Concerning Nell: Nude on a sofa

There’s a character in Nell I’ve called Ilona. She’s Nell’s sister-in-law, an artist in an era of conformity and mainstream suspicion towards those who devoted themselves to an experimental, creative life. ‘Black sheep’ sums up the family’s early view of her. These days we’re proud of the enormous body of work she produced and of her for breaking with expectation in her mildly ‘wayward’ life. She became one of many centenarians preserved in the cool air of Ōtepoti/Dunedin, and attained 104 years. ‘Ilona’ trained in Christchurch and abroad, and lived itinerantly for many years. I may write more of her later, but for now just this: we found yet-another stash of her work and this unfinished painting-on-wallpaper captivated me for the questions it raised: who, where, in what circumstances?

Nude on a sofa, I E Todd/Harley

I wrote the image into a couple of scenes.


A picture arrives from Herb’s sister Ilona, now back in New Zealand: one of her own oils on a piece of hardboard, ‘to warm the house, or perhaps your bedroom’.

            ‘Good lord,’ says Herb as they open the parcel on a cleared space of kitchen table.

            A naked woman reclines on a green-striped sofa. Uniformly tanned, like Ilona herself last summer. No pale thighs or upper arms for her when they all went into the Kyeburn River one sweltering day. A red shoe lies discarded on the floor.

            ‘That’s awkward.’ Herb might be referring to the oddly triangular shape of the sofa, to the woman hiding her eyes from the open curtain, to the raised foot seeming to kick a pink cloth (a tiny garment?) off the end. Or to the question of where to hang it. If at all. He flips it around and reads, ‘The Lorelei’. Turns it back. ‘She hasn’t signed it. What the heck. Just for a laugh, is it?’

            They take in the unpunctuated breasts and fingerless hands.

            ‘It’s not finished,’ Nell says. ‘But it is rather fun.’

            Rather fun, except that it makes her and Herb lose their bearings; fun in an awkward way, which means it will be relegated to a dark corner in the least-used room of the house, and hung more prominently (‘I won’t have her saying we’re prudes.’), temporarily, next time Ilona comes to visit.