Author Archives: Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Sex, fear and marriage


When I posted this photograph I took of Stanley Spencer’s Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937) on Instagram and Facebook, the response was, for the most part, one of incredulity and revulsion. The level of discomfort was notable.

Artist Patricia Preece is the woman in this intensely erotic painting. Her indolence is a world away from the insecure, manipulative posturing we now understand as arousing. With a cool, almost ironic expression, she taunts her husband with her nakedness. Her body is flaunted in what we perceive as all of its imperfections. That which we fail to understand is that the imperfections are not hers, but ours in failing to see the beauty that so captivated Spencer.

For his part, Spencer’s desire is incandescent – this is symbolised not only by his stiffening sex, but by the burning coal fire behind him. The raw leg of mutton by Preece’s body is a metaphor for the depth of his carnal appetite for her: he would consume her if he could, make her part of him, finish her off. Her value to him is high; she is flushed with pinks and streaked with gold, whereas he paints himself in the wan colours of a bruise. The space she takes up in the portrait reinforces her emotional importance; he surveys her as a king would his kingdom. The responsibilities of this sovereignty, however, may be more grim or troubling than he would like, as his downturned mouth suggests.

Double Nude Portrait is magnificent because it captures the desire fuelled by intimacy and the complexity that such desire can entail. As a culture, we no longer recognise this; the only sexual desire we feel permitted to acknowledge without being considered lesser is that inspired by bodies which conform to the transhumanist ideal. Authenticity and emotion are irrelevant. The context of marriage is, in itself, now widely regarded as antithetical to arousal, so dreary that we require new sexual partners – even only in a visual format – to become aroused. Desire has become confused with social aspiration and, in the case of pornography, with stress relief.

We have forgotten what it is to feel desire based on intimacy rather than appearance.

In this portrait, Spencer and Preece are neither young nor beautiful, which, to us, makes their nakedness – and the nakedness of his desire – strange and overwhelming. Yet there is no more beautiful a portrait of a man’s conflicted sexual appetite for his wife: Spencer’s desire is specific rather than general, based on intimacies, grievances and experiences to which we are not privy. He wants her as she is, arrogant in her display, teasing, without pose or artifice. Her lack of nurturance is shown by the shrivelled representation of her breasts; there is no enfolding here, but he still wants her. More than anything, it is his lack of idealisation that is mesmerising.

Spencer doesn’t care about the viewer’s – or the culture’s – tastes; in Double Nude Portrait, his sexual interest concerns the woman he has married, a woman he could devour like a leg of mutton. And it is, perhaps, the elemental intimacy of his desire that so unnerves us.

Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Friday 20 May 2016 – mark it in your diary!

On Friday May 20, the Official Top Ten Night charity organisation will host its first ever Top Ten Books Night, proudly supporting Suicide Prevention Australia.


In the event you’ve never heard of Top Ten Nights, here is Stephen Fry discussing the initiative:

The very fabulous Berkelouw Books, Paddington, will host this inaugural event. I am one of four authors – the others: Adam Schwartz, Rebecca Poulson and Samantha Little – who will be reading excerpts from our own work about suicide; I will, of course, be reading from The Eclipse: A Memoir of Suicide (available through Amazon and, in paperback, on the night).


We will also be discussing how we survived bereavement, and taking questions from the audience, who may, in turn, read passages about loss from their own favourite works.

It promises to be a wonderful night and one in aid of a very worthy cause, so do come; if you can’t, email this post to someone you feel would benefit. Tickets are extremely limited, so you will need to book quickly.

Berkelouw Books

19 Oxford Street, Paddington, Sydney, NSW 2021

02 9360 3200


Happy Mothers’ Day

For all the mothers who read this, and for all the mothers of mothers,
For all the mothers of children, grown and new,
For all the women who mother others, whether human, winged or clawed,
For all the women who give of themselves in the service of love:
Happy Mothers’ Day.

When you were small, your cupped palms
each held a candleworth under the skin, enough light to begin,
and as you grew,
light gathered in you, two clear raindrops
in your eyes,
warm pearls, shy,
in the lobes of your ears, even always
the light of a smile after your tears.
Your kissed feet glowed in my one hand,
or I’d enter a room to see the corner you played in
lit like a stage set,
the crown of your bowed head spotlit.
When language came, it glittered like a river,
silver, clever with fish,
and you slept
with the whole moon held in your arms for a night light
where I knelt watching.
Light gatherer. You fell from a star
into my lap, the soft lamp at the bedside
mirrored in you,
and now you shine like a snowgirl,
a buttercup under a chin, the wide blue yonder
you squeal at and fly in,
like a jewelled cave,
turquoise and diamond and gold, opening out
at the end of a tunnel of years.

- Carol Ann Duffy, The Light Gatherer