MESSY AND SERIOUS by Sally Bigwood

Sally Bigwood’s longer extract may ring true for many artists:


In recent years Elizabeth had favoured acrylic paint. The colours were bold and bright and passionate and it went on the canvas as smoothly as icing onto a birthday cake. Acrylics were expensive but now, thanks to Stefan’s influence, on each birthday and at Christmas, Edie gave her a tube or two. Elizabeth had always loved painting; so much more satisfying than sketching or watercolours or pen and ink or charcoal. Painting was both messy and serious.

It was like her relationship with Edie: messy and serious. Edie had been such an easy baby and an outgoing, delightful child. This changed when she started school. It fell apart. She had not progressed and they moved to Surrey thinking the schools would be better but they weren’t. By the time, Francis was six, he could read better than Edie who was three years older. They sent her to a private school for a few terms and she seemed happier. She liked being one of sixteen rather than one of thirty-six and who wouldn’t? But the school’s priorities were odd. They focused on etiquette – the proper composition of a thank-you-letter, which knife to use when and the line of success of the House of Windsor. Edie’s father had said, “I never thought I’d ever pay for education and now I’m doing that and it’s not even education.”

The situation was serious. On her tenth birthday Edie didn’t know her eight and nine times-tables and read almost nothing. Elizabeth tried to get her to read aloud to her each day but she was uncooperative. She had no interest in reading or in pleasing Elizabeth. The more Elizabeth pushed, the more the child resisted. The clash was terrible and loud and lasting.

It was messy and serious. Twenty years later, Edie was grown and successful and competent but still argumentative and awkward with Elizabeth. For instance, she was critical of Elizabeth’s part time job. She would say things like, “Why do you persist in working in that florist shop? It’s so downmarket.”

“It’s not downmarket, it’s Clapham. Anyway, I like working there. It’s down the road and it’s easy and the customers are nice.”

“You’re too old to be a shop girl. It’s embarrassing.”

Elizabeth tried to keep her mouth shut. If she said nothing, Edie would make good choices – to go to evening classes or to read Dickens or to go to exhibitions at the Tate. But if Elizabeth made a suggestion, Edie backed away. A few years earlier she started an A-level Art History course so Elizabeth sent her a copy of Gombrich’s The Story of Art and she immediately quit the class. The expensive text book was still on the shelf in the kitchen and Elizabeth suspected it had not been opened since the day it was unwrapped. If Edie had ever opened it and read Chapter 17, she would discover what Rembrandt, as well as her own mother, knew: that painting was both messy and serious.

Sally Bigwood – student from writing course with Nicholas Corder