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«The Portrait», Iain Pears

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Do you remember when we saw that picture together? You took me along as part of my London education. I was in awe of you, even though I was already in my fumbling way a better painter than you could ever dream of becoming. But you had vast knowledge and a boundless self-confidence, and I wanted that from you, wanted to see how you did it. So I watched; you taught, and my dependency grew still greater. I didn’t realise then that it was not something that could be mimicked. That assurance had deep roots that I could never grow for myself. That ability of yours never to doubt, never to hesitate about the correctness of your opinions, was part of your character, not mine.

Not mere arrogance, either. You had the right to your confidence, just as those colonial governors and members of Parliament have a right to their authority. You had spent years studying these pictures, while I merely had worked at painting some myself; immersed yourself in everything from Vasari to Morelli, while I was labouring away in a Glasgow drawing shop; travelled Europe from Hamburg to Naples before I had even left Scotland.

And I thought I could have all that merely by being around you for a few months. You never told me it was impossible. You never warned me and said, “I went to Winchester and Cambridge; I have known artists and writers, lords and ladies, all my life. I know Italy and France as well as I know my own country. You are a poor Scottish boy of no education and no connections, who has seen nothing but what I have shown you. We see and understand things differently, and always will. Find your own way, or you will only ever be ridiculous.” Had you said that, I would not have believed you—at least not then. But it would have been the truth; you would have done your duty.

What is that you have so furtively popped into your mouth? A pill? Medicine? Are you ill? Let me see what you have in that bag. Goodness, even your maladies are fashionable! A weakness in the heart, I suppose. Do you need to lie down occasionally, become soporific and frail without these things? Have the vapours on a settee? Strange how this age has turned weakness into something attractive and interesting, decided that frailty and artistic judgement are two sides of the same thing. Like Beardsley and his tuberculosis, spluttering his contamination all over people at the dinner table. Would he have been taken so seriously had he been in robust good health and gone swimming in the ocean in December? I think not, somehow. Anyway, let me know if you feel like slipping off your chair into a stupor. If you are going to spoil the pose I would like a little advance warning.

By all means, pour a glass of water and eat your little pills. It is the wrong time of day for serious work in any case. Had you arrived on time, then maybe something might have been done today. But when were you ever on time? Making others wait is part of your manner. I didn’t get out of bed until more than an hour after you were due. You weren’t going to have me hanging around, working myself up into a bad mood on our first day. And I shall give Madame Le Gurun strict instructions that you are to be woken up at daybreak, and pushed out the door by six. For her, as for most of the people hereabouts, that is a long and decadent lie-in. The morning light is what I want for you, to start with. Clear and shadowless, with the freshness of dawn. Nothing is hidden, and the slight chill you get at this time of year stimulates the senses wonderfully. You will have the delight of walking across the island every morning at dawn, seeing the sea in its infinite variety. Then, later on, I think the evening, with long shadows accentuating that long nose of yours, the watchful look of slight malevolence you have sometimes, when you are briefly unaware that anyone is looking at you.

I have seen it many times. I particularly remember the first occasion. Do you want to hear? Why not? You have nothing better to do, after all, and although I allow myself to talk as much as I like while I work, it is not something I encourage in my sitters. It is, after all, how I created my reputation. Ah! A smile, if only a slight one. Please don’t. Solemn, remember. What was the woman’s name? Not that it matters. She’d married way above herself and was headachingly nervous. She talked incessantly in a high, squeaky twitter, and eventually I had to finish quickly to avoid strangling her. I exhibited the portrait at the New English exhibition of 1903 with one of those silly academic titles. Lost for Words, I called it. My first success as a man of wit. It gained me some standing and reputation, and all for the small cost of humiliating a perfectly decent woman. I never apologised, not even when I came to regret it.

But that look of yours, the one I intend to go a-hunting for, that particular look I first noticed at Julien’s académie de peinture. Hateful place; I learned nothing there at all, but it was good for the reputation, and I was very mindful of that. What painter could be taken seriously in London without having studied in Paris? So off we all trooped, me and Rothenstein and McAvoy and Connard and all the other hopefuls, and sat around and drew and painted and argued and damned all others for their mediocrity. Well, it was fun to live in poverty and be perpetually borrowing money off each other, and to dream of conquering the world, of striding into the new century as conquerors claiming our birthright. We came back to London so full of ourselves, with such hopes! Maybe that was the point of it. But I certainly didn’t learn to paint there. Just to work quickly in a dark and smoky room with an incessant din all around me. I learned to live in a crowd and maintain my sense of self. I learned that I’d have to be detached if I was ever to achieve anything at all. And I learned how cruel is the world of art; how much like a jungle, where only the most powerful survive. A harsh and surprising lesson, as I had been used to the gentler atmosphere of drunken working men in Glasgow, whose only violence is to beat each other senseless on a Saturday night.

