Gallery: Sarah Raphael by Frederic Raphael |
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Sarah Raphael by Frederic Raphael

Sarah Raphael was born in the Old Mill House, East Bergholt, on the tenth of August 1960. The cottage had once belonged to John Constable's father. Later, we bought a house not far away, in Langham, which was still in Constable country: Langham church is featured in one of Constable's best known landscapes. It would be fanciful to suggest that East Anglia infected her with the aptitude which Sarah seemed to possess from birth, but she was promptly responsive to place, as to people. We travelled a good deal during her childhood, first to Spain, then to Rome and finally to Greece. Of all the places we lived, the island of Ios in the Cyclades was dearest to her. Later she would call it simply, 'That place'.

In the early 1960s, Ios was a depopulated island, with no more than two hundred inhabitants. We bought our first house (it was a disused donkey stable) on the empty bay of Milopota, which has a great scimitar of golden sand from end to end. We have a few feet of film of Sarah drawing horses in the sand at the age of three. They were done with complete assurance and without hesitation, but they were curiously compressed with big bellies and short legs and dangling spurs. Later that year, we went for the first time to Mycenae. Sarah looked with apparently childish interest at the lion gate as I told her and her older brother, Paul, about Agamemnon and the Trojan war. The two lions on the gate are slim and reaching upwards on either side of a triangular stone.

That night, in the hotel at Nauplia, she took out her drawing book and again set about drawing some horses. They were, as usual, equipped with spurs, but their bodies were elongated and their legs in proportion. André Malraux once said that people become artists not by looking at life but by looking at art. It is true that to be an artist requires attention to what art is, and what previous artists have done, but in Sarah's case Malraux was only half right: she looked at art, with increasing keenness of perception and critical admiration, but she also looked — and with how keen an eye! — at life, at men and women, at things, at anything. Sarah may have feared many things, not least the pain which crowded the last years of her life, but she flinched from nothing. She looked the world in the face and depicted it, in the light of her genius, in ways that made it more visible: who can look at Ios or the French landscapes and not see the world refreshed by what she saw in it? Even a roll of sellotape became a rare article, such was the accuracy, combined with formal focus, with which she made it present to the reader. I say 'reader' rather than spectator, because her pictures are texts that commanded attention: cryptograms rather than illustrations, seemingly easy to read, yet instinct with significance.

She saw people with a precision which procured meticulous verisimilitude but was never photographic. Her portraits might be beautiful; they were never flattering. She renounced commissions because she feared that patronage might curb her tender ferocity. One Cambridge Head of House who wanted to commission his portrait, and offered prompt payment, was advised to look first at the completed sketch which Sarah was doing of him. It was neither caricatural nor cruel (never Sarah's style), but it was pitiless, as the truth is pitiless. When people speak of 'born artists' they sometimes imply that the artist is a holy fool, 'gifted' (as they also say) with a competence so natural as to be a blessing and which she is, as they also say, 'lucky' to possess. It may have been luck, of a kind, that gave Sarah fingers which seemed incapable of ever making an ugly mark on any surface or an ugly or witless image out of any scrap of clay, silver paper, or even nervously kneaded bread. But luck is there, in the born artist, to be improved, to be informed. Sarah's confidence as a maker was part of her personality; the uses to which she put it were an aspect of her character. She combined belief in her work with blithe lack of jealousy. Generous with her students (she loved teaching, and their talent) and with her many friends, she encouraged lesser artists with gracious praise but, if asked for serious opinions, she gave them seriously, and without tactful nuance. Art was too important to be taken lightly. It was her life.

The Greeks said, when Athens was defeated and humbled, that the summer had gone out of the year. Sarah's death is not only our loss; it is also the world's. It has lost the work which, one cannot help saying, she would have done. Every artist knows that he or she is in a race with mortality; none of us know how long we have, but we know that time is short and, we have to believe, art is long.

