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The Ebony Tower-Short Stories - John Fowles, Page 2

John Fowles

  In 1963 he bought the old manoir at Coëtminais and forsook his beloved Paris. A year later appeared his illustrations to Rabelais, his last fling as a pure draughtsman, in a limited edition that has already become one of the most valuable books of its kind in this century; and in the same year he painted the first of the pictures in the last-period series that was to establish his international reputation beyond any doubt. Though he had always rejected the notion of a mystical interpretation--and enough of the old left-winger remained for any religious intention to be dismissed out of court--the great, both literally and metaphorically, canvases with their dominant greens and blues that began to flow out of his new studio had roots in a Henry Breasley the outer world had not hitherto guessed at. In a sense it was as if he had discovered who he really was much later than most artists of his basic technical ability and experience. If he did not quite become a recluse, he ceased to be a professional enfant terrible. He himself had once termed the paintings 'dreams'; there was certainly a surrealist component from his 'twenties past, a fondness for anachronistic juxtapositions. Another time he had called them tapestries, and indeed the Aubusson atelier had done related work to his designs. There was a feeling--'an improbable marriage of Samuel Palmer and Chagall', as one critic had put it in reviewing the Tate Retrospective--of a fully absorbed eclecticism, something that had been evidenced all through his career, but not really come to terms with before Coetminais; a hint of Nolan, though the subject-matter was far less explicit, more mysterious and archetypal... 'Celtic' had been a word frequently used, with the recurrence of the forest motif, the enigmatic figures and confrontations.

  Breasley himself had partly confirmed this, when someone had had the successful temerity to ask him for a central source and for once received a partly honest answer: Pisanello and Diaz de la Pefla. The reference to Diaz and the Barbizon School was a self-sarcasm, needless to say. But pressed on Pisanello, Breasley had cited a painting in the National Gallery in London, The Vision of St Eustace; and confessed it had haunted him all his life. If the reference at first sight seemed distinctly remote, it was soon pointed out that Pisanello and his early fourteenthcentury patrons had been besotted by the Arthurian cycle.

  What had brought young David Williams (born that same year of Breasley's first English success, 1942) to Coëtminais in the September of '973 was precisely this last aspect of the old man's work. He had felt no special interest in Breasley before the Tate Retrospective, but he was forcibly struck then by certain correspondences with an art, or rather a style, the International Gothic, that had always interested the scholarly side of him. Two years later he had formulated the parallels he saw in an article. A complimentary copy had been sent to Breasley, but it was not acknowledged. A year passed, David had almost forgotten the whole thing, and certainly had not pursued any particular interest in the old man's work. The invitation from the publishers to write the biographical and critical introduction of The Art of Henry Breasley (with the added information that the offer was made with the painter's approval) had come very much out of the blue.

  It was not quite a case of a young unknown visiting an old master. David Williams's parents were both architects, a stillpractising husband-and-wife team of some renown. Their son had shown natural aptitude very young, an acute colour sense, and he was born into the kind of environment where he received nothing but encouragement. In the course of time he went to art college, and settled finally for painting. He was a star student in his third year, already producing saleable work. He was not only rara avis in that; unlike the majority of his fellow-students, he was highly articulate as well. Brought up in a household where contemporary art and all its questions were followed and discussed constantly and coherently, he could both talk and write well. He had some real knowledge of art history, helped by many stays in his parents' converted farmhouse in Tuscany, as distinct from mere personal enthusiasms. He was aware of his luck in all this, and of the envy it might provoke in his socially and naturally less gifted peers. Always rather fond of being liked, he developed a manner carefully blended of honesty and tact. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him as a student was that he was on the whole quite popular; just as he was to be popular later as a teacher and lecturer--and even not wholly detested. by his victims as an art critic. At least he never panned for panning's sake. He very rarely indeed found nothing at all to praise in an artist or an exhibition.

  At his own choice he had gone for a year to the Courtauld Institute after college. Then for two years he combined the teaching of painting and general appreciation lectures. His own work came under the influence of Op Art and Bridget Riley, and benefited from her star. He became one of the passable young substitutes those who could not afford Riley herself tended to buy. Then (this was in 1967) he had had an affaire with one of his third-year students that had rapidly become the real thing. They married and bought, with parental help, a house in Blackheath. David decided to try his luck at living by his own painting alone. But the arrival of Alexandra, the first of his two small daughters, and various other things--one of which was a small crisis of doubt about his own work, now shifting away from the Riley influence--drove him to look for extra income. He did not want to return to studio teaching, but he went back to lecturing part-time. A chance meeting led to an invitation to do some reviewing; and a year later still that had become lucrative enough for him to drop the lecturing. That had been his life since.

