London Grip Poetry Review – Sue Hubbard



Poetry review – GOD’S LITTLE ARTIST: Rosie Johnston considers Sue Hubbard’s perceptive and affectionate poetic biography of the painter Gwen John

God’s Little Artist
Sue Hubbard
Seren (2023)
ISBN: 9781781727164
48pp    £9.99

On the cover of Sue Hubbard’s poetry collection Everything Begins with the Skin (Enitharmon, 1994), Sebastian Barker says (Hubbard) ‘reminds me of Gwen John in her stillness and love of the “actually loved and known” … giving generously of life and warmth and technical mastery’. Hubbard is a painterly writer with art in all its sensuousness coming into whatever she writes and in 2008 she produced Rothko’s Red (Salt), a wonderful collection of ten stories about the lives of artistic women. In God’s Little Artist, she moves into vivid poetry to capture the life of Gwen John, perhaps a project that has been distilling in her for years.

Hubbard combines her extensive career as an art critic with an award-winning literary career including four novels so far (the latest being Flatlands (Pushkin Press, 2023) and poetry. Her other collections include Ghost Station (Salt, 2004), The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt Modern Poets, 2013) and Swimming to Albania (Salt again, 2013). As the Poetry Society’s Public Art Poet in 2000, she created London’s largest public art poem, ‘Eurydice’, at Waterloo. You may have heard her poems on various BBC Radio 4 programmes or the Poetry Archive, and read them in magazines and anthologies and in many newspapers such as The Irish Times and The Observer.

As an art critic Hubbard has written regularly for leading newspapers and art magazines, and her book of selected art writings Adventures in Art is published by Other Criteria. She is a founder member of Blue Nose Poets, has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and has twice been a Hawthornden Fellow.

Gwen John (1876 – 1939) was an artist overshadowed in her lifetime by other members of the formidable John family, far from least by her younger brother Augustus John OM, RA, perhaps the most celebrated artist of his generation. He painted WB Yeats and Dylan Thomas, introduced Thomas to Caitlin, and was rumoured to have found time somehow to father around a hundred children. Hubbard depicts him as a schoolboy at the seaside in ‘Naked’:

But today the school crocodile’s 
marching along the strand,

damp donkeys huddled 
in the spitting spray,

while, up ahead, Augustus is pulling off
his clothes, flinging them pell-mell

across the rocks, cavorting in the buff
in front of his red-faced master.

The ‘damp donkeys’, ‘cavorting’ and ‘red-faced master’ give this a seaside postcard blush. Gwen’s small paintings are not so exuberant but have an enthusiastic following. They are mostly of a woman seated alone, often in her beloved ‘sparrow’ tones. Her 1902 self-portrait gives the impression of a tidy, somewhat severe individual, perhaps influenced by Whistler who taught her when she visited Paris in 1898. But Hubbard’s young Gwen, who was born and grew up in Wales (first Haverfordwest, then Tenby), is a bohemian, zestful person who left London’s Slade School of Art to find out what artists were getting up to in Paris. In her useful introduction, Hubbard tells us that for a woman to be an independent artist at that time was ‘a near impossibility’. She knocked on Auguste Rodin’s studio door, asked if she could model for him, and was his lover for ten years. In the poem ‘Montmartre’:

Far from Tenby
             this, now, is home. 
To eat, she knocks on studio doors,
            poses, if she can, for women. 

The men are rude, 
            ask her to undress, place
insolent hands on her small breasts …

                      she’s too proud to tell them
           as she turns to leave, I paint.

For Gwen, her relationship with Rodin was much more than a casual, bohemian affair. In ‘Modelling for Rodin’:

Naked before him,
she finds a new peace,

feels pleasure in her nudity.
All day she longs for the moment

his assistants are dismissed …

Then the weight of him,

his tongue in her mouth
like something feral.

Adoration is only excessive if it is imperfectly requited and one of Hubbard’s most poignant poems is ‘Love is lonelier than solitude’:

          She thinks of him all the time, 
an anchorite in her quiet cell
         waiting for his booted step on the stair,

          reluctant to go out in case he comes. 

