The Drawing Lesson: I am greatly honoured to have The Trilogy of Remembrance [The Drawing Lesson, The Fate of Pryde and Night Crossing] included in a list of fifteen other novels which contain mythic themes. The list is prepared by the Joseph Campbell Foundation and may be found right here. Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and JRR Tolkein are a few of the other authors so honoured.
Here’s a sample of THE DRAWING LESSON.
PROLOGUE of The Drawing Lesson
A figure, drenched in the rain, stamped his feet and banged impatiently on the door of my gallery, Helmsworth and Son. When I unlocked it, Britain’s finest landscape artist, Alexander Wainwright, stormed in and towered over me.
I asked as mildly as I could, “Where on earth have you been, Alex? I’ve been trying to reach you for days!”
Without answering, he tossed off his raincoat, which I caught and hung in the closet.
Poised in the middle of the gallery, he gave a deep and solemn bow. Then a sweet smile broke upon his face. “Out— finding beauty and harmony in the world, Jamie!”
As an art dealer, I know that artists are very different from you and me. We, who must earn our living in the mundane world of commerce, simply walk through a door and into a room. We can scarcely imagine how—in the mind of a highly creative person—the act of entering a shop can be fraught with so many dramatic possibilities! But I was always charmed by my dear friend’s energy and life.
Alex paused and, taking out a snowy white handkerchief, patted the raindrops from his grizzled face. “What can I do for you then?” he asked, eyeing the cabinet at the back. “A drink, perhaps?”
I poured two glasses of scotch. “I need your opinion on this new group show for next week—the one before your retrospective gala.”
Alex grimaced and then took a long drink.
“I have to cut out one of the artists. There’s simply not enough room.”
In an instant, Alex’s professional eye scanned the paintings. “Those ones.” He gestured at my favourites dismissively. “They should go.”
He slumped into the chair at my desk and fiddled with several pens scattered about.
“Jamie, about the retrospective of my work…”
I sat down across from him. “Yes?”
“I can’t do it.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
He reached across the desk and touched my sleeve. His eyes gleamed intently. “I’m afraid I’m losing my vision!”
Because I have heard many artists speak of their vision, I assumed that Alex was referring to his source of inspiration and so I was astounded when he described his plight.
“Just yesterday, I was walking along the Embankment to my studio and clouds seemed to roll in along the periphery of my vision until everything was almost entirely black. Of course, I was frightened—so I sat down on a bench a waited for it to pass, which it did within about five minutes.”
“Has it happened again?”
He shook his head. “But it did several weeks ago.”
Immediately, I reached for my address book. “Don’t fool around with this Alex.” I spoke sternly but tried not to let my emotions overtake me. Good God! Beethoven losing his hearing. Wainwright losing his eyesight! A tragedy for both the man and his art!
“You must see Dr. Hugh Robinson, an ophthalmologist in Harley Street.” I watched my hand tremble only slightly as I wrote down the doctor’s address and phone number. “He’s an old school chum. Tell him I sent you—and who you are. I’m sure he’ll see you right away.” I half-expected that Alex would smile and make light of my concerns, but he did not. Instead, he nodded and pocketed the note.
After downing his drink, he rose to go. As he put on his coat, he looked strangely at me and said, “Another surprise! I got a letter the other day from an old acquaintance back in Toronto.” He seemed to shrink into his coat. “Apparently—at least according to him—I may have a child.”
“Really?” Shocked, I could think of nothing better to say. “Boy or girl?”
Alex turned the doorknob. “He didn’t say. But I loved the mother very much—many years ago. She was my muse. It was my very best period of drawing.”
“Will you try to find this child?”
He tossed up his hands in frustration. “I have nothing to go on, Jamie. And perhaps it’s never wise to go back…”
I agreed. After all, what good could come of unearthing the past? But I only said, “Don’t forget Dr. Robinson, Alex.”
“About those paintings for the group show,” he said. “They’re not so bad, but the painter is still struggling to find what is in his heart.” He shrugged amiably, but when he turned away, he sighed, “But then, isn’t everyone?”
I shook his hand. “I’ll see you at the Tate Saturday night for the cocktail party?” I smiled grandly. “All in your honour–and the others on the short list for the Turner Prize.”
“But Rinaldo might just win, Jamie.” Buttoning up his coat, he shook his head. “I can’t say I understand his art, but he interests me greatly. But, honestly, I have never met a man who so effectively repels human sympathy!” Then he winked at me and disappeared into the late afternoon gloom.
As I closed up the shop, I reflected that much of Beethoven’s most original and soul-stirring music was written when his deafness was most profound. But how, I wondered, could a painter paint if he could not see?
My story of Alexander Wainwright begins on that day. Because I have been present at only a small number of events, substantial parts of this tale are hearsay. But think of me, James Helmsworth, his art dealer who, as a dedicated biographer, has done his best to check all the facts. I have pieced together this account of the past year of his life from a variety of sources—some personal, some media accounts and conversations with those who knew him well and those whose lives were deeply affected by him. Of course, Alex himself has, from time to time, been quite helpful and where there have been blank spots, I have allowed myself a certain artistic license.
What follows is the sum and substance of a remarkable year in a great artist’s life. He was at the pinnacle of his career when his art took a strange turn and I began to fear he had become possessed by some devil. But I was only beginning to understand the power of his passionate and hungry spirit, which nearly devoured him in his search for his new art—and his new life. I leave it to you to judge the value of his find.
CHAPTER 1 of The Drawing Lesson
At the Tate Modern Gallery, women swirling about in their elegant cocktail dresses and men in their tails, congregated before Alexander’s most recent painting the Hay Wagon. Each one of them was arrested by his vision.
A huge moon hung low in the sky illuminating the scene with an unearthly glow. A hay wagon stood before a barn door, which hung on its hinges. Beyond that, an old horse shambled about in the meadow.
“Look at the way the light shimmers,” whispered one woman, pointing upward with her face aglow. “It’s like seeing the beyond.”
“It almost seems alive and pulsing with life,” breathed another. Other guests were silenced, unable to articulate the complexity of emotion, which Alexander’s painting evoked.
