‘You fascinate me, Alison,” says Patrick, “with your big eyes and that wretched jumper.” Patrick Kerr, who visits Alison’s Dorset town in the late 1970s to teach an art class, is the former terrible enfant of portraiture known as “the last great painter”. Alison is a newly married young woman baffled by adulthood. Kerr’s portraits of her – including Alison Reclines, Alison and Aspidistra and Alison Sleeps – will be highlights in his glittering career. But this isn’t his story. Instead, Stewart’s affectionate and beautifully pitched account follows Alison from uncertain teenager to successful modern-day artist.
The fictional Kerr is, as you might have gathered, a self-satisfied bore, and Alison spends much of her life inching out of his shadow. But Stewart renders their relationship and its fallout with a nuance and care that runs throughout her first full-length adult work. The setup is brief but effective. Alison grows up in a small town with her parents and older brother: “We were certainly ordinary, which made us assume that we must be happy.” She marries a local council worker, knuckles down as a housewife in a chilly, cliff-set house and searches for the hobby that, her husband tells her, will fill her days.
Alison discovers a talent for painting at Kerr’s class and begins sitting for him. Within months, she has left her husband for Kerr and Dorset for London. Here, the great man critiques her portraits and takes her to smug parties where she feels like the “most misplaced person” in the room. But, slowly, she finds her own friends and haunts. She buys oil paints, canvas and tinned food with her meager earnings and explores the city, “screeching with laughter on the bus after a po-faced gallery opening” with her sculptor friend Tessa, while her work grows stronger and stronger.
Stewart (who, like her subject, moved from the south coast of England to London, though in her case via an art degree in Edinburgh) tells Alison’s story via an engaging mix of media. Conventional wisdom says that long passages of prose don’t work in comic books. Yet Alison mixes its mostly black-and-white panels with pages full of written background or characterisation, alongside handwritten notes, half-finished portraits, flower cuttings, ticket stubs and sticky-tape stains. Then an image will fill a page or a spread, freezing the moment in a flash of detail: a red-hued London street scene; Alison and Patrick glowing with contentment at a launch; dark water pooling beneath the night sky.
It’s not an easy mix to get right, but Stewart makes this scrapbook approach feel like the most natural thing in the world. There’s a deceptive economy to both her drawings, in which a few short lines evoke an array of emotions, and her prose, which moves with an easy eloquence from “the familiar colors of West Country rain” to “a call that leaves her crumpled and alone in a department store.” The book’s skewering of the art establishment is often very funny, but there’s fury here too, at inequality, misogyny and the barriers put up by established artists and fixers, “all those old men who told me I should paint portraits of myself naked”.
With its focus on friendship and the passing of time, Alison often recalls Stewart’s graphic short story collection It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be. While its predecessor was enjoyable but uneven, here she sustains the drama, and the parade of small things – baths and bars, studios and shopfronts, spiraling arguments and moments of joy – builds into something rather special. Before you know it, half Alison’s life has rushed by, and she is the established artist feeling bemused and invigorated by the next generation – and able to dispense more balanced advice than the old men who preceded her.
It’s a heartening journey, a delicious portrait of 80s and 90s London and a more universal tale of a working-class young woman making a life in a world that has not been designed for the likes of her. For all its effortlessness – you can skip from page to page like an eager squirrel, dashing from paragraph to portrait and back – Alison ends up carrying a great emotional heft. It’s a lovely book, and I cried at the end.