This mesmerising face is a luminous memory mark of Douglas MacDiarmid’s post-war days in London. One of his best-known early paintings, Portrait of Constance Sochachewsky, wife of Maurice Sochachewsky 1948 depicts a much-loved friend who breathed vitality and high spirits into the young artist’s experience of the cold, often cheerless city of food rationing and broken buildings with dense yellow fogs seeping in on his first trip abroad.It stands as a record of their warm friendship in an otherwise bleak environment.
Constance already had a link with New Zealand. As a girl she had been taught by New Zealand poet (and later literary publisher) Charles Brasch at Little Missenden Abbey, a school for naughty or wayward children. According to Brasch, she was ‘a handsome, dark-haired, pink-cheeked girl with good regular features … When she gave in friendship or love she gave in devotion, unswerving … we became good friends, friends for life.’
Her husband Maurice was also a talented painter, re-finding his perspective after losing an eye in combat. Charles introduced Douglas to the couple, thinking he would enjoy the company of like-minded friends of his own age. They were English, despite their Polish surname, and hit it off immediately.
“We had a lot of good times together, they were a lovely pair,” Douglas recalls. MacDiarmid painted Constance; the two artists painted one another.
At the time, Douglas was living with his Scottish cousin Isabel McKenzie in Hampshire. Behind Constance’s smiling face, the background of this portrait is the interior of Isabel’s house with the waves of her hair tracing the stairs leading up to his bedroom.
Douglas greatly respected Maurice’s resilience…“Losing an eye is a tremendous disadvantage for a painter, but he carried on regardless.” He painted his friend from memory, just as many of his better portraits have been created from his mind’s eye.
He set Maurice in cousin Isabel’s kitchen, which was canary yellow with red and white checked curtains, and looked out onto a marvellous garden of lovely autumn colours that disappeared forever beyond…“He was very blonde-headed and had a dull, reddish shirt on, standing at his easel with this wonderful colour, all these different yellows, all around him. I remember those things perfectly well.“
The friends stayed in touch by letter after Douglas returned to New Zealand for a year. In February 1950, Constance remarked that Maurice was lamenting the lack of intelligent conversation: “We went to a frightfully ‘noice tea party’ at Charles’ cousins at Xmas. I found it a bit of a strain. Everyone was so polite – are all New Zealanders like that? But then I remember you too were very polite, until we’d brought you down to our level – and found you too know some ‘naughty’ words. Oh yes Douglas, we do miss you – intelligent conversation, rude words and all!”
He brought the Sochachewsky portraits back to New Zealand with him in 1949. Both were exhibited in a major exhibition of recent and early MacDiarmid work at Medici Galleries in Wellington in 1976.
Douglas has no idea what became of Maurice’s portrait, it was one he particularly liked. Someday it will reappear in New Zealand, and be revealed in full glorious colour…
To read more about Douglas MacDiarmid’s fascinating journey through life Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018)