Soon after my father died in 1983 I did a painting of my four sisters with my mother in the centre. I decided that I would do a companion piece to this painting after the death of my mother, whenever that might be. She would live for another 32 years. During this time she became my main sitter until she got too frail to climb the 80 stairs to my studio, the fourth floor of an apartment block overlooking the forecourt of the British Museum.
My mother would travel to London from her home in Cambridge and, after a cup of tea and some time to talk, she would change into her “painting clothes”, a long white cotton skirt and a pale mint-green cotton shirt. She would then plod heavily barefoot across my paint-splattered floorboards to “her” chair in a corner by the window. I would watch her in trepidation as she crossed the room: her movements were clumsy, though determined. She hated wearing shoes and her poor rheumaticky feet were covered in injuries. After she had settled herself down, the room became silent. I had also changed into my “painting clothes”: paint-smeared dresses that became so encrusted they resembled coruscated ancient tree bark. I stood at my easel and looked at my mother, a devout Christian who used the time of silence for prayer. “What a gift for a Christian,” she said. The air became charged with prayer.
Image: Celia Paul in her London studio
Photography: © Gautier Deblonde
Celia Paul, curated by Hilton Als is at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, April 3 – August 12
Paul’s work is also included in All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life at Tate Britain until August 27