Barrowford brain tumour girl's portrait pledge

PUBLISHED: 08:33 19 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:34 20 February 2013

Barrowford brain tumour girl’s portrait pledge

Barrowford brain tumour girl’s portrait pledge

It's the toughest time of her short life, but Ellen Riley is focused on the bravery of others. Roger Borrell reports

They say the eyes are a window to the soul and its an expression you understand when you see Ellen Rileys face staring down at you from her studio wall. This is clearly an accomplished piece of work but it also says something more about the artist and the way her life has changed irrevocably in recent months.

Like a medieval portrait, this is full of symbols and covert meaning. For instance, she is wearing a hat which masks the impact of terrible trauma to her head. On her wrist, there is a watch making the painful point that, at the ridiculously tender age of 22, Ellen might not have much time left.

All the while I was painting it, I could hear a clock in my mind, she says. A loud tick-tock was driving me on and on as I applied the paint, letting me know that time could be running out.

It seems almost flippant, but Ellens life story could be the libretto for an Italian opera: A country girl, thwarted in her ambition to become an artist, flees to France and ends up in a Parisian garret where she finds the love of her life. He teaches her to paint and just as she is about to open her first solo exhibition, she is struck down by a potentially fatal illness.

Cue the final curtain. However, Ellens eyes sparkle with a vitality that says her show has far from run its course. She has packed a lot into her short life and she plans to pack in a lot more.

Ellen grew up in Hurst Green and first recalls painting at nursery. I always wanted to draw but I used to be in trouble because I would never colour in between the lines.

She was encouraged by a family passionate about books, art and music - her mother, Carmel, is principal at Oakhill College, near Whalley, and her father, Peter, is front man for the popular Ribble Valley group, the Swing Commanders.

At just 16 she started using oils to paint an early self-portrait. People saw it and said Wow. Its a painting that has a soul and I knew it was something out of the ordinary.

It led to Ellen, then a pupil at Stonyhurst College, exhibiting at the National Portrait Gallery and being named north west winner of ITVs Brush with Fame competition.

Its a pedigree that should have opened the doors to any art college. It didnt - no one would accept her and she worked pulling pints behind the bar of her local, the Bayley Arms.

I decided to run away to France, says Ellen, who is one of five children. Mum was sad to see me go but she knew I was depressed by the situation.

Armed with schoolgirl French, she ended up in the south of France as an au pair. Having fun replaced thoughts of art. Eventually, though, she wearied of a life that rarely allowed her to meet anyone other than English tourists and she moved to Paris. Her love of art resurfaced and she started attending a life drawing class where she met a young artist from Charente Maritime called Cedric Charleuf.

I was besotted from day oneand Cedric was besotted about a week later! laughs Ellen. When I went to his house, every square inch was covered in paintings. It was like finding the Holy Grail.

Cedric was my formal training. He understands the 19th Century Spanish school of art and he has shown me many of the secrets of technique which have been largely lost.

At that time, I was at my most healthy, we didnt drink, we ate well - often picnics in the park - and our only outings were to the Louvre every Wednesday. I was tremendously excited about my exhibition.

Eight days before it opened, she was cycling down a hill in the city and discovered she had lost the use of her left foot. Cedric had lost a sister through a neurological illness so he was aware of the dangers and took Ellen straight to a doctor.

He sent her to the nearest hospital which, as luck would have it, has a worldwide reputation for neurology. Two surgeons spent seven hours removing the tumour so, sadly, Ellen never did make it to the opening of her exhibition.

While she regained her mobility, she was diagnosed with an incurable cancer - that ticking clock she hears. I can only hope they keep me alive long enough for a cure to be found, she says in a matter-of-fact voice.

The couple moved back to the family home in a cottage on a hillside between Roughlee and Barrowford and they recently married at Stonyhurst. The view from the house is breathtaking and the couple have set up a joint studio in the double garage where they can paint side by side.

Cedric paints big canvasses in the Renaissance style - think Caravaggio set in the Lancashire landscape, countryside the young Frenchman has loved since his arrival here.

In between sessions of chemotherapy at the Christie Hospital, Ellen is involved in two important commissions. One is to paint some of the legendry characters from Stonyhurst College and the second is painting a series of portraits for an exhibition called Heroes at Clitheroe Castle Museum.

When I was in hospital, the people who got me back on my feet, cleaned me and changed me were the people who got paid the least and the idea behind this exhibition is to recognised our unsung heroes.

The first in that series is Simon ORourke, of Clitheroe. He devotes his time to improving the lives of disabled people in the Ribble Valley despite being confined to a wheelchair following an industrial accident. Others will follow.

I dont think of myself as a cancer victim, says Ellen, who has lost ten per cent of her body weight since becoming ill last November. Its just lovely to be back in Lancashire because I did used to get homesick. I have my art and a fantastic family so I have a reason to get up every morning.

I cant pretend being ill hasnt made a different but in some ways it has been a positive. It has definitely made me stop being lazy about my painting and Im more now disciplined. The paintings themselves have taken on a darker quality, more intensity.

Ellen looks at Cedric and adds: If I have to go, I want to die with a paintbrush in my hand - I think thats how Goya died, wasnt it?

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