Along with the luminaries of the art world my wife, Renee, and I had gathered to raise a glass to the five finalists for the Turner Prize in contemporary art. The high glass ceilings of the immense Turbine room had darkened in the twilight and the flickering lights along the riverbank, created a dream-like, festive atmosphere.
Renee tugged on my sleeve. “Don’t you think there’s something quite odd about Alex’s painting?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look! There’s the faintest shadow just to the left of the wagon and there’s another one near the barn door.”
I peered closely at the painting. “Yes, I do see what you mean. Strange! They look like shadows cast by very oddly shaped—almost stunted—people, but there’s no one in sight.” Puzzled, I shrugged and stepped back.
From across the rotunda, I heard someone calling out my name. Geoffrey Yorkton, holding two champagne glasses aloft, shouldered his way from the bar and descended upon me.
“James!” he nearly shouted in my ear. “ArtNews just hit the stands. Alex’s Hay Wagon is on the cover.”
Geoffrey was the editor-in-chief of that glossy art magazine.
“Yes. I’ve seen it and read the article. Why was the interviewer so hostile?”
Yorkton’s eyebrows shot up. “You do know Maxwell’s a conceptual art man. He’s pulling for Rinaldo.”
“Then why have him do the interview?”
Yorkton grinned. “Controversy always sells magazines, Jamie. That’s my job!” He patted my arm and winked. “Besides, the buzz is good for Alex.” Then drawing me aside, he spoke more seriously. “I know Alex is the front-runner, but if he gets too cocksure, the committee won’t like it. And the entire conceptual art crowd is furious that he’s even in the running for their prize.”
“Why? The prize is for contemporary—not conceptual art. ”
Yorkton just winked and was off into the crowd. Briefly, I glanced heavenward and went to find Alex.
At the door, the crowd began to part and murmurs rippled through the gallery. There stood Alex, tall and handsome in formal attire, thoughtfully caressing his neat goatee. Sauntering in, he stood in the centre of the room. Within a moment, someone presented him with a glass of champagne and people gathered around.
From behind, a hand fluttered on Alex’s shoulder. He turned to see the scarred, pinched face of Rinaldo gleaming up at him.
Strangely, Rinaldo never seemed to blink and his laser-like gaze sought to pin Alex, his latest victim, like a butterfly under glass.
Alexander set his champagne down on a passing tray.
“Ah! There you are Rinaldo!” Alex held out his hand, which the little man ignored.
Waiters lit tall candles in the corners of the room. Light danced upon the fluted columns and made the stone floor gleam, giving the room the appearance of an ancient, mediaeval castle.
Smirking, Rinaldo stuffed his fists into his crimson cummerbund and bowed deeply to the smattering of dignitaries now drifting closer. “I am honoured to be shortlisted with an artist of such renown. But Alex, haven’t you thought of expanding your work beyond the representation of bucolic scenes?”
Alexander frowned and then turned away.
Grasping Alex’s sleeve, Rinaldo continued in lilting tones, “It must be a heavy burden for one artist.” He shook his head and sighed deeply. “To maintain such certainty of vision in a world of constant change.” Then his eyes glittered with mirth. “Perhaps we should collaborate someday!”
A few nervous titters arose from the group now congregating about them.
Wainwright swung around. “Your art installation greatly intrigues me. The ditch or trench—whatever you call it—in the main hall perfectly captures the state of art in the present day.”
The little man twirled his moustache between his fingers. “And what state is that, sir?”
Alexander was referring to the bulging, heaving crack constructed by Rinaldo and laid over-top the length of the Turbine Room floor. A barbed wire fence ran down the centre of his creation with implements of war heaped on either side.
Alexander retrieved another glass of champagne from a waiter. “You’ve outdone yourself, this time, Rinaldo.” Struggling to suppress a small smile, he continued, “Your work fairly teams with complex, intellectual concepts.”
“I must say your painting is very pretty.”
Anger flashed in Alex’s eyes. He snorted. “It is a sincere effort to create the warmth of the human spirit. Agreed, it is not clever enough for your cerebral contortions.”
By now, most of the committee had gathered about. The chairman, Gus Grosvenor, sought to intervene. “Gentleman, please, lively controversy about art is wonderful, but this is a party. Please…”
Neither artist paid the man any heed.
Like a cat upon a mouse, Rinaldo pounced. “Your art was revolutionary two centuries ago. But how is it relevant today? We see an old cart, some bales of hay and a dilapidated barn in the background. In a distant field, we see an old broken-down horse.” He nibbled his lip reflectively then gave a dismissive wave. “Does such a scene even exist in this twenty-first century— anywhere on this earth— except in the sentimental, bourgeois imagination?”
Alone, Alexander leaned against a wall and stared at the Hay Wagon. I witnessed a fleeting expression on his face, which I had never seen before. He was not in retreat, but his pale blue eyes seemed to contain certain hesitancy—even doubt— the depth of which I could not judge. I frowned, wondering if I had seen the tiniest splintering in the façade of a great artist.
With a fawning smile, Rinaldo turned to a young, female docent and said, “Tell me, my dear, what do you see?”
The docent, who was very pretty herself said, “It has a certain quality, sir, rarely seen in landscapes. It has the numinous light suffusing it, as if God were everywhere in the landscape and the world.”
“That’s it exactly!” someone in the crowd said. Others murmured their agreement.
Rinaldo’s lip curled. “God or just a trick of light, young lady?”
Gus Grosvenor stepped forward and, drawing Rinaldo aside, whispered in his ear. “This is a social event to be enjoyed by all. The committee frowns on such grandstanding. The final vote is this Tuesday.” He glanced significantly at the little man. “I’m sure you get my drift, sir.”
The artist clicked his heels together sharply and bowed. “Certainly, my good man! The last thing we want is controversy at a party.”
Wainwright’s voice boomed from the far side of the rotunda. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s go back to the main hall and view my friend’s work. I’m sure he’d like to explain it to us.” Without waiting, he sauntered back to the Turbine Room. He turned to face the group.
As a conceptual artist, Rinaldo was fond of creating installations. The guests gazed upon his work entitled The Destiny of War. On both sides of this trench, with its barbwire fence, were flung piles old clothing, children’s toys—guns, model tanks, knives and swords—all spattered with red paint. No doubt, he intended to create the effect of a blood bath. I found one dismembered doll to be a particularly tasteless touch. In my opinion, the message of this so-called piece of conceptual art was both obvious and trite. But then I, as a dealer in representational painting, had to admit my bias.