I remember when Evelyn first joined us in 1898, after I’d been there for two years and was already beginning to think of going to see whether I would survive in the great cauldron of the London painting world. She didn’t come for the life class, of course; women weren’t allowed into that. For one of the general lessons in perspective, an arrangement of dying flowers in a vase, an old jar, a hammer, all arranged quite indecorously. Curious spectacle, all those budding young revolutionaries, peering earnestly at that homely arrangement like a bunch of polite schoolboys. And then this girl comes in, and everyone sniggers. She was so young, so innocent-looking and so—prim. The sort who lives with her mother, drinks sherry once a month and is in bed by half past nine every night. Not the sort of woman you would want as a subject for a painting, unless you have a yen to depict the frail and delicate; although once I looked closer I thought maybe you could do something interesting with those pale cheeks, the thin hair pulled tightly into an unflattering bun at the nape of the neck, the slightly hunched pose, as if she were trying to hide her small breasts, pretend they were not there. She looks around, arranges herself, says good morning in a quiet, nervous voice, then begins. We all crowd round after a bit, to see the polite bit of feminine nonsense she had produced, and I saw that expression on your face.

You had come to take me to dinner, and were waiting with unaccustomed patience for me to clean myself up enough to look respectable. Normally it was the other way round, with me waiting like a young girl for her first beau. I’d only known you for a month or so then, and was already captivated. A chance, overheard remark in a museum, and you came up to me and invited me for a drink. The Café de l’Opéra! Champagne! Brilliant conversation, so worldly and knowing. You were already known, and had started writing reviews of Paris exhibitions for the newspapers in London. Were the editor of an advanced journal with no circulation, someone who turned up at parties and dinners. Had a reputation for—something, although no-one really knew what. Yet you pursued me, initiated the friendship and cultivated it. You chose me to be your friend! You singled me out, paid attention to me, began my education. I was twenty-seven, but so inexperienced of this new world I wished to enter I’m sure I seemed much younger. You were near thirty already, but almost jaded from having seen so much.

I think the others laughed at me behind my back, but I didn’t care. I wore my adoration, my reverence, like a badge of pride. “William says . . .” “William thinks . . .” “William and I . . .” Heavens, but I must have been ridiculous. You encouraged it, flattered and cajoled. “Don’t worry about the others. An artist like yourself . . .” “You have something special; real ability . . .” All those phrases; I lapped them up, wanted more, wanted you to say them again and again. It was like bathing in milk. And I didn’t realise how much I filled a need in you: everything was fresh for me; you had seen everything before, many times over. With me in tow you could catch some of the excitement of discovery and feel the joy of novelty once more. I think it is why you so earnestly advocate the new in art. You are constantly in search of something to excite you and stir an enthusiasm that a too-fortunate education has snatched from your grasp.

No-one had ever taken me seriously before. You were the first not to regard me as skilled only in self-deception. You patronised me, of course, but then you patronised everyone. But even I realised that you liked to be around when I saw something for the first time, discovered a painter I had never heard of, gazed with wonder on a masterpiece you had known all your life. You could tell me everything about the artist, dissect his skill and turn his genius into words. But you couldn’t be frozen in amazement, couldn’t tremble with emotion. I provided that for you, and in return you gave me an education. Until you came along, I was sustained only by a deep-seated Scottish doggedness, but I knew already it wasn’t going to be enough. I loved you for that, always will. Because you were right, after all: I am a good artist.

I threw myself into my work under your tutelage, labouring all hours of the day and night to make myself better, laying my improvements before you like a faithful dog coming back to his master with a stick. And I did get better, improved in ways I scarcely thought possible; I learned to take risks, not to be safe and hide behind my skill. Oh, bliss it was! I still look back on those evenings we spent together as the happiest part of my life, and I wanted it to go on forever. I didn’t want to get to know you any better; didn’t want to think about the shadows and the subtleties. But innocence is only pleasurable because it is transient.

How is it that expressions change? I have spent years looking at people’s faces, and it is still a mystery to me. A minuscule, immeasurable movement of an eyebrow in relation to the eye and nose; a scarcely discernible tightening or loosening of the muscles in cheek and neck; the barest tremor on the lips; a shine in the eyes. But we know the eyes do not change; the most significant manifestation of emotion is pure illusion. And this fractional shifting is all that distinguishes contempt from respect, love from anger. Some people are crude; their faces can be read by anyone. Some are more subtle, and only those close to them can read the face correctly. Some are incomprehensible even to themselves.

It has taken me years to unpick the expression on your face when you looked at Evelyn’s work that day in the atelier. I sometimes think my entire career, my life, even, could be cast as the quest to decipher that look, to peel away layer after layer, to plunge down into your mind and piece together the fragmentary emotions and responses that I saw but could not understand. I managed it eventually; I will tell you how soon enough.

So the expression was obscure, but the response was not. That was as clear as a bell. A polite dismissal. Not even contempt. It carried weight, I followed you, but not so far as to make some comment; even then I could see something of myself in her. And I was not comfortable. Because my own immediate reaction had been different—the brief start that comes into the mind when faced with something unexpected and surprising. I could have dismissed that easily, of course; but it was echoed by the momentary hesitation I noticed in you; a sliver of time between your looking and your response.

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