In a bedroom studio at her tumbledown cottage in Kent, Rose Wylie is correcting me. “No, it’s not a swan,” she says, as we stand in front of one of her bold and utterly distinctive paintings. “It’s a white heron.”
The heron I mistook for a swan is being carried on the back of a purple horse, through a flat plane slashed with black vertical lines, and the 83-year-old painter has labelled each figure in black capital letters.
The painting, like much of her work, is both contemporary and strangely archaic. Herons, Wylie tells me, were once revered as representatives of truth (“the long beak could needle out the real story”), and she equates her work with the images that in antiquity were “painted on cave and temple walls”. Yet look at the animals, shock-haired women and movie stars that populate her playful canvases and it’s clear that the present generation of artists owes something to Wylie’s influence – not least the potter and tapestry-maker Grayson Perry. “Well, he’s never said that to me,” she says.
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That influence is only going to get stronger, as Wylie is now getting her own Imagine… special. “When I got the call, I thought, ‘Crikey, what’s going on here?’ In my mind, Imagine… is for big names – for Bob Dylan and Philip Roth.”
There are other accolades: to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, Wylie, like Perry, has a whole London street decorated with banners bearing her work. “He’s got Piccadilly, I’ve got Bond Street,” she says. And she has just been made an OBE.
A few days before we meet she was presented with the South Bank Sky Arts Award for the Visual Arts by Germaine Greer, the woman who first brought Wylie to public attention with a laudatory piece in The Guardian in 2010. Before that, Wylie was unknown and, for 20 years, she didn’t paint at all.
Wylie went to art school in the 1950s, before marrying the painter Roy Oxlade (who died in 2014) and bringing up their three children while supporting Oxlade’s career. Then, in the late 1970s, she says, “Suddenly, I began to paint.” Free, for two decades, from any personal concern about making an artwork fashionable or successful, she “painted without any consideration of what is wanted or what is bought. I was simply painting for me.”
Age has had little effect on Wylie’s output, but she did have to change technique 18 years ago. “I used to paint on the floor, then I changed to the wall after I fell down the stairs at a friend’s house – I had two hip replacements. That’s why my earlier work, done on the floor, has puddles, and my later work, done on the wall, has drips.”
Wylie is not an abstract artist; she observes the real world and reports back with the directness of her own vision. One of her works shows the rooster symbol of Tottenham Hotspur facing off with the cannon of Arsenal. She says she isn’t annoyed when her work is criticised as childlike – it’s merely a misunderstanding of what art is. “Some people think painting is about stark reality. In fact, it’s about poetry and transformation.”
If Rose Wylie’s late career blossoming tells us anything, it’s this – no matter how late you think it might be, it’s never too late. “Make the best of what you’ve got,” she says. “Wear what you want, paint what you want and do what you want.”
Imagine… airs on BBC1 at 10.30pm on Sunday 22nd July