Peter Meets, Sue Tilley

Peter Meets, Sue Tilley

I was first introduced to Sue Tilley as a teen, fresh off the bus from school, travelling into my college years. I first saw the painting of her by Lucian Freud, when my rose-tinted glasses where fading and conceptual art was being forced feed to me. (I had notions of aspiring to be Caravaggio). Around this time, I saw Lucians portrayal of her in all her glory, from ‘Benefits Supervisor sleeping’, (in 2008 this painting was to sell for a record amount by a living artist in New York, £35.8 million) to ‘Evening in the Studio’, to ‘Sleeping by the Lion Carpet’, and etchings such as ‘Woman with an Arm Tattoo’. Sue had three tattoos at the time which Lucien was not in favour of and would paint over. Because of Lucian and Sue, my love for creating classical art was reignited. I would stare at her paintings when I would see them, I would wonder who she was? What was her story? What did they talk about, artist to sitter? I would admire her for stripping down and modelling for someone, there is a certain courage to laying all bare for someone to immortalise you in a painting. Lucian once spoke of sue’s body "It's flesh without muscle and it has developed a different kind of texture through bearing such a weight-bearing thing”

 Sue Tilley shot into the world of art, and pop culture in 1991 when she began her journey of modeling for one of the thee most prominent artist of the 21st century, Lucian Freud. Sue at the time was working for Leigh Bowery (who was an Australian performance artist, fashion designer and night club promoter. Leigh was also to become of Lucian Freud's muse and one of Sues closest friends) in his nightclub as a cashier at the time. Sue was also working as a benefits supervisor at the Charing Cross jobcentre which she would then manage.  Leigh had introduced Lucian to Sue after modeling for Lucien, and a year later she was to become his muse. Sue would pose for Lucian over a period of 4 years, every weekend and most evenings during the period it took to create one of his canvases.

In 1997 Sue published her autobiography of Leigh Bowery ‘Leigh Bowery: The life and times of an Icon’ which depicted the engrossing stories of a man who embodied 1980s modern art and one of Sues closet friends. Sues own artistic flair for painting came a little later in life (she studied to be an art teacher in college but took up. Sue gave up her full-time job to start living out her dream almost 40 years after perusing it. She was originally retiring to open a tea room on the Isle of Wight, but fate was to have a different plan for her. Her friend Rui Miguel Leitao Ferreira would encourage her to take up drawing again which she struggled with it at first, what for the lack of ‘Arty quality’, but overcame such a view, "I always disliked anything I drew because I wanted it to look more arty. Then suddenly I found I had the confidence not to bother with all that". At the age of 60, Sue is now employed by the mega fashion house, Fendi, where her drawings of banana skins, teacups, telephones and other domestic regalia feature on the brands clothing and accessories.

Not for one second did I ever think I would meet a muse or a model as she would be preferred to be called, by a famous artist, let alone Lucian Freud. I was introduced to Sue by a mutual friend and since conversing with her I have become a fan of this amazing woman and researching her story till present. Her life is truly one of a multitude of colour, from the 80s where she was to meet one of the biggest influences of her life, Leigh Bowery, to present day where she creates illustrations and designs for one of the biggest fashion houses in the world, Fendi.


1. What was it like to be a muse for one of the most prominent artists in the 20th century?

 I hate calling myself a muse …I think I was just a model. To be honest I wish I’d taken more notice when I was working at Lucian’s but I had no idea how iconic the paintings would come. I just treated it like a job… an interesting job but still a job. But Lucian was very entertaining and it was never a chore to get up at the crack of dawn to be there by 7.30am.


2. Do you have a favourite artist and what’s your favourite piece by them?

I’m very keen on Matisse and I love his painting of goldfish in a jar surrounded by flowers. I used to have a poster of it on my wall.


