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Valerie WiffenThe thoroughly modern Valerie Wiffen

A personal appreciation by Giuseppe Marasco

I first met Valerie Wiffen at the British Museum while the Motya Charioteer was being exhibited.

Media attention was being sucked into 2012 Olympics and museums had nearly all lost foot fall. Had it not been for a few critics, particularly Brian Sewell, who said he had never seen a sculpture of such sublime quality, Motya’s sojourn in London might have passed unnoticed.

At the end of the day, studying the athlete from ancient Greece, we chatted for a bit and she was acute, kind and encouraging. How lucky it is that London has Valerie and her drawings that so assuredly possess such objects which come and go through our galleries.

Earlier this summer, the small but beautiful independent bookshop in Hackney’s busy Broadway Market, mounted Valerie’s Drawings from the Museums and Collections of London amongst its shelves. It’s a place where you quickly find the new Trinity College edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, so you know you are in good hands. Valerie’s images were placed in a way that inspired you to make new arrangements among your own book collection.

Valerie Wiffen

Valerie Wiffen

Valerie Wiffen

In her Dolls series, she displays a delicate and assured line, invoking a real sense of life and presence, inspiring ideas of play, performance and suspension of disbelief. There seems a double play on the matter, in this double remove from life.

In the poetry section she depicted the sun god Helios at five times of the day, chasing him through his complexions.

Her line is alive and breathing and her observations of life and work are caring, thoughtful, forgiving, yet wise. They reward ever greater return on study and emerge full of balance and luminosity. They are fine, fine works.

Once, interviewed in the 1960’s for a teaching job, she was asked: “How modern are you?” She replied jokingly: “I did it yesterday! How much more modern can you get?” There is an energy and recollection imbued in these works of our today – that if anything is more prized, since it is such a challenge to achieve and maintain.

Valerie considers herself lucky in her teachers – Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear, Roger de Grey, Ken Howard and Peter Blake – and seeks to pass on the skills she acquired from them.  She continues to teach drawing and painting at West Dean College and the Hampstead School of Art.

The Hampstead school, founded 40 years ago by sculptor Henry Moore, remains an independent charity. Open to all, it receives no public funds. Its future was recently in the balance, but it has just been granted planning permission for a new permanent home.

“This is doubly important,” Valerie notes, “just at a time when adult education provision is being whittled away by successive government cuts – with even the gem of London’s adult education, the City Lit, threatened by the axe.”

Valerie has a strong sense of humility and duty towards her talent: “You have to honour it, I do honestly believe it's a gift, it's a duty, you can't let it go to waste.” Thus she relays the enduring challenge of the sensitivity and attentiveness, the sharing of moods and sensibility that artists make accessible.

On the Hampstead School's website there's a photo I particularly love of Valerie teaching a painting class. She can teach the quick style that allows a full impression of a portrait to be done in just a couple of hours. 

Wearing a rock stadium style head-mounted microphone, she paints a self-portrait in real time, describing the goings on to the class. The intriguing question is: where is the voice located in the painting?

Painting itself, here, is in the act of performing. A rare example of painting vocalised. and that looks at you, the public. Can you get more modern than that?

28 July 2013

Treasures From The Museums & Collections of London was at the Broadway Bookshop during June and July. and will continue at Hampstead School of Art’s Café gallery from 24 September until 15 October.

Her portrait of Sigmund Sternberg is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Giuseppe Marasco is an artist and writer

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