Alexander began. “We know that conceptual art is not judged by the usual aesthetic values. Beauty is but an offensive, bourgeois conceit. Only the originality and validity of the concept itself is significant.” Smiling benignly, he turned to Rinaldo. “Sir? Is it fair to say your concept is—that hatred divides our world and results in war, death and devastation?”
The gathering fell silent as Rinaldo squeezed to the front. “Yes, that is fair comment, although very limited in scope.”
“What else does it say?”
“Unless we change our fundamental attitudes, we are on a hellish course of self- destruction.” Rinaldo had difficulty keeping a defensive tone from his voice. “This is a revolutionary concept…”
“By its very nature, mankind is doomed to destroy.”
“Ah! So there is no hope. How have you conveyed that? Might we not conclude we can mend our ways because that ability is also part of human nature?”
Grinning, Rinaldo glanced about nervously. “That is the whole point of conceptual art—to stir debate, controversy, different points of view.”
Wainwright strolled the whole length of Rinaldo’s trench, pausing occasionally to examine a doll or a gun. The room was silent until he returned.
“Ladies and gentleman, if conceptual art places the idea first and foremost, let us judge such a work in its own terms. Is Rinaldo’s idea original, novel, controversial or at least interesting? Who does not know that hatred is part of human nature and leads to the most destructive forms of warfare? Where is the new idea?” The artist bowed deeply and concluded, “Rinaldo should enlighten us. Why is his concept original or thought provoking?” With a flourish of his arm, he stepped aside. “I give my friend the floor.”
Rinaldo, now the palest white, hung back for only a moment. “My friend, the great Wainwright, speaks from centuries back.” The little man’s face twisted into a cartoon of fury. “He fails to see that the world has changed beyond his understanding and he clings to his old verities. Caught in his time warp, he can only paint bucolic scenes from centuries back.”
Wainwright relaxed against a fluted column. “Ladies and gentlemen!” His softly whispered voice rebounded eerily in the great hall. “Rinaldo has not answered my question.”
No one had ever seen Rinaldo at a loss for words. He spun on his heel. With a slight, hitching gait, he marched as rapidly as possible toward the main entrance. Glancing behind only once, he fled through the spinning doors. For a long moment, the group was silent. Then gentle murmurs and occasional soft chuckle filled the hall as everyone drifted back to the bar.
I approached Alex and said, “You certainly won that round, old man.”
Wainwright looked at me oddly. “You never win with Rinaldo, Jamie. And he does have some interesting points.”
Anxiety and confusion spread over Alex’s face. He stared into my eyes and whispered, “What if he is right that my art is dead?” Then his shoulders slumped and he muttered, “This is just the beginning. He and I shall never be done.” Then he brightened for a moment. “By the way, did you see Peter Cummings here tonight?”
I shook my head. “I think he’s out of town, Alex.”
Alexander sighed heavily.
“Did you reach Hugh Robinson?” I asked.
He frowned, as if trying to recollect.
“Oh yes. I see him next week.”
I said goodnight and stepped outside the main doors. On the opposite side of the Thames, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, gloriously lit against the night sky, rose up in an incredible celebration of harmony and beauty. I smiled. What would its architect, Christopher Wren, labouring in the eighteenth century make of the irreparable division in the art world today?
CHAPTER 2 of The Drawing Lesson
Despite my telephone messages, all of which remained unanswered, I did not see Alexander for almost a week after the Tate reception. Congratulations were certainly in order as he did win the Turner Prize, beating out Rinaldo.
However, in less than a fortnight, we had to mount a retrospective of his work at my gallery, Helmsworth and Son, in London’s Chelsea district. I am the son; Father has been gone almost twenty years. Although he was not unkindly, sometimes, in moments of stress, I still hear the rap of Father’s cane on his desk and his dismissive growls at any of my proposed innovations.
Although Alex had insisted on choosing each painting for the show, he remained unavailable for any consultation. I must say, I was rather put out by his indifferent attitude but I have, throughout my career, learned much about working with temperamental artists—Alex, in particular.
Mounting any show can be a Herculean task. Movers must be hired; walls need to be painted—to say nothing of arranging for caterers and placing advertisements. Just try to get knowledgeable reviewers from the press out at a moment’s notice!
But Alex’s work is so wondrous that I feel petty admitting to such comparatively trivial frustrations. The business side of art is most certainly mundane and promoters are really only bystanders looking through a murky glass at the marvellous but dimly perceived process of creation.
And so, I found myself at Alex’s door pulling on the bell Saturday at noon. Knowing he was a deep sleeper, I waited, between rings as patiently as I could. After five minutes, still there was no answer. Across the street, I leaned against the Embankment wall. From there, I saw a shadow cross his window three storeys up. Muttering about the nonchalance of artists, I returned to ring the bell again. At last, I saw him through the glass, lumbering downstairs. When he opened the door, he squinted in the noonday sun. Unshaven, he looked worn and haggard.
“Congratulations on your win, Alex!”
He merely grunted and started back up the stairs. I followed almost bumping into him at the top.
He closed the door. “What do you want?”
Taking a deep breath, I replied. “We have to decide which paintings are going into the show. Remember?”
“Show? But I said I don’t want to exhibit again, Jamie.”
It was worse than I expected. That damned Rinaldo had succeeded in undermining Alex, even though he had won the prize. I settled heavily into his chesterfield and withdrew a cigarette. Where to start?
I spoke patiently. “Alex, the invitations went out last week. I’ve hired everyone we need and Walshingham of the Post has agreed to come. He always gives you wonderful reviews.”
“Cancel it! Tell them I’ve come down with…” He shrugged. “Something serious—maybe deadly—a death of the spirit, if you will.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” I did my best to keep panic from my voice.
Alex slumped on a nearby stool. “I can’t do it.”
“You must!” I saw my hand tremble as I lit my cigarette. “It’s that damned Rinaldo isn’t it?” I demanded. “How could you let him get under your skin? You certainly showed him up for a fool at the Tate.”
Wainwright’s eyes were moist. “He’s right, though,” he said softly.
“What? I can’t believe this!” I could not help but jump up and pace. “Look at these canvases. They’re your very best work.”