  His own work began to get enough reputation as it moved from beneath the Op Art umbrella to guarantee plenty of red stars at his exhibitions. Though he remained a fully abstract artist in the common sense of the adjective.(a colour painter, in the current jargon), he knew he was tending towards nature and away from the high artifice of his 'Riley' phase. His paintings had a technical precision, a sound architectonic quality inherited from his parents' predilections and a marked subtlety of tone. To put it crudely, they went well on walls that had to be lived with, which was one good reason (one he knew and accepted) that he sold; another was that he had always worked to a smaller scale than most non-figurative painters. This again was probably something he acquired from his mother and father; he was dubious about Transatlantic monumentality, painting direct for the vast rooms of museums of modern art. Nor was he the kind of person who was ashamed to think of his work in flats and homes, enjoyed privately, on his own chosen scale.

  If he disliked pretension, he was not on the other hand devoid of ambition. He still earned more by his painting than his writing, and that meant a very great deal to him; as did what one might call the state of his status among his own generation of painters. He would have despised the notion of a race, yet he kept a sharp eye on rivals and the public mention they received. He was not unaware of this; in the public mention constituted by his own reviewing, he knew he erred on the generous side with those he feared most.

  His marriage had been very successful, except for one brief bad period when Beth had rebelled against 'constant motherhood' and flown the banner of Women's Liberation; but now she had two sets of illustrations for children's books to her credit, another commissioned and a fourth in prospect. David had always admired his parents' marriage. His own had begun to assume that same easy camaraderie and co-operation. When he was approached about the Breasley introduction, he took it as one more sign that things in general were shaping up well.

  He came to Coëtminais with only one small fear: that Breasley had not realized that he was a painter--to be precise, what kind of painter he was--as well as a writer on art. According to the publisher, the old man had asked no questions there. He had seen the article and thought it 'read well'; and shown himself much more concerned about the quality of the colour reproduction in the proposed book. Breasley's view that full abstraction had been the wrong road was widely known, and on the face of it he could have no time for David's own work. But perhaps he had softened on that subject--though he had had coals of fire to spare, when he was in London in 1969, for Victor Pasmore's head; more
probably, since he lived so far from the London art scene, he was genuinely unaware of the partial snake he had taken to his bosom. David hoped the matter could be avoided; and if it couldn't, then he world have to play it by ear and try to show the old man that the world had moved on from such narrowmindedness. His accepting the commission was proof of it. Breasley 'worked'--and that he worked emotionally and stylistically in totally different, or distant, ways from one's own preferred line of descent (De Stiji, Ben Nicholson and the rest--including the arch-renegade Pasmore) in twentieth-century art was immaterial.

  David was a young man who was above all tolerant, fairminded and inquisitive.

  He took advantage of the half hour or so before 'Henry' was woken to have a look at the art downstairs. Occasionally he glanced out of windows behind the house. The lawn remained empty, the silence of the house as when he had come. Inside the long room there was only one example of Breasley's own work, but plenty else to admire. The landscape was indeed a Derain, as David had guessed. Three very fine Permeke drawings. The Ensor and the Marquet. An early Bonnard. A characteristically febrile pencil sketch, unsigned, but unmistakably Dufy. Then a splendid Jawlensky (how on earth had he got his hands on that?), an Otto Dix signed proof nicely juxtaposed with a Nevinson drawing. Two Matthew Smiths, a Picabia, a little flower painting that must be an early Matisse, though it didn't look quite right there were those, and they were outnumbered by the paintings and drawings David couldn't assign. If one accepted the absence of the more extreme movements, one had a room of early twentieth-century art many smaller museums would have cut throats to lay their hands on. Breasley had collected prewar, of course, and he had apparently always had a private income of sorts. An only child, he must have inherited quite a substantial sum when his mother died in 1925. His father, one of those Victorian gentlemen who appear to have lived comfortably on doing nothing, had died in a hotel fire in 1907. According to Myra Levey, he too had dabbled with artcollecting in a dilettante way.

