Red lights, big city

Soho's working girls have been immortalised in oils - by a Hungarian princess
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The Independent Online

There's a long and illustrious tradition of the tart in art, from the rough trade who posed for Caravaggio to Manet's provocative Olympia, the burlesquerie of Toulouse-Lautrec and, to come bang up to date, the hookers brazening it out in the photographs of Brassaï and Nan Goldin. The latest artist to take a walk on the wild side is Christina "Tin" Odescalchi, who has spent the better part of three years painting the prostitutes of Soho.

There's a long and illustrious tradition of the tart in art, from the rough trade who posed for Caravaggio to Manet's provocative Olympia, the burlesquerie of Toulouse-Lautrec and, to come bang up to date, the hookers brazening it out in the photographs of Brassaï and Nan Goldin. The latest artist to take a walk on the wild side is Christina "Tin" Odescalchi, who has spent the better part of three years painting the prostitutes of Soho.

For Tin (everyone calls her that), the results are, literally, close to home - her base of operations has been her apartment in Berwick Street, in the heart of London's sinful square mile. "I'd been painting landscapes in Gloucestershire," she says, as we sit at her zinc-topped kitchen table in the flat in question, a rooftop eyrie complete with studio. "But I wanted to capture the constant mad flow of human traffic in this area."

The 40 "urban landscapes" she's produced, which will go on display at London's Panter & Hall gallery next month, showcase the working girls - and boys - of Berwick Street, a thoroughfare that's yet to succumb to the creeping coffee-chain-and-loft-style British-film-production-office gentrification taking place around it. Thus, you'll find snatched scenes of manic market traders at their fruit and veg stalls and languishing café habitués alongside the "models" and their bouncers: "I wanted the series to be all about the people who work in this area," explains Odescalchi, "so we've got a sort of anthropological view of the street, the smell and flavour of the place and all the professions practised in it."

But, inevitably, it's the focus on the oldest profession that will attract most attention. It's a world that Odescalchi, a fresh-faced, frank 36-year-old, thankfully free of pretension (she's also a bona fide Hungarian princess, but more of that later), freely admits she knew nothing about. "I didn't know where to begin," she shrugs. "I nearly gave up; it took months to get the confidence of the girls."

Her husband, Alex, made the initial breakthrough, fixing up "appointments" with the prostitutes, which Odescalchi, in artistic deep-cover (paint-splattered smock, hauling an easel up the stairs while meeting bemused clients on the way down) would then show up for. Weren't the girls nonplussed at this sight? "Not really," she says. "I mean, I paid the going rate - £150 an hour - so it wasn't like I was taking trade away from them. Initially, the madams would poke their heads round the door and say, 'No way love' but, eventually, I think I just wore them down with my persistence.

"There's a whole hierarchy in the street - it's very dodgy at the bottom, where a girl will take a room for a day, and have a pimp touting for her. I wouldn't go near any of that; it's too dangerous. Eventually, if they stick it out, they're hired by a madam and brought further up, to a brothel, where the madams will sort of do their admin - make appointments, get their shopping, attend to clients, that sort of thing. You normally sit in a chair in a sort of waiting area and they pull a curtain round you, like a hospital bed, so you can't see the previous client leave and they can't see you, though most of them seem quite respectable.

"The madams all seem to know each other - there's a kind of network up and down the street - and once they realised I was kosher, they kind of put the word around." Sadly, however, the madams themselves refused to be immortalised in oils. "Oh, it would have been great," sighs Odescalchi wistfully. "Because they tend to be these kind of mumsy, homely, but not unattractive East End women. But they all insisted that they didn't want to be recognised. And I'm afraid I'm a traditional painter, so I'm pretty good at likenesses."

Indeed, Odescalchi is almost quaintly traditional in today's YBA world. She studied at the Vienna Academie before beginning a career as an equestrian artist - thus passing what we might call the Brian Sewell Artistic Test, the ability to draw a horse, with flying colours - and her thick, scumbled oils owe more to deeply unfashionable School of London painters such as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff than to Charles Saatchi's finest. Happily, her style is perfectly suited to capturing the mundane interiors in which the women ply their trade. "It's very normal-looking in there," she says. "There'll be a faded carpet, a bare-ish room with a black slatted blind keeping the light out, costumes hung in one corner - you know, a schoolgirl outfit, feather boas, leathery stuff. A TV in another corner, a big bed with a tasteless duvet cover on top, and a jumbo economy-size loo roll on the bedside table, which kind of makes me shudder. The rooms are always very clean, though."

The (unnamed) woman in one set of paintings (see picture, left) looks absently out at the viewer while throwing a few standard porn-mag shapes. "She was in her early twenties, which is sort of the average age for the girls, but there was kind of nothing behind her eyes," says Odescalchi. "She'd sort of retreated inside herself, I think, to try to maintain her self-respect. Someone at my gallery said it was a good thing I was female, because a male artist would be slated for painting these sorts of things, but to me, they're not at all erotic. It's work, a business, as far from romance as you can get."

 

Another series of portraits features a peepshow hostess called Ziggy, "who was the opposite extreme," says Odescalchi. "Brash, cocky, totally up for it, though when I first approached her with a camera, she thought I was a tourist and came at me, screaming and waving a fire extinguisher over her head." Ziggy introduced her to the establishment's bouncers, whose painted faces loom out of the darkness of the doorways like malevolent moons. "They were fierce, but perfect darlings, at least with me," confides Odescalchi. "Though I had to work fast; the minute their shift was up, they were out of there."

She didn't ask about the girls' personal lives, she says, "because I thought it was impertinent and prurient. I wasn't there to interview them; it was just like a passer-by's view. I never visited peepshows and things; I didn't want to get in too deep." Instead, Odescalchi talked about herself to put her sitters at ease. "I'd tell them about my painting, and maintain this sort of bumpkin attitude, which was no great stretch." One thing she didn't mention, however, was her illustrious lineage; her father is descended from an archduke of the Austro-Hungarian empire, "which technically makes me a princess, yeah," she mutters, shifting in her chair. "But that's irrelevant to what I do. In fact, I'm sure the girls would have questioned my motives if they'd known; they'd have thought there was some kind of pervy, highlifer-slumming-it thing going on. Anyway," she says dismissively, "it's more like being a duke or duchess over there, though I can see that 'Princess and Prostitutes' does make for a good story."

Did she ever question her motives? Did she feel she was exploiting her subjects? Odescalchi considers. "I don't think so. I mean, I didn't do anything without their permission. And, you know, it would take me months to make what some of the girls make in a day. Maybe they were exploiting me!"

The series has had a lasting effect on Odescalchi - she has put her flat on the market. "I'd come home after trawling the streets and think, 'They've all gone home and I'm still here', and that depressed me a bit." But before she leaves Soho for good, will she be inviting all her sitters along to her private view? "Actually, I hadn't thought about it," she says,"but maybe I should. They'd certainly liven things up." *

Tin Odescalchi's paintings will be on show at the Panter & Hall art gallery, 9 Shepherd Market, London W1; call 020 7399 9999 for details.

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