As an exhibition showcasing portraits of women writers opens at Farley House & Gallery in Lewes, award-winning artist Susanne Du Toit tells Rebecca Pitcairn about this latest body of works
Award-winning artist Susanne Du Toit sees women. She sees them and paints them in their stripped-back, unadulterated, gritty glory.
The 68-year-old, who won the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait Award in 2013 making her an instant household name, is famous for her seemingly melancholy portraits of family members and personalities from the world of arts and entertainment, such as screenwriter Stephen Beresford and actors Stephen Campbell Moore, David Schwimmer and Timothy Spall.
The portrait of her eldest son Pieter, which won her the Portrait Award, was described by Sandy Nairne, the National Portrait’s director at the time, as ‘simple but outstanding’ and was disliked by her son. “He didn’t like the way I portrayed him, he said it wasn’t very joyful,” she tells me.
For her latest body of work, the mother-of-four and grandmother-of-five visited the homes and workplaces of 19 eminent women writers, such as Dolly Alderton, Clover Stroud, Dreda Say Mitchell and Diana Evans among others, to paint them for an intimate series entitled, Painting Women Writers.
The project came about after the South African-born artist was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, in 2019, to paint a portrait of the writer, Jeanette Winterson, for their collection.
“Painting Jeanette had awakened me to the fact that writers are not just interesting people, but often have unusually deep emotional and imaginative lives, making them compelling subjects for portraiture,” says Susanne of the encounter, which inspired the venture.
This July, the striking collection of portraits will go on show at Farley House & Gallery, in Chiddingly. The pictures have also been collated into a book, published by Eiderdown Books, an independent publisher championing female artists set up by Harriet Olesen, head of publishing at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
Painting Women Writers is a record of the project and the portraits of the women Susanne has painted, but the unique and intimate book also shares preliminary sketches and fascinating notes from Susanne on her visits to the writers’ homes and her process, as well as personal contributions on the experience of being a sitter from the writers.
“I’ve always kept a journal, I’d write about my garden, my children or the struggles I might be having with a particular painting, but I think doing this gave me so much more to write about and, after a while, the writing became as big a part of the project as the painting,” says Susanne, whose musings take the reader on a journey that helps them better understand her portrayal each writer. “I’m not a writer, but I’m really pleased we included my notes in the book because, you know, after the shows and exhibitions, that’s usually it but now, with the book, it has a longer life and I’m happy about that.”
Susanne visited each of the writers in their homes or workplace so she could paint them in their own surroundings – some feature their children, pets and even laundry – helping to bring to the canvas individual personalities of the authors and their worlds that might not be otherwise seen by those who read their work.
“While the process for each portrait is similar, I found all the writers very different,” she says. “Some of them were really into the project and some of them found it really difficult and I got the feeling they felt quite uncomfortable. So, I would prompt a conversation, and then, my goodness, everyone had such a story to tell, such a journey and to me, that was so amazing, to really meet the human side of them all. And everyone was very, very different.”
Like her son, not everyone liked their portrait but then, Susanne says, when do we ever like a picture of ourselves? “Each of the writers would say to me, ‘that’s not the person I see in the mirror,’ but then they would say, ‘But you did get me’. So, I was very pleased with that, that they eventually felt that I did actually give something of them.”
Painting Women Writers is at Farley House & Gallery from July 13 to September 3. The book Painting Women Writers by Susanne du Toit is published by Eiderdown Books, RRP £30 hardback