The story of Phyllida Barlow’s precipitous rise to art-world fame is irresistible, and it has been told and retold so many times that it has taken on the quality of myth. It goes something like this. Once upon a time, in the middle of the last century, a little girl was born into a remarkable family. Her great-great-grandfather was Charles Darwin, her grandfather was physician to Queen Victoria, and she was related to Josiah Wedgwood. The little girl grew up in London, but one very different from the shining, skyscraper-studded capital that we know today – a city in ruins, where children played in bombed-out buildings, and where the sides of houses had been blown off to reveal staircases leading to nowhere, and incongruous patches of wallpaper were still attached to walls that were now open to the sky.
The little girl was very clever and loved to draw. She went to art school and there she discovered that, more than anything else in the world, she liked to make things with clay, or anything that was soft to the touch. When she was 18 years old, she met a young man called Fabian, who was also from a famous family, being the son of Mervyn Peake, who wrote the Gormenghast stories. They fell in love and married. And the girl, who was now a woman, was very happy, and she made art in her studio, and she and her husband had five children. She became a teacher, working in art schools for 40 years.
Over time, the exhausted and rubble-strewn country in which she had been born became rich and brash (though many people stayed very poor). And with the changes in the country, so the art world changed. It stopped being an impoverished backwater and became moneyed and fashionable. On the Thames in London, a grand museum for modern art opened. Art auctions became public spectacles. A few artists became very famous, or notorious. Even when the country’s banks faltered and almost failed, the art market only stuttered, because a new kind of person, rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, rose up everywhere from Moscow to Beijing to Doha, and many of them found it necessary to own contemporary art that signalled their intelligence and sophistication.
Read more at The Guardian.