Anthony Caro's <i>Twenty Four Hours</i> (1960) and reverse of photograph, showing exhibition history and ownership by Clement Greenberg.

Coaching from the side lines: Sheila Girling and Anthony Caro

Hester Westley interrogates the choices painter Sheila Girling made in relation to her career when her sons were young, and suggests her crucial role in the work of her husband, the sculptor Anthony Caro.

I first worked with the painter Sheila Girling when, as an inexperienced but enthusiastic undergraduate, I organised an exhibition of her paintings at Churchill College, Cambridge in 1996. I had been introduced to Sheila, or as she admitted with a modest twinkle, Lady Caro, by her rather more famous husband, sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, ‘Tony’. As a couple they nurtured young people interested in their work and regularly invited students, like me, to their studio complex in Camden.

There was something magnetic about Sheila, she seemed to personify quiet confidence, warmth and wisdom. For me, as a young woman just starting out, Sheila seemed to have it all: she enjoyed her own painting career, but she had also brought up her family. It was only when I began making Sheila’s life story recording for Artists’ Lives that I discovered the complexity of choices she had made along the way. Listening to Sheila speaking is an intimate experience, the richness and generosity of her intonation reveals so much about her personality.

Sheila articulates the challenges facing all women who juggle the demands of a family with a professional life: ‘trying to fit two lives, it is a great strain on women’. She explains this in the context of the choices she herself made after she married and became a mother.

She understood the single-minded focus that an artist’s career demands. Painting was, after all, in her blood: her maternal grandfather was the accomplished painter John Rabone Harvey. The quiet resolve that emanated from her as a mature woman was not unrelated to issues of family background, class and upbringing. Sheila had a happy and secure childhood and was close to her own mother, who was ambitious for her daughter to become a painter in her own right.

Tony and Sheila had met as art students at the Royal Academy Schools in 1948, when he borrowed her drawing board. Over the course of their married life, Tony became one of the most famous abstract sculptors in the UK, with an international reputation. What is less well known is how Tony’s success was achieved through his close collaboration with Sheila and how dependent he was on her. To these ends, Sheila chose to relinquish, for many years, her own painting practice in order to support her husband’s career.

It was Sheila’s inner emotional confidence which equipped her to swap the studio for the kitchen sink. She put aside her own painting, and channelled her professional creative ideas into helping her husband make his abstract sculptures. It is intriguing to hear, in the following extract from Artists’ Lives, about Tony and Sheila’s early married life. She describes their domestic set up, with Tony making his steel structures in the garage and Sheila painting them in bold colours as their baby son lay in the pram beside her. It is clear that Sheila offered Tony not only emotional support, but also the intellectual back up and hands-on help that ensured the success of his early work. She recalls ‘their endless talking’ and her clear sense of priority: about her children (‘for me, the most important thing really is human life’), and about her husband (‘I had to give all my creative energy to Tony; I thought one of us has got to get there so it might as well be Tony at the moment’).

It was an exciting time to be a young artist. The full weight of American influence was beginning to take hold as the decade of the 1960s opened up. Tony Caro had made his first trip to New York in 1959, and Sheila talks about the strong affinity they felt with their American peers, who were exploring the language of abstraction in new materials. She describes the heady delight of these growing friendships, remembering with affection how American painter Kenneth Noland made her laugh and broke down her English reserve. Sheila recalls the midnight telephone call, in 1963, when Tony was invited to teach at the progressive liberal arts college of Bennington College, Vermont, and how she was half asleep when she agreed the family should go to live there.

She goes on to describe life in Cold Spring Farm, Vermont, and the friendships that blossomed. The thriving artistic community of teaching staff at Bennington included the American abstract colour field painters Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Olitski’s wife, Andy.

Impressed by visits to the studios of these artists, Sheila remembers the revelation of painting with new materials in novel ways. The recently marketed Liquitex acrylic paint, available for the first time, was a discovery. She was also impressed by the Americans’ practice of pouring acrylic wash onto raw canvas as it was spread flat on the floor. In her words, ‘These ways of doing things were so new for me […] I was there all the time, looking and learning’.

