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«The Portrait», Iain Pears

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To Alex

Well, well, well. Come in, my dear fellow. Let me look at you. But first, an embrace; it is not often you see an old friend for the first time in nearly four years. You’ve not changed a bit. Well, of course I’m lying. The eyes are that little bit more lined, the skin has lost some of its texture, the hair is a touch more grey. We are both past our best. But at least you’re still slim, to the point of emaciation. How you can eat so much to so little effect never ceases to astonish. The differences between us grow year by year, as you undoubtedly noticed the moment you saw me.

I must confess I was disturbed when I received your proposal last month. I thought, to begin with, that it was a bad idea. I could hardly believe you were prepared to travel all this way just to see me. Hence my cautious reply, in case you were making sly fun of me. My years of exile have made me sensitive, as you will no doubt discover. But here you are, a figure from history itself—my history, at least, as I suppose you are still very much in the centre of things back in London.

A glass of wine to toast your arrival. The pick of the Luberon. A particularly good year, 1912, as I am sure you will agree, especially when carefully aged for nearly nine months. I joke, of course. I like the stuff, but hardly expect your sophisticated palate to be equally enthusiastic. It is all sun and earth; no artifice in its production whatsoever. Dark, strong and somewhat violent—a little like the people who make it, in fact. I’ve grown used to the taste; it makes a change from the beer and cider that are the staples hereabouts, and fine vintages would be wasted on me, even if you could get them. I have a barrel brought over on the boat every month or so and drink it until it turns to vinegar. Already has, you think? No; it’s meant to be like that—or if it isn’t, few on this island know any better. This is the wine of the peasantry, the fuel of France. Drink it and you become like them. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Sit down, then. I know, not comfortable, but it is the cleanest and best chair I have. Besides, it will suit my purpose admirably, as you will see. I have been made nervous, even irritated, by your sudden arrival on my little island. Do you know how long it is since I’ve had a commission to paint a portrait? Extraordinary, considering my vogue, but I gave all that up when I gave up England. And now you want to take me into my past. So be it; you will have to endure the consequences of your own folly.

Your timing is as good as ever, though. A few months ago I would have rejected the idea out of hand, but now I found the invitation tickling. Why not, I thought? Let’s see what we can do here. It is time to discover whether I can ever go back to England by exploring why I left in the first place. And who better to help the enquiry than the man who is the foremost critic in the land, whose opinion has the weight of the divine behind it?

Another little joke. But it is an opportunity to renew the battle and fight it to a conclusion. Who will emerge triumphant from this encounter of ours, do you think? The painter or the sitter? Will it be “portrait of a gentleman by Henry Morris MacAlpine,” or “portrait of William Nasmyth, by anon.” The National Gallery, or the National Portrait Gallery? We shall see. It will be your fame against my abilities, and the result won’t be in until long after we’re both dead. I won’t trick you, I promise. I won’t sign the picture and forget to put your name on it. We will have an equal chance to see whom posterity decides to favour.

Do look around the room. I’ll be able to study your face in different lights. Not much to see, though; I’ve cast the material world aside and live as simply as the fishermen of this island. I have some books, some clothes, my paints and a few pots and pans. Not that I cook much; there is a perfectly good bar in the village, and the widow who keeps it will prepare a meal for me whenever I like, which is most of the time. Don’t look like that; she’s fat, old and has a fearsome temper. You will stay there, if you insist on going ahead with this project. As you see, I am hardly in a position to offer you hospitality and wouldn’t anyway. I have grown used to solitude, and now prefer it. I have only the one truckle bed, which you would find as uncomfortable as sleeping on the floor. Madame Le Gurun’s accommodation will not be much better, but you will get a true taste of deep France to shock your delicate sensibilities. This is not Paris, nor Deauville nor yet Pau, I warn you.

I can see on your face that you are surprised, even a little disoriented by all this. What did you have in your mind, as you travelled to see me? A lovely maison de maître, nestling in the hills, at least. Servants, certainly. People of some sort—a maire, an avocat, a doctor to invite me to dinner. Surely your old friend would insist on some sort of society in which to bathe his ego, however provincial it might be? Did you think this poor benighted island was like Belle-Ile over there, that poets and playwrights came in the summer to preen themselves on my terrace? Could the man you knew in London exist without being surrounded by company?

