“I’ve always been at ease with my body,” says Terry Aston. There’s no need to psych himself up before he lets slip his robe and submits his naked self to the scrutiny of an art class. He does take paracetamol first, though – at 71, holding a pose for two hours hurts. He begins with a rear view, then works his way round.
Life modelling is an unusual pursuit to adopt after retirement, so why do it? “I wanted to see myself as other people see me,” Aston says.
He has confronted his own head and body in the round, at a sculpture class, and seen his naked torso “stretched” out of proportion and charcoaled on to crumpled paper. No doubt these are novel perspectives, but surely Aston took up modelling hoping for something in himself to emerge from all these variations? “You are … well … literally stripped bare in person as well as in body,” he says.
After he and his wife divorced in 2013, Aston started to draw. “I take full responsibility [for the divorce]” he says. “Nihilistic behaviour … I was in a pretty dark place.” His son Tom had died by suicide a few years earlier. While Aston was in digs, waiting for the divorce to go through, he had “a period of, you know, self-narrative and contemplation”. He picked up a pencil and “began to explore” his feelings more deeply.
But there was a problem. “Being the person I am, I wanted to go from zero to Caravaggio in 10 minutes,” he says. He would get home “pissed off”. One day, Aston got chatting to the life model after class, and applied to the Register of Artists’ Models. As a former managing director of a medical equipment company, Aston knew how to build a website, and sold his services as a model to classes all around Oxfordshire, where he lives. On his busiest days, he has three bookings. “It’s not for the faint-hearted. You really are examined in detail.”
Naked modelling is exposing work, so it is surprising to hear Aston say that his childhood experiences led him to “build up a mental carapace … Made myself totally impregnable.” He grew up in a council house in Bermondsey, south-east London, and after his parents separated, he lived with his mother. When he was 16, she had a heart attack: he found her dead on the floor.
“That carapace served me well,” he says. “With the divorce and my son, and all the other things that happened to me, I was able to retreat into myself.” He pauses. “Actually, it wasn’t such a good thing.”
Aston has always been comfortable in his physical skin – he used to enjoy naturist holidays – but his emotional skin was a different matter. Somehow, by subjecting his body to scrutiny, he has freed himself to open his feelings to scrutiny too. He recently shared the death of his son with his sculpture class.
“I said to them: ‘You are not just sculpting a figure, you are sculpting a person. You have sculpted me before, when you have seen one side of my personality, which is a tough, rough, slightly pugilistic person. Here’s the other side of me.’” His voice cracked as he spoke; the sculptors’ eyes were wet.
“At its worst, modelling is a bit of vanity,” Aston says. At its best, it is a form of self-recovery; especially since he views his behaviour before his divorce as “a form of self-harm”. And maybe the clues to this lie in his experience on the other side of the easel.
When Aston was drawing, he hated still life because there was always “this business of wanting to get it right. But with a figure, you’ve got some degree of licence in how you interpret the shape,” he says. “The lines don’t have to be exact.” Drawing people – and presumably being drawn by them – is liberating. “It’s forgiving, in some respects.”