3. What was the last exhibition you went to? 

It was’ All Too Human’ at Tate Britain as one of Lucian’s paintings of me is in it and I had to do some press. I don’t go to many exhibitions as I don’t live in London anymore although I’ve been to some openings here in Hastings. I went to the Jerwood Gallery a few weeks ago and saw Quentin Blake there, which was a thrill as I’ve been a long-time fan of his work.


4. What’s your favourite book?

Oh, I’ve got so many as I adore reading and get through about 3 books a week. I really love John Irvine and I think Cider House Rules is my favourite of his.


5. Who’s your icon?

I haven’t really got one as I don’t really look up to, too many people as I like to think that we are all the same really. My favourite people though are pop stars and I suppose I should say Madonna, not that I’m particularly keen on her but she has really broken through a lot of boundaries as a very strong woman and she can write a good pop song.


6. I know you are an accomplished artist and writer, but apart from painting and drawing do you like to dabble in any other form of art?

I think that’s enough for a lazy person like myself.  But if you call cooking an art I enjoy trying new recipes and putting my own twist on them, especially cakes.


7. What influences you on a daily basis?

I’ve got a Portuguese artist friend called Rui Miguel Leitao Ferreira who is living in Vienna at the moment so we mainly communicate by text although when he lived in London we saw each other a lot. But every day he sends me art videos to watch and nags me to do a daily drawing and gives me ideas which are usually rather surreal… but he teaches me a lot.


8.       What’s your favourite sound?

I like the noise of the seagulls squawking outside my flat as it reminds me that the sea is 5 minutes down the road.


9. What has been the single most important event in your career so far?

It must be the day that the painting ‘Benefits Supervisor’ sold for a world record by a living artist in 2008. It kind of catapulted me into a different world and I’m sure that a lot of the doors that have opened to me would have remained firmly shut if that hadn’t happened. 


10. What do you hope your contribution will bring to your community?

I’m not sure what my community is, is it 60-year-old spinsters? If so, I’d like to be an inspiration to older women to show what you can do and you don’t have to give up your hopes and dreams as you get older. Who would have thought that I’d be working with Fendi when I was 60? Also, you don’t need a husband to have a happy and exciting life. 


11.   What is the hope for your audience when they encounter your work?

That I give them a bit of inspiration to do things for themselves. Also, to give them some joy and make them think that even if you have a 9-5 job you can do stuff in your spare time that can be really fulfilling and fun. I worked in the Jobcentre for almost 40 years but worked in night clubs in the evenings. I’m very glad that my life has been a mix of the ordinary and extraordinary.


12. Who has been the most influential person to you and your work?

Obviously, Leigh Bowery. He showed me that you can be who you want to be and you don’t have to follow a traditional path throughout life. He made me who I am and everything good that happens in my life always links back to him even though he died well over 20 years ago


13. If you could have dinner or a drink with someone, alive or dead who would it be?

Phil Oakey, I love 80s pop and I’ve met most of the musicians from that era but I’ve never met Phil or even seen him out, only on stage. 


14. Do you think an artist needs to be tortured to create?

 I’m the least tortured person you could meet so I don’t think so. I know a lot are but even though I get slightly anxious showing a new piece I don’t beat myself up if no one likes it, I’ll just do something else. 


15. What was the first piece of art you bought?

When I was 11 I went on a school trip to Amsterdam and visited the Rijksmuseum and became obsessed with Rembrandt’s ‘Nightwatch’. So, I saved up my pocket money and bought a book about Rembrandt which I still have now. I don’t buy much art as I’m lucky that friends often give me pieces. I only really like having pictures in my home that I know where they come from and mean something to me. But I did buy a painting of flowers a few weeks ago that I really loved. 


16.   Where’s your favourite space to get creative in?

 I like working at home as I’ve got everything here I need and I’m always in to accept parcels that are being delivered.


17.   What’s next for you?

I’ve got a few commissions to do. But the book I wrote about Leigh has just got some funding from the BFI to be made into a film of tv show so I’m looking forward to that. 


Thank you so, so much Sue. Huge love xx

Peter Homan