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The Sunday Sessions with Chantal Joffe
My experience sitting for the British painter, Chantal Joffe.
Dear Readers, I’ve been sitting for the painter Chantal Joffe for a number of years. Recently, we decided I’d go over more regularly. I wanted to write about this, so here’s an essay charting my experiences. It’s a little more personal than usual. I hope you enjoy it. Support this Substack by becoming a paid subscriber. Love, Katy. Xoxo
The artist Chantal Joffe has been painting me for over four years now, about 12 times. The first was made the day before I turned 25; the most recent painting was last Sunday. Much has happened in these years – a pandemic, new leaders, revolutions, wars. But also, as you’d expect at such a crucial transitional age, a lot has happened to me. Back in 2019, when I was 24/25, I hardly knew Chantal (though I had always admired her from afar) and I was newly living with a boy I was madly in love with. Just last spring, she captured the days before I moved out of the flat, the end of that relationship. But also the years in between: the excitement of youth, being in love, coming to terms with not being in love and the agony of it, the anxiety of the pandemic, of writing my book, the time when I nearly lost myself, but also hope and renewal.
The time-based act of sitting for a painter means that they can really see you. Stroke by stroke, they can capture the conversation you had, how you seemed in that moment, the energy of the room. Painting is this longer duration – it’s different from a photograph where you can switch moods from one minute to the next. And as much as I always go to the studio full of excitement, Chantal can always sense what’s going on underneath. Sometimes, she sees things before I do. It’s only when I look at a painting retrospectively that I realise how I was feeling.
In September 2022, Chantal painted me the week before my book came out in a painting called Blast Off, because that’s literally what I was doing – about to embark on one of the most incredible but intense times of my life. And again, a couple of weeks after it was published, with my friend, Antonia, the week before she gave birth. That one is called The Conversation (top image) because we didn’t stop talking – we never do. We spoke about love, grief, Alice Neel (our favourite artist), the limitless possibilities of baby names, and the excitement but unknowingness of motherhood, single motherhood, and how one might be both artist and mother. It’s my favourite painting in the world, and remains my phone background. It marks a pivotal time, but it’s also full of joy and admiration for each other. Chantal was Antonia’s favourite artist growing up, so you can imagine her excitement (similar to how I felt sitting for Chantal the day before my 25th birthday). We deliberated on outfits for weeks: stripes, checks, and colour are always what I go for. Antonia chose a purple gingham dress, while I settled for a blue chequered suit.
I didn’t see Chantal for a few months. I was busy on my book tour, and life got in the way. So, this new year we decided that I’d go over on Sundays until the end of March (when I’d be moving to NYC for a few months, to promote the US edition of my book, The Story of Art Without Men). We called it “The Sunday Sessions”. I loved it. When you’re not in a relationship, Sundays can be strange: they feel like a lost day, especially in the dark days of winter. We joked that it’s the ‘two bath day’, because it’s so cold you may as well have two baths to pass the time. But knowing that I would hop onto the Northern Line and see Chantal (approx. 11:30am, sometimes 12) made it somehow easier – and that I would be greeted with tea and Jammy Dodgers. The one time in February we skipped a session and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I love being in her studio. It’s a giant white room in a Victorian building that overlooks the canal. There are windows on two sides, and light streams in from both. It’s full of books – Eva Hesse’s Diaries to the recent Vermeer show catalogue – bits of paper, the kettle is on the floor, there’s cases of half used pastels, quotes (or shopping lists) crayoned onto the walls. But it’s also full of friends, the people she paints, their portraits there across the room. There’s Isabelle, the photographer who is also Chantal’s studio assistant; Claire, the writer who runs the events at the London Library; the artist Anne Rothenstein looking inquisitive; the scholar and curator Dorothy Price; Antonia’s baby; sometimes Olivia Laing (if she’s been in town); and Chantal’s self-portraits – in the bath, on the sofa, with Es, with Richard. She paints encounters and the conversations that play out. Although the people are recognisable, they’re animated – they’re alive.
The Sunday Sessions started this January, with this painting (image below). It’s a tough painting. As much as I was trying to hold it together, I was sad. She could see that. I couldn’t even bring myself to wear colour. (I love to be dramatic.) But she talked it through with me, and reassured me that everything would be okay. Chantal is a very kind person but also a kind painter. She was recently interviewed by the FT on Alice Neel, and, referencing Neel’s portrait of a spare and gaunt Warhol, said that she “knows how it feels, as a painter, to sit with someone and see their vulnerabilities”. You can feel that with her. She really wants to do everything she can to make you feel better. But just by chatting to her, and her painting you over time, you feel seen.
There’s a relief with being painted that posing for a photograph taken doesn't have. You’re able to sit and not be self conscious because it’s the artist’s perception of you. You can choose to not shy away from hard feelings and give yourself up to be looked at – a trust between subject and painter.
The next was on my 29th birthday, Sunday 5th February (image below). It felt like a new start. I was in my dark blue Bella Freud suit and I’d made the Sunday Times Bestseller list. I was so excited, and, as you can probably tell by my pose, desperate to look like a cool, serious writer. I like this painting, but it makes me laugh at my own pretensions. That morning was special, glittering – like the first day of spring. I walked into the studio and, in anticipation of New York (a place both Chantal and I long for), she had laid out a pile of paperbacks relating to the city, from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, among others; a bunch of pink tulips; a small painting wrapped up in tissue (it was Blast Off!); a Space NK bag full of goodies; and a card with a painting by Morandi from the Estorick Collection. I mean it when I say she is one of the most generous and thoughtful people I’ve ever met.
The next painting is my favourite. It feels the most like me because I know I’m not performing. I’m in a cream silk shirt and pink tank top – an outfit, as I texted her that morning, “I’ve weirdly dressed how my teenage self would’ve loved to have dressed. It’s a good outfit! Excited to show you xxx haha”. I can’t yet read the painting, but she captured something childlike in me. It serves as a reminder – especially when our job is to perform – that although we are capable of so many personalities, we are still just that teenager underneath, wide-eyed but also nervous. I like to talk to Chantal about my future plans – books, shows, dreams for New York – but in reality, I’m scared. I’ve never lived on my own, or been out of London for more than two months. Somehow the slow activity of being painted shows that.
The most recent painting was made last Sunday 26th March, the day before I left. I was running late so I speedily lime-biked to the studio. We didn't have long, so she worked on a smaller-sized canvas than usual. She said “Look towards the light, I want to paint you in profile”. She titled it Katy (Looking to New York), referring to it as the ‘before’ painting. That day was both happy and sad. We reminisced about these past few months; how much we loved carving out time to do this; the differences in mood – and news – that each Sunday brought, and what was to come. She told me to take time for myself when I’m out in NYC: “Go to Coney Island, have a Zabars picnic, get fish tacos from Dorado. And write to me!”
You’re never quite sure of what she’s painting. And you also can’t believe that she’s completed an entire painting while you just sit there, 3 cups of tea and 5 Jammy Dodgers deep. Whenever I ask to see the painting at the end, she always hesitates. With about eight paintbrushes tucked between her knuckles, tipped with blacks, blues, peaches and pinks, she says “Mmm… it really doesn’t look like you. I am not sure! Oh, okay then…”, and every time I am amazed. She has painted a record of the conversation. A record of that time that turned from winter to spring, from heartbreak to healing, from 28 to 29. How she saw it, and how she saw me.
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