Sarah Raphael is no longer here and yet here she is: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. When one considers the range and quantity, and above all the quality, of what Sarah did in her forty years, one has a sense of the vulgarity of mere counting: in the prolific two decades which followed her graduation from Camberwell School of Art, she produced work of such variety, and intensity, of such humour and such depth, such gravity and such lightness, that she seems now almost to have been engaged on a race with some inner clock whose spring, she knew, was working against her. The tense vigilance of the great portraits, the minute lyricism of the landscapes, the diabolical ingenuities and allusive slyness of the Strip! series, the constant urge to make herself anew, so much of this was achieved while being a loving mother to three remarkable and beautiful daughters.

The moral quality most remarkable in Sarah's work is its indifference to fashion and its copious variety. The artist's first activity is to challenge and to amuse him/herself: Sarah had to make a living, and wanted to make a great reputation, but she never did anything for the money, still less to give a flashy impression. To succeed as an artist always meant, for her, to do her best work and, above all, to make it new.

Once she had had a success in one phase of her painting, she moved on, urgent not to bore herself with the repetitiousness of those who, because they do only one kind of thing, imagine that they are proving their integrity. The remarkable series of desert paintings which were the fruit of her weeks in Australia excited wide admiration. When the series sold out, disappointed collectors asked her to do more of the same; she disdained to repeat herself, however lucratively. Sarah was infinite in her variety, but true to a conception of art in which the uses of vision are boundless and always renewing themselves.

Sarah was never hermetic in her sense of vocation and never complacent. She was always eager to turn her hand to new things, and to make them in a way that those who solicited them had never imagined. The work she did for the Millennium Dome seemed to some of us to demand too much of her (and for too little) but there was marvellous pride in her determination, and ability, always to astonish. How Diaghilev would have loved her!

It was one of my great joys that Sarah and I worked together on several projects. Some of her most remarkable work, the marvellously pious, yet impudent, crucifixions which she did for my television series After the War, was the consequence of a kind of imaginative impersonation: the pictures were supposed to be the work of Guy Falcon, an artist who figures in the series. It would be wrong to call these pictures pastiche, since there was no real artist to imitate, even though the character was based on Michael Ayrton, who was our friend. When Sarah was fifteen, Michael, she and I went out drawing together in the French countryside. When the time came to go home, Michael — a great draughtsman — looked at Sarah's work and remarked, with glum clairvoyance, 'I expect she'll be better than me'.

Sarah might never have worked on her crucifixions if I had not asked her, but once her attention was drawn to the theme, she produced work which was neither Christian nor sceptical, images of pain wilfully inflicted and heroically endured. How did she know so much? Her strength is mirrored in the study we have of a Roman soldier driving a nail into the flesh of Jesus: it is a close up and you cannot see the flesh of the victim, but you have a sense of the iron peg being hammered into your own hand. Sarah's art has muscle as well as finesse.

She refused ever to be a mere illustrator, of anything, but she worked with me on several books. On the last night of her life, she got up to finish an image for the Folio Society's edition of Petronius' Satyrica which we were doing together. It is a take on Trimalchio's feast so leavened with wit, so seemingly effortless and right that you might have done it yourself: all you needed was genius.

In the course of his novel, Petronius says of the Roman poet Horace that his work was always marked by 'curiosa felicitas', a trim phrase in which curiosity includes taking infinite pains and felicity implies both cheerfulness (and luck) and the ability to get things right, seemingly without the possibility of error. L. P. Wilkinson once compared Horace with Giorgione, whose landscapes and figures are at once familiar and magical, mundane and sublime, the fruit (I hope I quote him rightly after fifty years) of 'the infallible stroke of the true artist'. If Sarah now belongs in the same gallery, that is what she lived for.

(From Sarah Raphael 1960-2001: A Survey of Work from 1994-2001 exhibition catalogue, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 2003)

Drawing: Study for the Satyrica, Jan. 2001; Fred, 1997
Paintings: Under the Lime (detail), oil on board, 10'' x 5'', c. 1984; That Place, Ios (I), oil on paper laid on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, 1993; Crucifixion (detail).