How the grey man became a winner

Matisse was dull and boring, so the story went. Then Hilary Spurling dug for a decade and turned history on its head. She tells ST£VEN RUSSELL of her epic work - and why it's finally time to say goodbyeHILARY Spurling might well have tucked a £25,000 cheque under her feather boa upon scooping the Whitbread prize, but penning the Book of the Year doesn't intimidate pesky household gremlins.

Matisse was dull and boring, so the story went. Then Hilary Spurling dug for a decade and turned history on its head. She tells Steven Russell of her epic work - and why it's finally time to say goodbye

HILARY Spurling might well have tucked a £25,000 cheque under her feather boa upon scooping the Whitbread prize, but penning the Book of the Year doesn't intimidate pesky household gremlins.

She's been bugged by a persistent phone-fault whereby conversations are suddenly accompanied by bleeps and blips. Sometimes they sound like the Clangers; sometimes like a spaceship tune from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; sometimes, even, like an unsolicited comment on what's being said.

“I can't do anything about it,” she says, resignedly. “It's even come when I've been interviewed live. I thought it was the machine, so I bought a new one, but it hasn't helped. It's quite satirical, I sometimes think.”

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Annoying it might be, but Hilary Spurling should worry. She conquered the summit of the literary world a week or two back when Matisse the Master was named Whitbread Book of the Year. It was the second volume of the biography, following The Unknown Matisse.

East Anglian readers obviously know a good 'un when they see one - booking the author for two speaking engagements long before her triumph. Hilary was at Suffolk Book League at the beginning of February and is back soon for Aldeburgh Literary Weekend.

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“I'm looking forward to that.” The author's voice, a honeyed purr, carries the assurance of a school headmistress. Have you been there before? “Yes, of course. Well, I've just been there to walk along the front; but I love that walk from Maggi Hambling's shell to that amazing tower at the far end. I think it's one of the nicest walks in the world.”

She's given 15 years of her life to Matisse, researching and writing - and enjoyed unprecedented access to his correspondence and other archive material that spotlighted a lifetime of desperation and self-doubt. Isn't she now tired of talking about him?

“Not really, no. Well, yes. I can't go on forever. I gave so many of these talks last year. I did England in the spring and America in the autumn. I began admiring him, obviously, as a painter, but I ended up admiring him as a man - and being endlessly surprised by him.”

Oddly enough, Henri Matisse's established image had been of someone as dull as ditchwater - even if this giant of the modern art world had seemed quite sure about himself: “If my story were ever to be written down truthfully from start to finish, it would amaze everyone.” In practice, he was often ridiculed as conventional and timid - the art world's version of snooker's Steve “Interesting” Davis or a grey John Major pre-Edwina Currie.

No-one had deemed him worthy of a biography until Hilary came along. Hence the length of the project, as information had to be extracted and facts checked first-hand.

As a biographer, she just couldn't believe the suggestions that Matisse was boring, “because the paintings are just so full of power and energy - and I turned out to be right. They are so mysterious that I couldn't believe they were painted by a man whose life was as dull as they said. The kind of man he actually was, and the life he led, was a thousand times more interesting than the very banal image that was invented for him - and which turns out to be false”.

Some of Matisse's work was so far ahead of his time that his paintings shocked people and would not be fully understood for decades to come. Later, his work gained a reputation for being serene, radiant and stable - belying the artist's inner turmoil as he tried to grapple with the violence and harshness of the world.

Did the charisma of Picasso help put Matisse in the shade, perhaps?

Hilary says they met before the First World War - Matisse, 11 years older, almost the “older brother”. Picasso, not long arrived from Spain, “was a relatively conventional painter at that stage, and he could not make head nor tail of what Matisse was doing. And his Les demoiselles de l'Avignon, that great Modernist, life-changing icon, was painted quite largely in response to Matisse: it was an attempt to plant his stake - to show that he too was in the competition”.

But it was Matisse who, in his biographer's view, went through the mill in life and was thus worthy of attention.

Picasso didn't have many problems, “except that for about four or five years he lived like a student; he had to sleep on people's floors, he didn't have much money. We've all done that. That was the limit of his troubles - except for troubles with women, really, of his own making.

“He was born in a very safe part of Europe; his parents adored him; the minute he picked up a pencil his father said 'This boy's a genius.' Whereas Matisse was born on the front line, on the border between Belgium and France, so every time the Germans arrived - which they did three times - his hometown was the first place to be invaded.

“He was a baby when the Germans beat the French at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The defeated French army fled through his town and all the people stood on their doorstep with lanterns and gave food to these famished and wounded soldiers, and waited for the German army to march in. Which they did the next day, and occupied the place and took hostages and shot people.

