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I was reminded of that expression today “be kind because you don’t know what other people are dealing with.”
I went to a private view of my friend Jenny Quick’s exhibition entitled Boarding School Survivors. It is a poignant collection of 13 paintings charting her experiences as an 11-year old sent away to boarding school. The extraordinary pain, loneliness and loss of an adolescent girl whose mother died less than a year after she was sent away to school and who spent a further six years in the brutal boarding school system is captured in paintings and childhood objects.
Jenny has taken the whole-school photograph, dated 1969, and painstakingly drawn every one of the girls on it, but with their features left blank. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to bring the colour and personality back to these girls by drawing in their features, colouring in their clothes or writing messages.
I went to the local grotty comprehensive school and my only impressions of boarding school were shaped by the Enid Blyton books that I read voraciously. I longed to join Darryl and her friends at Mallory Towers, swimming in the sea water pool and having midnight feasts in the dorm.
But, of course, the reality for so many was worlds apart. Jenny spoke of school friends who had a nervous breakdown, who pulled out all of their hair or who were sent away for an abortion after being raped by their father. She talks of the fact that not a single day goes by when she isn’t impacted in some way by her school experiences.
Jenny is the most extraordinary woman. She is an accomplished pianist. She has travelled extensively on her bike, playing Beethoven pieces on pianos that she came across en-route. Her adventures are immortalised in a series of paintings and cartoons called Beethoven by Bike. To the outside world, she is a model of confidence, creativity and talent. And, of course, she is all of those things. But she is also still a frightened 11-year old facing the cruelty of her peers and the disinterest of an institution more interested in educating its girls than in encouraging or nurturing them.
The exhibition is the first time that she has publicly or privately explored these dark places and memories. It feels courageous, compassionate and healing. It reminded me today that we are all the sum of our experiences and, whatever people appear to be on the outside is only a fraction of who they really are. We are all fighting our own battles and we never know what those battles are.
The outfit I chose today was, coincidentally, the same colours as Jenny’s boarding school uniform – deep purple and grey. She was also wearing colours that echoed her uniform although chosen to hint at it rather than directly mirror it – too many painful memories – with pale blues rather than grey.
I am wearing a crinkle skirt by Mistral, bought from Paul the rag trader for £2.50 with a deep purple silk crinkle shirt by one of my favourite designers, Privatsachen which I bought many years ago on Ebay. The jacket is a rather splendid military-inspired one by Principles which I bought for £10 from Ruby at Frockaholics Anonymous. I hadn’t realised it until I saw the photos, but I think the look is rather piratey, particularly with the brown lace-up boots.
Jenny Quick’s exhibition, Boarding School Survivors is on at Birdwood House gallery in Totnes until 18th February.
Necklace: Vintage Indian silver and enamel