‘Seagull’ explores the art of life

The day is June 12, 1976. It is Ray Eccles’ 40th birthday.

On that early Saturday morning, he walks to the seashore not far from his cottage in Southend. It is an unusual thing for him to do, but his water is shut off for repairs and he had nothing better to do – since he was “now past the age when anything interesting was likely to happen to him.”

He kneels in a grassy area not far from the water, contemplating the site where an undetonated, underwater bomb is blocked off for public safety. “The sea never stops,” he thinks.

He would have continued thinking “had not a woman suddenly stood up in his view.” She stands in the water with her back to him. Then she turns, directly facing him. Her face is the last thing he sees before a seagull falls from the sky, stabs his head “and changed everything.”

‘Seagull’ explores the art of lifeIn the Harriet Paige novel “Man With a Seagull on His Head,” it was Eccles’ tipping point. He returns to his cottage and, without explanation, paints the woman’s face on the walls, not with paint, but with materials at hand – food, bodily fluids. His neighbors worry, and the small local paper reports on his accident and his bizarre painting. A local provincial art collector, George Zoob, reads the story and visits Eccles, who now paints with paint, but always the face of the woman on the beach.

Zoob and his wife collect Eccles and his work, taking them both to London. Eccles is introduced to the art world as the next great “outsider artist.” The cottage remains empty. Life continues, as life will.

Difficult to categorize

Paige writes a novel that is difficult to categorize. It is about loss, known and unremembered, and the need to somehow find our way back to what is, or never was, what we think of as ourselves. Part of the story remains in the town where Eccles originally worked and includes those people he once worked with and the woman whose face he now compulsively paints.

The story moves by decades with characters marrying, going into business, aging, becoming ill. Every so often, word of the famous painter returns to Southend. The Zoobs too age and die, but not before a painful break with Eccles – who leaves the flat to become another London homeless statistic.

Once saved himself, he saves a wounded pigeon who becomes his constant companion. The Zoobs’ daughter is left searching for a man she barely remembers and would hardly recognize. The woman whose face is now famous travels to London at 70 years of age to see the pictures for the first time. She tries to remember what she saw on the beach that day in 1976.

Eccles’ art somehow mirrors both the artist’s and spectator’s need to be connected, if not to each other, then at least to be connected to life. Sometimes we go to art for that connection. Sometimes the art comes to us. And sometimes we become the art.

Sunny Solomon is a freelance writer and head of the Clayton Book Club. Visit her website at
bookinwithsunny.com for her latest recommendations or just to ‘talk books.’