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Helen Chadwick ('Vanitas II')

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- set matching 'Terence Pepper gift'

© estate of Helen Chadwick

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Helen Chadwick ('Vanitas II')

by Helen Chadwick
cibachrome print, 1986
Given by Terence Pepper, 2001
Primary Collection
NPG P874

On display in Room 29 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Helen Chadwick (1953-1996), Artist. Sitter in 3 portraits, Artist or producer of 1 portrait.

Artistback to top

  • Helen Chadwick (1953-1996), Artist. Artist or producer of 1 portrait, Sitter in 3 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This self-portrait by Helen Chadwick confronts the long tradition of female nudes made by male artists for the pleasure of other men. Allegorical depictions of 'Vanitas', a naked woman gazing at herself in a mirror, invited male viewers to enjoy a female nude while simultaneously condemning her sinful pride. Chadwick disrupts the convention by introducing herself into the picture. As both the artist and subject of the work, the naked figure is not a supine model but the creator of this work of art.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 101 Read entry

    Trained at Croydon, Brighton and Chelsea College of Art (MA, 1977), Helen Chadwick is known for her provocative work concerning the body. This vanitas self-portrait was shown and selected for the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television Sun-Life awards in 1987. It was made as a companion piece to her installation entitled Of Mutability, shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1986 and can be seen here reflected in the mirror. (The actual photograph was taken by her long-term photographic collaborator, Edward Woodman, b.1943.) To create this installation she obtained sponsorship for a photocopier, making hundreds of copies of objects ranging from a dead lamb (obtained from her brother, a Sussex shepherd), to flowers and fish, including images of herself in acrobatic positions. The blue photocopies were cut and collaged together to make compositions with her as protagonist, a lyrical, sensual mermaid, and these were arranged with a set of five golden balls. Chadwick used the photo-booth installed at the National Portrait Gallery in the summer of 1985 to make the crying heads that form the tops of the computer-designed paper columns, created with the help of her then partner, architect Philip Stanley (b.1950), and acquired technical help for her 'golden ball' production from the National Portrait Gallery's frame conservation department. 'The sphere is an idealised form,' she said

    Here they represent fingertips exploded as spheres. Gold is a material which had associations with the eternal - purity, value - setting up a contrast with the transience of the photocopied imagery ... Although [Of Mutability] plays on the decorative aspects of the rococo, it's eminently flat. The stucco has lost all sense of relief, it has become a succession of reprographic marks on a flat vertical or horizontal surface.

    (S. Baptiste and N. Wegner, eds., Interviews with the Artists, 1992)

    Chadwick continued to court notoriety with her exuberant work, in particular a set of bronze sculptures called 'Piss Flowers', the moulds of which were made by urinating in the snow whilst she was on a residency in Banff, Canada. These gained wide public interest when exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in 1994. Chadwick was also an influential lecturer and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987. Her work is in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate, the European Parliament, and the British Council.

  • Rideal, Liz, Insights: Self-portraits, 2005, p. 17 Read entry

    Typically provocative, Chadwick combines feathers and bare breasts, multiplied in the mirror for good measure. The golden balls pointedly reflect her humour, being based on the size ratio of fingers – a covert reference to the hand of the artist. The walls of the ICA gallery are hung with computer-generated printouts and the blue photocopies beneath the golden balls record her performance as protagonist in a series of fantastic scenarios. As an artist, part of her strength lay in her eagerness to innovate and her cleverness in responding to new technical possibilities.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1986back to top

Current affairs

Hampton Court Palace is devastated by fire. Much of the third floor and the roof of the building were destroyed, although, thanks to the courage of the fire fighters, only one painting and one piece of furniture were ruined.
Prince Andrew, Duke of York, marries Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey.

Art and science

Poems on the Underground, the brainchild of American writer Judith Chernaik, is launched by London Underground. A rolling programme of poems is displayed in tube train carriages, bringing contemporary and classic poetry to commuters.
The Independent Newspaper is first published.
Artists, Gilbert and George win the Turner Prize.


An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station leads to nuclear meltdown in the reactor and causes massive nuclear contamination over Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, western Europe, the UK and Ireland, and even North America. The 2005 Chenobyl Forum attributed 56 direct deaths to the disaster and estimated that 9,000 people may die from some form of cancer as a result of exposure to radiation.

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