“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” These are the words that Jane Eyre uttered defiantly to Mr Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s tale of love and woe. And like Brontë and her sisters, living in the restraints of their father’s parsonage, the British artist Celia Paul spent her youth surrounded by women in the Devonshire and Yorkshire countryside, where her father was the Bishop of Bradford.
In Paul’s new exhibition at Victoria Miro, Charlotte and Emily Brontë appear in haunting portraits - wide-eyed and inquisitive. Their home in Yorkshire is memorialised in a painting with a towering pine tree at its centre, like a lightening strike in the middle of a barren landscape. For Paul, this leafless tree is an allegory for Charlotte’s passionate longing, as the winding path behind the house is connected to Emily’s desire for escape. Like the Brontës, Paul’s early life was filled with the quiet reflection of prayer and the salvation of creativity. Even now as an adult, she remains a private being, rarely traveling from her studio overlooking the forecourt of London’s British Museum. For Paul too, the shadow of her own Mr Rochester looms large.
Famously, Paul was the muse of Lucian Freud, who was her professor at the Slade before they began a love affair when she was nineteen. While their romantic relationship ended in 1988, Freud’s legacy has left an indelible mark on Paul’s career – one so complex that vast swathes of writing are devoted to it. At Victoria Miro, Freud’s visage appears just once in an intimate portrait of Paul with her lover, who burrows gently into her neck, his silhouette blurred as if it were a fading memory.
In her tremulous self-portraits in the show, Paul’s slight and otherworldly frame manifests itself amidst a push-pull between light and dark. Perhaps inspired by her experiences as a sitter for Freud, Paul addresses her own image with a curious fragility that is filled with physicality, while giving voice to the murmur of interior life. In contrast to Freud’s slathers of the brush, Paul’s works play dexterously with thinned paint, conjuring the delicacy of evanescent light and layers of flesh pulled over bone.
The true heart of this exhibition, however, is a love letter to Paul’s family - a tale of sisterly love and maternal devotion. The show’s anchor is the heart-stopping painting ‘My Sisters in Mourning’ (2015-2016) in which the artist’s four siblings sit side by side, emerging from the gloom to grieve their mother who died in 2015. The sorrow in this painting is palpable and overwhelming. Shrouded in white, they are the pallbearers come to weep at the graveside. Paul’s mother was one of her most frequent sitters and in this exhibition her memory is honoured again in the powerful portrait ‘My Mother and God’ (1990) - the fragile woman, now entering the final years of her life, bathed in a column of darkness.
It was her mother’s death that attracted Paul to the subject of water, which provides an interlude to the figurative paintings in this exhibition. Through flickering light across dying suns and silvery oceans, Paul conjures a visual representation of her grief – the certainty of family life now broken and as transient as the waves. Celestial and meditative, these ethereal seascapes offer a moment of quiet reflection and whisper a truth that light will outlive the subject it illuminates. With each surging wave, Paul seems to call upon her Christian faith and the rigour of prayer, bestowed upon her as a child on the Devonshire coast and the Yorkshire moors.