“And then the same thing happened in August 1914, and in 1940. He knew the horrors of the 20th Century in his blood and in his bones. And that is, to put it simply, one reason why he had such a huge drive to paint peace and serenity and radiant light: because he never, or hardly ever, knew that in either his personal life or his professional life. He needed something to discharge that deep disturbance within him.”

Adult life certainly wasn't all beer and skittles: Matisse was 40 before he could afford to rent a roof under which the family could live. Until then, he and his wife had to send their children to live with grandparents.

Unfortunately, many of his disturbing paintings, “the radical ones that really frightened Picasso”, went to Russia, were confiscated by the Soviet government and were locked up. They didn't begin to resurface until the 1960s.

Ironically, two Matisse stories did lend the artist an air of intrigue - but Hilary's research debunked both.

One was the myth that he slept with his models as a matter of course; the other that he fraternised with the Nazis while frequenting the fleshpots of Nice during the German occupation. “Well, you know, he made love to those women; but he made love to them on canvas.”

Hilary also points out that Matisse, aged by the time of the Second World War, had endured an operation and was living through force of will.

“He was in a little stone house in the mountains behind the front line. He was evacuated from Nice - couldn't go far because he was so weak. He was miles from anywhere, with no medical support - there was a GP on a bicycle. That's all.

“He had one Russian girl looking after him and he needed intensive care; he several times was on the edge of death. And then, when the allies arrived, they started shelling. Every night you could look out and see the shells whistling past. Two at least landed in his garden.”

Not really in a fit state, then, to make eyes at the ladies.

“That image of Matisse sitting in Nice, enjoying the fleshpots with these pretty girls all around him, is total rubbish. They were bled dry and them bombed. So what is this about fleshpots?” she asks, rhetorically.

Would Hilary have liked him, had their lives overlapped?

“Well, I've talked to lots of people who did know him - the family and many models - and it was very, very, very difficult living with Matisse because he was like a howling gale. But: I've never met anyone who regretted knowing him, although he put them through it. But, then, he put himself through it first. He gave himself up completely to his governing passion that was his painting and he could never understand why other people, if he gave up everything, why couldn't they?”

Models who wanted to wanted to stay out late dancing with their boyfriends, or who sunbathed and got marks where their straps had been, left him perplexed. “He would have liked them to be in bed by 11 o'clock so as to be nice and fresh in the morning for an early painting session.”

Hilary spoke to some former Matisse models. None regretted sitting for him. In fact, many said the experience changed their lives.

“We're talking about the late '40s and '50s, when women were not really expected to have independent lives; and, if they did, well, what could you be? You could be a nurse, a sex worker in one way or another, or a domestic help. Those were the alternatives.

“One reason they liked to model for him is that he didn't start pawing at them and pulling off their clothes. Matisse liked people for people - that's one really nice thing about him. He treated them like human beings. He understood their problems: and nearly always they had problems. If you were well-adjusted and nicely looked after and had a decent income, you weren't going to go out modelling for painters.

“He would talk to them and was sympathetic. There wasn't much he didn't know about poverty and distress and difficulty; and so they confided in him. And Matisse put a lot of effort into solving those problems: he lent them money; he made sure they ate properly. It was a working partnership he had with those girls; and that's why I think it changed their lives.”

It would make a great film. Hilary could write the screenplay. “I don't think so!” she laughs. “I'm parting company with Matisse now. I've done all I can.”

Chapter and verse

Henri Matisse was born in Picardy, France, on December 31, 1869. In 1941 he was diagnosed with duodenal cancer and died in Nice on November 3, 1954.

Hilary Spurling was born in Stockport in 1940 and went to Somerville College, Oxford. She was arts editor, theatre critic and literary editor for The Spectator in the 1960s. Other books include The Girl from the Fiction Department, a portrait of George Orwell's wife Sonia

HILARY Spurling is no stranger to Suffolk.

She's been reading Ian Collins's book Making Waves: Artists of Southwold and says the range of work “makes Southwold sort of the St Ives of the east coast. I had no idea there were such riches there”.

She adds: “One thing I have always enjoyed, hugely, is the Southwold Literature Festival. I've been there a few times for different books. The place itself is just magical. It has the best slot machines on the pier in the world.

“Just with the pier, Southwold would be a heavenly place to visit, but everything else about it is amazing. And the festival is held in November, when the light is particularly beautiful.”

(blob) Hilary Spurling appears at the Aldeburgh Literary Weekend on March 4. For the latest details on the festival, check or call 01728 452587

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