Eileen McHugh – A Life Remade
Eileen McHugh – a life remade – is a novel about a sculptor whose creative life ended in the 1970s. She left no work, but now an archive of her notes and sketches has come into the possession of Mary Reynolds, who is determined to resurrect the artist’s life and reconstruct her work. She contacts people who knew Eileen as a child and as a student in London. She follows the artist on a hippie trip to Thailand. Via these partial memories, she recreates the artist and her work.
Let us imagine an artist who struggled to complete anything, left near-unintelligible notes and was probably incompetent in the use of materials. This was an artist who found any focus hard to maintain, who seemed to dabble in multiple forms and spread apparently undisciplined attention so thinly across a multitude of whim-driven activities that hardly any project came to fruition. Picture a corpus of surviving works that only just creeps into double figures, some of which are dubiously attributed, while others may have been reworked by other hands. And imagine a signature work so incompetently produced it is literally disintegrating whilst, in that same room on a facing wall, there exists another work, largely unknown, by a different artist, who has remained almost anonymous, despite producing something that is arguably as beautiful and technically superior to its neighbour. If asked to assess, how might contemporary viewers, coming to this body of work for the first time, judge its worth or its creator’s achievement?
And how might we judge another artist who has left just one work, which exists only in reproduction as a contemporary photograph, taken in the few moments the work existed? But this artist, we now discover, left a variety of notes, descriptions and indications of materials to be used that are sufficient to reconstruct lost works. Is it not our duty to remake this life’s work, to recreate this legacy that might enrich lives, change perceptions and reinterpret experience? This artist is called Eileen McHugh. The previous, unfocused incompetent was called Leonardo da Vinci.
But where might I begin to remake the life and work of an artist like Eileen? We have no works, no studies or even failed projects awaiting reassembly. We know little of her undocumented life, whose destination remained unknown even to her own mother. But we all leave our own marks on time. Identifying them is the challenge, and then describing them becomes possible. Once reassembled, we might then remake Eileen McHugh’s life and reconstruct her works to enrich our collective experience. But where to start?
London, of course, changed everything.