The Portrait

by Iain Pears

The Portrait

Hardcover, 211 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $19.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

Journeying to a remote French island to sit for a portrait that is painted by his tormented artist friend, an influential London art critic recalls the early years of their friendship, his own influence over aspiring artists, and the power struggle between subject and artist in the course of the sitting. By the author of An Instance of the Fingerpost. 100,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: The Portrait

The Portrait

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.

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.

—from The Portrait by Iain Pears, Copyright © 2005 Iain Pears, published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher

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