Alex chuckled. “Rinaldo drove straight to the heart of the matter. He asked whether the scene of the Hay Wagon exists anywhere on the face of the earth in this twenty-first century.”
“Of course it does. Anyway, why should that matter?”
“Pretty scenes,” Alex muttered as he gazed out his windows upon the Thames.
I was losing any semblance of composure. “Pretty scenes? Good God, Alex, look at them. You’ve captured something no one else ever has in landscape.”
“And what might that be?”
I stared at him and then at the four or five canvases arranged around the room. I remembered what the docent at the Tate had said. Numinosity did shine through. She was right! In that moment, I had a tiny glimpse of what lay beyond or behind the phenomenal world. Until that moment, I had not really experienced that quality in his work. Somehow, Alex had captured the essence of the world.
Was I too caught up in the details of the business—the mounting of shows, the advertising and caterers—to see how truly wonderful his work was? With a broad grin, I embraced my friend. Then holding him at arm’s length, I said, “Alex, God is in your work, just as the docent said.”
My friend simply shrugged. “Yes, but the light has gone out, Jamie.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“My muse has gone…left me in the lurch.”
“But that happens with all artists,” I began. “Inspiration always returns. Listen! Let me choose the paintings for the show. I’ll have them crated up this afternoon. All you need to do is show up on Saturday night.”
Alex seemed to hesitate, but then he said softly, “All right. Do that for me, dear boy.” He turned and smiled bravely. “I must do my best to find her again.”
As if dealing with the loss of a child’s imaginary friend, I said cheerfully, “I know you will find her soon. Muses always return.” But the sadness in his expression touched me and I realized my glibness. “Oh…dear!” I said, “Alex, do you mean the mother of this child you mentioned?”
He nodded sorrowfully. “I used to call her Maggie. I think she’s probably dead.”
“But there are all sorts of ways of finding somebody. A detective…public records.”
At the door, he gave me an odd, rather helpless shrug.
I clapped him on the arm. When I said, “If you like, I’ll try to help you,” Alex seemed to brighten. I started down the stairs. Turning on the landing, I called back to him. “I’ll be back with the workman around two.”
In retrospect, I wish I had given his concerns more serious consideration. This was the man whose work I had just finally grasped—the one who conveyed a sense of the beyond to those who would see. Walking hastily along the Victoria Embankment, I suddenly stopped.
Something about the light dancing upon the rough, rippled water of the Thames arrested me. I have always thought I had a pretty well trained eye for painting and, as a born and bred Londoner, I had gazed upon the Thames countless times. As a businessman, I’ve always considered myself pragmatic and so, I’ve had little experience with visions. In fact, always suspicious of those laying claim to otherworldly experiences, I likely thought such people were half-mad or worse still—poseurs!
The sharpness of the breeze seemed to enliven my senses. In that moment, my eyes saw anew the scene before me. Glistening water beneath a surly sky fused with my vision of Westminster Bridge. Its creeping traffic blended with the Parliament Buildings and Big Ben beyond. A sharp beam of sunlight broke through leaden clouds and spread out upon the river. For the first time, I saw that some unseen entity held it together outside of me before my eyes and yet, without distinction, made me a living, breathing part of it.
Every day, Wainwright saw the world like this. It was his truth, his reality that emanated from every canvas he had ever painted. Of course, sometimes it shone through better than others, but it was always there. And so, the artist himself was always in his painting. I must have stood there for half an hour simply gazing upon my city, seeing it really for the very first time.
Lost in thought, I turned away. As a landscape artist, Alex rarely painted the human figure. But he showed me one work of a sorrowful woman. In a long skirt, she entered the gate of a walled garden, lush with flowers, vines and trellises.
Adding several brushstrokes, he said to me, “The garden is there for all who will enter.” But then he sighed deeply. “Although I can paint light in the landscape, I cannot illuminate the human form. No matter how I try—it remains sodden.”
On the Embankment, I tore my eyes from my vision of the Thames and hurried back to the gallery and rang up the workmen.
CHAPTER 3 of The Drawing Lesson
A single light cast an intense glow over Rinaldo’s workbench and illuminated his face pinched with pain. Few people knew of Rinaldo’s farm accident in childhood. In fact, he did his best to hide his rural roots, which he regarded as lowly. His left leg, crushed by a horse in three places, had healed poorly leaving him with a limp and a life of chronic pain—to say nothing of a hatred of four legged creatures! But I am being unkind.
Alex had it right. The man was a genius at repelling human sympathy, seeming to prefer the outer reaches of society. Someone once suggested that because great artists channel all their energies into the act of creation, they are often very sorry excuses for human beings. But I cannot conceive of Rinaldo as a great artist!
Tiny pieces of a cell phone and parts of an old-fashioned alarm clock were strewn across the bench. He worked steadily packing the pieces together into a gold painted box approximately six inches square, with a depth of eight inches. An old video camera, set on a nearby stool, whirred and recorded him at his work. For Rinaldo, the act of creating a bomb was no less important than the bomb itself—and so, such a creative act had to be recorded.
Lola—his live-in girl friend—came down the cellar steps. “Tea, darling?” she asked, sliding next to him on the bench.
Rinaldo did not answer.
Lola did not normally dare interrupt him in his workspace, but it was late and she wanted to say goodnight. At dinner, he had been in a foul mood—something about the Turner Prize, which he had not won. He had cursed Wainwright throughout the meal and then disappeared downstairs for the evening. If she showed no concern whatsoever about his moods, she would eventually pay.
Mesmerized by his deft handiwork, she finally asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m making a bomb,” he said flatly.
At first she laughed, almost a short gasp of disbelief. “No way!”
Ferret like, he grinned up at her. “You don’t believe me? Well, take a look! Not that you would understand.”
She reached out to touch the box.
Many thought Lola was a beautiful woman. In the days when Rinaldo had painted, she often sat for him. Since he no longer painted, she had no particular use to him, except in bed and when he wanted someone to hurt.
She pushed a strand of her limp hair from her cheek and stared at him. “Is it real?”
“Is it real? What a stupid, ignorant question! Of course, it’s real. You see it sitting in front of you, don’t you?” he cried. “Do you doubt your senses?” He jumped up from the bench and grabbed the camera. Focusing the camera closely upon her face he said, “What a stupid cow you are! Pick up the box and shake it. See what happens.”
