The subject is Birgit Cunningham, an ex 'it' girl now political activist who is fighting a rather complex battle for justice for her eight year old son who's wealthy father wont pay any interest in him emotionally or financially. Jack's father is Sir Harry Nuttall (he became the third Baronet in 2007 when his father Sir Nicholas Nuttall died) a man of wealth and blue blood heritage. Harry wont see his son and wont pay any maintenance despite him living in very plush surroundings in West London with an expensive car on the drive. Despite this the CSA managed to summon only £5.40 a week in child maintenance from Harry for two years.
Birgit with Sir harry Nuttall
This £5.40 was then cut to £0.00 a week as neither Sir Harry's income or reported £4million minimum inheritance could be traced by the CSA. Meanwhile Birgit and her son Jack were housed in a modest sized council flat living on benefits.
Birgit, an intelligent and eloquent woman who I first heard on James O'Brien's show on LBC Radio, has gained much notoriety in her own right but at the heart of it lies a very serious and heartfelt passionate motive to try and change the injustices of absent parents and their lack of responsibility towards their offspring. Including setting up Babies for Justice and with the CSA being one of the main focal points, Birgit has used many means to tackle MPs (including an incident with an eclair), one of which led to her having a fling with married Tory MP Lord Strathclyde.
Whatever your opinions and thoughts are on the fling one thing was very clear to me upon researching her story. Take away the modern day facade and you are left with a story which has repeated itself through centuries and even has a whole room based on 'Royalty, Celebrity and Scandal' in the National Portrait Gallery.
In the gallery one painting of Emma Hamilton was particularly relevant. Emma became Lady Hamilton through marriage but during her marriage fell in love with Lord Nelson and an affair followed. They had a baby and returned to England and the affair enhanced Nelson’s reputation as a romantic hero. However at Nelson’s death he asked for the nation to help care for Emma and their daughter but this was ignored by the government and Emma died a pauper in France.
Emma, Lady Hamilton by George Romney
Whatever becomes of the male (normally the hounding is never as severe as the female is subject to) the women nearly always get tarnished with the 'Scarlet lady' brush. Birgit herself referred to 'feeling like a Dickensian girl, a dirty hooker who had lost self respect after he had taken advantage' after the Strathclyde event. And the very nature of our culture here in Britain in which we want to read about other people's sex lives, mistakes made and the scandal it causes is fed by the media for sure, but it is our hunger they are feeding.
However I did want to give a platform to Birgit's colourful and pro-active life and incredible perseverence she has shown. I believe in Birgit’s cause and so if there is any further exposure I can give to this along the way will be a more than positive outcome from the painting. There is so much more than the media will ever tell you about these people and their stories and there is always so much more than our own judgement will allow us to see. I found through her story I could create a scene which embodies what it is I am so compelled by within my own work.
I am creating a piece on her which is going to combine imagery of her modern day council flat with very strong references to the paintings I had seen from the 1800s on the walls of the NPG. Birgit who is friends with designer Elizabeth Emanuel (designer of Princess Di's wedding dress) was able to borrow an incredible costume piece for the photo shoot for the painting and son Jack also donned a highway man's hat which is a nod to his absent biological father and his very present godfather Adam Ant.
Some of the incredible dresses in the Elizabeth Emanuel Studio
Birgit chosing a fabulous dress for the painting.
This dress was also used in a film called 'The Wicked Lady'
I don't think at any point I have wanted to try and victimise Birgit or take any stance on the scandal which got her fling flung all over the papers as this wasn’t where my interest lay, but what I did become fascinated in, as I do with so much of my work was the repetition in time, history repeating itself and injustices of a very similar nature which are still being played out today.There is a lot of other symbolism used and many layers also placed within the image but I am not going to give too much more away here. Not just yet anyway!
And I also just wanted to give Jack one mention before this blog was finished as he himself it a very bright, intelligent and sensitive human being who was a joy to work with. He was a true professional and worked really hard during this shoot!
Birgit and Jack preparing for the shoot