A muse denied

Art byJohn Henshall

There seem to be innumerable gifted women artists who are all but unknown today for a range of squalid reasons: how the role of their gender is perceived in society, blatant male exploitation, or the twisted conviction of people around them - including, sadly, other women - that they should be doing the housework rather than playing with paints and easels. The surrealist Linda Carmen is a classic example.

Carmen (1910-1991) studied at the Slade under the strict draughtsman Henry Tonks, and became an enthusiastic denizen of Belsize Park and Hampstead in north London. At the Slade she became great friends with the rather better-known surrealist Ithell Colquhoun. Carmen won the Slade scholarship twice, in 1930 and 1931. She went on to show her utterly distinctive art with the Hampstead Artists' Council, the National Society and the Royal Society of British Artists. In the 1950s she travelled widely in India and gained great inspiration there (India was definitely en vogue in Hampstead in the 1950s). She also published three novels, one of which became a virtual bestseller, and her prose images glow on the page with alternately delicious and demonic aplomb. Indeed, the obituary in the Hampstead & Highgate Express speaks of her primarily as a writer.

In 1940 Carmen married John Parry. He had previously studied psychology and was a friend of H J Eysenck. Then, after spending ten years in banking, he became the chief psychologist to the Royal Air Force. Carmen's art was a fulsome thing, but Parry is generally credited with encouraging her to explore the dreamland and sometimes hallucinatory recesses of the mind.

Parry was also a man with literary ambitions who in the 1950s bought a little literary magazine called Grub Street. It was here that Carmen published her first short story, under the pseudonym Leo Townsend. She was encouraged in this by her friend about Hampstead, Ian Norrie, chronicler of the sainted village on the hill in NW3. Extraordinarily, it was only when Parry had made it clear that he saw true talent in this piece that Carmen "admitted" she had written it.

Carmen's paintings are coal-stove visions from the depths of the psyche. She mixed surrealism with romanticism and her works frequently feature abstract, anarchic images with which, she stated, she intended to blend biomorphs, fauna and human beings. Sometimes a mysterious ray of light exudes from the artistic miasma as if in search of some aspect of the aesthetic process which Carmen felt defied expression on canvas.

Tragically, Carmen's spirited works were destined to languish in obscurity. A mixture of chance and determined research has seen her start to be rehabilitated only recently. Artists rarely retire, but psychologists often do. When Parry left the RAF, the couple, who were childless, left Belsize Park for tiny Woodgreen near Salisbury. Wrenched from her beloved north London, it seems Carmen's muse all but dried up. Then, a couple of years ago, a young Courtauld graduate named Gabriel Summers spotted some Carmens in a London gallery. He saw some more in Brighton and eventually bought the lot. He then got in touch with the dealer Jane England, who had a batch of Carmen drawings but no detail about the artist's background. Summers started asking questions around Hampstead and by last autumn England & Co was able to put on an estimable show.

I met Summers at the Coach and Horses in Soho, that rare thing, a true pub in town. Norman Balon, London's self-styled rudest landlord, stalked the bar like Mr Punch the publican. A grudging winter sun filtered through high windows. Summers arrived clutching a portfolio of Carmen paintings, papers and pensees. He evinced a jejune enthusiasm, although I was faintly surprised that he seemed somewhat taken aback when I suggested I buy him a drink. As he relaxed, he showed me Carmens I had not seen before, including exquisitely minimalist continental street scenes. He was also eager to show me Carmen's first novel, Jackie.

This was published by Cape in 1957 as The Young Life and picked up by Corgi, which put it through numerous softback editions. It is a feminist novel about rape and murder, written, perhaps unusually for its time, from the point of view of the victim. It is very good indeed, reminiscent of both Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton. Was Carmen as much a novelist who had almost missed her vocation?

Once in Hampshire, Carmen had one exhibition, at Salisbury in 1980, but the works were chocolate-box kitsch; the surrealism had mysteriously fled. She wrote several more, unpublished, novels, did some art teaching and tended her garden. The Carmen that Ian Norrie first knew in Hampstead seems a different person: "Linda was strikingly beautiful with black hair. She moved in swift, balletic style. When she laughed she threw back her head. She was essentially dramatic. When angry, the words gushed from her, against whatever at that moment was 'ab-so-LUTE-ly gharst-ly'. There was little to which she was indifferent."

But it seems that down in the country, way before the end, for Carmen the thrill had gone.

Linda Carmen's work can be seen and bought at England & Co, 14 Needham Road, London W11. Telephone 0171-221 0417 for details

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong