March 27, 2023

Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings at The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street

For someone who died at only 30, Sylvia Plath left behind a formidable body of work.  Not only her precise, intense, painful and beautiful poetry, but a powerful and moving novel, her compelling, extraordinary journals, her surprisingly optimistic letters and her underrated but excellent short stories. She also liked drawing. This exhibition, containing 43 of Plath’s drawings, mostly from 1956 when she would have been 23-24, is a rare chance to see her work in this area. Since all of the drawings were for sale, all but one had sold by the time I visited. It’s probable you will never have a chance to see many of these again.

I’m sure many will be disappointed that Plath’s artworks aren’t tormented, aren’t filled with foreboding and most of all aren’t reflections of her greatest poetry. But they are technically proficient, quiet, charming, and precise. She obviously enjoyed what she was doing, and it finds her when she was perhaps at her happiest, around the time she got married to Ted Hughes. Some of the drawings were actually done on their honeymoon in France. Others were drawn in England, Spain, and in the USA, occasionally on scraps of paper, mostly in pen and ink. There is, as in her writings, a sense of detachment here; where people appear, they are in the distance or drawn from the back, but most of the drawings are of buildings or objects. The only break from this detachment is in the figure of a cat, peeping around a corner.

Perhaps the real value of Plath’s drawings is that they challenge to an extent this idea of her as the tormented artist, the mythology that has grown up around her in the years since she took her own life in 1963. She wasn’t in perpetual misery, tortured and struggling throughout all her days, her only expression in the words she somehow brought out from the chaos of her agony. But there is no doubting that all of her work is forever shadowed by what happened to her and also how she expressed the pain of being alive in those final weeks and months before she died. She has become in many ways a romantic figure, a tragic figure, made beautiful and timeless in the power of her poetry. Again very different from the reality of how she was, as portrayed by, for example, Al Alvarez, who described her as a woman with “a long, rather flat body, a longish face, not pretty but alert…” The drawings allow us to see a little more of the world as seen by this awkward, sweet, incredibly talented woman who had so much more to give to the world than was ever recognised in her lifetime. Yet she left us with much more than most of us will ever achieve. And for that, for the bright shining light that burned out too quickly, we have to give thanks.

It says something that further on down the road, the gallery showing the dismal, soulless paintings and doodlings of Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood was packed with people. Whereas at the Plath exhibition, tucked away in the back of a gallery, there was only me. It also says something that the most expensive original drawing by Plath was £4000, the same price as a signed print at the Wood exhibition. Perhaps a fool and his money are easily parted. Or perhaps some things are, or at least should be, beyond monetary value. Let’s hope each and every one of her drawings has found a home that will treasure and appreciate it. They deserve to.


Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings

The Mayor Gallery, Cork St, London

2 November – 17 December 2011


by Shaun Johnson

3 Comments on Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings at The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street

  1. The optimistic Plath indeed. As I try to show in my forthcoming biography, American Isis: the life and Death of Sylvia Plath, her letters home were a genuine expression of her buoyant personality–not just messages to please mummy.

  2. I’ve also been to see this exhibition and was quite impressed by her beautiful drawings.

    I think Shaun review was quite informative, deep and covered quite a lot aspects of her life that I didn’t know about.

    It was quite enlightening to read this review after seen the exhibition.It is like one complete the other… Thanks

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