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Poet-artist’s record of emotion

04 August 2017

Katy Hounsell-Robert visits a panorama of feeling in Chichester

chris ison

A day in the life: close-up of a panel in 400 Days

A day in the life: close-up of a panel in 400 Days

ON THE far wall of the north transept of Chichester Cathedral, just below the arched window, hangs a huge art piece, rather like a mosaic or tapestry, commemorating an important historical event. On 28 November 2015, the artist and poet Frieda Hughes promised herself that she would record in individual oil-on-canvas abstract paintings, each ten by 14 inches, her response to each day’s events for a year. Every now and again, she had to escape and ride her powerful Suzuki round the Welsh countryside; but, by 31 December 2016, she had completed it.

Depression or constraint is represented in black or murky brown, while sorrow is dark red. Being calm and relaxed is blue, and safe and cared for is pink. Green is writing, and orange and bright-yellow happiness is usually associated with animals and friends. White is almost beatific. Her work is intensely personal, but when she visited her dying aunt, Olwyn, on Christmas Day, we are not shown a niece gazing amazed as the comatosed old lady suddenly sits upright and says: “Frieda, I’m very glad to see you here.” Instead, there is a large patch of dark red merging with brown and black, and several dots of bright yellow.

While being the offspring of famous parents has advantages, it can also make it difficult to establish one’s own voice. Her childhood was coloured by the publicity and veneration after her mother, the poet Sylvia Plath, took her own life when Hughes was three; and by the increasing fame of Frieda’s father, the poet Ted Hughes. For some time, she wrote poetry secretly, avoided reading her parents’ poetry, and chose to study Art and Design at St Martin’s College in London.

After graduating in 1988, she moved to Australia, enjoyed many successful exhibitions, and wrote several children’s books. Much later, when she ventured to show her father her work, he laid them out in three piles: “These I don’t think warrant anything,” he said. “These could be worked on, and these I really like as they are.” Her first book of poetry was published only the year before he died, in 1998.

chris isonDaughter of poets: Frieda Hughes in front of her assembled work, 400 Days, at ChichesterHer art and poetry have become inseparable. “My painting is an emotional process,” she says. “My poetry presents the facts to you so you can have your own emotional response.”

“Adjacent to 400 Days” comprises paintings inspired by some of her poems, which formed a recent book, Alternative Values. She reads her poetry regularly at festivals and exhibitions, very movingly sometimes, with the relevant poem projected on a screen. Her life has not always been happy. When her brother Nicholas killed himself in 2009, and she went through a painful divorce, she painted a “transitional” work, also on view at the exhibition, to get her through.

She says: “I believe in celebrating life, both good and bad, and making the best of ourselves with the tools we’re given, no matter how limited; it is up to each of us to make the choice to do this. For my part, I’m sometimes not certain what the best would be, but feel I should keep trying anyway.”


400 Days and Alternative Values: An Exhibition of Paintings and Poetry” by Frieda Hughes” is at Chichester Cathedral until 17 August. www.chichestercathedral.org.uk www.friedahughes.com

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