Lola drew back. “No…not if it’s real…” Her voice trailed off in disbelief.
Rinaldo was intent on recording every facial expression at the closest possible viewpoint. The camera whirred. “Pick up the fucking bomb, Lola!” he laughed.
Her lips tightened. She closed her eyes and did as he commanded.
“Ah! Beautiful!” he whispered. “A sheer delight! Your face expresses the most exquisite terror.” He broke into loud cackles. “You look like you’re going to shit your pants.”
“Please, Rinaldo. Is it real?” A tear trickled down her cheek.
With great satisfaction, he set the camera down and wrote on a yellow sticky paper. This is not a bomb! R. Affixing the note to the box, he said gleefully, “Now it’s not a bomb, Lola. It’s art!” Then he picked up the camera and filmed her tear stained face, which at last, registered some relief. Gazing into the camera, he whispered, “Truth and reality are what I say they are. Whatever I touch is art. My very life is art!”
You are a crazy, hideous monster, she thought, but then only whispered “bastard!” and hurried upstairs to bed.
After working until almost two am, Rinaldo crossed the Chelsea Bridge in his lorry and then headed for King’s Road, where he located Helmsworth and Son. He had until Saturday to finalize his plans. Of course, the press would be there for the great Wainwright on opening night.
The gallery was nestled in a short, lamp-lit street among numerous other galleries with their Regency façades. A place, Rinaldo smirked— for the bourgeoisie to shop for art to match the chesterfield! Tool bag on his shoulder, he eased his way along a walk at the side, until he reached the rear of the premises. Easily enough, he found the box and disabled the telephone and alarm system.
From his pocket, he withdrew his set of Bump Keys. With his tin of lubricant, he prepared the key for easy insertion. When he tapped the key gently with a hammer, the lock and door opened smoothly. Once inside, he flicked on the lights. Better for the coppers to think that I’m a workman just doing my job!
The gallery walls were freshly painted and still bare. In a corridor, he found Wainwright’s boxed-up paintings. Once un-crated, he leaned them up against the walls.
He sneered. The old man was an intellectual bankrupt. The landscapes from years back weren’t that bad—for an art school student. Rinaldo found the rehash of the same ideas profoundly depressing. After all, surely an artist must constantly strive for originality. But the fucker took the prize! The Committee must have been mad…or paid-off.
He took a large can of spray paint from his sack and stood before the prize winning Hay Wagon. While he shook the tin, he grimaced. Dreary bales of hay and a rundown barn with an old horse and cart. This scene exists only in an old man’s addled brain. He clenched his teeth and squatted down to eye level with the work. For Rinaldo, only the inner world of the mind, independent of the visual was worthy of artistic exploration. Wainwright’s winning the Turner was a joke—a slap in the face to all contemporary artists.
It was almost three in the morning. With his shoulders slumping, he stood in the middle of the gallery and studied his lone, wavering reflection in the front windows. Suddenly, he grinned and thrust his middle finger into the air. Always the outsider—and proud of it! He shook the paint tin again and then carefully sprayed across the painting in white—This is a bomb!
He admired his handiwork with great satisfaction. Those four words shook the fundamental concepts of truth and reality, leaving the art establishment in a beautiful state of confusion. Grinning with glee, he packed up, turned off the lights and escaped into the night.
CHAPTER 4 of The Drawing Lesson
Early next morning, I got a disturbing call at home from Bob Walshingham at the Post. With great regrets, he said he could not come to the opening Saturday evening.
“But Bob,” I implored. “You can’t miss it. After all, Alex has won the coveted Turner Prize.”
“Sorry, old chap, but something urgent has come up. I’ll pop in if you’ll open up on Monday.”
The only really serious critic was bailing out at the last moment. It wouldn’t be hard to get Fulford from the Times or Hardcastle at the Sun, but the art world revered Walshingham. I sat staring at the telephone for several moments. Then I hurried to dress and head for the gallery.
Before I switched on the shop lights, I knew something was very wrong. The packing cases for Alex’s paintings were strewn about the floor. Turning on the lights, I gasped. White lettering was smeared across the Hay Wagon. Moved to tears, I dropped to my knees in front of it. Dear God! What monster would spray paint the words this is a bomb, on such a work of art? It wasn’t hard to guess!
In fury, I snatched up the phone. What the hell? Dead! With my ridiculously expensive alarm system, I had been guaranteed that the police would immediately be notified of any break-in. Uncomprehending, I listened to the silence of the receiver. The realization crept over me! The whole system depended upon the security of the telephone line. I called from the shop next door.
Fifteen minutes later, a bobby appeared, tapping with his nightstick on the door. The officer was in his mid-fifties and looked worn down from thirty years on the beat.
He shook his head sorrowfully at the state of the painting. “Such a pity! My wife would ‘ave loved that one,” he said pointing to the Hay Wagon. She’d ‘ave put it right over the chesterfield, she would!”
Outside, at the rear entrance, I asked, “But how did they get in?”
“Bump key! You can get them on the web. Not too dear. Better call your insurers. You’ll need the phone wiring repaired and protected.” The bobby snapped shut his notepad, tipped his hat and left to file his report.
Clearly, my sense of security had been laughably naïve. No doubt in my mind who the culprit was! After all, who else but a jealous, half- mad artist would do such a thing? But I decided to say nothing until I got the police report. However, the show had to go on. Within the hour, the workmen were there to hang the paintings. I called Joseph—an absolute genius at restoring damaged artwork— and left a message.
Then I had to tell Alex. It was not the sort of thing to announce on the phone—rather like giving news of the death or illness of a family member. And so, I took a lengthy stroll down to the Embankment and along it to Alex’s studio.
Only days before, I had gazed upon the Thames River, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, feeling elevated, expanded and renewed by a vision which seemed to come out of nowhere as a special gift to me alone. That was the world according to Alexander Wainwright. Now, as I gazed from the same spot, I breathed deeply and concentrated. I felt nothing. Worries about the show, about the painting and about Alex edged in upon me. My sense of unity had fled and I was left with the cold, hard pieces of the world—the river, the bridge, the buildings—and my life, just as they really were. When Alex spoke of losing his muse, did he mean he had lost this wonderfully visionary sense? If so, I could understand his distress.
