REMEMBERING JOAN ABSE

 

Pat Wain

'Dear Pat
Just rushed downstairs to retrieve the Guardian's article on Reynolds in the magazine last week - I'd put it out with the recycling stuff and just remembered to save Nelly O'Brien reproduced there…'

This is how Joan began what turned out to be her last letter to me and you'll recognise immediately how characteristic it is - full of the enthusiasm and energy of a very much younger woman - and that was Joan, the same Joan I'd met 20 years earlier whilst working at the Tate Gallery. This was at the time of the publication of 'Voices in the Gallery', the beautiful anthology of poems and paintings, which Joan and Dannie had compiled together and later, in illustrated readings of the poems, given pleasure to wider audiences, both nationally and internationally.

And what was it we'd been discussing - what had interested Joan enough to make her rush down to rescue that newspaper? Simply, it was the quality of the shadow on Nelly's face cast by the hat she is wearing. This interest had in turn been triggered by us having recently seen another portrait, in Kenwood, which also featured a noticeable shadow across the face of the sitter. It had reminded Joan of a portrait by Reynolds but which she was unable to recall exactly. In an earlier letter than the one quoted from above Joan had written,
'This should have been written long ago because, my mind being irritated by Reynolds hat woman I suddenly thought in the wee sma' hours of the morning that paintings in the Wallace are never lent so that naturally the picture we were worrying about would not be in that catalogue I got out. So I looked in my Galleries book and found indeed that among other portraits by R are two: a head of the actress Perdita and also a portrait of the courtesan Nelly O'Brien. I think she's the one!'

When I've been thinking over the past weeks of what I would eventually say about her today I found it hard to separate out thoughts of Joan from those of Joan and Dannie as a unit - almost impossible in fact. From the time we first met I've been a regular visitor to their homes, both in Golders Green and Ogmore, and the warmth of their relationship and the welcome they extended to me soon made me feel not so much a guest but rather a part of that particular bit of their life I was sharing. One memory of Joan I will always have is of her phone calls. Hardly a month would go by without her calling to ask when I'd be coming down to see her and Dannie again. She would begin, 'Hello Pat, Joan here, how are you'? not 'how are you' - a small shift of emphasis, hardly noticeable, but for me it encapsulates her truly caring and entirely unselfish nature.

Eventually I decided to ask myself what Joan would like me to talk about on this occasion and then it became much clearer. What she I'm sure would like me to do is to share a little of the last hours I spent in her company. It was on April 30 this year, a fine Spring day and we'd gone to Kenwood, to walk, have lunch al fresco and,
finally, to look at the paintings - this was when we'd seen the shadowed face I mentioned earlier. Those of you who know the collection will remember in the final room, the profoundly moving self-portrait by Rembrandt to the left of the door. Joan was sitting and looking across at this whilst I'd turned to look at a portrait of an unknown woman by Rembrandt's pupil, Ferdinand Bol, hanging to the right of the door. Because the head of the woman is quite small I went over to examine the portrait more closely and was immediately struck by its quality, so much so that I called Joan over to come and take a look. We must have stood in front of the painting for a good ten minutes or so. Apart from the superb execution what especially attracted us were the kind, intelligent, almost smiling eyes of the young woman and the fact that she seemed to be in mid-conversation, emphatically pointing with the ringed forefinger of her right hand while her left hand is tensely supported on a small table to help her balance. The overall effect was almost of her actual presence in the room. What I remember now above all is that although Joan had looked at the portrait on many earlier occasions and had mentioned it in her, 'Art Galleries of Britain and Ireland', she felt she was seeing it for the first time. We were still talking about it when we arrived back at Hodford Road.

Joan loved paintings with a passion and knew so much about them though she never paraded her knowledge. She was much more interested in what you were seeing and her companionship on visits to galleries and exhibitions was an absolute joy. As the weeks have gone by I've come to realise more and more that so long as there are paintings to be enjoyed and talked about, Joan will always be with us.

 

 
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