Stella Sampson: A Life in Art


(Mark Sampson) #1

My mother, Stella Sampson, was buried on the 22nd January in a small rural graveyard redolent of Thomas Hardy. I was given a five-minute slot during the service to tell the congregation about her life, her talents and her worries. This is the address I gave:


It's difficult to know where to start when it comes to my mother. I'm tempted to quote the famous words of one of my great heroes, Martin Luther King. Free at last! - because mother was always beset by demons and death brings an end to a lifetime's agitations.


Mother saw danger everywhere. I remember her ringing me up when I was a young man in Brighton to warn me of the lethal properties of kidney beans. I remember, too, the surprise I felt when I went back with my wife to Northern Ireland, where mother was probably at her happiest, to discover that it didn't take half a day to drive from Belfast to Newcastle, County Down. As kids during the 60s, we would pile into our father's car for a day out, prepared for an epic trip to the seaside punctuated by cries of B, don't go so fast! should the speedometer edge over 30 miles per hour.


Not too many years ago, I drove our mother to see my father in hospital in his VW Golf. Belting up promptly, she then took from her home-made shoulder bag a pair of wrap-around shades that looked like the property of Sly & The Family Stone. I looked at her aghast. Darling, I have to wear these to protect my eyes from shattering glass. As a driver, it didn't inspire you with confidence, but she was certainly prepared for any eventuality. There was also a hammer in the pocket of both doors, presumably to smash her way to freedom if my father or I rolled the car on a dangerous bend.


Poor mother. Such creative worrying must have worn her out. But then it came with the territory of an artistic temperament. The soundtrack for our childhood in Belfast would be underscored by the tap-tap-tap-PING! of her portable Olivetti typewriter as she hammered out some new carbon-copied manuscript behind the closed door of the parental bedroom. We knew only too well that you did not disturb the artist at work.


A very talented artist. Poet, novelist, memoirist and above all painter. It was like living in an art gallery, what with our mother's oil paintings and our paternal grandmother's watercolours. Strangely, they both went to Hornsey School of Art. The pity of it was that mother was born only a few short years after women were given the vote in this country. She was conditioned by a prevalent culture which didn't approve of fine art as a suitable career for a young middle-class lady. Had she been born more bohemian, she might have swapped the attempted role of Housewife Superstar for that of the artist in her garret.


I remember when a portrait of her gaunt long-haired eldest son was selected by the Royal Ulster Academy for its annual show. The exhibition was just across the road from the main gates of my school. So friends and acquaintances would wander in for a look and sometimes report back with a snigger. Far from embarrassed, I actually felt rather proud, because I never doubted the pedigree of her paintings. I thank her for giving me my love of art.


Literature, too. Her literary output was prodigious. Somehow she managed to bring up four children and produce full-length novels as well as the countless paintings. 'You children will be the death of me,' she used to tell us. I honestly don't think that it was our fault, but I'm quite sure that trying to answer the call of the artist while struggling to keep her deadly kids clean with the sole aid of her trusty spin-dryer and to feed us without any discernible culinary aptitude probably did contribute to the madness that would one day carry her off. 'Do you want your mother to end up in Purdysburn?' was another prophetic catchprhrase. Purdysburn being the name of the local psychiatric hospital.


In the latter part of her life, she gave up first the brush and then the typewriter to concentrate on her garden. Even then, the artist at work managed to create something small but perfectly formed. But her increasing obsession with war films suggested that she was never able to banish the trauma of the bombing raid on Exeter. Some form of dementia must have marked her card from an early age. Ultimately she found a form of comfort and happiness at the Laurel Bank nursing home, where the staff looked after her every need with such affection. My father would go up every day to sit with her and my sisters would be in frequent attendance. Finally, she was the centre of attention and when on good form she would reward visitors with some of the funniest monologues outside a music hall.


My witty brother pointed out a delicious irony that would I'm sure appeal to our mother's often mischievous sense of humour. We were discussing how our mother would have approved of the arrangements for her funeral. This lovely little church, the open field where she will be laid to rest, the biodegradable coffin to house her body. How appropriate, Miles suggested, that someone known to us affectionately as a basket case should be buried in a willow coffin.


Mother dear, those of us who by some miracle have survived the untold dangers of this world salute you. You left us so many memories and an incredible legacy of artistic work. I for one look forward to the challenge of editing your output and maybe finding you a publisher. And it would be lovely to think that the next time we all gather together to celebrate your life will be at a private view of a major retrospective of your paintings. We could call it: Stella Sampson, A Life in Art.


