D.J. Taylor’s somewhat insensitive and inaccurate preface to New Year’s Day is Black by the artist Nicky Loutit gives us the backdrop to London’s left-wing literary elite of the 1940s and ’50s, at a time when its protagonists — including Cyril Connolly, Robert Kee and George Orwell — were making their mark. Taylor describes Nicky’s mother, Janetta, who was a part of this world, by using snide remarks from Evelyn Waugh’s letters, so reducing her to some sort of acolyte secretary. As a mother, it is true, she had her faults. But Janetta was also a clever and artistic woman and, to Nicky’s cost, the femme fatale within this milieu.
Nicky’s book is not an ordinary autobiography, memoir, or graphic cartoon novel — although that is how it seems at first. It is a shocking and original portrayal of a life laid bare through a mix of delicate drawings, beautiful watercolour wash and italic pen script.
The wonderful drawings of leading characters, the abundant self-portraiture, and the sometimes half-abstract images, combined with subtle use of paint, smudge and colour, are vital to the whole effect. In a sequence of searing episodes, the reader is introduced to Nicky as she immerses herself in the peace of North Norfolk marshland, its pine woods and empty, shingled sand shores — “where river water meets the sea” — a place of solace and inspiration to which the book is dedicated.
Within three pages we are plunged into turmoil and trauma as her mother abandons her, with the ruthless complicity of her friends. “As the war ended my father disappeared, and my 1st stepfather appeared . . . my mother loved him, though he wanted to kill me.” The handsome, charming but angry Robert Kee, a recent prisoner of war who had become a publisher, found Nicky an obstacle in his way. And because she drove him mad he tried to strangle her. Aged two and a half, Nicky was put in a children’s home, then sent on to various boarding schools.
The narrative has a tone of cool objectivity, refusing any attempt to elicit our sympathy. Switching backwards and forwards in time, the story zig-zags to the now married Nicky during her five years spent in an ashram in India — a set-up she exposes for the fraud it was. Back in childhood, she is led to the bedside of the dying George Orwell, and discovers moments of kindness from the second-generation Bloomsbury couple Francis and Ralph Partridge in their house, Ham Spray, in Wiltshire. Around page 212 (pages are unnumbered to maintain artistic effect) the father re-emerges, encouraged to take his ten-year-old daughter on a trip in his boat to France. The images and text which follow, depicting sexual abuse, are too painful to describe. In one drawing the words “No, No No No” flying smaller and smaller from Nicky’s brow into gullet, heart and stomach, are repeated 13 times. In Paris, she finds safety and solace through her coloured crayons in a café and later through her own paints.
Janetta was a painter but she did not share her interest with her daughter. Colours were “laid out and clearly precious to her . . . [I] gathered that painting was clearly approved of . . . my interest in it was deemed the one good thing about me.” Indeed, Nicky had inherited her mother’s talent. She trained at Chelsea School of Art under Lawrence Gowing, and then at the Slade under Coldstream, at a time when teaching was still both rigorous and free. Gowing brought in teachers he admired — the artists Michael Wishart, Leon Kossoff and Craigie Atchison — and encouraged them to work alongside the students in the life classes.
In Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew, Maisie shuttles back and forth between her immoral and frivolous parents, who use her to intensify their hatred of each other, while abandoning all their responsibilities to the child. James’s novel is a harsh indictment of grown-ups who can’t be bothered, but also a touching portrait of a child who both knows and does not know.
From Nicky there is no condemnation or judgment as each stepfather explosively departs. Within all the hurt and pain, recorded in half-abstract images and portraiture, there are flashes of spiritual insight and uplifting drops of joy. The result is a courageous, gentle hymn to survival. I was at school and art school with Nicky, and can testify to the extraordinary charisma she exerted over all of us; but she never revealed the existential chasm beneath it, brought home to me only now, thanks to this deeply engaging book.
Over the decades Nicky Loutit’s paintings have been bought by a large band of admirers. Her private and sensitive personality has never sought promotion. If her galleries had acted with the professionalism of today’s Serota-style public relations, she would surely be more widely known. Through the unorthodox Propolis Publishing House, however, we now have an avenue to Nicky’s gentle sensibility. Public recognition of one of the foremost painters of our time will surely follow.