I had worried that Alex would be extremely upset at my news. Instead, he slumped onto a stool, licked his lips and said, “It wasn’t a very good painting, was it?” He scrutinized me earnestly and began to chuckle. “Our friend, Rinaldo, is up to his tricks. It will be most entertaining to see what’s next.” He rubbed his stubbly chin reflectively. “So, the Hay Wagon is a bomb!”
I was at least glad Alex was sure it was Rinaldo.
Alex stood up and clapped me on the back. “Cheer up, Jamie. You look like your best friend just died. It’s only a painting. I can always do another.” Then he said with his eyes twinkling, “I think Saturday evening will be most eventful.”
Certainly, I was glad of Alex’s attitude. After all, he could have made things most unpleasant for me. But he is a good man with a forgiving nature. Yet, I was disturbed that he so readily agreed that the painting was a bomb.
“I filed a police report—you know, the insurance. If we get the evidence, do you want to prosecute?”
“Who? For what?”
“Rinaldo! For damaging the painting.”
Alex gave me a strangely patient look and said, “I think not, Jamie.” Then he smiled broadly, “By the way, I’ve got good news from your friend Hugh Robinson.”
“Wonderful!” I clasped Alex’s arm.
“He gave me the full battery of eye tests and the results are perfectly normal. Except, I do need new reading glasses.”
“That’s marvellous news!” I nearly sank with relief as I headed down the stairs. Not the fate of Beethoven, after all! Not until I reached the street, did it occur to me that Alex still had no explanation for the episodes of blindness.
The reception was set for seven o’clock Saturday evening. Over the past several days, I had made numerous telephone calls trying, without success, to locate Alex’s friend, Peter Cummings, the famous writer. Because Peter had been his confidant for years, I hoped his presence might stave off the negative effects of Rinaldo. And Alex seemed increasingly disconsolate at his absence.
One could be forgiven for wondering whether the Furies were on the loose that day. By six o’clock in the evening, winds had whipped up huge black clouds, which now sat broodingly over the entire city. At precisely seven o’clock, the wind began to howl again and the heavens opened up. Punishing torrents of rain came down, literally rapping on the windows of the gallery. I’m a practical man, not given to speculating about events as omens, but as I stood at the door and saw an eerie, purplish light bruise the sky, I began to wonder what lay ahead. Most of all, I feared Rinaldo would show up.
By seven-fifteen, a few stalwarts had arrived— mostly just “lookers” who normally came out for the wine and to pester the poor artist with inane questions. But tonight, I was glad to see each one of these brave souls, whom I greeted warmly. The Hay Wagon was displayed on an easel at the back of the gallery and attracted much attention.
“My God Jamie! Who has spray-painted that beautiful canvas?” one of my clients, David Duffield, asked.
“We don’t know. But someone broke in the last night and did it.”
“What a sick, distorted mind!” Duffield was deeply offended by such an act.
“What on earth does it mean?” asked his wife, her sharp, bird-like eyes peering up at me.
David mused, “Well, I should think it means someone is intent upon destroying works of…”
“No. What do the words themselves mean—this is a bomb? Does it mean they think it has bombed, in the colloquial sense of failing to meet the mark? Obviously, it doesn’t look like a real bomb.”
I thought Mrs. Duffield was quite shrewd.
David made his usual harrumphing sounds. “Well…I very much doubt that such a person had much in mind other than to attack beauty. Next, these people will be setting art on fire, if we don’t watch out! If an artist must rebel, why must he destroy?”
To my surprise, Walshingham bustled in stamping his galoshes and shaking his umbrella. He was well over six feet tall and, given his girth, had difficulty removing his galoshes. I hurried to his side with a chair.
“Wonderful to see you, Bob! So glad you could come after all.”
Squirming out of his raincoat, he breathed heavily, “Got the strangest message at the office this afternoon. Someone rang me up but didn’t leave his name. Said I shouldn’t miss the art event of the year…that something big would happen tonight at Helmsworth’s regarding the Hay Wagon.”
Immediately, I wondered if there might be any sort of voice recording of the conversation. Nothing like collecting evidence while it’s fresh!
Reaching for a glass of wine from a passing tray, he asked, “So what is up?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s going to happen tonight?”
Puzzled, I shrugged. “I don’t know, but it’s an important show …a retrospective of Alex’s work.”
“So you didn’t leave the message?”
“No! Of course not! But you should see what’s been done to…”
Walshingham did not hear me and began sipping his wine. “So where is the great man?” he asked.
“On his way, I’m sure.” I replied glancing anxiously at the door.
Walshingham nodded curtly and began his circuit of the gallery, pausing for long moments before each canvas. At one point, he took out a notebook and began furiously jotting something down. I moved on to speak to several couples just arriving. Considering the weather, the turnout wasn’t too bad. Undoubtedly Bob would write an article for the Times, full of praise. He was an experienced and astute critic.
From the back of the gallery came a large and noisy guffaw. Walshingham bellowed, “Good God! A conceptual artist!”
I rushed to his side.
“You mean Alex has gone over to the dark side? Joined forces with the devil?”
“Of course, not!” I hastened to assure him. “Someone has desecrated his work.”
Outrage replaced his shock. He grabbed my arm and spoke in a harsh whisper, which filled the gallery. “Not hard to figure out who’s done it!”
The front door flew open. There stood Alex in full evening attire.
I went to greet him. “I’m glad you’re here. Walshingham is absolutely livid about the Hay Wagon.”
“Really?” Alex had an absurdly dreamy expression on his face. “Actually, I think it’s quite brilliant.”
“Don’t say that to him,” I whispered. “He’ll think you’ve joined forces with the devil.”
Alex poured a glass of wine and stood off to one side. My job was to announce his presence and ask for questions.
Mrs. Duffield spoke up. “Mr. Wainwright? What has happened to the Hay Wagon?”
“Madame, it appears that it might just be a bomb. Or on the other hand, perhaps the artist meant that I have exploded and my art is now in ruins.”
“What artist?” she asked.
“The artist who added to my painting. It seems to have become somewhat of a joint effort,” said Alex with a distant smile.