I concluded by reading her poem, 'John Clare', as a particularly fine example of an undiscovered talent. John Clare was a romantic poet of the 19th century. Troubled by mental problems throughout his life, he found it difficult to adapt to modern life, which (as he saw it) threatened to transform his beloved countryside. This poem was actually published by the South East Arts magazine, but true to form, my mum probably didn't see it as confirmation of her skills.


John Clare


Where, oh where


Is poor John Clare now?


Does reminiscence and despair still live


Beneath his brow?


Or, in some kinder place,


Care cast like clout,


Does he enjoy that holy state of grace


We hear so much about?



Here all remains the same:


The melancholy landscape that you knew


Needs nothing more from you,


It bears your name.


Oh, heartened now and then


By racing cloud or bending wheat,


Thrush and sweet curlew's call;


But sad withall.



John! John!


They are still here for you


To look upon.


The ones who will not speak of


Broken heart, but smile instead;


And take each gallant day


To lonely bed.



This same long, chilling winter


That you knew –


And John, John,


I am as mad as you.



Stella Sampson


(Mark Sampson) #2

Thank you, Sheila. And you, too, Stella. Sorry, I must have missed your comment.


(Sheila Walshe-Blackmore) #3

Beautiful. Thank you Mark.


(Mark Sampson) #4

Sorry, I meant your wee aunt lived to a brave wee age, so she did! My fingers going faster than my brain methinks (or vice versa).


(Mark Sampson) #5

Thank you, Stella. How interesting those sketches must have been. Clearly I need to be a little lateral in my thinking and come up with a suitable venue. I suspect the Belfast Royal Academy might love some of her street scenes. As they say in Norn Iron, your wee aunt lived to a wee brave age, so she did.


(Mark Sampson) #6

That's a very good idea, Peter. The thought had crossed my mind and we gave a couple of her pieces to the care home where she was looked after so well for a couple of years. I'm not sure whether the Tate would be interested, but maybe Romsey, Hants will have some kind of permanent collection. Even Southampton.


(Peter Bird) #7

How about donating some of her work(s) to a galllery or museum where they would be on permanent display for all to enjoy ? I don't think I could sell them if they had been done by my family, in fact our grandfather was a quite well known local artist and a few of his works have remained within the family. Grandad was the black sheep of the family, almost bohemian compared to the rest of us so his oils provide a great souvenir of a special guy.


(Mark Sampson) #8

Thank you Suzy, Peter and Stella for your kind comments. Suzy, I really hope to be able to organise an exhibition of my mum's work - maybe one in the UK and one here - but it raises the issue: could we ever let one go if someone wanted to buy one? In a way it would be lovely to sell one on her behalf, and she was prolific enough for us to spare one, two or however many, yet it would still be a wrench, because every single one has some kind of sentimental value to my father, my siblings and me. My first task is to try to get her children's book published, because the illustrations are so beautiful. It could fall into the Beatrix Potter niche market. All this makes me wonder, though, why on earth didn't we think of it earlier? I guess it was because my mother never wanted to make a fuss, so it kind of put you off doing anything. Ho hum. C'est la vie, n'est ce pas. The irony and even the tragedy. Peter, I suspect she's gone to a better place. I'm not a believer, myself, but it was terrible to see her confined latterly to a bed and an armchair - even in a caring care home. Bon fin de semaine!


(suzy davis) #9

Very moving Mark,she was a beautiful lady.Being of a later generation I managed to combine family life and my career as an artist/illustrator.My son recently moved out and asked to take one of my paintings with him,it meant more to me that he wanted a painting than any that I've sold. I hope you manage to get together all her work for an expo.


(Peter Bird) #10

Sounds like a remarkable lady Mark. Freedom probably comes to us in many forms . My good lady discovered her freedom from pain and suffering a few years back and the mental torment is happily a thing of the past for your mum. Have they gone to a better place ? I suppose it's the one thing we can hope for, if you believe in that kind of thing of course.


(Mark Sampson) #11

Thank you, Jane. I think she knew, but you could never really be sure. I hope so.


(Jane Williamson) #12

Mark, I do hope ypur Mum knew how much she was appreciated and recognised for the wonderful woman she evidently was.
A Mum to be proud of.