poet – novelist – art critic – broadcaster – lecturer
‘I’ve never seen a book as impeccably produced as Radium Dreams – exquisite poems by Sue Hubbard matched by superb artwork by Eileen Cooper – a tribute to the life and work of Marie Curie, published by the Women’s Art Collection. Sue retells Marie Curie’s life in beautifully crafted spare poems, it’s such a moving and inspiring story, this woman who achieved so much despite the odds against her, and is buried in a lead coffin in the Pantheon in Paris because she is still radioactive. What a metaphor.’ Rosie Jackson – poet
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‘Radium Dreams at Murray Edwards College: Murray Edwards College’s latest exhibition is a stunning homage to the physicist Marie Curie featuring poetry by Sue Hubbard and artwork by Eileen Cooper. The exhibition, which opened 2 March and will be running until 3 September 2023, explores the idea of creative support, examining the relationship between Curie and her sister, and Curie and her husband. The exhibition works perfectly alongside “The Women’s Art Collection”, Murray Edwards’ long standing exhibition of women’s artwork, which celebrates women in the world of art and can be found interspersed throughout the hallways of the College.’ VARSITY
‘Marie’s story is by turns tragic and uplifting and has much to tell young women now. It is elucidated beautifully in this unique collaboration between two leading women in the arts today.’ Dorothy Byrne, President, Murray Edwards College
I have long been interested in the lives of exceptional women. Those who make art or write against the odds, who have to juggle childcare, prevailing misogyny and, in many cases, poverty to fulfil their dreams and potential. Many creative and academic women would still recognise these hurdles today. But how much more difficult was it for a woman living at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries? In my novel, Girl in White, I explore these issues through the life of the young German Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker. Her desire to break free from her bourgeois Teutonic upbringing, to balance a domestic life in rural Germany with periods of being a (female) artist without means, in fin de siècle Paris. Many of the same problems were faced by the Welsh painter, Gwen John, whose singular life I have written about in my new series of poems, God’s Little Artist, published later this year.
As an art critic I naturally feel at home in the visual world. I wanted to challenge the use of familiar painterly language by borrowing that of science. This led to a series of poems on the remarkable life of the greatest female scientist, Marie Curie. Ever keen that poetry should escape the confines of the white page and converse with other art forms, I invited the artist Eileen Cooper, RA, whom I’ve known and written about for some thirty years, to make work alongside mine. Her fearless, muscular female images seemed just what was needed to complement my poems. Her work does not ‘illustrate’ the poems but rather adds another dimension. Slowly, I began to share the poems and she responded by experimenting with a series of paintings, drawings and collages. This produced the compelling images that form, along with the poems, the exhibition Radium Dreams – supported by The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College Cambridge, for International Women’s Day.
Marie Curie was born Manya Salomea Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, at a time when Poland was under the grip of Tsarist Russian rule, and the Polish language outlawed. The daughter of an impoverished secondary school teacher, hers was, nevertheless, a household where education was taken very seriously. Radium Dreams explores the creative support between Marie and her sister Bronislawa, who was to become a doctor in Paris, and between Marie, as she started to call herself in France, and her beloved husband, Pierre Curie, Professor of Physics, whom she met whilst studying physics and mathematical science at the Sorbonne. Their early, joint research often had to be performed in poor laboratory conditions. At the same time both were forced to make ends meet with heavy teaching loads to support their two young daughters. The discovery by Henri Becquerel, in 1896, of radioactivity led to their isolation of polonium, named after the country of Marie’s birth, and of radium. For this they were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize in 1903. Marie would later go on to be sole winner of the 1911 Prize for Chemistry. The first woman to win a Nobel prize, and the only one to do so twice.
Radium Dreams showcases the moments of struggle, tenderness and joy that thread though Marie’s early life in Poland: visiting her grandmother’s house, taking sleigh rides though the deep snow and falling in love for the first time. As well as the hard graft she had to endure as a governess before being able, with the support of her sister, to go to Paris to study. It also covers her time at the Sorbonne and the long hours in the laboratory stirring noxious pitchblende, a mineral high in radio activity.
With the tragic and untimely death of Pierre in a carriage accident, Marie was vilified for her affair with his pupil the younger scientist Paul Langevin. Even so, she still managed to take over her husband’s university post. During the First World War she put her research on hold to create Les Petites Curies, mobile x-ray machines that she and her daughter took to the front. But her work with radium would slowly kill her. When she died, she was so radioactive that she had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin.
Radium Dreams reflects a collaboration between women: a female poet and female artist celebrating the life of the greatest ever female scientist at an all-women’s college for International Women’s Day. Marie Curie was not only a brilliant scientist but a daughter, sister, mother, wife and lover. Radium Dreams illustrates not only her inquisitive mind and dedication to the intellectual questions posed by her line of scientific enquiry, but also throws empathetic light on her vulnerabilities, passions and frailties as a woman who struggled against the odds to make a ground-breaking contribution to science and secure her place in history.
Poems by Sue Hubbard, drawings by Eileen Cooper
Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge