Growing up Without Requiem for Stephen

In the main, up to the point where my PhD research started, my perceptions of Agnes were built on my knowing her as an elderly woman. Moreover, with her passing away when I was only nine, my perspectives were formed through my relationship as a young girl to her grandmother. There were certain silences which remained impenetrable and difficult for me at the time to make sense of; with other family members seeming to understand references and significances; things which I learned at a later stage from my mother centred upon the death of Agnes’ son – my father’s brother and my uncle – Stephen, aged seven, from leukaemia.

 

The death of a family sibling was reality located outside of anything I connected with my grandparents or, indeed, my father. As a young child I am sure it was something, which would have been difficult to explain, to introduce the idea that I had an uncle who had died as a child. From conversations had with my parents now, there was no sense of morbidity about retelling the story, and whilst it wasn’t purposely concealed they felt that it was one, which never seemed needed to be dwelled upon.

 

I remember a few years after my grandmother’s death when I came across some photographs of paintings, which my father had done at Art College as a young man. Reading the titles - Requiem for Stephen - I realised that they must have been made by my father in response to Stephen’s death. What instantly struck me about the pictures was that I hadn’t really seen such direct references to Stephen’s death before in his work. The paintings formed a triptych, and through each panel I started to read a story, which although aware of the circumstances, had so far been untold to me by my father. 

 

There was so much wrapped up in the imagery, completely overwhelming me with the sense of sorrow, which must have lain under the surface of this family – a family which I feel it is important to stress, showed no signs of this pain within general daily company.

As I thought about my father’s silence I made the decision in my mind that it must have been too difficult for him to vocalize and that in many ways it was an experience, which he wanted to somehow guard me from. In the painting – in the central panel – it is only Stephen in his coffin and my father praying over him. As I looked at this, I wanted to allow them this space together, to protect the privacy that they shared in the composition.

It was many years later when I started to feel the tugs of this story on me again. It was my final year of Art College and I was gradually aware of the fact that it would have been around this time that my father painted ‘Requiem for Stephen’. Moreover, as I had chosen to study in the same school as my father, I was located within the same part of the building in which he would have created the work twenty-five years prior.

 

Significantly, this work, after the degree show was finished, was packed away and stored as I contemplated life post-university. I felt it had been expressed in a form, which had resolve for this moment. For now, I was to move on to other things.

 

 

[1] At the time I was doing this in order to create a specific sculptural space and aesthetic though would now assert as an engagement of a performance within the space.