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Q&A: JEFFIE PIKE DURHAM ON PAINTING COCO CHANEL

Jeffie Pike Durham, daughter of painter Marion Pike, talks about her mother’s lifelong artistic friendship with Coco Chanel ahead of Coco Chanel: A New Portrait, an exhibition of Pike’s work.

Coco Chanel and Marion Pike

Formidable fashionista, loving friend and surrogate grandmother; all these facets of Coco Chanel’s persona are explored in a new exhibition due to open at LCF’s Fashion Space Gallery on 5th September.  The exhibition showcases large scale portraits of Chanel by renowned portrait painter Marion Pike, who developed a close, personal relationship with the designer – you can see the two in their matching Chanel suits in the picture above. Wonderland spoke to the exhibition’s contributor and daughter of the artist, Jeffie Pike Durham, about the exhibition and the relationship between these two remarkable women.

What lead to your mother Marion to paint Chanel’s portrait?

She and Coco Chanel had a mutual friend, the producer Freddy Brisson, who just insisted that they meet. He was very persistent, and when my mother was in Paris in the mid 1960’s Freddy said “just go over to 31 Rue Cambon tomorrow she’s doing a fitting.” So she went and leaned against the wall and she sketched while Coco did a fitting. After about an hour Coco suddenly stopped what she was doing, walked across the room to my mother, asked to see the sketch paper – she glanced at it, and then she looked my mother in the eye and said ‘you have the hand of a real artist’. She put the scarf she was wearing around my mother’s neck and she said ‘we’re going to become great friends, could you come to lunch tomorrow?’ and within three days my mother had set up easels to paint Chanel.

Why did the two get on so well?

There was just this vibe like when you meet someone you just know you’re going to be friends. My mother said when she first met Coco Chanel she thought she was the ugliest woman she’d ever seen, but then she discovered all these facets of her personality. We don’t know and we can only speculate, but whatever clicked and whatever worked, they became friends.

Coco Chanel Seated

What made you decide to exhibition these pieces now?

In 2011 I saw this book about Coco Chanel written by Amy de la Haye, a professor at the London College of Fashion, and she’d written a sentence about my mother being this American painter who was sometimes asked to do portraits of Chanel. My husband played the Freddy Brisson role and he said ‘you have to call her’. He persisted for about a month or two and finally I sent Amy an email telling her I loved the book and I’m Marion’s daughter so if you’d ever like to chat that’d be lovely. I sent her some pictures of the paintings and photographs of me, my mother and Chanel together. Within a month of me sending the email Amy flew out to California, I took her to see the paintings and she fell in love with the work. We talked and laughed and worked for five days looking at all my memorabilia and she decided this was the exhibition she was going to do, and we’ve worked on it for two years.

What are your memories of your first meeting Coco Chanel?

I went to Paris in 1968 because my mother wanted me to see the paintings. I got dressed to go and meet Chanel and all I had to wear was this little A-line dress that cut well above the knee. My mother said ‘don’t you know Coco has a horror of the mini-skirt?’ But I didn’t have anything else to wear so we went, and I sat the whole evening trying to pull down this dress – I was mortified. No-one spoke to me, but when we got home Coco and mother talked on the phone and Coco said ‘I observed your daughter very closely all evening’ and she said ‘between most mothers and daughters there’s sometimes tension, but I really liked your daughter, she looked at you with such kind eyes, would you bring her to lunch tomorrow?’

What do you think these paintings reveal about her?

These aren’t pretty pictures; they are searing portraits of somebody who was an ancient fear more than a fashion icon. When my mother did portraits she would tap into something and paint it. What my mother picked up and painted was what she saw but also what someone who sits for a portrait lets you see. People who had their portraits done told my mother the stories of their lives, and maybe Coco did, and maybe the paintings represent that.

Coco Chanel in her Atelier Surrounded by Bolts of Fabric2

Coco Chanel and Marion Pike

Coco Chanel on Balcony

Coco Chanel with Marion Pike

Coco Chanel: A New Portrait By Marion Pike, Paris 1967-71 is on at the Fashion Space Gallery from 5th September onwards. fashionspacegallery.com

Words: Wil Oxford

Q&A: JEFFIE PIKE DURHAM ON PAINTING COCO CHANEL

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