Heather McDonough

2019 - Ongoing

This series is about invisibility, aging, self worth, role-play and identity. I am searching for portraits that I saw as a child—pictures that are in my memory bank.

I am specifically interested in American and English paintings from the period between the mid 19th and mid 20th century, an important time in the evolution of painting that coincides not only with the birth of photography but with the advent of women emerging as artists in their own right.

Each of the photographs in this series takes as a starting point a portrait painting but, more importantly, the images take inspiration from the layered and often complex experience of women depicted in portraits.

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  • Ynys is twenty-one and studying Classics at Cambridge. She sits in front of her father’s painting in the family’s front room. The painting is about her father’s memories of his father in the Second World War. There are parachutists in the sky. My grandfather was a captain for the American Parachute Regiment and was one of the first to land behind enemy lines on D-Day. His painting reminds me of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”. Wyeth lived in New Hampshire, not far from where I lived as a child.

  • Nicola was a librarian. Nicola has lived in Dalston for thirty years. She has a son who is studying in Sweden. A feral cat used to come into our house, until Nicola decided he was her cat. Our cats visit him in her garden. Nicola wears her hat when gardening, something her mother always did. I was fascinated by the way Stanley Spencer painted women. I found a portrait of Hilda Carmine, Spencer’s first wife, which I then discovered was a self-portrait by Hilda herself. She was a painter in her own right but painted mainly after her relationship with Spencer was over.

  • Heather is a painter and educator. She has a musical son and husband. She is fighting breast cancer. She reads all the time. She is an excellent house-guest and gets the importance of place and home. Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” was painted as an inspiration to aid the war effort.

  • Ann has five children and has lived in our street for over forty years. Her sons bought the house next door to hers. She goes to church every Sunday and she grows vegetables in her garden. She cooks although she can’t really be bothered to eat. Her granddaughter lives with her and keeps her out of trouble. (Whistler, "Arrangement in Gray and Black #1")

  • Flora has a black plastic ankle-length coat. She has a lot of curly hair. Sargeant’s Madame X is a portrait of an elegant socialite, a formidable woman. Flora is studying film. She lost her mother when she was ten. Her mother, Louise, was one of the strongest and most beautiful, talented women I have ever known. They are so alike

  • Josie is a writer and lecturer who has two children. She holidays in Wales every year. One of her books is about Friendship. She is a very good friend. She remembers birthdays. While making her portrait for her book, I remembered the paintings of Gwen John: women in interiors, standing, waiting and reading.

  • Ginny plays the violin and the piano. She teaches music. Her three children are all musical. Her husband plays the cello and he makes pots. Ginny decided to run the Hackney Half Marathon on her own, her girls cycled alongside her for 13 miles. Her mother is 100. Mother and daughter, mimicking each other. (Alice Neel, "Linda Nochlin and Daisy")

  • Mel is a make-up artist who has recently retrained as a conservator. She buys and sells clothes and objects and has a wonderful display of paintings, prints and photographs on her walls. Her son is now living in Devon, designing helicopters. (Edward Hopper, "Woman in Window")

  • Josie, who appears elsewhere in this series, sits in front of her own portrait, painted twenty years ago by her husband.

  • Sacha is a photographer and editor. She looks after a large and sprawling family. Her father is in the fur trade. Amelia Van Buren, painter turned photographer, was a pupil of Thomas Eakins. Eakins painted her in a strong shaft of light seated in a chair that he often used in his pictures. Sacha lives in a cottage, with a small verdant garden.

  • Min works as a carer, and has three children. She is a runner. She has several cats and understands their importance. Min writes short stories about people she knows. Lucien Freud’s painting of Kitty, his wife, with a cat, always disturbed me. Kitty was his muse and model and was often referred to as Girl.

  • Sophie didn’t have to do her exams this year. She trained with her mother for the Hackney Half-Marathon, which didn’t happen this year either. She is a musician. She didn’t speak for quite a while when she was little. She has an older sister and brother. She cycles and always waves when she passes. She has amazing hair. (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The Blue Bower")