“But aren’t you angry?”
“Angry? Why?” he replied taking a sip of his wine.
Alex’s face took on an expression I had never seen before. A wave of ennui passed over his features, as if his spirit had left him. But then, he muttered more to himself than anyone else. “Perhaps artists should collaborate.” He gave a nonchalant shrug.
Frowning, Walshingham approached. “Good to see you Alex!” He clapped him on the back. “A fine exhibition, indeed. Years from now people will still be raving about your numinous light.”
Somewhat revitalized, Alex turned to him and said softly, “Thank you Bob, but it’s really not there.”
“What do you mean?” Walshingham was growing at least as concerned as I. “Your viewer is drawn in, compelled to see beyond…”
Wainwright only gave a wan smile. After a moment, Walshingham drifted off with a look of confusion upon his face.
The front door flew open. Everyone turned to see Rinaldo poised like a magician in formal attire. The man carefully removed his overcoat and bowed deeply to the group.
Alex broke into a grin.
From his case, Rinaldo withdrew a gold painted box decorated with a white ribbon. Brushing past everyone, he set it on the floor in front of the Hay Wagon.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began with another bow. “I have come to honour Alexander Wainwright on this momentous occasion of his first retrospective.” His eyes glimmered and his narrow face broke into a sardonic smile. “After all,” he continued, “he has won the Turner Prize and deserves great praise.” Motioning to Alex, who seemed mesmerized, he announced, “And so, I have brought a little gift for you. Please come and see.”
Alex approached eagerly.
“There’s a note attached, Alex,” said Rinaldo.
Alex opened the note. “It says,” he began, “that this box is not a bomb.” He looked at Rinaldo. “Should I open it?”
Rinaldo nodded enthusiastically. When Alex lifted the lid, he found within it an old alarm clock with its hands missing, a cell phone, a battery and a few loose wires. At first he frowned and then he tossed back his head and laughed.
“Now I understand! Very clever indeed, sir.”
Alex set the box on a table near the Hay Wagon.
Everyone set down their wine glasses and approached.
Alexander addressed the group. “My friend, Rinaldo, has focused the attention of the art community upon a concept of great interest. The question he poses is this: What is reality? What is truth? How can art explore both? I, a poor landscape painter, have spent years trying to express my vision of reality but never on this level.”
Throughout the gallery, there was a collective gasp followed by restless murmurs of dissent. Was I about to witness professional suicide? Or was Alex building up to an ironically devastating critique of modern day conceptual art?
For me, I had little difficulty in distinguishing between truth and falsehood or reality and fantasy, but then, I am just a businessman, who makes such distinctions without much of a struggle. I suppose some might say I am oblivious to the more subtle aspects of the world.
Alex held up his hand. “Forgive me, if I press the point, but first, my friend Rinaldo, makes the statement that the Hay Wagon is a bomb. What does that mean? Will it blow up? Have I, my ideas, or my art blown up?” With a strange smile gracing his lips, he gave an elaborate shrug. “And now he presents us with an entirely fresh concept.”
He pointed at the box. “The note says that the box is not a bomb, although it looks as if it might contain one. In contrast, the writing on the painting can scarcely be a real bomb…and so, my friends wherein lies the truth?”
If Alex thought he was making any sense, he was very sadly mistaken. The faces of those present registered complete shock and disbelief.
Beaming, he turned to Rinaldo. “My friends, Rinaldo’s work teems with novel and contradictory concepts which are executed with passion and precision.”
I was convinced Alex had gone mad. In the background, Walshingham was jotting notes and shaking his head sadly. I could only imagine with horror, the article the critic was planning. The room was dead silent with embarrassment. Most people headed for their coats and umbrellas, mumbling about finding a cab.
When I opened the door for the Duffields, I saw that the heavy clouds had cleared off and the very last rays of sun were poking through. I intended to take Alex aside and have it out with him. Why had he created a shambles of a fine artistic career? But as I began to look for him, he and Rinaldo, engaged in deep conversation, brushed past me and out into the street.
CHAPTER 5 of The Drawing Lesson
After the exhibition, Wainwright and Rinaldo wandered the streets of Chelsea. A low, creeping fog had settled upon the city after the violence of the rainstorm. While both of them were still attired in full evening dress, there, any similarity dissolved. Indeed, they made a strange looking pair.
Alex, an imposing figure well over six feet tall, walked slowly but confidently, tapping his cane to and fro with deliberate measure. Lost in thought, with his eyes fixed straight ahead, he gave the appearance of a sure-footed blind man. In fact, his vision was cast elsewhere and his serene expression spoke of distant dreams from the past.
But within himself, he felt stunned as if his whole, familiar world was slipping beyond his reach. With Rinaldo’s challenge, he struggled to preserve any shred of his life-long perceptions, which had held his world together.
Now they were walking through Kensington. Usually, Alex loved to stroll along the darkened streets past the tall, white facades of the buildings, the iron fencing and the tiny apartments below street level. Sometimes, he could catch glimpses of domestic life—two men bent over a game of chess at a kitchen table or a woman reading to her child. Especially at night, each scene was a framed vision of another world—distant, yet oddly intimate. Some spirit infused each life and bound him to it in a common humanity. And so, he asked himself why have I so rarely painted people in my landscapes?
Rinaldo, a short and scrappy sort of fellow, limped, leapt and yapped his way along beside him like an annoying puppy.
“I am not joking, Alex.” He threw out his hands in his excitement. “You and I are going to collaborate. Maybe not yet, but in the future, you and I will bring the world a totally new understanding of art!”
Alex replied, “Artistically, we are entirely different! How could we ever work together?” But he decided to see if they had any common perceptions whatever. Finally, he asked, “And so, Rinaldo, where do you find beauty in this world?”
“Beauty? It is a mere bourgeois conceit. If it exists, it is only in the most provincial of minds.”
Alex cast him a sidelong glance. Why was he compelled to explain his fundamental understanding of art to such a man? Only by revealing his own deepest thoughts and experiences, he decided, could he ever convince Rinaldo of anything.
“It’s a pity then! You have no experience of the sublime?”
Eyes widening Rinaldo guffawed. “What’s that? A pretty sunset? A meadow dotted with wild flowers?”
