A couple of months ago, I finished a diptych of silverpoint portraits of me and my mother: me on white, Mum on black. Metalpoint can be tricky to capture in photographs. The image of both drawings is the most accurate; I’ve adjusted the other two a little to try to show the detail. As the portraits age and the silver tarnishes, the image of me will grow a little darker while the image of Mum will become less visible on the dark background.
The obvious thing to say is that my mother died last year, so in some way, depending on what you believe about these things, she has faded away. But the more I think about why I felt moved to make this pair of portraits, the more aspects of this pairing come to mind.
I think it’s quite common for children to fantasise about being a changeling – really I’m the Princess of Ruritania and one day my true parents will reclaim me – , but I suspect it’s less common for a parent to think that this child can’t really be theirs. But throughout her life my mother would say that she couldn’t quite believe I was her daughter, as I seemed to be so different in character and interests from her and everyone else in the family. Except for one small thing: I look like her. When I was working on the photographs that are the basis for this piece, I superimposed them as layers in Photoshop and our facial features locked onto each other instantly. So, there’s no denying it: I am my mother’s daughter.
I could feel the similarities as I drew our eyes, our cleft chins, our mouths. But there’s also no denying that we didn’t share much else. We were black and white, chalk and cheese.
Except that we did share a love of Humphrey Bogart films and especially Casablanca. In fact, the last thing I did with my mum was to watch an old movie on TV, one Saturday afternoon, The Man Who Never Was, a 1956 WWII story. Mum had an encyclopaedic memory for filmstars of her youth, which films they made, who they married, how many children they had, what the children were doing, so that every film was accompanied by a soundtrack of fascinating facts irrelevant to what we were watching!
The film Casablanca came out in 1942, when my mum was twelve years old, a couple of years younger than she was in my metalpoint image. I first saw it when I was about 18, at university, as part of a Humphrey Bogart season of films on TV. For me that moment of discovering this film represents a moment in each of our lives when we were still young, waiting to grow up and find out what our lives would be like.
It brings me back to what we had in common, to shared experience.
In case you don’t know. As Time Goes By is the title of the well-known song played in the film by the long-suffering nightclub piano-player Sam. It seemed just right for this piece.