Sylvia Plath: the unseen drawings 

  

'I had removed my patent leather shoes after a while, for they foundered badly in the sand. It pleased me to think they would be perched there on a silver log pointing out to sea, like a sort of soul-compass after I was dead". The Bell Jar 

 

An exhibition of forty-one drawings by Sylvia Plath opened at the Mayor Gallery, in Cork Street, London on 2 November. It was the first - and it was likely to be the last - time that we would be seeing these drawings on public exhibition. Frieda Plath, her daughter, has been their custodian until now. She decided to let go all but one of the drawings in her possession, a portrait of Ted Hughes, which is the most intimate of the lot. That one, alas, was withdrawn from the sale.

 

The second reason is that, given Plath's fame, these drawings were relatively cheap for what they were, and consequently they were likely to be sold to private collectors because many people will want to own a bit of something by this extraordinary poet.


It is no secret that Plath and Hughes scribbled and daubed a bit. Hughes' Birthday Letters describes them doing just that together in Paris, and some of these pen and ink drawings - most of them are black pen and ink, just a few are pencil - are of street scenes: the local tabac, the ornate rooftops, views from a Left Bank window. Most of them were done when Plath was about twenty-four or so, but they often look, in their care and punctilious, as if they could have been done by someone younger. 

 

What we really want to know about this exhibition is this: how does it connect up with the rest of her tragic life? Are these drawings pent, febrile, tortured in the way that many of the greatest of the poems are pent, febrile and tortured? Have the things that she is drawing - flowers, animals, bottles, trees - been turned into terrible symbols of themselves? No is the answer. For the most part, they show us a young woman who is serious about her art, but they don't reveal the dark underbelly of it all that the poems reveal. If anything, most of these works are polite and as well brought up as Plath herself was well brought up. She was serious about it all right - she had drawing lessons, Frieda tells us in her catalogue essay - and she clearly worked hard to render the visual truth of things as she saw them in a fairly academic way. She loved drawing agglomerations of objects; she could capture a harbour scene very well, with its shoreline and yawing boats.

 

The fact that this part of her life seems to be set apart from all that terrible inner howling is itself of interest, of course.  

The most curious juxtaposition in the entire show brings together within a single frame an uncollected poem, 'Brasilia', from Dec 1, 1962 and a view of Cambridge rooftops sketched in 1955. Cambridge looks innocently somnolent. Not so the atmosphere of this poem. Inside it we can discern that howling. Within two months of writing this poem she was dead.