Sarah Raphael and a Father’s Pride and Grief

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Frederic Raphael has produced novels, plays, television and film screenplays, scholarly works and magazine and newspaper articles. But the reason I meet him in the basement of the Marborough Fine Art Gallery is to discuss his daughter, the artist Sarah Raphael, who died aged 40 in 2001. The gallery is hosting a major retrospective of her work to coincide with the publication of her biography by William Packer, artist and former art critic of the Financial Times.  

“Don’t be afraid to speak up because my hearing is not all that good,” Frederic says with a grin. “My hearing is not as good as my vanity.” It soon becomes apparent that laughter is important to him, and it accompanies many memories of his daughter. Indeed, when I ask how Sarah would have liked to be remembered, he responds: “The first word I wanted to say to you was funny…the evocation of a smile in the work, even in the serious work, is part of what it is to be an artist who is full of life rather than against it.”

Sarah was the middle child of Frederic and Sylvia, his wife of 58 years, to whom he affectionately refers as “Beetle”. Sarah was their only daughter of three children. Soon after her birth in 1960, the Raphaels moved to the Greek island of Ios. Several of the sketches displayed at Marlborough are of Ios, as well as the beautifully vivid and textually stunning painting That Place-Ios (1993). Frederic smiles as he recalls how Sarah always referred to Ios as “that place”. Today, in the Raphaels’ house in Ios there is a painting by Sarah of a shelf with pots and other things which is so vivid that Frederic claims one almost “reaches up to put things alongside them”.

As a very young child, Sarah looked at things closely, and Frederic stresses how she was very mimetic. “If you showed her things which were worth looking at, she then tried to do things that were worth looking at.” He recalls her on the beach in Ios in 1963, drawing donkeys in the sand. Later that year, Frederic took the children to the archaeological site at Mycenae where the famous Gate of Lions stands. He told them stories of King Agamemnon and the Achaean heroes. When they returned to the hotel, Sarah drew lean lions, not donkeys. “She acquired very quickly an onsite knowledge of how to portray things.”

After moving back to England, the Raphaels spent the summer holidays in their old farmhouse in the wooded hills above St Laurent-la Vallée in the Dordogne. Sarah would go out and paint with Frederic and the neo-Romantic painter, writer and sculptor Michael Ayrton, a family friend. They were painting on a hillside when Ayrton said to Frederic, “I suspect she’s going to be better than me.” Later, he turned to Sarah and said: “We can go now, you’ve done the landscape, you don’t need to keep looking at it.” But Sarah refused to leave, and continued painting.

The show contains a vast array of styles, from her textually vibrant and stunning painting The Desert Cross (I) (1994) to her Strip! sequence, large grid-based works packed with tiny shapes and images. “She did certain things to feel them through and when she got to the end of that she went on to the next thing, not because she didn’t know what to do, but because there was a certain jive which eventually arrived at a certain originality.” This originality, Frederic believes, stems in part from her sense of “unity”, which enabled her eye to impose order on chaos. This, he argues, is what differentiates an artist from an amateur, however good.

Sarah was also a much in-demand portrait painter. Her portraits of Clive James (1991) and The Guardian Women (1993-94) are in the National Portrait Gallery. The Marlborough exhibition contains many portraits, including the haunting Joe and the Freak (1985), as well as a charming sketch of her father (Fred, 1997). Sarah didn’t paint her parents much. “She didn’t want us to get old. She wanted us to stay young, and that way she would stay young. She wanted us all to be frozen in time. Sarah had a fear of death. She didn’t want us to die.” With a pained look, he pauses. “As usual with God and his curious ways, it wasn’t we who died on that occasion.” 

Frederic talks about Sarah’s Jewishness. She did a sequence of drawings called Pyndyat (1990), which are “responses to Russian anti-Semitism”. Frederic recalls how the nun and art critic Sister Wendy Beckett wrote an article on Sarah’s painting The Villagers (1990) claming that “it was a Christian painting and Sarah was extremely displeased…and wrote to her and to anybody else who would listen that she had nothing to do with Christianity and that the woman should stop being so intuitive and actually look at the work rather than impose her own imprint on it.” 

Sarah suffered from terrible migraines. “She loved life”, but “the pain became very great and she did sort of, in the end, become over-borne by the pain, at least when it was hurting.” She became dependent on the morphine-based drug pethidine. This led to a battle with addiction that resulted in a long spell in the Priory Hospital, London. “You have to understand that Sarah was married when she was 23, she had children, and we were there when we were wanted, but we were careful not to be there when we weren’t wanted. In other words, I don’t think we entirely knew what was going on. And quite candidly, I don’t see why we should have.” Frederic gently implies that she was too enthusiastically prescribed drugs to treat her migraines, but he acknowledges: “There was a recklessness about her. Byron said that no one had ever lived faster than he did, but Sarah made a pretty good shot at it.” To emphasise this, he lists her vast output, three children, and, with a resigned sigh, “pain”. 

In the last years of her life, when she had really bad migraine attacks, she struggled to paint. This is why she created the Strip! paintings, since she could do a little bit and then resume work again, which wasn’t possible with her larger oil paintings. The outcome is original and sublime artwork. Indeed, her art teacher from Camberwell School of Arts went so far as to say: “If this work is the result of the migraines, then I can’t be sorry that you have them.”

Frederic recalls one occasion “when Sarah was taking whatever she was taking, and in the middle of the night, fell down a very long flight of stairs. We were phoned at three in the morning, she’d been taken to hospital. This was three or four years before she died.” He and Beetle thought it “was the worst that was going to happen, but it wasn’t. That’s why I mention that story. She fell off roofs, terraces, she did all kinds of stuff, and she was OK. So in a way, we thought nothing was going to happen.”

Sarah died after contracting pneumonia in January 2001. She had called an ambulance after taking her daughters to school and was admitted to hospital as an emergency. Abscesses developed on the lung, and she died of septicaemic shock.

“Painters are a funny lot,” Frederic remarks. “The other great Raphael was dead when he was 38,” he says half-seriously. “An awful lot of them die very young.”

The new biography and retrospective fill him with “pride and grief”. He adds: “It is what the work deserves and is part of our inadequate response to her not being here.

“People should relish the work. There is something more than a visual experience with Sarah’s work, there is a sort of imprint. A true artist’s work is stained with something. Every piece is stained with something which decorators and commissioned persons of all kinds can never manage. All of Sarah’s work carries that strange sense of admiration and menace of the world, which, God knows, I think is a pretty accurate vision of it.”

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"