Sue Tilley Benefits Supervisor Sleeping Realness

Things that are currently tiring me:

  • Writing about being in a body.
  • Drawing my body.
  • Being in a body.
  • Knowing that I will never know what it is like to not be in a body; or if I can attain such an experience, knowing that I will never be able to express or transmit this feeling back to another body.
  • And, as such, this experience, in the context of my constellation of values and priorities and interests, is useless to me. Like tits on a bull.
  • Knowing that my experience of being in this body is finite. ‘No one gets out of here alive,’ etc.
  • Knowing that as tired as I am of being in a body, its alternative equally terrifies me.
  • How the knowledge of this terror does not destroy the abyssal void that whirrs behind it. 
  • How boring this terror is. Like: a financial management lecture on the present value of future cash flows given by Count Dracula.
  • On one hand you’re trembling convulsively, on another it just feels like you’re at a bad theatre restaurant.
  • Etc.
  • Etc.

I love life modelling. I love settling into a pose, listening to the scratching of pencils start. How quiet it is at first, the contemplative quietude hanging in the air like in a church or an exam room, followed by the increasingly frenetic swooshing of charcoal as the artists rush to complete their drawings. I love that it is the only time when I can actually meditate, because there is genuinely nothing else I can distract myself with, and no one is talking, and all I can do is hold and feel my body. I mean, usually I’m doing other doings, mentally, managing grocery-and-other-checklists, planning how good the supposed later version of myself is going to be, etc., dedicated and able to follow a goal and to do self-care etc., but sometimes, for a few seconds, I can not think. I can be in my body, know how it feels.

I used to do life modelling when I was younger—twenty-three or twenty-four. I did it because I needed the cash, because I wanted to be freer and/or feel less awful in my body, because I wanted to know how I was seen. I did it mainly at private schools. Small boys in prim blazers fumbled bits of charcoal. Their eyes winced as they caught me glancing at their stick figures, silently capitulating: Sorry. You look much less ugly than that. Once I modelled at a uni and the teacher instructed me to lie on the floor, on my front, spread-eagle. I lay down, ass facing the artists, did what he said. 

‘That open?’ I asked. 

‘Yes,’ he said. I was worried you could see my probably fully splayed cunt, but I couldn’t see it in any of the students’ pictures. I’m not sure if they excluded it to afford me the dignity I had failed to affect, or because of their second-hand embarrassment.

1.	A watercolour painting with a dark blue, green, light purple, and white colour palette. A nude person is seen at a three-quarter side pose from the waist up. Their eyes slightly squint as they focus ahead with their lips gently pursed. They have a short, blunt fringe, with the rest of their hair in a high bun. A shadow effect created with deeper paint application envelops their body.

In preparation for writing this piece, I re-read an essay that I had written for an online, feminist-ish magazine about seven years ago. The experience tortured me (don’t read anything you wrote seven years ago, my god—as Freya Daly Sadgrove writes in her poem, ‘BAD SEX IN BIG SUBURBS’,1 ‘four years is how long it takes the empathy you have for yourself to deteriorate’). Back then, it seemed I thought that I had an ‘unusual’ body, even though I was forty kilograms or so lighter than I am now—a scrawny thing. I thought there was something perhaps transformative or redemptive about life modelling, as if it might shift or change the artist’s perception of the body. It seems I was just clutching at straws, trying to pin some kind of certainty/argument to my thoughts, to fit the didactic constraints of the think-piece. I no longer know what I believe.

When I have recently modelled, age thirty-three, it has mainly been for sixty-plus people. I feel less serious about it. I joke with the artists. The last time was in a community hall. The host brought ginger biscuits, dip, and hummus for the artists and I to snack on. At the break in the middle of the session, a group of older people sat like a pack of teenagers on the bench at the end of the hall. 

‘Come on,’ the host scolded. ‘Get back to your work. You can drink your tea while you draw.’

‘She’s still got her robe on!’ one of them insisted. Laughing, I dropped my robe. 

During the breaks, I walk around the room and examine people’s work. Older men, generally, are very happy to talk to me about their technique, to show off how they have come to it. When I tell them I am an artist they are always very happy to give me advice. 

Life modelling as life hack:

  • Life modelling is good because it’s an artistic collaboration where I don’t have to contribute anything, except my fat ass.
  • Life modelling is good because you can do it lying down.
  • Life modelling is good because it lets you see how others see you. 
  • Life modelling is good because you can buy a robe for it and count it as a tax write-off. I bought a new one recently, dusty pink and fluffy, when I felt like rolling around on Jayne Mansfield’s shag-pile bathroom floor. A high-femme monstrosity.
  • Life modelling is good because in winter you can do it close to a heater, and feel yourself nodding off, drifting in the waves of heat.
  • Life modelling is good because you can do it with your eyes shut. 
2.	A watercolour painting with a dark blue, purple, pink, and brown colour palette. A nude person lays on their side across a purple lounge with their hair in a bun and lips tightly pursed. Their eyes are shut and their head rests on the lounge’s arm. Their knees slightly bend with their toes tucked into the lounge's corner. One hand rests on the top of the lounge, while the other cups one of their breasts from beneath their body.

Whenever I am modelling and I lie on my side, arms soft and splayed, and tell myself I’m doing ‘Sue Tilley Benefits Supervisor Sleeping realness’. My breasts and stomach sag forth like edgeless pillows.

