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On Sylvia Plath’s Drawings

By Harriet Staff

Frieda Hughes, daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, wrote this appreciation of her mother’s visual art (and its relation to her poetry) for The Guardian. The piece comes in anticipation of an exhibit of Plath’s pen- and-ink drawings that opens at the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street in London on November 2nd.

From the piece:

Although my mother is known primarily for her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and her poetry – particularly her last collection, Ariel, published posthumously in 1965 following her suicide on 11 February 1963 – her passion for art permeated her short life. Her early letters and diary notes and poems were often heavily decorated, and she hoped that her drawings would illustrate the articles and stories that she wrote for publication.

She met my father while she was reading English at Newnham College, Cambridge, from October 1955 to June 1957 on a Fulbright fellowship from the States. They married on 16 June 1956, honeymooning in Paris and Benidorm, which is where my mother did many of the drawings in this exhibition.

In 1956 an article she wrote about Spain was published in the Christian Science Monitor, illustrated with one of her drawings of Spanish fishing boats. On 28 August she wrote to her mother, Aurelia Plath: “I feel I’m developing a kind of primitive style of my own which I am very fond of. Wait till you see. The Cambridge sketch was nothing compared to these.” Another article, “Explorations Lead to Interesting Discoveries”, was published on 19 October 1959 by the same magazine, using drawings she’d done some time earlier of an old wood-burning stove, tyre and wheelbarrow outside a shed, and of a collection of earthenware bottles. The first of these drawings is included in the exhibition with a second, slightly different study of exactly the same subject. My mother often drew her subject more than once; my father’s profile was, to my knowledge, drawn twice, once facing left, and once facing right, while they were in Paris.

Literature and art continually linked aspects of my parents’ lives; my father mentions my mother’s drawings in his last collection of poems, Birthday Letters. In his poem “Your Paris” he directly refers to my mother drawing the Paris roofs, a traffic bollard, a bottle, and him, too. In 1958, by which time my parents had moved to the US to work, a letter from ARTnews asked my mother for a poem on art; as a result she wrote eight poems inspired by the works of three of her favourite artists: Klee, Rousseau and De Chirico. On 22 March 1958, in another letter to her mother, she wrote: “I’ve discovered my deepest source of inspiration, which is art: the art of the primitives like Henri Rousseau, Gauguin, Paul Klee and De Chirico.”

At the time of writing these poems my mother was interviewed for The Voice of the Poet on radio with my father and explained: “I have a visual imagination. For instance, my inspiration is painting and not music when I go to some other art form. I see these things very clearly.”

The Mayor Gallery website can be found here.

Posted in Poetry News on Monday, October 24th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.