Marina Warner, 47, has written studies of women's history and mythology as well as fiction and art criticism. Her book on Richard Wentworth was published recently. She has a 17-year-old son, Conrad, and lives with her second husband, John Dewe-Matthews, a painter, in London.
MARINA WARNER: Andrea Schlieker at the Serpentine Gallery asked me if I'd be interested in writing the catalogue for the next show of Richard Wentworth. I knew his work, but the man was an unknown quantity to me. I was amazed I'd been asked. I'd never written about art of that sort, and I thought I'd be baffled.
Our first meeting was when I went with Andrea to visit his studio. There was this extraordinary environment - a combination of a very ancient junk- room and a Surrealist photograph, all under this thick mantle of brown dust. In some parts of the studio there were groups of objects (say, a feather, a pair of galoshes, a strainer, a piece of caked mud from a tyre-mark) arranged like a still-life; in other parts objects had been moved and had left rings in the brown dust.
And in the middle of all this was Richard, who started talking about his children, and about playing, and about a child's mental drawings. He says children don't really look at the world: if you ask them to draw a house, they won't draw the house they live in, but a house with two windows and a chimney and smoke coming out. There's a way in which you hold in your head cyphers of things. And then he talked about make-believe and how children can turn any object into part of a game. I was intrigued.
I wanted to get into his mind, so over the next weeks we met for walks and had lunch at an Italian cafe, and that was fun because the way he talked about ordinary objects in the street gave them a history, a formal presence, and connected them to people. We went to see a contemporary art exhibition, and his kids, Felix and Joe, came too. He very kindly came to collect me to go to the gallery, and asked: 'Do you have a special way that you like to go to Paddington? People have their ways of going through cities.' That's very characteristic of Richard. He makes you see through his eyes and that animates things.
There are two reasons why he's invigorating to be with. One is that he's really not cynical. He believes there's a lot to people and ordinary things in a way that honours the texture and unimportant incidents of life. The other thing is that he's not interested in
who people are in worldly terms, which is of course why he's so inter-
ested in children. He's interested in how people relate to things, what they have in their pockets.
I realised after I'd finished writing the essay that I still had no idea about his past. When I saw the catalogue I read that he was born in Samoa. I thought, how is it possible I never knew he was brought up in Samoa? So I said to him - when we were being photographed for this piece - 'What is this about Samoa?' and he said: 'It's so boring answering questions that I once put that in to make it more interesting and it stuck.' That's typical of his sense of mischief and make-believe. In fact he was born in Cambridge.
The friendship really developed with our going on holiday to the same part of south-west France last summer. It was pure concidence: we were staying in a house that happened to be near where Richard and Jane go every year. They've got this fantastic tree- house. It's an old windmill that's lost its sails, and they've added to it by building out a wooden platform using coppiced branches from the trees round about. It's got no rooms as such, but is divided by use: so you've got the bathroom area, the children's area, the cooking area, the reading area. And they all look like Richard Wentworths. The best thing is the shower. You stand on a sort of
platform in the open-air overlooking this exquisite valley, and there's a bucket on a pulley, suspended between trees, and you pull a chain and the bucket empties over your head. It's mad, Swiss Family Robinson, but quite glorious.
RICHARD WENTWORTH: Marina had been a rumour to me for 30 years before I knew her. It started when a friend at school asked me to come on a sailing holiday. I found it very difficult because as well as not being able to sail, I've never been good at joining in. The friend's father was an old-
style Tory MP called Sir Harry Legge- Bourke, who was unbelievably intimidating, and this house they'd rented was full of confident youth, all getting on with each other. And amongst it all was this beautiful girl - devastatingly beautiful - who was Marina. I was 13, and she was maybe 15. She had this incredible presence, and I felt pathetic. I don't even think she spoke to me.
Last summer, we discovered that she was going to be quite near where we go every year to our folly. Marina, who is wonderfully innocent and unafraid of saying old-fashioned things, wrote to me saying, 'How strange that in the whole of France we should be holidaying so close', unaware that in August the whole of north London decamps to the Lot et Garonne. We met several times, and went on a picnic to Gavaudin. During the time we'd worked on the book I'd never mentioned any connection to her - I thought it would be confusing - so it all got blurted out on the picnic. I suddenly said: 'You were very beautiful.' And I never got any further because Johnny said 'Well, you've really bloody blown it now]' And my wife mocked me terribly, saying 'How could you say that?' Apparently no woman wants to be told that she was beautiful. But what I meant was that she'd had that fantastic self-possession young girls can have, and 13-year-old boys absolutely do not.
There were masses of other connections. At school, I was quite friendly with her first husband, William Shawcross. Our paths forked later, but I remember noting when it happened: 'Oh, Willie's married Marina Warner.'
Then she became this rising figure in the media. Her voice and name cropped up more and more often. And then Thames & Hudson said they wanted to do this book, but they had no one to write the words. The art world in England is a village green - a tiny little patch - and there are two basic options of how you can be on that village green. You can be cool, or you can be grumpy. All criticism at the moment is grumpism. So when it comes to finding someone to do something like this book, it's hard. Then one day Andrea said: 'What about Marina Warner?' And I said: 'Errrrk . . . She'll decimate me.'
I was going through a terrible period - you know . . . I would never work again, I didn't know why I was doing it and wished I'd been a sheep farmer. And into this period of complete insecurity comes Marina, as the intellectual inspectorate. She tells me now that she was terrified of coming to visit me, but of course I wasn't aware of that. The thing I really like about her is that she is not afraid to be inquisitive. It might be partly that she's half-Italian, not northern and cool. The thing about what I do is that in a way it's rather banal. Day in, day out, I make these things and I hatch these plans. It's very lonely and hard to sustain. I get a bit of advice from my wife, but it's rare to meet somebody who is sustaining by the very nature of how inquisitive and forceful they are. And intellectually demanding.
There's a piece in the book where she describes the relationship of a ladle to a ladder. The ladle is one made out of wire. No doubt she uses the proper words - interstitial space or something - but she talks about the gaps. And when she'd written it I said 'That's just amazing what you said about the ladle and the ladder. I'd never seen it.' And she said, in this very distrait way, 'Isn't the creative process extraordinary?' To her it was dead obvious, but I shuffle towards my conclusions.
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