It wasn’t what you could really call ‘sitting’ for a portrait.

It was more what you’d call ‘sitting in a pub garden’. In all honesty, I had absolutely no idea that I was going to end up in a painting by Rose Wylie until a friend who had recently shown two of Wylie’s pieces at his gallery, alongside works by the American sculptor Evan Holloway, casually mentioned it over dinner. ‘You know you’re in one of the new ones,’ he said, fork poised and brow furrowed over a plate of Spanish ham. What? How? ‘It’s of the gallery opening,’ he said. ‘You can tell it’s you because of your earrings. And your hair.’ So all it took was a chat and a couple of hours bowling cheerfully around with a glass of wine to find myself lounging across the huge canvas she called PV Windows and Floorboards. Hardly Lucian Freud-levels of sitter hardship. It’s typical, though, of Wylie’s modus operandi; she is a magpie for images and cares not a jot for the height of its brow. Not for her angsty considerations of narrative and meaning, or learned references. ‘I think the picture should work as a picture,’ she once told me ‘I don’t want people to say, “Oh yes, it’s so deep,” I want it to be visual. It’s very difficult to make a picture, and all they do is look for the blinking meaning! It’s very irritating.’ Wylie’s references (because they are there, though you must look for them) come instead mostly from popular culture: particularly movies, of which she watches many, and newspaper pictures, though she claims not to read the stories. In a world where we are continuously and rapidly bombarded with images, Wylie has rich pickings. She has variously taken inspiration from, for instance, the film Syriana with George Clooney (she painted a scene from it both in wide shot and close-up); a glorious shot of Elizabeth Taylor in a white swimsuit that was much reproduced following the star’s death; and a photograph of Kate Moss in what Wylie described as a ‘charming’ pair of knickers. In a painting of the Queen of Sheba, in place of King Solomon, Wylie used an image of the footballer John Terry, because the fabulous wealth of contemporary footballers, for her, connected to the famously wealthy biblical ruler. ‘Footballers are like gods for a lot of people,’ she said in an interview. ‘They make money. They have glamour.’ In a way, Wylie’s work is a sort of visual illustration of the way that we consume images – fast, scattergun, with odd things sticking and sparking seemingly random connections. Though the suggestion would irritate her no end, imposing meaning where it isn’t intended. Having attended the Royal Academy, from where she graduated with an MA in 1981, she is, of course, steeped in art history. The very sharp-eyed will spot nods to Dürer and Cézanne, and she acknowledges a debt to the American painter Philip Guston. Wylie’s style, though, is her own and unmistakable, and not only due to the sheer size of her canvases (they are all enormous, and, stacked up against the walls, fill the ground floor of her Kent cottage). She rarely stretches her canvases and pastes them to the frames herself, enjoying their rough edges. The paintings themselves have tremendous energy, a looseness that has been described (also by me, I’m afraid) as ‘childlike’, a description which, though she has been known to use the word herself, Wylie also finds rather annoying – unsurprising, since the late Brian Sewell once called one of her works ‘a daub worthy of a child of four’. I can only assume Sewell didn’t know many four-year-olds. In any case, it hasn’t hurt her – the past six years or so have been a riot of success for Wylie – in 2010 she was the only non-American artist chosen for the Women to Watch exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington; she won the Paul Hamlyn prize in 2011, was given the inaugural show at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings in 2012, showed recent works at Tate Britain the following year, and in 2014 won the John Moores Painting Prize in Liverpool. Last February she was elected a Senior Royal Academician at the location where Sewell had been so appalled to see her work. All this is surprising only because having taken nearly 20 years out of her career to raise three children, recognition has come to Wylie late in life. She is now 81, though her personal style – knee-length skirts, big trainers, messy grey bob, huge glasses and dark lipstick – makes her look younger. And it is sad, too, only because her adored and adoring husband, the painter Roy Oxlade, whom she married at the age of 21, is no longer around to see her fly; he died in 2014, aged 85. Wylie credits the years she spent as a wife and mother as, she told me, the reason for the vitality and freshness of the work she makes now. ‘Time out makes you come back newly,’ she said. ‘It’s not as if I didn’t talk, look, think, but then suddenly you come back to doing it. If people don’t know me and they see the work they think I’m straight out of art school.’ Nancy Durrant is a commissioning editor on the arts pages of The Times.


The artist.

Back to top