In conversation with Timothy Hyman RA

Published 31 August 2012

As artist in residence at Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre, the Academician is a healing presence.

  • From the Autumn 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Hospitals have for many centuries used major artists to counter the clinical bleakness of medical interiors. Hogarth, for example, made two paintings for the staircase of the Great Hall at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. But modern hospitals could undoubtedly do far more to look after the whole person, not just the patient’s bodily ailment. And the Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres designed by leading architects across Britain, while not actually hospitals themselves, are now giving a great deal of thought to the role that artists might play in achieving this admirable goal.

    Judging by the intensity of the drawings in his London studio, Timothy Hyman is devoting an enormous amount of energy and thought to his residency at Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. He started last December, after Maggie’s secured a grant for the project from the Cocheme Charitable Trust. Hyman had no hesitation in accepting the invitation to visit the Centre at Charing Cross Hospital, one day a week for a year, and discover how Maggie’s unique approach to cancer care helps people in need. “I knew Charing Cross Hospital well,” he explains, “because my twin brother was treated there for cancer before he died in 1999 at the age of 53.”

    The Maggie’s Centre built there almost a decade later, and designed by Richard Rogers RA’s firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, won the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize in 2009. And Hyman, who has been fascinated by architecture as well as people throughout his career, knows just how much his ailing brother “would have appreciated the Maggie’s Centre: it is wonderful.”

    Leafing through the many pencil drawings in his Islington studio, a luminous ground-floor room looking over the harmonious architecture of Myddelton Square, Hyman remembers the excitement of his first visit. “I thought the entrance was terrific,” he says enthusiastically. “I think Richard Rogers wanted it to lift the soul, and I definitely got a charge. It’s very impressive, and the colour of the exterior walls, particularly in winter, is filled with reflections of the nearby trees. It’s a little temple in a garden.” Hyman recalls how Laura Lee, the CEO of Maggie’s, asked him to “capture the life of the Centre”. And it wasn’t long before he became profoundly involved with the apprehensive people visiting the London building. He shows me an image of “a young guy with a cello strapped to his back, hesitating before he entered the Centre.” Since then, Hyman has made many vividly observed drawings, at once freely executed and penetrating, of a group suffering from prostate cancer.

    Most of the time he has concentrated on drawing, because, he says, “it’s not obtrusive, it’s the invisible medium.” Aware of the need to be discreet, he immediately respected the wishes of “someone who asked me not to draw her because of her hair loss.” Being an artist at Maggie’s can, he admits, “be like walking on eggs, and I am circumspect.” But Hyman has clearly won the respect of the people who go there and the staff. “You’re aware of weeping and terrible grieving going on,” he says, “but I have been encouraging one woman to draw and I really think it’s doing her good. The people there are very brave, and the overall atmosphere at Maggie’s is very lively with lots of laughter.”

    Hyman’s use of line is admirably loose and free. He emphasizes that “for me, drawing works when the line has autonomy.” Nor is he discouraged when his draughtsmanship does not live up to his expectations. “Josef Herman, who was a mentor, used to tell me back in the 1980s that ‘Good drawings make bad paintings.’ Often the bad drawings are better because they aren’t yet there.” Hyman has started working on paintings as well, in particular an impressive picture of people ranged round the big central table at Maggie’s, with the large window beyond yielding a view of resilient trees and even a distant red London bus. He is planning many more, and anticipates that some of the works from the residency will be exhibited in 2013.

    But I am already impressed by Hyman’s ability to capture, in drawing after drawing, the restorative activities at the Maggie’s Centre in London. “The real material is to do with people”, he explains. “This is a drawing of the T’ai Chi class, very free because they’re all moving, and here they are making Christmas wreaths during my first month in the residency. Drawing fast is a challenge, and there are zillions of other drawings I haven’t shown you.” But I can tell that he has already captured the heart of the visionary ambition behind Maggie’s, and I look forward to seeing how Hyman proceeds on his compassionate journey.

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