Back in the mid-sixties, artist Eleanor Brooks placed a postcard calling for a cleaner in a newsagent’s window. Some days later an elderly lady knocked on her door.
“I thought oh dear, poor old thing,“ says Eleanor, “you know I was sorry for her so I invited her in for a cup of tea. She gave the impression of being much too frail to do a good job. I asked if she was a widow and she said: ’Yes, cancer, I’m glad he’s gone, I hated him’.
“I was hooked! I’d never met anyone like this before, she said exactly what came into her head without the slightest inhibition.“
Mrs Spinks, as she was known, proved completely inept at cleaning, but the fascinated Eleanor kept her on, paying her instead to model for a series of portraits.
“Every cleaning job I asked her to do, she did wrong,“ says Eleanor, 87. “So I asked her to model. She was flattered and eventually, as it went on, puzzled. But she liked getting a meal and the money. She thought I was a bit mad I think.
“She didn’t sit still and she talked the whole time and when she felt like leaving she just got up and left with no consideration if I was midway through a brush stroke or not!“
As she sat, Mrs Spinks would regale Eleanor with tales of her fascinating past. Born ’at the back of the Harringay dog track’ in 1899, her life had seen ambitions to be a ballet dancer, rat-infested lodgings, a stint as a nurse in Paris, hunger, drink dependency, nervous breakdowns, a prefrontal lobotomy and horrific treatment in psychiatric hospitals.
“It was very difficult to tell when she was telling a tale and when it was true,“ says Eleanor. “You’d think she must be making this up, then you’d find it was actually true.
“She dramatised everything, she was changeable and at times had a very raucous laugh. She should have been an actress really.“
The relationship continued for seven years as Eleanor adapted her then strictly traditional painting style in an attempt to capture her ever-changing subject.
“I let her lead me by the nose and I did what I felt expressed her. I was fairly correct as an artist, sort of well brought up, by the time I’d done portrait number four her personality had become a little more obvious and my fine art type painting was being defeated by her.“
Eleanor’s muse inspired her to create scores of oils, watercolours, sculptures and drawings, which she combined in an installation: A Portrait of Mrs Spinks. The piece includes a mock-up of Mrs Spinks’ bedsit, made from cardboard and junk, complete with some of the intriguing elderly lady’s personal belongings.
At the time the work was first shown, the term ’installation’ was new to the art world. Although overlooked by the era’s serious critics, A Portrait of Mrs Spinks has toured galleries and museums ever since, inspired a book Eva Spinks Speaks, with plans for a stage show now in discussion.
Eleanor, now 87, has outlived Mrs Spinks, but her muse’s wicked attitude and outlook lives on.
“Do what you like, she’d say, stop being a good girl and do what you like! Don’t feel that you have to do what people tell you any longer – I tell it to my art students.
“Hers is quite an immoral message – it really doesn’t matter as long as you enjoy life – though god knows she got into endless trouble! That’s what I learnt from her and I think that’s why people admire her – because she was so wicked and yet you love her.“
A Portrait of Mrs Spinks is at the Coleraine and Compton Galleries, Bruce Castle Museum, Lordship Lane, until March 10. Details: 020 8808 8772