Inside the home of Sue Dunkley

My house was built in 1834,” Sue Dunkley told the Islington Express in 2003, “It speaks to me and inspires me all the time. You can be anonymous here. Eight exhibitions have come out of this house since I’ve been here. And all the time only four people have knocked to ask what I’m doing.”

The day I knock at 437 Liverpool Road, Islington, the artist’s daughter, Jane, answers the door and leads me into the front room where her mother worked for 40 years. There are paintings and pastels covering every wall, others stacked under plastic sheets, notebooks, art reference books and magazines piled on tables and a paint-encrusted high stool, which she used as a makeshift mixing palette. It is every inch a working artist’s room, cluttered with materials and alive with works-in-progress.

Except they are no longer works-in-progess – all of them will remain unfinished, a testament to Dunkley’s relentless creativity but also evidence of the onset of dementia. She is currently in a care home, having been diagnosed with the condition seven years ago.

Sue Dunkley at home in 1974. Photograph: Courtesy Sue Dunkley and Jane Bodie

“As far as I can ascertain, my mother stopped working 10 years ago and that was the moment her memory started to disintegrate,” says Jane, a playwright who now lives in Australia, but has returned to clear out and impose some order on the vast Georgian house in preparation for a retrospective of her mother’s work.

“When the work stopped, the house started to become chaotic. I’ve found notes and letters to doctors, so I think she was aware of what was happening to her. It’s been painful. I’ve collapsed crying on the floor a few times. I have had to clear the house, because I cannot let it go. But to pay for her care, we need to raise money.”

Even in the throes of a frantic clear out, the sprawling house evokes a bohemian life lived to the full. “My mother was a voracious talker and lover of language, as the writing in her sketchbooks attest,” says Jane. “She was obsessed with Seamus Heaney, who bought one of her paintings, and there is a book by him inscribed to her upstairs. The house was a gathering place for like-minded souls as well as a place of intense solitary creativity. She somehow balanced the two extremes.”

 
Woman in Mirror (1968). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Born in 1942, Sue Dunkley came of age as an artist in the 1960s and, for a time, looked set to become as feted as the stylishly beautiful Pauline Boty, the lone female of Britain’s pop art scene. In 1966, Nova magazine, the arbiter of all things cool, profiled her in an article titled Woman in a Hurry: “She talks a great deal, very fast … She is clearly very gifted: the not-quite-abstract bodies swirling up though the bright talkative colours were very like their creator, wholly in character.”

Later, she had a successful one-woman show at the Thumb gallery on D’Arblay Street in Soho, which the Guardian described as “images of women and interiors” created from a sense of “disquiet”. She told the reviewer: “I knew as a young artist the roles I would have to enact would cause conflict. Women, artist. Mother, artist. I need to wrestle with the devil sometimes, and am aware that often the charge needed to realise an image is in conflict with other aspects of my life.”

Her daughter recalls that conflict first-hand. “Sometimes we were a bit overlooked as children because her work came first,” says Jane. “It’s what artists do. I remember I came home early from school one day because I wasn’t very well and I stuck a note under her door. I knew not to bother her. I thought that was the norm.”

The periods of intense creativity were broken by spells of entertaining in the basement kitchen. “She used to call herself a garrulous hermit,” says Jane, laughing. “She had big gatherings, lots of smoking and drinking and talking into the night. My brother and I would often find young men in the kitchen drinking wine and Nina Simone blaring out. She was wild and free.”

Regular visitors to the house included the artist Howard Hodgkin, who once painted Sue, and Roger Waters and his wife, Jude, who lived just around the corner in the early 70s. “My dad was a musician – he once toured with Dire Straits – and a builder. He did up Roger’s house and they became friends just before Dark Side of the Moon came out.”