Artistic Temperament by Elizabeth Housden

Posted on June 28, 2014


Hello Everyone, today we are going to hear from author Elizabeth Housden. ENJOY!!!
Elizabeth HousdenWe hear much over the years about artistic temperament but what is it exactly? Does it really exist or is it the way we excuse ourselves and others for extremes of behaviour? Is it hereditary?

I am an only child, my father a banker and finance director of a company, my mother an illustrator and portrait painter. It was swiftly realised by myself as well as my parents that the solid, dependable world of the City, commerce and powerful board rooms was not where I was to spend my life. By the age of three I knew, with absolute certainty, I was going to be an actor. And so it came to pass.

My mother did not have wild mood swings or fits of temper or despair. She painted much of the day, just getting on with it, models sitting for her, occasionally myself, or she would go to the life classes in art schools and use the models there. She wasn’t exactly a calm person, though. She had a wicked sense of humour and would tease anyone she came across – friends and family, of course but also tradespeople or others who worked for us. Once, perfectly solemnly, she looked very firmly at an electrician who had just come in to mend some light fitting or other and asked him if he was going to put a light bulb in the socket. He didn’t have one. “You can’t leave it like that,” she said, severely, “if there’s no bulb, there will be nothing to stop the electricity from dripping through the wires into the room.”

“It don’t drip through the wires, madam.”

The discussion continued, he getting more and more agitated and she gave way not an inch. He had to leave in the end, my father and I in fits of laughter in a neighbouring room listening to this orchestrated nonsense, the matter quite unresolved.

My mother could be quite nervous and excitable. She was terrified of flying and heights and worms, which was a shame as she loved gardening. Even as a small child I was always having to rescue her from worms. But she didn’t have screaming fits of rage or desperate tears. She cared passionately about her art, about her family, the animals we owned and would speak her mind quite forcefully and fervently. She wasn’t easy to live with at all but we loved her and we were proud of her. She sounds not too abnormal, I’m sure but we knew she was “different”. She was the second of seven siblings in a very wealthy and well-born family and all of those brothers and sisters adored her without question, protected her from the world and sat in awe at her feet. She was physically tiny but most people thought her to be much taller than she actually was but this was her personality – not extra inches. She was also very beautiful. When little, and given pocket money, she told me, she would go and buy a rose from a street vendor not sweets like the others. She went to art school – very unusual for one of her class in those days, and her social world revolved round artists and musicians, designers and actors, not the landed gentry, aristocrats and debutantes with whom she would have been expected to mix. She had a knack of getting her own way with almost everyone but without yelling and shouting and bullying but underneath it all was a powerful current of artistry pervading everything she did. Her clothes were exceedingly flamboyant and individual, she wrote poetry and made deliberately idiotic remarks about football.

My father, too, adored her completely and was devastated, as we all were when she died. He was her rock, clever, adored by young people, pretty conventional most of the time and not a shred of artistry anywhere in him – other than enjoying a good play in the theatre or on television. He was tone deaf and only knew it was the national anthem when everyone stood up. When it shocked some people that he was allowing his daughter to go to drama school and subsequently into the acting profession, he was quite unfazed by this and brushed aside comments that I would end up virtually on the streets. Thus I had, indeed have, a mixture of extreme genes within me.

Do I favour my mother? Yes. Am I calm and measured? I can be if the part demands it. Do I live on the edge of my emotions? Yes. Do my family have to make TigersofWrathallowances for tears from me at the slightest thing – and yet those tiny things mean as much to me in that moment as the enormous horrors that assail our lives? Yes. I am not shallow. I care, desperately and probably too much. Am I tricky to live with? I am sure I am but they cope and are kind and are loving. My first husband was a musician – still is one and a very talented one. He was moody, secretive, bottled things up, I understood him (most of the time) but couldn’t live with him and neither could he live with me either. We had three children together. I married again, no artist this time, he is an international banker (now there’s a surprise!) successful, solid, dependable, calm, who loves the theatre and smiles quietly and picks up the pieces of my shredded emotions when I need him to. We have one son.

Of those four children, three are artists and one although working in the business of world peace, is a writer – journalistic writings, speeches and reports. My elder daughter is a musician and with a real flair for acting as well, my elder son is a set designer and lives and breathes theatre, my younger daughter is a sculptor and my younger son is the writer. Do they have volatile temperaments? Yes! But it is manifest differently in each of them. My elder daughter, like me, cries easily and so does my younger son. They rail against the world. My elder son and younger daughter (the middle children) hide it for a while, and lose it suddenly as a result. All care passionately about things, have occasional hours of silence, thinking, thinking, planning how or what comes next in the project they are working and where they wouldn’t hear you if you went right up to them and yelled in their ears. As we get older we all become more extreme, not less so and less tolerant of the foolishness of the world and express it loudly in our different ways. All have married calm people who look after us all and listen peaceably to ranting and raving. We all have a sense of the dramatic and live it all the time be it noisy as with two of my children and quiet with the others – and yes, I can assure you it is possible to rant and rave quietly!

I write as well as act. I love it. I write every day and get very restless and unhappy if I can’t, for any reason. In my latest novel, Tigers of Wrath, the central male character is a professional artist. At the start of the book, his marriage is on the rocks, he loathes his self-centred, manipulative, cheating wife who deliberately winds him up, forcing him into screaming rage and then blames him for it. He falls in love with his new neighbour, quiet, gentle, tolerant who simply lets him rant as much as he wants. It is his thing and he must be allowed to explode in that way. He is a talented man, has been since a child but as she says to him, surely love is a better inspiration for art than hate and he agrees. Yet, he has painted and sculpted, somehow, through the years of his tempestuous marriage but changes as the wife slips from his life into an even greater artist. The wife cannot cope with his temperaments, she takes them as a personal insult, his lover can because she sees the need and knows they are only really directed towards he himself, to force the Muse out into the room. He is real to me for I see all of my family in him and my father and my husband, the non-artistic people, in the true love in his life. We need to be difficult, not because we’re bloody-minded exhibitionists but because we must in order to function at all.

But is it art that creates these extremes in all of us? Is it there because we desperately need it to inspire paintings, or sculpture, or compose music or writings or, in my case, ever-more-believable characters both on stage and in print? I believe so. If I am denied quality theatre, I suffer, physically. I cannot eat properly or sleep well. I am a nightmare to live with because I have no outlet and every reason to cry but cannot because I am not happy or contented enough to be able to.

Surely this has been inherited and continues into the next generation with my grandchildren. It is real and to Colin du Barrie, the artist in Tigers of Wrath it is his life-blood. It is real to me, I feel and see it all the time and continues in my everyday life but also, most importantly, in my writing too. Write about what you know, they say. I do.

And as I bring this article to a close, tears begin to roll down my face. None of us can say goodbye easily either…
Elizabeth Housden is an actor and author. Her latest book ‘Tigers of Wrath’ is available to purchase now. Visit her website here:

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