There’s a remarkable exhibition running for another week at the Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham. For something like seven years from the late sixties Eleanor Brooks, then living in Kentish Town in north London, employed Eva Spinks, a marginalised older woman, as her artist’s model. Spinks, an abrasive, unstable, even quite scary, character, who had been born in Haringey in 1899, originally knocked on Brooks’ door looking for work. Finding her unreliable as either nanny or cleaner Brooks asked Spinks to sit for her, which she did largely on her own terms, talking constantly, dressing as she pleased, and posing as she chose. She lived precariously, never holding a job for more than a few days, and constantly on the move as her domestic habits alienated fellow-tenants and landlords.
Brooks produced watercolours, pastels, charcoal drawings and oil paintings, before making a number of sculptures, and a dramatic installation of Spinks watching a colour TV in her chaotic, cramped, bedsit. There is now also a DVD, which includes footage both of Spinks, and of the younger Brooks reminiscing and reflecting on the work and the relationship. A book is also available, transcribed from Spinks’ monologues which Brooks recorded during the sittings. Speaking at the gallery in March Brooks explained how she felt she had never quite graduated to abstraction, the prevailing mode in the male-dominated art-world of her time. Instead, in her willingness to accept a symbiotic relationship with her sitter, and partly inspired by Ed Kienholz, she became innovative instead in her use of mixed media. Brooks thus anticipated contemporary themes of co-production in creative activity, and masquerade in later life identity.
Many of the pictures are very fine indeed. With a handful of earlier photographs, they help document a compelling, conflicted, character. In 1973, when first exhibited, Brooks’ work would have linked to the preoccupation with ‘madness’ and the rising concern for the rights of mental health patients. In some ways fastidious and lady-like, Spinks had had a lobotomy and a rough life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She was often insanitary, wore men’s shoes, and refused to cut her toe-nails. Brooks feels with better fortune she could have been a successful actress. As a ‘character’ Eva Spinks might link to Davies in Harold Pinter’s play ‘The Caretaker’ from 1960, while, in her own responses, Brooks anticipated some themes from Doris Lessing’s novel ‘Diaries of Jane Somers’, published in 1984. Now in her eighties, Brooks would like to see the exhibition installed permanently somewhere. I would strongly support such an initiative. This is an opportunity to recognise in her work an underrated artist who was well ahead of her time, and to acknowledge, in the warts and all biography of Spinks, an excluded woman who saw her chance and took it when she could.
Mrs Spinks Speaks by Eleanor Brooks and Eva Spinks is published by Rugosa Press at £7.99. The exhibition A Portrait of Mrs Spinks continues until April 8th 2013, Wednesday to Sunday 1-5pm, at Bruce Castle Museum, Lordship Lane, London, N17 8NU.