Henrietta Moraes was not given to understatement. Fuck Off Darling – her memoir – was unfinished at her death in 1999, but actor Sue MacLaine was captivated. ‘I read, and fell in love with her’, MacLaine said. ‘You have to, really.’
MacLaine’s one woman show is her tribute to Moraes, the Soho bohemian who worked as a life model and befriended Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Recreating the intimate poses Moraes struck for them, MacLaine invites the audience to reach for their 3B pencils and sketch: ‘I am undraped. Draw what you see. Steal my soul and show it back to me ’ she challenges. And so the poses begin, held for minutes at a time, or just an instant - MacLaine’s tattooed back and hips revolving or receding, according to her mood, while the pencils work. Languorous glimpses of Moraes life are offered up as MacLaine extends a leg: the lovers, the alcohol, the cocktail of drugs and the parties: ‘I believed they liked me, I believed… then everyone went home.’
A short career as a cat burglar resulted in a spell in Holloway; the shock of confinement felt even greater after months spent exploring Wales and Ireland in a gypsy caravan. After three husbands, and many lovers (latterly the artist Maggie Hambling, who Moraes sat for every Monday afternoon), Moraes was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.
Despite the indignities Moraes was subjected to: having wide angled shots taken between her legs, she rarely lost her sense of humour. ‘They were sold to a pub full of sailors for 10 bob a shot’, while a painting of her by Francis Bacon fetched £21 million at auction.
Moraes might have described that as an ‘almost’ moment – tantalizingly close, but somehow so much within her grasp slipping away. ‘Draw me now and see if you can get past the almost’, MacLaine taunts. Sitting behind our easels, pencils working fast, perhaps we almost did.