The Great British Art Tour: Billie Piper with comb hands and cat hairs

Naomi Polonsky, assistant curator, New Hall Art Collection
·2 min read

A little over 10 years ago, an article by Germaine Greer was published in the Guardian. “Who is Britain’s hottest new artist? A 76-year-old called Rose Wylie,” ran the headline. Wylie is now one of the most sought-after contemporary British artists, but that has not always been the case. She studied at art school as a young woman, but interrupted her career to meet the demands of motherhood and domestic life, only returning to art in her 40s. This work was created when she was 80.

The New Hall Art Collection – Europe’s largest collection of art by female artists, based at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge – was given Wylie’s Billie Piper (A Combo Painting) five years ago. The colourful, billboard-sized work is characteristic of the artist’s spontaneous and anarchic style.

Wylie began the painting in 1994, inspired by her daughter’s wedding. Two decades later, after seeing a photograph of Billie Piper in the Observer, she returned to the work and stapled a portrait of the actor on top of it. What had been a blue wedding marquee became a skirt for the bare-breasted, reclining Billie.

The work has an air of both freedom and fragility. Painted directly on to unstretched, unprimed canvas and framed by strips of loosely stuck black fabric, it resembles a tapestry as much as a painting. It combines a variety of collaged materials and mediums: oil paint on canvas and watercolour on paper, as well as the visible staples. It also juxtaposes abstract shapes and forms with surprising details, such as Piper’s comb-like hands.

In the years after it was created, Billie Piper (A Combo Painting) was displayed in various spots in Wylie’s home studio in Kent. The painting arrived at the New Hall Art Collection straight from the artist’s kitchen wall, along with a few strands of cat hair, and now hangs in the Murray Edwards College bar.

• You can see more art from the New Hall Art Collection on Art UK, and find out more on the New Hall Art Collection’s website.

• This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues including museums, universities and hospitals as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.