top of page
  • Writer's picturejulia swaby

The Very Vivid Vivienne

I'm currently listening to the biography of Vivienne Westwood in the studio. Biographies of creatives are my favourite genre for reading; there's nothing quite like the true life story, although as Vivienne says herself, there really is nothing quite like past. It is a man made creation. We are always sewing scenes from memories together into an ever changing tapestry.

Of course we know that she is a vivid character but the reason I used the adjective here, is the vividness with which she recollects her youth. I was quite astonished. For example, she could remember, in great detail, specific lessons with teachers, both at a young age and later, in grammar school. She recounts with precision her life of 'making'; dolls, dresses, even a sort of fairground swing (model) from a very early age.

I just don't remember things that way. Of course, there is the possibility that she has embellished or finely tuned these memories, perhaps spoken of them so many times they have become sharpened or even partly invented. My early childhood memories are often of introspection rather than image; a feeling, a hope, a fear. Perhaps my most vivid memories are my dreams. Having studied Freud for postgrad, I'm pretty sure I know what he would say about this.

I was surprised to learn that she had trained to be a teacher and had taught infants and juniors, after having worked in a factory. I think we tend to make assumptions about figures who have become successful, believing that they were ever on a straight and blazing trajectory. I find it consoling to learn this is not the case. My own path has not only meandered but often been a complete backward, downhill slope. I've come to art very late - only in my late forties. Like Vivienne, I was a teacher.

The two photos here show me when I first qualified at the age of 38 (I seem to have done everything very late!) and the second shows me at my beloved Coloma Convent School where I was Head of Department for Psychology A Level. Those girls were the absolute best and made my life pure joy. Teaching there was a true Godsend and I may have stayed in teaching, had we not relocated and I began teaching somewhere else. Vivienne loathed working with juniors and I have to say, trying to teach Year 9 World Religions was not my finest hour. Elijah, you know who you are...

It was a total burnout from a decade of teaching that led me to art and the solitude of the studio. The hours spent painting are still moments of healing through colour and gentle form. I'm not a fan of geometric patterns in art or design generally. I need a degree of softness in my life. I think the medium we choose to create in speaks so much to our emotional, mental and spiritual needs. My sister, the fine artist Joanna Charlotte has written about painting birds and flowers in order to create safe spaces for her own mental well being (see below). I can totally relate to this and both of us have received heart-touching messages from clients who felt solace from our work. You know, one of the reasons I love to work in oils is that it allows me to go slowly. Towards the end of teaching, the rush to deliver Philosophy & Psychology A level syllabi, which just did not and could not fit into the hours we had on the timetable left my nerves constantly jangled. I still can't think about Functionalism without feeling ill. Creating art is a way of taming time, of really being present in the moment and being able to breathe. There's no one telling me to go faster, compress more into an teaching period or to reach targets. The paintings unfold as they will and in their own time.

20 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page