A London Story: Polly, the ‘Jobbing Artist’
Some time back I posted about trying to find the author of a book I owned as a teenager.
The author’s brilliant first novel ‘Here (Away From It All)’ received wide praise from Anthony Burgess, the New York Times and others, but when I tried to track her down the trail ended in Australia. When I asked readers of The Independent to help me locate her, I received a letter which began; ‘My first husband came across your piece about Maryann Forrest, asking if anyone knows where she is. Yes I know, for I am she.’
I visited her, real name Polly Hope, to discover that she was a polymath, a writer, visual artist and opera librettist, living in London’s Spittalfields, where she had thrived for forty years in her art-filled studio house, along with four dogs, a cat, chickens and friends, and an opera-shaped henhouse.
She had adopted an alias to write the novel. Polly was living in Greece during the period of the military junta, and would very likely have faced deportation upon the book’s publication. She covered her tracks so successfully that her three books were tough to find, but she had an unfinished novel waiting, so I asked publishers to rediscover her uniquely powerful voice. The book was astonishing but there were no takers. ‘Not the sort of thing that sells right now’, I was told – probably because it was erudite and had a good story to tell.
Polly’s work graces public buildings like the Globe Theatre and the Barbican, and she has created a huge range of art. Although she exhibited all over the world, she referred to herself as ‘a jobbing artist’.
One Midsummer’s Eve she threw a zodiac concert party at home filled with the kind of English eccentrics I thought had all but vanished, and gave sunflowers to the cast, accompanied by a three-legged dog. Whenever I visited her I was reminded why I still love London.
With my encouragement she republished the first book herself online (at the age of 80), then in hardcover, painting a fresh cover, and made it available to the public once more. Last week I planned to visit her for one of our regular get-togethers to complain about the parlous state of the artist in modern life, where she would serve tea, wine or a meal every lunchtime for whoever was passing through the area (she had staff – who has staff now?) and discovered that after a brief illness she had died.
I looked at the new version of the book she created. Inside is a dedication; ‘To Chris for finding me.’
London is less colourful without her.
The book can be found here.