S for Sue

Interview by Dan Thawley, Digital Composite Scans by Katerina Jebb

‘Clementine’ dress by Leigh Bowery. Kimono courtesy of Barbara Kimmerle Paris. Crown from Michael Costiff ’s World Archive.

This article originally appeared in A Magazine N°19 Curated By Kim Jones, May 2019.

‘I always wanted Lucian to paint me with my clothes on,’ said the artist Sue Tilley, basking in the winter sun streaming into her flat near the beach in St. Leonards-On-Sea, England. ‘So I thought: I’ll find old paintings I like and put myself in them instead.’ Tilley’s walls are dotted with examples of her oil tributes – from a self-portrait à la Frida Kahlo to Matisse’s 1942 Woman with a Necklace doctored with her ample form. She’s even redone Lucian Freud’s Benefits Worker Sleeping, the 35.8-million-pound painting that, alongside her close friendship with Leigh Bowery, put Tilley on the map. Today, her own work is both naïve and witty, betraying a natural eye for abstract forms and detailed shadow play. ‘After my breast cancer, I dedicated that Frida painting to my doctor and hospital, just like she did. In other paintings I only paint one breast,’ she said. ‘I don’t really go on about, it but I thought I may as well use it to my advantage. It’s a bit like buying a picture that the Mona Lisa had done of herself – it’s ridiculous! I can’t get my head around the fact that people buy what I’ve drawn.’

DAN THAWLEY What led to your recent retirement and the move to St. Leonards- On-Sea?

SUE TILLEY I was still working at the job centre in Tottenham until two years ago, when I got offered voluntary redundancy. Then someone suddenly offered me an exhibition, so I became an artist! I did a charity job for the KIDS association, as someone who worked there asked me to model, and I said, ‘I won’t do it with my clothes off.’ So, they brought along a nude model too, Rui Ferreira,and we became good friends. He said, ‘If you could put up with Leigh, you could put up with me.’ He is the person who started me drawing again. He bought me some pencils and forced me to draw. Because I worked for Lucian, and I’m ‘that’ model, I’ve got the opportunities, if you know what I mean. I am very grateful. I went to see the gallery for my first show and it was absolutely enormous. I didn’t know what to do, so I just drew loads of pictures and hung them! The show was called This Is My Life. I painted my friends and myself and a lot of down-to-earth things, like Dove body wash and Quality Street sweets. I did some pictures of Leigh as well. I got a studio around where I’d go every day to paint. It was going very nicely and then I came to visit a friend who moved here to St. Leonards, looked on Rightmove for flats, and went ,‘Oh my god!’ I put my flat on the market that week!

DT Did you grow up in the city?

ST Well, I was born in Wimbledon and lived in Putney until I was two. Paddington until I was six, which I think had a great effect on me as we lived on a corner of this really rough road: London Street and Sussex Gardens. I’d look out the window and see prostitutes and drunks being loaded into police vans. Even then, I was abosolutely fascinated. Because it was too rough, my parents moved us to Surrey which was nice. At 11, we moved to Hertfordshire, very posh. And when I was 18, I went to college.

DT Before you moved here, what part of London did you live in?

ST I was in Bethnal Green for the last five years, but before that in Camden. I lived near the West End so everyone came to mine before going out. Michael Clark was my lodger for a bit. Then, my life seemed normal. Now it’s funny everyone’s obsessed with the 1980s. Then, the West End was different. Now, clubs are everywhere, and it’s packed. Then, there was one club where everyone went, and when you left to get the night bus, the streets were empty! Now, it’s busier at night than during the day. It’s full of normal people. For freaky people, I’m a normal person – I love that. I had my feet on the ground with a proper job, and then all these fantastic friends. It was a weird mix. Having a job keeps you alive. We used to say it saved us. You can’t stay up all night taking drugs and getting drunk all the time then go into work in the morning. I used to stay up until 3am then crawl into work with a hangover, and it kept me together. I learnt how to use computers, I learnt deadlines. I learnt how to do things properly. So, I’m a mixture.

L: Leigh Bowery leather doll by Lee Benjamin. Courtesy of Sue Tilley.
R: ‘Joan Crawford’ postcard from Leigh Bowery to Sue Tilley, December 1993.

DT What is your star sign?

ST Pisces. What does that mean? All I know is that Aries are terrible show-offs, and I think at one point about 90 percent of my friends were Aries! Between the end of February and April practically everyone I know has their birthday. I was conceived on my mum and dad’s honeymoon. I was born 9 months and 5 days after they were married. Funny isn’t it.

DT When did you and Leigh start sending each other postcards?

ST Right throughout the 1980s. I didn’t go many places, and Leigh travelled much more. It was a way of keeping in touch; no one sends them anymore. They were like works of art. He went all over the world for jobs, not for holidays. I used to be jealous of all his jobs, but now I’m getting my own. He didn’t even have to think about them, they would just come his way. Anyway, I’m not materialistic, just as well. I always think I’m about to go bust and then something happens, and more money appears. And I’m all right.

DT Did you ever travel together?

ST In 1984 we had a fantastic trip to New York and stayed with Charles Atlas. Loads of us came from London including Michael Clark, Judy Blame and Richard Habberley. It was such fun. The first few nights we got ready to go out and just passed out with jet lag. We were used to staying up late, it’s not like we were wimps used to going to bed at 10pm. Then we went to Area and took magic mushrooms with Gary Glitter and drank Sea Breezes. We’d never heard of them; I’d never heard of cranberry juice. We were so unsophisticated. When we got back to the house, we were so drunk and falling over. I got in the bath with my legs up and then my period started! Richard hadn’t been out with us, so he was sober taking photos of us all drunk. He always threatened me with it. I’ve got a picture of Leigh who vomited the pink cranberry juice everywhere. In the morning, it was all gone because I had cleaned it up while I was drunk. Leigh was like me. He would only get drunk when he went out. He used to say, ‘I hate drinking, I hate it, but I can’t go out dressed like this if I don’t drink, because it would be just too painful.’

DT A good boy from the suburbs of Melbourne.

ST Exactly, but you know I didn’t even know he was Australian until I’d known him about three months, as he hid is accent. And when he started working for Lucian, his voice got really posh!

DT Is that how you met Lucian?

ST Yes. Because Leigh liked to improve people’s lives. He didn’t like that I worked in the job centre. So, he decided that I should work for Lucian, and so as Lucian was a control freak as well, he had to put the idea into his head that he should paint me and organise to bump into him.

DT Did he teach you anything about painting?

ST Not really, because I wasn’t paying any attention then. I’m not dedicated enough to spend nine months on one painting. I want to get it done in a couple of weeks! I like relaxing too, and to have other things in my life as well. I always think I know a little about lots and lots of things, but not a lot about anything. Except maybe pop stars!