In Conversation with Suzan Swale

Our series of interviews with long-serving Group members continues with the indefatigable Suzan Swale and her memories of college, passion for painting and orange peel bikinis.

Photograph Derek Rowe Ltd 3729-17

I’d always been good at art at school and so I wanted to be a painter from an early age. When I was 14, I did a painting of a circus and won a Fry’s painting competition. The prize was this big hamper of Fry’s chocolate.

I went to grammar school, but I used to play truant. My mum and dad wanted me to get a proper job, go to university not art college. But I was really keen to go to art college, so I left home when I was 15 and lived in a squat in Derby. I don’t regret leaving home, that saved my life. I didn’t go back until I was 23.

After a year at Derby College of Art, I got into West of England College of Art, to do Fine Art. The head of painting Paul Feiler used to walk into the art studios and say ‘I am the shepherd and you are my sheep’ and we all used to groan. But I was very fond of him, he always gave me strange stuff to read, by authors like Dostoyevsky, and Thornton Wilder.

I loved being at Bristol. I lived in Clifton, shared really massive old flats as I never had any money, and I couldn’t really do much. But we used to get up through the skylights and onto the big roofs of those houses, and walk all the way to The Greyhound Pub, or down West Mall. We could see for miles. We were mostly drunk.

I was always quite political. In my final year, 1968, I took part in a sit-in and nearly got chucked out. But all my tutors thought getting into the RCA after a background like mine with no support was quite something: they’d never got anyone else in there, so they didn’t get rid of me. In the RCA interview they’d deliberately hung my paintings upside down, so I had to get up and sort them out. I told them that they had got to take me, they couldn’t afford not to. And I got in.

Ruskin Spear and I got on well. If our crit was in the afternoon he’d be a bit drunk. I often had to help him up the stairs to my studio, and he’d make himself comfortable by taking off his wooden leg. Sandra Blow used to tell me all about her skiing holidays and her boyfriend – we never did a proper crit together. Peter Blake was supposed to be my tutor, but I never saw him. It was a strange thing, nobody ever taught me, they just said my work was great: I was crying out for some criticism. But Carel Weight was kind, he used to put a fiver in my jeans pocket when he came to my studio, and he gave me paint. Once I went to see him in his studio and he thought I looked cold, so he handed me a pair of gloves. I won three awards while I was there, but I always thought they made me win them because I didn’t have any money.

Being hard up, I used to do some modelling here and there. I was in South Ken once and walked passed a poster of me, wearing a bikini made out of orange peel. The girl modelling with me was Marc Bolan’s girlfriend, also wearing an orange peel bikini. I realised that I could do that kind of work and could make £200 in a day modelling. But I did lots of other awful jobs like being a barmaid, working in restaurants, and I had to really gear myself up to work. I was always totally tired out when I got to college in the morning.

I got run over on the Fulham Road jay walking just before my degree show, the car went right over both my legs. So I was on crutches and wearing a long Biba dress for my show. My father turned up, he was proud of my work. He used to call me a commie, and I’d call him a fascist and we’d laugh about it. I loved my dad, and I miss him, he was a very special person. My mother always wanted me to paint woods full of bluebells but I never did.

I didn’t get into the London Group first time round, the secretary dropped my slides and they all got muddled up. I always saw the LG as opposite to the RA, a much better alternative, more open and less stuffy. And I was guaranteed a show every year. I was still very young when I did get in, and back then it was more like a drinking men’s club, male dominated and short on diversity. Im really glad its moved forward.

Once I start painting I can’t stop, actually I’m obsessed with painting. I do have gaps when I don’t paint, and sit and think about it, but I do have long, long runs when I’m just churning stuff out. I love using colour. I like to use it in many different ways, it’s one of the reasons I still paint I suppose. My work’s changed a lot. There was a point when I could have become an abstract painter, and I have done a lot of abstract, colour field type stuff. I like drawing, so that did it for me. But I like all kinds of artforms, and I feel obliged to dip my fingers in loads of different types of art. I’m just not precious about one kind of work over another. My work is still very political, from Brixton riots to anti-nuke stuff, anything that’s happening.

I also do a lot of writing, I’m trying to write a novel about being an art student and female artist, but I find it really difficult to paint and write at the same time. I edit and re-edit what I write, and do the same with my painting – I drive myself crazy. When Robert (Suzan’s husband) first met me, we were living together in Tony Eyton’s basement flat, which was also my studio. I’d sit up suddenly in bed and say something like ‘do you think that blue’s right there?’

I’ve always worked hard, never had times when I haven’t, and at the end of the day, it’s been the thing that has kept me sane. Earlier this year I had a cardiac arrest out of the blue, and was admitted to hospital during Covid. I was on a ventilator in an induced coma. I think it was to do with stress, so maybe I shouldn’t be doing as much as I’ve been doing. But when I came round, I kept noticing stuff and writing things to myself to remember this and explore that.

I once said I will never teach, never get married and never have any kids, but I’ve done all three. My most reassured possession, apart from my kids, is the fact that I’m still here.

Suzan Swale LG was in conversation with Claire Parrish, 2020

Suzan Swale trained at Derby College of Art; West of England College of Art and the Royal College of Art and has been exhibiting since 1969. Painting is the backbone of Suzan’s practice. She has also made installations, videos, photos and mixed media works. She was elected to The London Group in 1984. She served on the working committee for 35 years and is a member The Exhibition Sub-committee.

Suzan Swale is represented by Felix and Spear Modern British and Contemporary Art. Upcoming exhibitions include Felix and Spear in 2021 and in an exhibition of female artists at Tate Britain in 2022-23.