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Unseen Sylvia Plath drawings go on show


A collection of 44 drawings by the poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) never previously exhibited in this country go on show at the Mayor Gallery in London tomorrow. The sketches were given to Plath's daughter, the artist Frieda Hughes, by her poet father and Plath's former husband Ted before he died.

The drawings date from 1955, the year Plath graduated from Smith College, Massachusetts and won a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, in England, where she was to meet and marry Hughes. During her college years Plath divided her time equally between studying visual art and writing, before deciding upon the latter as a profession.

The drawings date from the years immediately after Plath underwent electroconvulsive and psychotherapy having attempted suicide – the period which would inspire her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. A drawing of a pair of discarded ladies shoes, also titled The Bell Jar (above), is one of the highlights of the exhibition, and gives insight into the way Plath visualized her written narratives. In the novel Plath’s suicidal protagonist meditates on a pair of black patent leather shoes abandoned on the shore before she kills herself as “a sort of soul-compass [for] after I was dead”.

A spidery sketch of a willow tree at Grantchester, a village near Cambridge, is a snapshot of Plath’s time in the UK. She used her pen to capture a broken down cottage at Wuthering Heights, in Yorkshire near where the Bronte sisters lived and wrote two centuries previously. The profile of an unknown male friend, a Spanish kitchen and a Parisian Tabac shop all hint at the travels and lifestyle of the troubled poet in her student days. The deft drawing style, heavy mark making and sparse background details will all provide fodder for scholars trying to make further sense of her written work. During her two years at Cambridge, she sketched quite mundane local scenes, and individual objects and people. Her images of buildings are more atmospheric.

In the spring break of 1955, she made a journey with her first love Richard Sassoon by train from Paris to Nice. She hoped to meet him again in 1956 but ended up seeing the city alone. Her diaries recount her walking five to ten miles every day and spending her afternoons sketching the city. Her journal entry for 16 March 1956 reads: “Then, inspired, I took my sketch book and squatted in the sun at the very end of the Ile de la Cite in a little green park of Henri 4 du Vert Galant & began to draw the vista through the Pont Neuf; it was a good composition with the arches of the bridge framing trees & another bridge, and I was aware of people standing all around watching but I didn’t look at them - just hummed and went on sketching. It was not very good, too unsure and messily shaded, but I think I will do line drawings from now on in the easy style of Matisse. Felt I knew that view though, through the fiber of my hand”.

The work of another 20 Century artist, Dadamaino, will also be exhibited alongside Plath’s at the Mayor Gallery. In contrast, little is documented about Italian born Dadamaino, whose name was shortened from Eduarda Maino (1935-2004). The artist was one of the Zero Group, along with Lucio Fontana, Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni. The eighteen works in the exhibition show her uncompromising attitude to form and pure concept. We see Dadamaino's trademark early cut-out monochromatic canvases, arid and brutal, as well as her 1960s-era stretched and perforated plastic works.

Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings and Works by Dadamaino, 2 November – 17 December 2011