Scoop Review of Books

The Sketching of a Poet’s Life

Sylvia Plath: Drawings introduced by Frieda Hughes (Faber 2013)

Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

Sylvia Plath: famous as a poet, a poet’s wife, and for taking her own life, but never famous for her artwork. Two years ago, 44 of her drawings were exhibited in London’s Mayor Gallery and all but one sold, the drawing of Ted Hughes being withdrawn from sale by Plath and Hughes’ daughter Frieda. It’s these 44 drawings that compose this book, edited and introduced by Frieda, who writes a fair three-page summary of Plath’s sketching and drawing life, saying “art was always an important element of my mother’s life”.
The drawings, most of them dated (1955-1957), are mainly illustrative style pen and ink sketches presented in four sections relating to the countries of their execution: England, France, Spain and the USA. The first section starts with a letter from Plath to husband Ted, the next two with a letter to her mother, the final section with a journal entry; only the latter does not mention her drawing, although it has plenty of word pictures for story ideas.

Is the lyricism I find in some of Plath’s drawings really there? Or is it that I bring thoughts of her poetry into my judgement? There may be some lyricism in the original scenes, such as Wuthering Heights Today (1956), or Colourful Kiosque near Louvre (1956); the latter title ironic in its black line execution. Small the drawings may be (ranging from about 7 x 10cm to about 21 x 14cm), but on the whole the pen moves tightly inside these margins and depicts solitary floating objects, not in any context – a furled umbrella, a walnut, a kettle. The most successful drawings cover the whole page and bleed from the edges to allow our imaginations to carry on the process – such as the two named above. Unfinished drawings, such as Study of a Seated Figure (c. 1957) and Sketch of Restaurant Interior, tantalise. All the drawings are technically well-executed, but I have seen NCEA art folders with drawings of equal standard and I doubt much would have been made of this collection if these had not been Plath’s drawings.
Maybe Ted Hughes’ poem Drawing, written after her death, tells us something about Plath’s need to draw:

Drawing calmed you. Your poker infernal pen
Was like a branding iron. Objects
Suffered into their new presence, tortured
Into final position.

Many of Plath’s subjects appear ordinary – a wood stove, a lunchbox with thermos flask – but her own magical view of the ordinary is evidenced in the title of The Pleasure of Odds and Ends 2 (1957), which depicts an upturned wheelbarrow, a tyre, a wooden chest, a coal range and a wooden shed, all in states of abandoned disrepair. If only she had chosen to merely draw that gas oven, we might have had more great writing from her.
An attractive little book (21 x 23cm, 68 pages) that nicely accommodates Plath’s drawings, this is more likely to be of interest to aficionados of her writing than to art lovers.