Upon entering the third floor of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, I am confronted by a series of defiant women. It is obvious that they are from different walks of life, but they share a united stance: ‘Us against the world’. Among them are suffragette Emily Davison and Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole.
Welcome to Mother, an exhibition dedicated to the mother of celebrated British artist and Islington resident Vaughan Grylls. Comprising ten life-size representations of historic female figures who changed the socio-political face of Britain from the late 18th century onwards, the women encapsulate the spirit and character of Grylls’s mother Muriel. A former political campaigner and women’s rights activist, she died three years ago, aged 92. “She was fearless, and when she looked into the mirror before leaving the house it was like she was getting ready to take on the world”, explains Grylls. “I wanted the photographs to reflect the same sort of immediacy.”
The exhibition took two years to put together, requiring extensive research. Grylls used both actresses and his own family as models, to recreate such figures as former slave Mary Prince (1788-c1833), who stands in servant’s rags, complete with welts down her arms. Prince sought her liberation in London and was the first black woman to have her harrowing story published in England. Next to her is Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe with her scarlet lips and peroxide bob.
The ten women are a force to be reckoned with. The size of their portraits was critical to the exhibition, says Grylls. He wanted to capture the sense of the viewer looking into a full-length dressing mirror: “My mum would always look in a long mirror before leaving the house, as women do, so a dressing mirror was the right format to feature the portraits in.”
Muriel Grylls was a no-nonsense working-class girl from Nottingham whose father had died during WWI. After leaving school at 12 to work, she joined the theatre and struggled hard in the face of adversity.
“As a war widow’s daughter my mother had to battle for everything and because she was poor, she faced prejudice. But she was unusual in that she didn’t have money, contacts or support but she had self-confidence and charisma”, recalls the artist with reverence.
Grylls himself moved to London in the 1960s to study Fine Art at the Slade, and found a new sense of belongingthere. “I really enjoyed being an artist in London because people were interested in what you did. In the Midlands if you told someone you were a painter they’d think you meant painter and decorator, or if you said sculptor they’d think you carved gravestones.”
Thirty years on, he is delighted to be able to hold this new exhibition just a stone’s throw away from his home off Rosebury Avenue: “Sadler’s Wells was ideal, not only because my mum was a dancer, but because you get a theatre audience, an art audience and people who come here for conferences. It’s a great cross section of the public that passes through.”
Having watched the borough evolve over the decades, Grylls regrets that it has lost some of its original “raffishness”. But he maintains that he still loves living here, both for himself and his art: “I still think that culturally Islington is cutting edge. There’s both a cultural and ideological mix. I think that’s essential for an artist to thrive, and hopefully it will continue.”
Vaughan Grylls, Mother, until April 30. Admission: free. Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Rosebury Avenue, EC1R 4TN.