There is wild pleasure to be had from the works of painter Rose Wylie.

What to make of a work like Pin Up and Porn Queen Jigsaw (2005)? That very literal title leads us to a large painting on four panels. To the upper left is a sultry figure in a patterned dress inspired by memories of Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961).

On the upper-right panel, in profile, is pornographic actress Annabel Chong painted after Wylie saw her in a TV documentary.

Pin Up and Porn Queen Jigsaw

Pin Up and Porn Queen Jigsaw 2005

Rose Wylie (b.1934)


These panels, like the two below them, are separated into numbered pieces by broken lines, like a rudimentary jigsaw, except that the numbers keep repeating and some pieces carry no number at all.

Annabel Chong appears to be eyeballing Monroe – one sex object sizing up another. Pictured only as a head, there is nothing in the painting that tells us she is the titular 'porn queen.'

One might describe both women as icons of popular culture – a subject Wylie returns to frequently in her paintings of film stills and footballers – turning them into a jigsaw makes their likenesses so everyday that they become almost quaint.

2006, oil on canvas by Rose Wylie (b.1934)

Choco Leibnitz

2006, oil on canvas by Rose Wylie (b.1934)

Everything in Wylie's paintings tend to be animated and full of movement: the titular biscuit of Choco Leibnitz (2006) flies joyfully into a waiting mouth.

Another work, The Empty Bench (2017), is painted in a sickly hospital green against a seething oxblood sky. The bench poises crouched, ready to bound out of the painting like a grasshopper.

Empty Park Bench

Empty Park Bench

2017, oil on canvas by Rose Wylie (b.1934)

Figurehead (2017) was painted for Wylie's exhibition 'History Painting' in Plymouth.

History painting traditionally celebrates triumph in battle, noble tragedy, or mythic episodes. In this instance, Wylie's painting draws on her childhood stories of the voyage of the Mayflower. She painted the ship's wooden figurehead, rather than heroes of flesh and blood: female, glam, wide-eyed and vigorous, she looks ready to go, and distinctly un-puritanical.

Figure Head

Figure Head 2017

Rose Wylie (b.1934)

Government Art Collection

It was while studying at Goldsmith's College in London in the 1950s that Wylie met her future husband Roy Oxlade.

After raising their family, the pair studied together for postgraduate degrees at London's Royal College of Art in the late 1970s, and lived, worked, and taught together until Oxlade's death in February 2014.

In writing and speaking about their own art and art-making more broadly, Oxlade and Wylie have cited allied philosophies and common points of reference.

Profile and Brushes

Profile and Brushes 1984–1985

Roy Oxlade (1929–2014)

Jerwood Collection

Oxlade disavowed the academic value system underpinning received ideas of 'good' and 'bad' drawing: 'As everyone can speak, sing, dance, everyone can draw,' he wrote.

'There would be every reason to benefit from the study of examples of drawing from the whole of human cultural history for companionship and not just those which celebrate our 'superiority'.

Wylie, too, has taken pains to clarify her position in relation to, for example, the paintings of lions and zebra seen on the side of trucks in Africa that informed Lorry Art (2010). It was her aim, she writes 'to respect them as paintings, and stay with them, and not modify them into Western art, as the Cubists did with African ritual imagery a hundred years ago.'

Lorry Art

Lorry Art 2010

Rose Wylie (b.1934)


Wylie's simplified forms rendered in thick lines and bright colours on un-primed canvas represent a sort of unlearning: a return to image-making unmediated by mental baggage acquired from the academy. Instead, she pursues the immediacy of art created by young children or the enthusiastic amateur: a deliberate graphic sketchy quality.

Surface textures like grassiness and shininess are rendered via cartoonish shorthand: three stripes of green for the former (she calls this 'medieval grass' recalling the stylised foliage on a tapestry), blingy starbursts for the latter. The immediate impression of Wylie's paintings suggests freshness, spontaneity and optimism.

Girl on Liner

Girl on Liner 1996

Rose Wylie (b.1934)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Figures and words are pencilled along the edges of paintings and drawings, some technical measurements, others closer to marginalia: commentary and references relating to the finished work.

In Queen With Pansies (Dots) (2016), notes at the edge in purple crayon tell us that the large image of Queen Elizabeth I was from 'the Ditchley Portrait' and the pansies to the right of it from the Kent village of Newnham.

2016, oil on canvas by Rose Wylie (b.1934)

Queen of Pansies (Dots)

2016, oil on canvas by Rose Wylie (b.1934)

More assertive fragments of text appear within the 'picture' of the painting – on either side the Virgin Queen appear the phrases: 'can but does not take revenge…'in giving back she increases'.'

The author of the Ditchley Portrait Marcus Gheeraerts the younger is named, though clipped by the edge of the canvas. Wylie has explained that she deliberately fragments and misspells words that appear in her paintings to break the authority and primacy of text.

Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait')

Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait') c.1592

Marcus Gheeraerts the younger (1561/1562–1635/1636)

National Portrait Gallery, London

The sense of spontaneous urgency in Wylie's painting is enhanced by her habit of collaging additional portions of canvas, tape or paper, apparently so that a section of the picture might be quickly reworked.

Yet an examination of Wylie's drawings and watercolours suggests a very different narrative: figures and compositions are tested over and over again; portions of collage and directional notes transfer quite directly from working sketches onto the final canvas.

Self Portrait with Shut Mouth

Self Portrait with Shut Mouth 2017

Rose Wylie (b.1934)

Jerwood Collection

Wylie's ongoing Film Notes series reinforces the degree of planning and care that sits beyond the artist's apparently loose and improvisatory style.

Wylie paints from memory, so she is the photographer for the purposes of these movie moments, choosing to zoom in or out of the action. She engages with the instability of the filmed image, the flickering frames that build into an apparently still moment on screen, and how this in itself, is a jarring fragmentation of the fluid, restless way in which we see and take in a scene.

Rose Wylie

Rose Wylie

To confuse Wylie's interest in naïve forms of representation with a lack of seriousness, then, would be a mistake. Just because she celebrates simple, joyous, moments – an orange dress, chocolate biscuits, a handful of paper dolls blowing in the wind – does not mean, either, that she is all simple joy.

Instead, in their multiple points of reference, and visual gourmandising, Wylie's paintings are a reminder of how things coexist in our mind's eye and how the memory of a place or time is never a simple, fixed thing: merely a few threads plucked in the moment from a shimmering tangle.

Hettie Judah, art critic

Elements of this essay first appeared in Mousse Magazine, published in Mousse 64, summer, 2018, and in The I newspaper, 11 December 2017.