Struggling for calm, Alex replied, “No, I mean a sense of the divine—a presence, if you will, which brings order out of chaos and gives meaning to life.”
Rinaldo warmed to the argument. “There is no meaning. Sorry to tell you, Alex, but your God has been dead for many years.”
Alex grimaced. He had no particular notion of God, at least not in any conventional sense.
Rinaldo puffed out his chest and went on. “Face it! We’re tossed about in a random cosmos which doesn’t give a damn about us.” Wanting to shake his rival up, he grabbed Alex by the sleeve. “A mindless game of chance with no point at all.”
Annoyed that Wainwright still wore the same stupid, dreamy look, Rinaldo grinned up at him maliciously. “After all you, who paint in the eighteenth century, have won the Turner prize in the twenty- first century. And I, who bring rational concepts to challenge outmoded thought, have lost. That alone proves the universe is absurd.”
Alex was not to be diverted with such drivel. With exaggerated pity, he asked, “Have you never, not even once, had a muse?”
“Oh that! Inspiration…all the time!” the little man sputtered.
“No, I mean a real, living, breathing human being?”
“Oh those! You mean a woman?”
Wainwright shrugged. “Doesn’t have to be a woman.”
Rinaldo frowned and took out a cigar from his vest pocket. Unsure of the direction of the conversation, he announced. “I like women!” Then, to be sure he had made his point, he added with a chuckle, “A woman—if she’s a good lay—is a wonderful inspiration, provided she doesn’t talk too much.”
Deeply offended by Rinaldo’s crassness of spirit, Wainwright said, “I once had a muse—her name was Maggie…” His voice faltering, he broke off in recollection and then said, “It was my very best period of work.”
Rinaldo did not disguise a snicker. “Ah yes…this paragon of virtue…who brought your divine light!”
Wainwright was ready to throttle the little man who was growing more obnoxious by the minute. It was useless trying to educate him.
Backing away, Rinaldo held up a placating hand. “What happened? She is no longer with you?”
Wainwright shook his head sadly. “No, I was told some years ago that she had died.”
“You are not sure? Who told you this?”
Shrugging, Wainwright shoved his hands in his pockets. “Her husband said so.”
“You mean you saw no obituary…had no proof?” Astonished, Rinaldo broke into cackles. “You are a prince, sir! You actually believed her husband?”
“He sent me a letter saying she became desperately ill and died. I never knew for sure but she may have been pregnant.”
“How do you know he was not lying?”
Wainwright had never seriously considered such a possibility. Perhaps he did not really want to know. After all, that way he could more easily keep her spirit alive and not face difficult truths.
“What man would say such a thing about his own wife?”
Rinaldo nearly danced with glee on the sidewalk. “One who wanted to get rid of you, dear chap? What better way?”
A thousand recollections flooded Wainwright’s head as he sank to a nearby bench. Why did I never question it? He might well have created any story just to get rid of me.
“A perfect example!” lectured Rinaldo. “We are doomed to live our lives in ignorance only guessing at what reality might be. Our senses and reason are quite useless.”
Rinaldo threw out his meagre chest and continued to pontificate. “Why should the man not lie if he thinks it will be advantageous? Nothing is certain. There is no such thing as truth…no god, no absolute, divine reality. We all make up truths to suit our own purposes.”
Alexander tried to recollect. At the time he had been suspicious that Maggie had been pregnant and now it seemed that was true—a child, his child—alive somewhere in the world. She had seemed to become fearful not only of her husband, but of life itself, as if she were protecting something within. Later, he had tried to write once or twice but his letters were returned deceased written on the unopened envelope. Why had he not insisted on the truth?
“So you think she was pregnant?” Rinaldo asked, his eyes twinkling. “Women do that all the time, old chap. Consider yourself lucky! No doubt, the bitch saddled her husband—the poor bugger— with your kid.”
Alex’s face turned entirely white.
“If she is still alive, she’s living her bourgeois, common place life of no particular value and laughing at you poor blokes.” Rinaldo shrugged. “Most women are dull, bovine creatures except when it comes to screwing us!”
Alexander swung hard. His fist clipped the side of Rinaldo’s head—just a glancing blow, but the little man staggered backward and then righted himself. In fury, Alex marched off for his studio, leaving his tormentor rubbing his jaw, but still chuckling.
On the Embankment, darkness suddenly surrounded Alexander. Of course, it’s dark, he thought. It’s almost ten o’clock. But where are the lights along the Thames? There were a few distant ones looking more like pinpoints of light in a vast, dark sea. Where is Big Ben? Lost like the moon behind the clouds?
Dear God! Not blindness again! Panicky gasps came from his chest. I cannot lose my sight. Instantly, without his vision, he became unsure, tentative and frightened—as if his whole personality had vanished. At last he touched a railing and crept along the Embankment like a man twice his age. How do I cross the street? How do I find my studio door?
He tried to remember if the numbers on his front door were raised, but he could not. Amazing the things you don’t notice when you can see! Only by the swish of the tires on the wet street could he sense the oncoming cabs. After several attempts, he crossed the street safely amidst blaring horns. Door key in hand, he shuffled up some steps—one, two, three—and felt for the lock.
A bobby took the man crouching at the door for either a housebreaker or a drunk.
He grasped Alex’s arm. “Can I help you, sir?”
Alex raised his eyes to see, but could not. “Officer?”
“I’m Constable Davenport, sir. What are you doing?”
Nearly weeping, Alex said, “I am blind. I can’t see to open my door.”
“What number is your house, Mr…?”
“Wainwright. Alexander Wainwright. I’m at two seventy-two.”
“You’re just at two fifty two, mate.” More kindly, he said, “I’ll help you home.”
As they walked the remaining distance, Alexander struggled with both grief and gratitude. When the officer opened his door, he smiled his thanks and bade him goodnight. He flicked on the light switch. The stairwell flooded with light. Light? Thank God! I can see again, Alexander cried. If I am going blind, then I must set to work immediately.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
If you have enjoyed these few chapters, please consider purchasing any novels in The Trilogy of Remembrance They are sold anywhere online but click on the coin for Amazon.
Also, have a look at The Joseph Campbell Foundation page on Amazon where you will the selection of novels with mythic themes.
And while you are here, take a moment to watch this video about The Drawing Lesson.