Gallery: Sarah Raphael by William Boyd |
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Sarah Raphael by William Boyd

“Draw your own hands. If you can draw your own hands you can do anything.” Such was the advice given to the 14 year-old Sarah Raphael by the sculptor, painter and all-round polymath Michael Ayrton. According to Ayrton’s biographer, Ayrton recognised Sarah’s seriousness of purpose even at this early age. She wanted to be an artist — she was going to be an artist — and Ayrton gave her this significant tip. It was perceptive of Ayrton to spot this aspect of Sarah — and it has to be said she eclipsed him, artistically — but the counsel was wise, all the same, however unfashionable it may now seem. At the very root of all significant art is the notion of virtuosity: good artists are better than mediocre artists — they can draw better, they can paint better, their sense of composition is better, they can do everything better. Inept artists have become very successful, in a worldly sense, but there is no disguising this basic gift when you come across it: skill, ability, touch, instinct, feeling, a sense of colour, of line, of shapeliness and so on. It shines out; it is inescapable. Those who have it are blessed, quite simply — those who can’t, bluster and bluff.

I met Sarah a couple of years after Ayrton when I went to interview her father, Frederic Raphael, for an Oxford University magazine. I remember, even then, there was a clear straightforwardness about her personality, a slightly daunting candour that impressed — as if you yourself were also being quietly weighed up on some private scale — perhaps this is what struck Ayrton, too? But, anyway, it’s strange for me to consider now that there is no other artist, in whatever medium, that I have known for the full period of their working life. I have been, I think, to every significant exhibition Sarah had — from her first at the Christopher Hull gallery to her last at the Marlborough. I write this far from my collection of her catalogues but I can mentally walk myself through her oeuvre with a familiarity that is only paralleled by the all-time greats. As time went by, I came to know Sarah better (and the Raphael family), bought some of her paintings, wrote about her work for Modern Painters magazine and also wrote an introduction to one of her shows. It’s only now — now that she’s no longer with us — that I realise I was privileged to witness the development of an artist in a unique way.

I remember particular paintings. An early, tall, thin interior with a face in an oval mirror. A group of stylised figures in front of a grassy hill. I remember also the big refulgent Australian paintings — this show being the moment where Sarah’s ambitions and mastery really cohered in a dramatic way — but the one I wanted to buy was an immaculate two-foot square unfinished landscape of jungle and palm trees. And I remember vividly the “Strip” paintings — Sarah’s audacious venturing into a kind of abstraction. At the time, my initial response was that this was a mistake but I wonder now if the Strip paintings will become her signature work. They were, for those who loved Sarah’s confident, rich figuration, a swerve of huge temerity, but in their strident colours and frenetically busy surfaces they exhibited all her multifarious gifts: her patience, her draftsmanship, her minute attention to detail. Unlike most abstract painting, Sarah’s “Strips” must have been fantastically hard to paint. Stand close to one and look at the work that has gone into six square inches. Stand back and look at the finished canvas. “Art isn’t easy”, Stephen Sondheim once wrote: Sarah exemplified that marriage of hard graft to nurtured ability. I don’t know where she was heading but I feel that the Strip paintings heralded all manner of new directions.

And yet she always painted portraits. Like Graham Sutherland and Michael Andrews — artists who, more and more, remind me of Sarah — she could turn out a pencil sketch or a rapid oil that not only captured a likeness but were individual works in their own right. And here we come back to this idea of virtuosity. The art market, one might say, procreates the artists it deserves, but in a world where owning a video camera, or having a “smart” idea, or instructing a team to install your installation is all that is required to merit the appellation “artist”, the notion that you might sit down with a pencil and sketch pad for a couple of hours to draw your child, or try to capture the essence of a beach in Greece with some watercolours, seems positively antediluvian. No matter — all this will pass, and faddy ephemera faster than most. Criteria of judgement do apply in all artistic endeavours, I’m happy to say, insofar as what is bad can be demonstrably singled out as third-rate or inferior and arguments about its third-ratedness and inferiority can be mooted and analysed -- whether the work in question is a novel, a film, a play or a painting, etc. (What is not understood is another more complex matter, however). It could be argued, in fact, that much of the nature of contemporary art is an attempt to evade or marginalise these criteria. If you never draw, for example, your drawing skills will never be judged. Yet it is no surprise, I feel, that the Pantheon of great 20th century British artists is almost entirely dominated by (a) painters and (b) figurative painters. The reason why is that you can tell how good they are, yourself: you don’t need the imprimatur of a gallery or a dealer or a patron. A Lucian Freud, a Michael Andrews, a Frank Auerbach, a David Hockney, a Francis Bacon or a Graham Sutherland is replete with the absolute confidence of its making. You may like some better than others but you cannot deny their individual integrity.

Looking at Sarah’s work provokes the same response in me. How to define it? A kind of relaxation, a sense of calmness? Perhaps all forms of tremendous expertise, of great giftedness, signal this recognition. This person, this artist, knows what she is doing, you feel, and you want to share that discovery, to see where it takes you. The great sadness of Sarah’s tragically short life is that our future voyages with her have been curtailed. She could draw her own hands. She could do anything.

From Sarah Raphael 1960-2001: A Survey of Work from 1994-2001 exhibition catalogue, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 2003
Photograph of Sarah Raphael's hands, courtesy of J.P. Masclet