The easy familiarity among these artists was expressed in other ways. Kenneth Noland was so trusting that Sheila was allowed, even encouraged, to paint his canvases for him. Her hesitation in disclosing this detail is revealing about the traditional gendered division of labour: nothing must detract from the magic of the all-male artist creator.

These artistic innovations were facilitated by the friendships between artists, but they were also shaped by the support of an influential American critic, Clement Greenberg. Greenberg was at the height of his towering reputation, using his influence to make or break artistic careers. There are many Artists’ Lives recordings that discuss his influence, but none perhaps which offer Sheila’s frank insight. She paints a portrait of an overbearing, controlling misogynist in the grip of ‘Reichian’ therapy. This therapy, Sheila remembers, encouraged sexual promiscuity at the expense of women and the family. Sheila resisted the toxicity of Greenberg’s influence, quietly managing the critic’s pressure without alienating his necessary support. Stakes were high, after all: Tony was among the first of a generation of British artists to have great critical and commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic.

A constant theme, and perhaps the unifying thread, throughout Sheila’s life story is her partnership with Tony. Their relationship was truly collaborative. In this extract, Sheila describes one of the pivotal moments in Tony’s career, the making of his first abstract sculpture, Twenty-Four Hours, in 1960. This piece is widely recognised as Tony’s ‘breakthrough’ sculpture; it signalled a new sculptural language in Britain, using different materials and forms.

What is less known about this artwork is its genesis. Twenty-Four Hours represents an unusually collaborative effort between two artists. As Sheila states, ‘I was so much a part of it really that it was almost a part of me as well as Tony, you know, we so much talked about what to do and how to get there.’ Rather than a towering statement of individual genius, the sculpture is as significant in its model of collaboration between two artists with mutual respect for each other’s ideas, as a collaboration between a man and woman, husband and wife.

Which returns me to my first encounter with Sheila’s work when I was an earnest undergraduate in 1996. As was their practice, Tony and Sheila would invite people to their studios, and it was on one such occasion that I saw Sheila’s paintings. These works existed somewhere between abstraction and reality, her paintings seemed to vibrate with energy and colour.

I proposed an exhibition of Sheila’s paintings. It was a bold move: Tony and Sheila were art world grandees, yet with the same gusto that they enjoyed with any new project, they leapt at the idea. Tony, flanked by his studio team of assistants, went to great lengths to facilitate my modest exhibition of Sheila’s work. At first blush it seemed that Tony was the leader of the couple: encouraging, pushing, making things happen. I then began to notice how he constantly consulted Sheila, always by his side, for her measured, clear eyed perspective.

What I came to understand as our friendship grew was that Tony’s concerted efforts to support Sheila and promote her painting was his way of giving something back to her. He owed it to her: not simply as a gesture of love, but also as one half of a profoundly productive artistic collaboration.

As just one of the recordings in Artists’ Lives, Sheila Girling’s reveals the interconnectedness of artists and their relationships. Such exchange behind an artistic production does not diminish its achievement. Instead it enhances it, since we can more fully understand the complex choices and sacrifices people made, be it for their partner’s work or their own.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Sheila Girling

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Hester Westley
  • Dr Hester R Westley interviews extensively for Artists’ Lives, National Life Stories, at the British Library. Hester’s research focuses on mid-century British art and art education. Formerly Goodison Fellow for National Life Stories (2016/17), she is currently writing about Corsham, Bath Academy of Art in the 1950s, research that draws on her time as Research Fellow for the Tate ‘Art School Educated’ project (2009-14). Her publications include ‘The Many Lives of the Life Room’ in The London Art Schools: Reforming the Art World 1960 to Now (2015); Anthony Caro’s Small Sculptures (2010); ‘Expanding the Boundaries: The New Creativity in Art Education’ in From Floor to Sky: the Experience of the Art School Studio (2010); ‘Constructed or Constructive?: The Pedagogic Propositions of St Martin’s Sculpture Department’ in An Anthology of British Art, (2008). Hester was guest curator for Tate Britain’s display, St Martin’s Sculpture Department: An Alternative History, 1964-71 (2007) and co-curated Reception, Rupture and Return: The Model in the Life Room: 1890 to Present at Tate Britain (2014-15).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.