wangechi Mutus and Tracey Emins of the 21st century existing without her legacy. She was the first woman to tackle taboo subjects like abortion, sex and sexuality with such brute force, whilst maintaining a beauty from which it is hard to avert one’s eyes.
While the circumstances of Anne Stanton’s death are not a pleasant topic to dwell on, there is one detail which is worthy of discussion, for its strangeness sums up a remarkable life. Although her later work was largely discredited for its descent into the naïve – a result of Alzheimer’s disease and increasing visual impairment – her disturbing final work sold for several hundred thousand pounds. It was a smear of red lipstick on white cotton, framed in gold, which she made as she was smothered to death with her own pillow.