If, after the death of a relative or loved one, you’ve ever had to empty their home of its contents, you’ll know what the phrase “house clearance” can mean. In the case of Fay Ballard’s current exhibition, it also refers to a meticulously-executed collection of detailed drawings – studies of objects from a once-inhabited space. Bit by bit, vision by vision, phase by phase, the show explores and externalises the artist’s grief at the death of her father: the writer of speculative fiction, J.G. Ballard, who died in 2009.
It was his house, the former family home in Shepperton, that provided the source material. On the afternoon of the exhibition launch, Fay led a crowd of interested visitors on a room-by-room tour of her work, through the appropriately rambling series of rooms at &Model Gallery in Leeds, where she began explaining the beginnings of her fascination with the place she had grown up in, but long since left. “The point was that my father over the years preferred people not to visit him at the house,” Fay explained, standing in front of a yukka tree that used to belong to her father, and which became another character in the story. She was looking at a drawing called Farewell, depicting her father staring out through an open upstairs window towards the viewer. “For the last 15 years, from 2008 back, I had not visited my house. And nor had any of my family. We would meet Daddy in town. He’d say, Oh let’s go to a Chinese restaurant. Or, There’s a great Thai round the corner. Or, I’ll come and see you. You can’t come to Shepperton, it’s too messy.”
But J.G. Ballard had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004 and had been given five years to live. By 2008, he was so frail he decided to move in with his girlfriend Claire, and asked Fay to collect him in her car. “Now I still had my key that I had as a teenager. So on the day that he said come and get me, I drove to Shepperton and let myself in with the key. And it was an extraordinary moment because nothing had changed. The yukka –this is nothing compared with what it was – this was in the nursery. This is a 1930s house – and the front room overlooking the street was called the nursery. We used to play there as kids, we had the television there. And before my first term at university I bought my dad this yukka from Marks and Spencers in Brighton. He immediately started feeding it whole bottles of Baby Bio that he’d get from the petrol station. It was in a large pot, pushing through the net curtains, trying to get the light, it had so many heads it was a fantastic sight.”
You can’t help thinking about some of the imagery in her father’s books when you hear that.
Fay went on to describe the origin of the photograph she copied to create Farewell: “I went into the garden and took a photograph of my Dad, which for me was a big moment because this was my revisit to the house, and this was his farewell to the house.” Describing details, she added, “That red chair was a chair his mother had brought back from Shanghai. That pale yellow thing obscuring his legs – that’s an Eduardo Paolozzi print that he must have used as a draught excluder.”
There is a certain amount of trauma at the root of these drawings, which started with a series looking back at her mother, who died unexpectedly, of pneumonia, on a family holiday when Fay was seven, in 1964.
“Very suddenly my mother wasn’t feeling very well,” Fay explained, “I can remember her being extremely ill, she had a fever, she borrowed a fan I had, I remember a doctor rushing in with an oxygen cylinder, and then I remember my father said, Go out, go out. And I remember thinking My mother is dying. I think you know, in a way, when it’s happening. Anyhow, she died, my father came out of the room, called the three of us [Fay, her brother and sister], hugged us tightly, and said, She’s dead. I remember him crying in despair, What do I do now? I remember the funeral, which we all went to. We drove back to England… and then we never discussed her again in our family.” The drawings Fay made show some of those significant objects linked with her mother: one, called ‘Mother Reinstated’, combines her portrait with a study of the lower half of her body, seated, wearing black stilettos and with a black handbag on the ground. “This was where the creative process started,” Fay says, “I started to make drawings of my mother to reclaim her. To make her evident. And to some extent, to idolise her. I try and make her very beautiful. Because she is my Madonna”. Despite this, or because of it, Fay says, “My father was a brilliant father, he was the most maternal person you could imagine. He was mummy and daddy.”
Some of the most haunting works Fay presents are in a recent series called ‘His Trace’, which show close-up views of very ordinary, slightly knocked-about nooks and crannies and objects, combined with handwritten text at the foot of each drawing. The handle of an armchair, for instance, says Watching Hawaii Five O and the Rockford Files. “It’s the little things,” Fay says, “The smell of a kitchen cupboard, the remembrance of a stair bannister, that resonate with me. And what I wanted to do was capture that with a thought…such as the chair my dad sat in when we watched The Rockford Files. I see my father there.”
The largest works are called ‘Memory Boxes’ – drawings of objects collected together and framed. One box, for instance, is ‘Drawn From Memory’ and another, matching it, ‘Drawn From Life’. “I was reading about Renaissance cabinets of curiosity,” Fay says, “And I was thinking these are my wonders, and I thought about these objects stirring emotion and personal thought.” ‘Drawn From Life’ includes the drawing of a letter sent by the police, about the misbehaviour of the family dog. “Our dog loved escaping and one day we got a phone-call from the police to say the dog was arrested and in a cell for causing havoc in the street and stopping all the traffic. And my dad said to me There is no way I am going to get that dog. And it was my dog so the responsibility was for me to get the dog. He was fined 65p. ‘For restoration of dog’.”
The most powerful work in the show is a pair of drawings, ‘Omen’ (i) and (ii). These are copies, much enlarged, of two small black and white photographs showing Fay as a baby, with her parents, in Chiswick Gardens. In one, her mother holds her, in the other, her father. Behind them, in both photos, is a stone sphinx. “My parents were consciously taking a photo of each other with me, with the sphinx,” Fay says, “And then I thought about the sphinx: a man-eating beast which killed anyone who couldn’t solve its riddle. And I thought, my mother [when the photo was taken] was going to die in seven years. This is quite a disturbing picture, really. And what’s interesting is these pictures have inserted themselves into my memory.”
Downstairs, in the gallery’s front window, there’s another ‘Memory Box’, called ‘About My Father’. It contains a drawing of a Johnnie Walker Whiskey bottle, labelled in the accompanying inventory, “Father’s daily drink during artist’s childhood, starting after breakfast”, plus his carpet sweeper, plus the yukka plant and a drawing of his first email, from 2003. It ends: Now I find I haven’t got a stamp to put on this letter but now Clare tells me I don’t need a stamp. That’s progress. A letter sent to Fay at Sussex University is also comic, and touching, including the lines: Lovely to talk to you last night dear. Delighted everything is going so well.. here’s a cheque for £30, I hope it’s enough. If not, let me know and I’ll send you some more. “But what I really love,” Fay said, reading it out loud: “Make sure you eat well and keep warm.”
House Clearance visualises a process most of us go through, at some time in our lives: how to come to terms with the loss of our parents. But it is in the unique details about her parents in particular that Fay’s work speaks volumes. “It’s me trying to work out what was my past,” she says, “I’ve had an absent mother, a father who was a very well-known figure, and I’m here. And I’ve got to make sense of it all.”
Fay Ballard: House Clearance continues at &Model until 30 May.
Image: Fay Ballard, Farewell, 2013. Pencil, coloured pencil and watercolour on Fabriano paper 100 x 70 cm. Image Courtesy the artist.
Image inset: Fay Ballard: House Clearance installation view, 2015. Image courtesy &Model.
Image inset: Fay Ballard in conversation with Derek Horton, 2015. Image courtesy &Model.
Bob Dickinson is a writer and broadcaster based in Manchester.