There’s an underlying sense of sadness in this new exhibition by British portrait artist Ishbel Myerscough. Half way through preparing for the show, her mother died suddenly without warning. This followed the death two months earlier of her father-in-law.
There’s nothing like the death of a close parent to remind one of one’s own mortality but also to cherish what one has and holds. Grief, Longing and Love provides a series of intimate portraits of family and friends that captures stages in life’s journey from the innocence of youth through the experiences of motherhood to family bereavement.
For the past 25 years, Myerscough’s studio has been upstairs in her mother’s home, the house she grew up in. So she saw her mother on most days. She continued to paint through her grief. “You can’t work out if it’s going to make it better or it’s making it worse when you’re doing it,” she told me. “You feel so unutterably terrible and full of guilt and depression and regret.”
But painting is what she does and Myerscough’s work, like life itself, goes on. Her grief-stricken self-portraits, of which there are several in this show, are painted in the most unflattering detail with no line, wrinkle or blemish spared. Rather than a true likeness, they encapsulate her innermost feelings. Beautified reality is not for her.
This style has developed since Myerscough first came to prominence by winning the National Portrait Gallery’s annual BP Portrait Award in 1995 which earned her commissions to paint Helen Mirren’s portrait for the collection and subsequently Sir Willard White’s.
At art school in Glasgow she formed a close working relationship with a fellow painter Chantal Joffe who is on the left of the topmost picture clutching all her paintbrushes as is her wont. Between them is Myerscough’s daughter who has sat for both painters throughout her life. The two close friends presented a joint display at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015 and their collaborations have appeared at the Royal Academy of Arts.
As any parent will tell you, children grow up very quickly and the exhibition freeze frames a moment in a child’s development before time steals it away. Bed, for example, is a large-scale work in which the artist’s young son and daughter rest in a swirl of floral sheets and partially revealed limbs. It’s a picture of childhood innocence.
“They haven’t got to that point where they say ‘errrgh I’m not going to share a bed with her.’ When you’re older you can’t see it anymore. Well I can’t. You can remember elements of it. I think people who write children’s books can. I look at it through a frosted window and find it fascinating.”
Similarly, Fraser captures that period when manhood is approaching but has not yet arrived. I love this painting’s contrasts. You have the epitome of youth laying on an age-old sofa that once belonged to his great great grandmother. Myerscough has painted his body as simple and luminous up against the scrupulously detailed threadbare patterns of the couch. “I’ve painted and painted and painted it and it gets more and more worn, and actually more beautiful as it gets worn.” Her son, with hands and feet like “puppies’ paws”, can still fit on it but only just, so that the furniture here also becomes a symbol of childhood itself.
Elsewhere, another son’s portrait, painted before he flees the nest for university, is full of longing by way of the wrench a parent feels as a child is passing from one stage to another. Other images are of children sleeping, away from the maternal gaze. All are expressed in meticulously observed detail. The way she paints human hair is second to none.
Love and longing of a different shade is expressed through Myerscough’s niece Lily and her boyfriend Quaye who feature in several touching portraits. The one above is painted on board rather than canvas, a medium she likes though it limits the size of the work. Myerscough does not have a system to work to. “Sometimes I start with one bit and work outwards, sometimes I plot the whole thing, sometimes I have underpainting, sometimes it doesn’t. It varies.”
This is a body of work that is refreshingly honest in its depiction of intimate family portraits through which a mother’s love shines through. Though they are all very personal in nature, the paintings bear a universal resonance for loss and longing.
Grief, Longing and Love is showing at Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London W1S 3LZ until 11 April 2020.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.