I first came across Sheila Girling’s work when I reviewed her exhibition at the Pilgrim Gallery for The Independent. We had not met then, but she called me sometime later to ask if I would curate her show at IVAM – The Valencian Institute of Modern Art.
I’m not a curator, although I’d curated a couple of small shows, but rather a poet, novelist and art critic. Sheila and I hit it off immediately. A great reader, she became a supporter of my work and came to my readings whenever she could. But, being the wife of such a distinguished sculptor (Anthony Caro), I was concerned that Tony would have his own ideas about how the show should look in IVAM’s white modernist building. I needn’t have worried. He never interfered and simply returned with Sheila after a good lunch when the show was up to say in his affectionate patrician voice that I can still hear: Very good dear.
From the start, I wanted the show to be ambitious. Sheila was a great craftsperson who painted beautiful still lives and landscapes. But at this was museum show I wanted people to see her most ambitious work, work that was more difficult to show in commercial galleries. We had a wonderful few days in Valencia. Eating in beach restaurants and talking about books, food and art.
Art ran through Sheila’s veins. Her grandfather was a well-known Midlands artist, as were her uncle and aunt, while her father’s father was a successful London art dealer. Of all his grandchildren, he indicated that Sheila would be the one to carry on the family’s artistic tradition, and from a young age, she displayed a natural aptitude for painting and drawing continuously.
One of her earliest memories was visiting his studio and being intoxicated by the smell of oil painting medium. Her grandfather introduced her to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, which her mother felt a most unsuitable work to show a young girl. But Sheila was captivated. She loved how the light fell on the recumbent figure, the different tonalities.
At school, she wanted to become a doctor, but her anxious mother was concerned about contamination. So she went off to Birmingham art school at a time when art schools provided a rigorous education in the craft of painting. All her family attended the Slade, but Fleetwood Walker, then head of the school, recommended her for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art.
Just after the war, the studios were still very empty. But for a young woman from the provinces, London, despite its bombsites and postwar drabness, was an exciting place. At the Academy, she won the silver medal for portraiture and Proxime Accesit in the gold medal section for her painting Return of Ulysses. It was there that she met the sculptor Anthony Caro, who would become her husband. One day, she found him using her drawing board. So, to make amends, he asked her out to lunch, and they started a lively discussion about art, which continued throughout their marriage. She used to joke that their relationship worked because she was a painter, he a sculptor, and they didn’t tread on each other’s toes. Though as I got to know them, Tony always acknowledged the influence Sheila had on his work, on the introduction of colour. He trusted her eye.
In 1963, Tony was invited to take over the sculpture department of Bennington College, Vermont, and the family headed for America, where they rented a farmhouse near Kenneth Noland’s and Jules Olitski’s studios. It was an exciting time; Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Poons and Clement Greenberg were all frequent visitors. In 1982, Caro founded the Triangle workshops to bring together leading artists from different countries. It was against this background that Sheila grew to maturity as a painter. In America, she saw acrylic being used for the first time and artists such as Jackson Pollock laying their canvases flat on the floor to create a more bodily relationship to the surface. Her own classical training had been in oils. An accomplished watercolourist, she painted landscapes on holiday for her own pleasure, a habit she never really lost.
Girling and Caro worked in the US each summer for ten years. Much of her time during the 1960s was spent bringing up her two young sons, but the experience of being away from home sparked a looser, more direct approach to her work, working on the floor, covering the canvas in a thick white ground mixed with gel. Ever down to earth, she once told me that the process was like cooking.
In 1978, she attended a clay workshop in Syracuse, New York and set about painting on clay slabs, mixing colour powder medium into the clay: “The more I worked the more possibilities opened up,” she told me. Tearing up the coloured lumps, she placed them on the clay slabs. The results led her towards what would become her dominant style, collage.
