It’s not something you ever expect to happen. To walk into a bookshop and be confronted with yourself on the cover of a Penguin Modern Classic.
I’ve been sitting for Adele Wagstaff since 2003, the summer I left school. My sister had met Adele in an art class, and modelled for her, but was too busy to carry on. So she suggested we meet. Adele has seen me grow from a school girl, to who I am today. This is the first portrait she did of me (my Catholic mum calls it the Madonna portrait):
In the second year of my degree, Adele painted ‘Contemplation’, and then another portrait, ‘Beth’ (below). My direct gaze demonstrates the trust that I developed for Adele, and my confidence at the time. I love visiting her studio and seeing new work develop. Canvases line the walls, ready to be shipped or returning home from exhibitions, I am always amazed by how much she fits into such a small space. Watching her mix buttery oils with her palette knife is always fascinating.
In 2006, Adele’s painting ‘Contemplation’ was in the BP Portrait Award at the National Gallery. The same year I became unwell for the first time, with what I now know to be Bipolar. My grandmother died, I stopped sleeping and started to have strange experiences. I remember going to the exhibition early one morning when it was quiet. Someone recognised me, and I felt terribly exposed. I cried in the toilets.
After my breakdown in 2006, the year I graduated from university, I came out of hospital not knowing who I was or what had happened to me. Adele visited me in hospital, and we agreed to do another portrait. As I sat in Adele’s studio, I experienced a meditative state that is born from physical stillness. Session by session, looking out of the blue studio window, I felt as if my soul was returning to me.
Adele named the painting ‘Fragility’ and I have always been amazed by how people respond to it. One little boy even asked if ‘the lady was still alive’. I look at the painting and see how broken I was.
Since ‘Fragility’, it has been a long slow route to where I am now. Adele has been a mentor to me, letting me help hang exhibitions, inviting me to model for portrait classes at the amazing West Dean, and always encouraging me to be creative. She is a constant calm in my life. Creativity is what has saved me. It is an opposing force to the death that is depression, and an outlet for my unconscious. When James and I got engaged, Adele gave us a painting of a pair of pears on the blue windowsill of her studio window.
I no longer feel exposed by ‘Contemplation’. Although I will never be that young person again, it still carries a truth about me which Adele saw, and translated into paint. When Penguin approached Adele to use ‘Contemplation’ on the cover of Booker Prize Winner Penelope Lively’s novel ‘Heat Wave’ there was no question. When it finally comes out in November 2011, seeing the portrait in print will be a celebration of how far I have come, and of my friendship with Adele.