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Rose Wylie

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Post  eddie Wed Feb 15, 2012 1:35 am

Rose Wylie: 'My mother thought women should have an escape route'

Painter Rose Wylie is finally being talked about as an up-and-coming artist – at 77

Emine Saner, Monday 13 February 2012 21.00 GMT

Rose Wylie Rose-Wylie-007
Rose Wylie at her home in Kent. Photograph: Henry Browne for the Guardian

On one side of the large shed that is tacked on to the back of Rose Wylie's cottage in a Kent village are two paintings of flowers – a carnation and a lily – bright but deliberately ugly, as a swipe against supermarket flowers. "They're grown in Africa," she says, "to be exported to big supermarkets in Europe and the people who live there don't have any ground left for them. They are hideous flowers, they have no smell, they're out of season, I hate them."

On the other side of the room is a large painting of a male ballet dancer in a proud leap across the canvas, with two ballerinas quietly watching him. It was inspired from a photograph Wylie saw in the paper. "It wasn't supposed to be a comment about male supremacy but it carries that message. [The ballerinas] watch, they're not taking part in the action – it's a feminist picture." So you are a traditional painter after all – you paint pictures of flowers and ballet dancers, I say. She hoots with laughter. There is a seriousness to her, when she is talking about her work – she glares from under her pewter-grey bob – but a sense of fun too.

Over the past two years, Wylie has finally been gaining recognition at the age of 77. The Jerwood gallery in Hastings will show the first retrospective of her work when it opens in March. Wylie is still selecting which paintings to show, but has completed a new work of people in bathing costumes to tie in with the south coast.

In 2010, Germaine Greer sang her praises in this newspaper, and she was selected as the British artist in the Women to Watch exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, which promotes underrepresented and promising female artists. Last year, she showed in New York, Miami, Berlin and London. She currently has an exhibition in Moscow.

How does she feel about getting more attention now? "It's a thrill I suppose. Rather peculiar." Still, it has solved her storage problems – so much of her work has now either been bought, or is held by her agent. "It's so nice to have people wanting to buy them and show them, but at the same time you get used to seeing them around and you don't like losing them. I'm not crazy about money. I don't buy stuff. I almost buy nothing, other than paint, canvas, wood and staples." She would like to have enough money to employ someone to help her stretch the canvases and cut the grass, she says, but that's about it.

Wylie grew up in Kent, and always wanted to be an artist. "My mother played the piano and was rather sorry she hadn't done it a bit more seriously. My father was a Victorian engineering type who finished up with an army job in India." It was "highly conventional", she says, but adds "my mother thought women should have an escape route from husbands and marriage, and that they should do something that allowed them that. She wanted me to be a barrister but I have a hard time remembering things. Painting is perfect because you don't have to remember a blind thing."

She went to the Folkestone and Dover College of Art (much later she did an MA at the Royal College of Art), where she was told that women couldn't become great artists. "[Being an artist] was considered a stupid idea, women were just there for a bit of culture, like a finishing school, something to do until they got married. All the teachers were men, there were no women." She pauses. In a way they were right, she says, "because I got married very soon and had children".

Wylie met her husband Roy Oxlade, also an artist, and they married when she was 21; the first of their three children came a year later. She took teaching jobs, but "Roy was a senior lecturer and I was a lecturer and we depended more on his salary than mine, and that was that," she says. "We decided it was not a good idea for two parents to paint, because painting is very isolating and you do tend to focus on yourself and children then become an irritation. I don't think it works, and I think the bringing up of children is hugely important. So I brought up the children and I think that was a good idea."

She started painting again after about 20 years. Did she feel she had much catching up to do? "In a funny kind of way I thought it was good to start again," she says. "Often people who don't know about me but see my work assume I am much younger – 26 or something. So in a certain way, I don't paint [for my age]. One dealer said to me 'anyone who puts you into the art fairs is very brave because it's about youth'. You have to be a young person. [The art world] is absolutely obsessed with youth, which is a shame because once you've had early acceptance it is difficult to maintain it. You become a product. I think that's when depression settles in. If you've never had it, you've got nothing to lose."

She likes to paint footballers and film stars, she says, "because everybody sees them, they are accessible, they are shared. It's a contemporary bonding. We all know them, and then you can see what the artist has done with them." Which, in her case, is to break them down – drawing them over and over until it is her expression of the person that comes to the fore, rather than a straight representationGetting older means getting down on to the floor to paint is harder than it used to be, but other than that Wylie says she doesn't mind ageing. "I think in many ways it's better," she says. "You can be completely yourself. With the children grown up and gone, that makes you a free person."
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