IAt the end of September I received a direct message on Instagram: “Hi, I read a piece you did about the artist Audrey Amiss in the Guardian a few years ago. Wonder if she’s still interested. Think I got one of her jobs. Thank you.” Sent by Ant Cosgrove of thenorthernartpage, this message came just as a BFI-backed feature I wrote and directed, starring Monica Dolan as Amiss and Kelly Macdonald as her psychiatric nurse, was completed. The title of the film, which arose at the start of my Wellcom screenwriting fellowship, during which I researched Amiss’s vast archive, is taken from the occupation she put in her passport: Typist Artist Pirate King.
I told Cosgrove that I was “intrigued” by the possible Amiss job he had found – and that lessened the fact that his message gave me goosebumps. He replied that he was a “proper art nerd” and detailed how he had researched an unsigned painting coming up for auction. Armed with the title of the piece, Portrait of a Girl, along with the auction house’s online photo of the back of the frame, which reads “exhibited at the Royal Academy 1957” and “Holland Park”, he looked at the original. catalog of the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition of 1957. Although it had no reproductions of the art, there were three paintings entitled Portrait of a Girl – and one of them was by Amiss and gave her address.
Amiss lived in student flats in Holland Park while studying painting at the Royal Academy. It was during this period that she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which meant that she never completed her studies – and, although she continued to make art throughout her life, also meant that she never became a famous artist.
During my research I saw all the Amiss work kept by Wellcome, and the pieces she gave to her family and friends. I loved it but, curious to know what people in the art world might think, I showed a selection to royal academics, including David Remfry, who said her early paintings were “by a very talented lovely painter”. , and that her post-Royal Academy, avant garde work was “formally simple, witty and highly successful”. Humphrey Ocean, former professor of perspective at the Royal Academy, a post once held by JMW Turner, said Amiss’s later sketchbooks were: “Fantastic. And nice and strange.” Over the years I have never stopped to wonder what could have been for Amiss’s art career if things in her life had unfolded differently.
When Cosgrove next sent me a screenshot of the painting of a young, seated woman knitting, with a special atmosphere and fine use of color, I wrote back: “Yes, wow! It’s definitely by Audrey Amiss! I feel like I have to bid on it! Unless you are – I wouldn’t want to bid against you. But I long to have something of her, which I currently do not have!” Cosgrove’s answer was a relief. “Yes, you must bid! The story of finding it is a kick… Glad I found it for you.” Cosgrove has now revealed that the painting is included in the silver and fine art sale at Ewbank’s Auctions in Woking, Surrey. On the company website I found: “Lot 1394: Twentieth Century British School. ‘Portrait of a Girl’, oil on board, framed. Estimate £200 to £300.” Cosgrove told me to put forward my best bid: “I doubt you’ll see another one, so do your best. To be honest, your movie will push her price up anyway. Ha!”
On the day of the auction, I watched the live stream from 9am. I had never bid on an auction before, and by noon I was getting increasingly nervous that my “place bid” button wouldn’t work, so I bid on one of the cheapest items in the auction, A Victorian Scottish silver caddy spoon from 1876 – and became its new owner. It wasn’t until early afternoon that lot 1394 came up. The top of the estimate was reached, and I began to shake as the price climbed and I realized that I wasn’t going to stop bidding. I would give anything to own my own Amiss. In the end it ended up being £1,000, plus auction costs. I wrote to Cosgrove to let him know that I had “won” the painting. I felt like a winner, but I also started to cry. The years of making the film took their toll, and to now have this beautiful painting, from the time just before Amiss’s breakdown when the course of her life changed radically, was such a powerful marker in my own life .
When I arrived at Ewbank’s to collect the painting, where I discovered it had been sold by the estate of a “discerning collector”, it seemed incredibly fitting that, as the film was called Typist Artist Pirate King, the painting was handed to me at the auction house by the ship manager, Linda King.