London Diary 4: Arshile Gorky and Agnes Magruder (aka Agnes Gorky Fielding)

by Cat B on March 25, 2010

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This is the last of the London diary. I was there for a week to promote my book but now I’m back home in Boston and life here is taking over.  First,a couple of torrential rains left the basement flooded! Dear A took care of most of that but I did have to keep my head down or I’d have been wielding that shop vac too. I did make a couple of very good dinners though to do my part.

But one last fantastic memory of London with a word to the unwise, of whom, in this case, I must include myself!

At The Tate Modern I bought a ticket for the Arshile Gorky show then sat in the 2nd floor café with a sandwich and watched the film made by Gorky’s granddaughter, Cosima Spender, about his life. It tells of his birth in Armenia, the death by starvation of his mother, his emigration to the U.S, marriage, children and art, and then his suicide after cancer and misfortune in 1948. Most of the film is a fascinating reminiscence by his wife, Agnes Magruder.

This is from a 2003 New Yorker review by Peter Scheldahl—

“Then, in February, 1941, he met the lovely, brilliant nineteen-year-old Agnes Magruder.  She was the adventurous daughter of a Navy captain – she worked as a secretary for a Chinese Communist organization – and her modest social elevation tickled Gorky’s vanity. Upset by the match, the Magruders provided scant support, but the growing Gorky family spent summers at their country home in Virginia, where Gorky, working outdoors,
made several series of astonishing drawings not so much from as inside nature: botanical and insect forms quivering with itchy vitality while participating in an august formal order. Mougouch was self-sacrificing. “Dear Joking Jesus how wonderful it will be when he has a studio really his own,” she wrote to her confidante, the collector and artist Jeanne Reynal. She put Gorky first for as long as her sanity could bear it.”

She’d gone to New York to be an artist herself and met Gorky there. Now, aged 89, she is worldly but not, it seems, world-weary. Watching the film I had the sense that here was a woman who’d seen life in all its permutations and been wise enough to keep her eyes open. She was aware, unbent, humorous and still rolling her own cigarettes. I wanted to know her!

I proceeded into the exhibit and enjoyed some of the art a lot.  I like Gorky’s intrepid sense of exploration. He sailed his boat very close to the edge of the modernist wave and kept it afloat. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Agnes!  What happened to her?  Did she ever do art herself? What had she done since 1948?  Then, when I was in the 2nd room, I heard a gravelly voice and there she was—right across from me!  ‘Hi!’ I said, almost under my breath, and she smiled, happy I think for the flicker of recognition.  I wanted to dash up and ask her to sign my program or something, anything! I wanted to say how much I admired HER—her spirit and forbearance. But I saw she was with a friend, a similarly elderly woman of considerably more restraint, to whom she was explaining various pieces of art. So I didn’t interrupt. The old Canadian reticence prevailed but, oh, how I regret it!  Hadn’t I said to myself that I would LOVE to meet her and then—there she was!  She hesitated a moment, almost inviting me to step forward, before turning back to her friend. Perhaps she would have been willing, even happy, to chat for a moment or two.

But I did get to see her and see that her spirit is strong.  What a gift and pleasure that was! Her life can’t have been easy but she chose her own path and—wow, it shows!  Here’s to the brave, bold independent spirit of Agnes! Inspiration.

You can watch the wonderful Tate video here. The photos below were culled from the film just so you could see her.

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That I didn’t say more will go on the list of life’s little regrets. Not that we can think about that list! Must just carry on but it just goes to show—act immediately on inspiration! I’d fly over immediately for tea with Agnes if an invitation could only come my way. But—we have the film and the sense of what it is to live according to what calls you and to do it with grace, come what may. Thanks, Agnes.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Paula Ogier March 25, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Thanks for sharing this story. Here’s hoping that Agnes googles her name sometime soon and it leads her to your blog!

Paula

Cat B March 25, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Wouldn’t that be nice! How many of these men would have been the artists they were without the support they had from women. We were so brought up to be supporters—our strength but also I wonder how she resolved her own yearnings to express herself that were so strong in her youth. Perhaps one day we’ll know! Good to know the spirit is still shining bright though!

maggie April 1, 2010 at 11:36 am

I think you should have thrown your arms around her and…….asked her to have tea with you and her friend. I suspect she would have loved to have talked about art, and would have been flattered to have been recognized. She may have even given you a cigarette!

Cat B April 1, 2010 at 11:43 am

I wish you’d been with me. A foursome would have been excellent. Tea in the dining room with scones and clotted cream and a ciggie!

Simon Prebble April 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Read Frances Partridge’s later diaries as Agnes appears a lot in them as they were great friends. Agnes is known as Magouche in the books. She also appears in Anne Chisholm’s biography of Frances P.

Cat B April 25, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Thanks so much, Simon! My husband and I got to visit the wondrous Charleston House last summer so it will be a real pleasure to read about Bloomsbury with this extra interest. It was really nice of you to write!

Janice Warren June 24, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Thank you Cat for this diary entry. I envy you seeing Magouche Fielding. Do you know whether the friend accompanying Magouche was Janetta Parlade, a close friend of Frances Partridge as well as Magouche?

Cat B July 28, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Hi Janice! Thanks for writing and sorry for the long delay in responding! I’m afraid I don’t know who was with her. I expect she’s got tons of friends but, as you say, nice even to catch sight of a great spirit!

Doris Long June 8, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Magouches (Agnes) was friend with many people, especially Frances Partridge,
of the Bloomsbury Group. She is pictured in books written by Frances Partridge as a much younger person. She lived in England, I don’t know where she is now.
I so much enjoyed this and getting to actually hear her voice.

Doris Long June 9, 2013 at 1:03 am

I just discovered that Agnes died last year. I was hoping she was still alive.

Cat B June 9, 2013 at 10:19 am

Hi Doris! Thanks for that update! It looks like she had a long and truly vital life. I was lucky to see her. Great spirits really touch us, I think, no matter how passing the connection. May we all live so fully! Thanks for your comments! Cat

Doris Long June 9, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Yes, Cat, I agree and was so pleased to find this video as I have seen her mentioned so many times in Frances Partridge’s books, and wondered about her. What an exciting life these people lived. I have delved pretty far into the Bloomsbury Group and life of Angelica Garnett, etc. You were indeed lucky to see her. Maybe Janetta Parlade is still living? I do hope.
Regards,
Doris

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