A Glass of Water // ©Nicola Morley
The Story behind the Portrait
My practice focuses on people, place and identity. It is the every day, the mundane that absorbs my interest. Those quirky rituals that we all employ, each one a trace of our reality, that make us independently and collectively who we are. This past year I turned this approach to a very personal project to create a record of a time, living with my mother in her cottage in rural Lancashire as her health deteriorated.
Previously, in October 2018 my mother drove the long journey from rural Lancashire to London. The next day she went to a funeral in Windsor before driving all the way back. She was 85 but always alert, active and fiercely independent. People would ask me how she was, “Infuriating”, I’d say, and they would laugh.
Come March 2019, she felt puffed, by June she could not walk around her farmhouse kitchen and in September she went for her first consultant’s appointment. By the end of October, I had moved in with her and our relationship which had always been somewhat tempestuous exploded. I felt stifled and trapped.
One soft spring morning in 2020, as she was working in the potting shed wearing an orange tembel hat, she let me take her photograph. This was our turning point, the beginning of our collaboration. As we advanced into summer, my mother’s health deteriorated with the need for more oxygen and cortisone. The Coronavirus shielding precautions seeped into our world and we became isolated. Our only visitor was Laura the gardener who came every two weeks bringing a wave of much-needed energy, laughter and chat. All our food was delivered by local businesses or my brother’s family and his children. District nurses came to the outside of the house to take her blood. At 87 my mother was the first person in Lancashire to have a medical consultant’s zoom meeting.
By June she was on 24-hour oxygen. I audio recorded the steady rhythm of her oxygen machine against a backdrop of birdsong. Even though the doctors tried to mask it with morphine, her pain became intense and she ended up spending more time in bed. Eventually, she was moved to a small local hospital where we waved at her from the window.
Late at night on the August 1st, the medics took her from A&E to a private room on a ward. I told her she had been a good mother. As her pain intensified, she still clung on. I put my scarf under her head to make her comfortable and held her hand. “I am here”, I said. “Mummy, I am here.” Holding on tightly, she took her last breath, and her fingers became soft and her arms as fluid as a ballerina.
Later with her granddaughters, we opened her wardrobe and from her loved collection of Ralph Lauren, we chose a beautiful silk embroidered blouse and skirt for her to wear. As she had wished, she held an engraved watch, given to her from her grandson. In October, autumn will surround us and as a family we will scatter her ashes.
We have been unearthing cine films and photographs of my mother’s youth when she radiated with vitality and beauty. At the same time, my daughter starts a new chapter at college. Paring her grandmother’s tea dresses with doc martins, full of hope and joy in her new surroundings, my mother lives on in her soul, in our future.
One soft spring morning in 2020, as she was working in the potting shed, she let me take her photograph. This was our turning point, the beginning of our collaboration.
Nicola Morley is a realist, award-winning British portrait photographer based in London and Lancashire. She studied at Westminster University and her work has been exhibited worldwide and published in the UK. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Britain with Cosima in the Music Room with Bat and in 2019 Grandma on Christmas Day was in both Portrait of Britain and Portrait Salon. In 2018, she took part in the 209 Women project where 209 Women photographers photographed all 209 women MPs celebrating a centenary of votes for women and was nominated for the Royal Photographic Society’s list of HundredHeroines.
Nicola recently completed the GRAIN East Meets Masterclass in association with Format Festival and will be exhibiting in a group show at the forthcoming festival in 2021. A further exhibition at Towneley Hall, in Burnley is planned for 2022.
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