I love Lucian Freud’s paintings of Sue Tilley. It’s a complicated love. Lucian Freud, by many accounts, was not a very nice man, especially to one of his muses/the artist he overshadowed, Celia Paul.2 But I love these paintings. Tilley looks so peaceful in them, her body blobby and relaxed. I have listened to and read many interviews with her. I find Sue Tilley fascinating. She really did work as a benefits supervisor, helping clients to sign up for welfare. When it came to night-time she would hang out with these same clients at London’s queer clubs. She befriended and partied with infamous club kid Leigh Bowery. She was—and is—big, fat, and wild. She once said3 that it wasn’t a good night unless she had gotten drunk enough to fall over. Tilley had mixed, though positive, associations with Freud. As Cameron Laux notes, ‘She liked him because he was “hilarious” and loved to gossip with her… She found Freud’s mercurial personality fascinating: she says he could be “mean, extremely generous, grumpy, funny, loud, quiet”’.4

Sue Tilley now lives in St Leonards, by the English seaside. She makes her own art, has published a book about Leigh Bowery, and teaches art classes on Zoom. She received some prints from Freud as thanks for her modelling which she has since sold when she needed some cash. His portraits of her, now held in private collections by wealthy businessmen, have set price records for painting sales. She’s not bitter about this, but is as witty and self-effacing in her comments as ever. When asked why Freud picked her as a model, she said that she must have been good value for money (‘He got a lot of flesh’). 

The only time he ever wrote about his art (and I mean, why write when you can paint like that?) Lucian Freud wrote, ‘A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure’.5

How about when I paint myself? How about when I am modelling? How much of this is for my use and pleasure, learning how others see me, delighting in the marks, lines, and shades that have configured me into a signifier, more tangible than a selfie, probably to be preserved longer, too (if you discount the way cloud-based systems hold onto deleted content, which I probably should, but I don’t). And how much is it for the $40 an hour? And, if I really think about it, isn’t that $40 (or the $80 for the legal minimum working hours) the most useful and pleasurable thing about the whole thing?

How much pleasure is there in being preserved in someone else’s image, and how much of it is simply unnerving? I often wonder about those Renaissance women who we now associate with the era and its beauty standards. I think about Botticelli’s Venus, Simonetta Vespucci, and what she thinks about all the representations of her. Her ghost, still young and hot at twenty-three, floating above the wall hangings and the shower curtains, feeling, what? Usefulness, pleasure? Is there something enjoyable about having your image moulded by someone else’s hands and then commercialised and recirculated for hundreds of years? Genuine question. I really want to know.

Two nights ago, I had gastro for the second time this year. I vomited more, I think, than I ever have in my life. It came down like big sheets of rain falling down a mountain. My shit streamed out like a waterfall. My body was betraying me from both ends.

Though, what a way to say it. Her body betrayed her, it wore out, it gave out. Like a disloyal pet or a car that has too much mileage. We don’t say, when someone is mentally sick, that their mind gave out. That it wore out, that it betrayed the owner—but we do say that it plays tricks on us. The body is walled off from the mind; there is still this idea of the mind as the boss, or the magician, the one holding the strings—when, duh, it’s more complicated than that. 

Some would say that my fat body, acquired over the last few years of lockdowns, anti-depressants, and metabolic change, is a betrayal. Though of course it is the same body, just bigger and better, and anyway, I no longer see such change as a betrayal. It is sometimes shocking to see my body in life drawings: its heft, its blocky nature, its solidity (I am what is sometimes called a ‘unit’), but I have decidedly stopped giving a shit. (I have decided to stop giving a shit.)

3. A watercolour painting with a dark blue, purple, green, pink, and brown colour palette. The image shows a person kneeling on one knee from behind. Their brown hair is in a high bun. They gaze half over their shoulder. Dark outlines and deep blue and green shadows surround their body, giving a bold effect.

Things I am struggling to care about:

  • My body/how it is perceived.
  • Writing/drawing feelings about embodiment.
  • Representation: particularly when positive instances of such are masking far uglier harms than having a thin person play a fat person in a movie.
  • The sense that my work has any meaning, beyond whatever small pleasure/value/novelty I glean in the doing.

I have not been writing lately, maybe because I do not know what I want instead of these things. Modelling is a channel towards being creative in some way without having to do anything with my hands. To be painted, rather than painting. To be the object, rather than the subject-object. To stop losing myself, my mind-body betraying itself, in this ever-fuglier hall of mirrors. Forever chasing my tail, my big fat rump.

Where am I going with any of this? Do I want my art, my personhood, to be useless, a void of pleasure? Ornamental in the worst sense of the word? A plastic plant on an office cubicle desk during lockdown? No, something funnier, stupider.

1.	A watercolour painting with a light blue, purple, green, pink, and brown colour palette. In the background, swirls of light blue gently curl across the image, with some visible water markings from where water has been applied to the paint. In the foreground, a figure is shown from the chest up, nude. A bull’s head with a happy, placid expression sits on top of a human torso, with arms/hooves crossed below the figure’s breasts.

  1. Freya Daly Sadgrove, ‘BAD SEX IN BIG SUBURBS’, Minarets, 2018, Accessed 30/11/2022, ↩︎
  2. Rachel Cusk, ‘Can A Woman Who Is An Artist Ever Just Be An Artist?’, New York Times, 7th November 2019, Accessed 30th November 2022, ↩︎
  3. Cameron Laux, ‘Lucian Freud and Sue Tilley: The story of an unlikely muse’, BBC Culture, 14th May 2018, Accessed 30th November 2022 ↩︎
  4. Ibid. ↩︎
  5. Lucian Freud, ‘Some thoughts on painting, by Lucian Freud’, Royal Academy of Arts, 25th October 2019, Accessed 30th November 2022, ↩︎