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Parisian rooftops, wine bottles bearing half-burned candles… If you didn’t know whom they were by and hadn’t clocked the flurry of red dots, you’d label these drawings as being the earnest attempts of a gifted amateur (charming in their way) and move on. Knowing they’re by Sylvia Plath is cause for considerable poring.
Plath completed most of the works on display between 1954 and 1956, during which time she arrived in the UK to commence a Fulbright fellowship at Cambridge, where she met and married Ted Hughes. The couple honeymooned in Paris and Benidorm, which explains the subject matter of, if not the motivation, behind many of these dogged pen and ink sketches. Dramatic juxtaposition is served in the form of ‘Cambridge: A View of Gables and Chimney-pots’, whose cosy suburbia rubs up against the anguished lines of the accompanying (though later) poem ‘Brasilia’. Yet it’s inevitable that everything connected with Plath is seen through the lens of her suicide in 1963, from domestic scenes to apparently innocuous sketches of meadow flowers and horse chestnuts, ripe for speculation in spite or perhaps because of the work’s apparent lack of expression.
Plath was prone to making equally exacting versions of the same subject. The most enigmatic examples here depict an accumulation of barnyard scrap, almost identical save for one version from which a square of paper has been cut. Formally, this excision encapsulates the gulf in this show between what we can see and what we will never know.