“I found that instead of my arm moving the paint haphazardly, as soon as I started working with pieces, I could begin to make decisions about structure – long term decisions. I could take things away or shift them on the surface”, she said. Collage became a serious artistic practice in the first half of the 20th century when the Cubists incorporated real objects –bus tickets, ripped newspaper headlines, café bills, etc.– into their work. materials of mass-production such as newsprint and advertisements that the new technologies were making readily available. These had a dual function. They were both “real” objects that brought with them an accumulated history, as well as elements that gave a unique visual quality to the picture surface. It was Matisse, in later life, when he was confined to his bed following two operations for duodenal cancer, who elevated ‘cut-outs’ and collage to new heights.
While the sensuality of colour in Sheila’s work is always paramount, the three-dimensional constructive process of collage is rather akin to the more physical process of sculpture. Each piece laid down dictates the placement of the next. For Sheila, it was a form of drawing that allowed her maximum artistic freedom. Her working method was complex. She cut, painted, and shifted things about. Colour was always the point of departure, though figurative elements were often implied. If something suggested itself while making a painting, she simply went with it. She favoured the quick medium of watercolour on paper, which she ripped, tore and stuck down with glue gum. This allowed her to delay decisions and gave her permission not to have to get everything right in one go. For a painter, it’s often hard to keep colour pure, not to muddy the paint. Her use of acrylic and collage allowed her colour to remain vibrant and fresh. She was never consciously influenced by the American Abstract Expressionists; her work always had more control – I think she was always the daughter of her early art school training – but collage allowed her to incorporate the spontaneous gesture that was her signature alongside something more considered.
She could, she told me, never have been a sculptor. Rich and romantic, her paintings are full not only of chromatic inflexions and lucid arenas of opaque and translucent colour but also of tension. There’s a rhythm to her paint that seems to pulsate and swirl like the improvised notes of a jazz saxophonist. Her colours push against each other to establish discords that then come together to create moments of lyrical harmony. The first layers were put down with a squeegee mop or a broom. She then raised the canvas and began to arrange the cut pieces, moving them around “like a dressmaker might fiddle with a dress pattern” and stuck down with heavy gel, so the whole, she joked, “would rot at the same time”.
Part of a generation of British women artists that has produced more than its fair share of talented abstract painters, such as Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow and Bridget Riley, Girling moved in her later career to allow more directly figurative references to infiltrate her work. Although her paintings were built out of that ultimate post-modernist symbol, the fragment, her sensibility remained largely modernist and romantic, untouched by fashion. Her work was modest and ambitious, authentic and imaginative, but above all true to the sensual delight in paint that she originally discovered as a young girl in her grandfather’s studio.
She and Tony Caro were enthusiastic travellers. For many years, they maintained studios in England and upstate New York and travelled to India, North Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean. They were married for 63 years until his death in 2013, working with boundless energy as a team throughout their careers at their joint studios in Camden Town, she advising him on the colours of his steel sculptures, he critiquing her paintings. Their themed Christmas studio parties and regular lunches at their favourite Greek restaurant were indicative of their warm, inclusive and generous natures.
Sheila Girling: Colour and Collage, Clifford Chance, 10 Upper Bank Street, London, E14 5JJ – Until 14 December 2024
By appointment: Nigel.Frank@CliffordChance.com
Flatlands: Flatlands by Sue Hubbard | 9781911590743 | Pushkin Press, Mercure de France in The Sunday Times list of best historical fiction 2023.
Rainsongs: Rainsongs – Duckworth Books, Overlook Press US, Mercure de France and Yilin Press, China.
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Girl in White 2022. Pushkin Press
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Nicholas Serota – Director of the Arts Council and late director of Tate
Swimming to Albania fourth poetry collection: www.salmonpoetry.com
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Previous poetry collections Everything Begins with the Skin, Enitharmon. Ghost Station and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, Salt. Radium Dreams: poems on the life of Marie Curie. The Women’s Art Collection
God’s Little Artist: poems on the life of Gwen John. www.serenbooks.com
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