There is love and nurture in Hubbard’s writing, almost as if she longs to gather the young artist close and protect her. The poem ‘Fire’ brings us into Gwen’s longing:

At night she cannot sleep. 
Her sheets still smell of him. 
Sweat. Turps. Semen. 
Outside her high window cold stars

hang among the sooty flues
Oh, that she could reach out
and pluck them from the velvet night,
bind him to her wrought-iron bed

with their jagged points. 
Tie his wrists with stockings
of moonlight, straddle him
till she catches fire. 

Rodin was thirty-five years her senior and whether because of his age or the consuming heat of Gwen’s love, the relationship could not survive. But his drawings of her:

these drawings

they make together are their children.
These charcoal smears, her puckered skin. 
This. They will always have this. 
                                           (‘Love is lonelier than solitude’)

Gwen became a recluse, passionately Roman Catholic and increasingly self-neglectful, until her early death aged 63 of starvation and solitude. She kept painting until the end, concentrating on reality around her:

There is poetry in ordinary things, 
her blue jug, the basket of kittens, 

that line of busy ants …

strings of prayer beads
lucent as benedictions. 
                                (‘The Poetry of Things’)

Like many before her, Gwen taught herself to enjoy the mixed blessings of solitude, ‘this lonely state of grace’:

How can she live if every breath 
cries for want of love and touch?

Now she must abandon herself
to art. To God.

End these girlish dreams.
Grace is all there is. 
                                     (‘November Afternoon’) 

John wrote ‘My religion and my art, that’s my whole life’ and of her wish to become ‘God’s little artist’. Hubbard’s title poem ‘God’s Little Artist’ fuses this religious devotion with her artistic intensity in the physical present:

Her God is a God of quietness,
so she must be quiet. 

His love is constant. 
It does not despise, 

or rebuff like carnal love. 
She would live without

a body, now. Its fleshy needs,
its urgent desires,

yet cannot pray for long. 
Between her sewing threads,

her rosary lies broken,
wooden beads scattered

among old buttons. 
Her barren room

washed luminous
with light. 

These poems are a masterclass in how to conjure heartbreaking imagery with almost painful economy. The final poem ‘Dieppe’ draws, as if in bleak charcoal strokes, Gwen’s final moments in 1939. She decides she cannot face another war in France and tries to get herself back to Wales:

                     When she climbs from 

the train carrying no luggage,
she exudes a stench of poverty. 
Collapses. Crowds gather and gawp. 
Assume she’s a derelict, take her

to the local hospice to die. 
Augustus promises a headstone but, 
somehow, it slips his mind. No matter, 
when she’s been so fearless. So true:

Gwen John was buried in Janval cemetery in Dieppe. No headstone perhaps but this fine collection of poetry, published by Wales’s foremost literary publisher, more than serves. Hubbard’s depiction of this vibrant, talented woman moved me deeply, especially in small brush strokes of the poet’s pen like this:

Rodin insists she must draw every day,
though she wants only to button his boots. 
                                                             (‘Drawing the cat’)

Hubbard is a powerful storyteller and enfolds John’s story within her own exploration of solitary creativity. She leaves us with a miasmic sense that Gwen John has been entertaining, intriguing company throughout the process of writing and that Hubbard leaves her with us reluctantly and with affection.

Rosie Johnston’s fifth poetry book has been accepted by Mica Press for publication in 2024. Lapwing Publications published her first four books in her native Belfast, most recently Six-Count Jive in 2019. Her poems have appeared The Phare, Snakeskin, London Grip, Culture NI, The Honest Ulsterman, Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog and Fevers of the Mind. Her poetry is anthologised by Live Canon, Arlen House, OneWorld’s Places of Poetry anthology, Fevers of the Mind and American Writers Review. She read her poetry most recently at In-Words in Greenwich and the Faversham Literary Festival.