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Bookish | Matthew Gilbert

Crossing over: Sylvia Plath’s drawings

The Estate of Sylvia Plath/© The Estate of Sylvia Plath.

We tend to roll our eyes at artists who cross boundaries to dabble in a new medium. Many musicians, including Leonard Cohen, Tony Bennett, David Bowie, and Marilyn Manson, paint and sketch on the side, but generally their work is viewed as a kind of brand extension. In some cases — think Jerry Garcia’s art neckties — the brand is very successfully extended indeed.

And then there are those — such as actress Scarlett Johansson, who recorded an album of Tom Waits covers — who should probably keep their miscellaneous ambitions to themselves.

But there is a long and rich history of successful crossovers, particularly among writers who sketch and paint. It may seem as though dabbling in multiple mediums is a byproduct of today’s obsessively synergistic culture, which pushes every pop star to take up acting in order to broaden their market reach; it’s not.


Some of the world’s greatest creative souls have found expression through a variety of outlets, one that dominates their career and others that speak more to personal passions. Lewis Carroll, Henry Miller, Rudyard Kipling, George Sand, D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O’Connor, August Strindberg — the list of visually artistic writers is long. In the case of William Blake, of course, the words and images were bound together in the illustrated collection “Songs of Innocence and Experience” and other illuminated writings.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1958. Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College/Black Star/From "Ted Hughes"

Sylvia Plath was also a devoted visual artist, a fact that wasn’t widely known until her only surviving child, Frieda Hughes, put her drawings up for auction in 2011. Since her death 50 years ago, Plath has been our mythic confessional poet, the fragile yet furious author of “The Bell Jar” and “Ariel,” a feminist figure, the cheated wife, the broken daughter, the raw nerve, the literary suicide; few have thought of her as an ardent producer of pen-and-ink boats, shoes, bulls, stoves, and chestnuts, a woman who dearly hoped The New Yorker might one day use her images as incidental art amid the text in its pages.


“Sylvia Plath: Drawings,” published by HarperCollins, is a collection of her sketches, and it is edited and introduced by Hughes. The sketches are the latest chapter in the story of one of literature’s most tragic families. They were given to Frieda and her brother, Nicholas Hughes, by their father, Ted Hughes, not long before his death in 1998. After Nicholas killed himself in 2009, Frieda decided to clean house and deliver the artwork to her mother’s fans. She put together the book for posterity and sold the drawings at auction, keeping only one for herself — her mother’s portrait of her father from 1956. The portrait is in the book, with Hughes looking like a Romantic hero, strong jawed, thick-haired, dark-browed.

The sketches in “Sylvia Plath: Drawings” were all made during the happy year or so after Plath and Ted Hughes married in June 1956. Some are from their summer honeymoon in Paris and Spain, and, in a letter to her mother that’s included in the collection, Plath writes: “Every drawing has in my mind and heart a beautiful association of our sitting together in the hot sun, Ted reading, writing poems, or just talking with me.”

Others were done during the period when the couple decided to live apart in England, afraid their new marriage might jeopardize her Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge University. In a letter to her secret husband, she bemoans their self-imposed separation: “I ache and ache to return to my proper place, which is curled up right there, sheltered and cherished.” She aches, but she is simultaneously buoyed by that same ache, one of love and hope, feelings that often eluded her.


Looking at Plath’s art in relation to her poetry and her life is inevitable, and fascinating. On one level, there’s no obvious connection. Her subject matter — a still life of pots and fruit, white plaster tenements in Spain, a “ubiquitous umbrella” in England — isn’t particularly dramatic; it doesn’t signal the kind of pain and violence that charged through her poetry and led her to take her own life at 30. The charming objects pose politely in her gaze, far from the deployment of metaphor.

In a way, the drawings seem to have offered her a respite from the cerebral work of words. “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” she wrote to “dearest love Teddy” while she was alone at Cambridge; “I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

But then, if you look closely at the lines in Plath’s drawings, you get a full sense of the weight of her hand on the page. The strokes are thick and indelible and appear to be infused with some intensity. The objects are ordinary and cool, but her focus carries some heat. She is leaning hard into her dense work, it seems, enjoying the artifice but driven, as always, by tenser feeling.


If you didn’t know these drawings were by Plath, you might nonetheless detect a strained personality behind them. Just as handwriting can reveal its owner’s temperament in the pressure of the pen on the paper, in the meticulousness of the shaping, so do these drawings.

In his 1998 collection “Birthday Letters,” Hughes addressed his marriage to Plath explicitly for the first time. In the poem “Drawing,” he writes to Plath: “Drawing calmed you. Your poker infernal pen / Was like a branding iron. Objects /Suffered into their new presence, tortured / Into final position.” He notes both the liberation she found with her pad as well as the ferocity of her hand. She may not have been sharing her pain, as was her wont, but it was there nonetheless.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert
. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.