And what do you find? Nothing. A dingy, smoke-filled house with the roof coming off—perfectly serviceable, though, I assure you. Scarcely any furniture. A painter dressed in rags, looking hardly better than a tramp, living like some hermit on a windswept, bare island inhabited only by a few hundred Breton fishermen and their families. I mean, how extreme!

You’re right, of course, but what would be pretentious in Chelsea is perfectly acceptable here. What difference would it make how I dressed? No one ever sees me, except when I beg passage to go to Quiberon, and then I dress as fine as any country lawyer. I trim my beard—which you must admit is very fine and distracts attention from the ever-thinner hair on my head. And I struggle into my old suit with much wheezing; I have put on weight in the past few years as you see, and my clothes fit only with a protest. Still, I am elegant in comparison to most people in these parts, and with a straw hat on my head at its old jaunty angle, and with the walking stick that you gave me as a present, I believe I still cut a grand enough figure. I may be eccentric, but I do not want a reputation for such; it is the one way of attracting attention which I have always disdained. I need only one bed, one chair, one table, so that is all I have. The walls are bare; look out of the window and you have a finer sight than any painter has ever placed on a piece of canvas. And constantly changing, as well. The intensity and variety of the sea is extraordinary; there is no chance of ever getting bored with it, and I find even the greatest painting wearies me sooner or later. As for my own works, I know perfectly well what they look like, each and every one. I don’t need to hang them up and look at them, and don’t need anyone else to look, either.

Stop! Don’t move! That will do; I want you to be comfortable, as I intend to keep you here for some time. I am out of practise, remember, and creaking bones go slower than well-exercised ones. I have mainly spent my time painting landscapes, and hills neither move nor talk back to you. Nor do they try to sneak into an elegant posture, or have a supercilious look on their faces. Remove both, if you please. I intend to paint you with grandeur, not as some simpering aesthete. A smirk is of its time. Solemnity is for eternity.

Let me explain my thinking. What I have decided to do—and I am not interested in your opinion on the matter—is a portrait in which a variation in light will show up different aspects of your character. Think of Monet. No, I haven’t changed my mind; I still think he was not a good painter. But undoubtedly a great one, and as you know, I have never minded leaning on the great. So I’ll need you morning, afternoon and evening, depending on where I am in my work. For an ordinary portrait, one glance is enough; for most sitters it is more than enough. A man of complexity requires more, and a poor painter like me needs all the help he can get. Perhaps Titian could communicate all levels at once, but he was a genius and I—as you once pointed out—am not. A hurtful comment, you know, until I recognised its truth. I discovered early on that I could always forgive you anything, as long as you told the truth. Then I learnt how to use that knowledge, and bend my skills to my limitations, and exceed both. Intelligence and craft, sometimes, can be an effective substitute for native ability.

I intend to cheat, mind you; my account of you is partly finished already. You remember, no doubt? The portrait I began in Hampshire in 1906? I brought it with me; my departure was not as sudden as it seemed. I gave myself more than enough time to pack and take with me the things I considered important. For some reason, your face was amongst all the other debris I felt I could not do without, even though it had been lying in my studio unfinished for three years. Every now and then, I take it out and look at it. About a year ago I finally got around to completing it, the first panel: The Critic As He Was; now I will begin on The Critic As He Is. One day, perhaps, As He Will Be. Past, present and future, all in one gorgeous trilogy.

So we will revisit Van Dyck together, you and I. You know what I mean, of course; the triple portrait of Charles I. An allusion, if you like, to your renowned connoisseurship. But not a pastiche; those pictures have the two outer pictures looking inwards, the king regards nothing but himself. The middle portrait stares out, calm and arrogant, not caring what the world sees or thinks. That would never do for a man like yourself. The critic must look outwards, all the time. Over your shoulder even, lest you miss some new fashion sneaking up from behind.

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