  Breasley had granted himself pride of place--and space over the old stone fireplace in the centre of the room. There hung the huge Moon-hunt, perhaps the best-known of the Coëtminais oeuvre, a painting David was going to discuss at some length and that he badly wanted to study at leisure again... perhaps not least to confirm to himself that he wasn't over-rating his subject. He felt faintly relieved that the picture stood up well to renewed acquaintance--he hadn't seen it in the flesh since the Tate exhibition of four years previously--and even announced itself as better than memory and reproductions had rated it. As with so much of Breasley's work there was an obvious previous iconography--in this case., Uccello's Night Hunt and its spawn down through the centuries; which was in turn a challenged comparison, a deliberate risk... just as the Spanish drawings had defied the great shadow of Goya by accepting its presence, even using and parodying it, so the memory of the Ashmolean Uccello somehow deepened and buttressed the painting before which David sat. It gave an essential tension, in fact: behind the mysteriousness and the ambiguity (no hounds, no horses, no prey... nocturnal figures among trees, but the title was needed), behind the modernity of so many of the surface elements there stood both a homage and a kind of thumbed nose to a very old tradition. One couldn't be quite sure it was a masterpiece, there was a clotted quality in some passages, a distinctly brusque use of impasto on closer examination; something faintly too static in the whole, a lack of tonal relief (but that again was perhaps just the memory of the Uccello). Yet it remained safely considerable, had presence--could stand very nicely, thank you, up against anything else in British painting since the war. Perhaps its most real mystery, as with the whole series, was that it could have been done at all by a man of Breasley's age. The Moon-hunt had been painted in 1965, in his sixty-ninth year. And that was eight years ago now.

  Then suddenly, as if to solve the enigma, the living painter himself appeared from the garden door and came down towards David.

  'Williams, my dear fellow.'

  He advanced, hand outstretched, in pale blue trousers and a dark blue shirt, an unexpected flash of Oxford and Cambridge, a red silk square. He was white-haired, though the eyebrows were still faintly grey; the bulbous nose, the misleadingly fastidious mouth, the pouched grey-blue eyes in a hale face. He moved almost briskly, as if aware that he had been remiss in some way; smaller and trimmer than David had visualized from the photographs.

  'It's a great honour to be here, sir.'

  'Nonsense. Nonsense.' And David's elbow was chucked, the smile and the quiz under the eyebrows and white relic of a forelock both searching and dismissive. 'You've been looked after?'

  'Yes. Splendid.'

  'Don't be put off by the Mouse. She's slightly gaga.' The old man stood with his hands on his hips, an impression of someone trying to seem young, alert, David's age. 'Thinks she's Lizzie Siddal. Which makes me that ghastly little Italian fudger damn' insulting, what?' - David laughed. 'I did notice a certain Breasley raised his eyes to the ceiling.

  'My dear man. You've no idea. Still. Gels that age. Well, how about some tea? Yes? We're out in the garden.'

  David gestured back at the Moon-hunt as they moved towards the west end of the room. 'It's marvellous to see that again. I just pray the printers can rise to it.'

  Breasley shrugged, as if he didn't care; or was proof to the too direct compliment. Then he darted another quizzing look at David.

  'And you? You're quite the cat's pyjamas, I hear.'

  'Hardly that.'

  'Read your piece. All those fellows I've never heard of. Good stuff.'

  'But wrong?'

  Breasley put a hand on his arm.

  'I'm not a scholar, dear boy. Ignorance of things you probably know as well as your mother's tit would astound you. Never mind. Put up with me, what?'

  They went out into the garden. The girl nicknamed the Mouse, still barefooted and in her white Arab garb, came obliquely across the lawn from the far end of the house, carrying a tray of tea-things. She took no notice of the two men.

  'See what I mean,' muttered Breasley. 'Needs her bloody arse tanned.'

  David bit his lips. As they came to the table under the catalpa, he saw the second girl stand from a little bay of the lawn that was hidden by a bank of shrubs from the house. She must have been reading all the time, he saw the straw hat with the red sash on the grass behind her as she came towards them, book still in hand. If the Mouse was odd, this creature was preposterous. She was even smaller, very thin, a slightly pinched face under a mop of frizzed-out hair that had been reddened with henna. Her concession to modesty had been to pull on a singlet, a man's or a boy's by the look of it, dyed black. It reached just, but only just, below her loins. The eyelids had also been blackened. She had the look of a rag-doll, a neurotic golliwog, a figure from the wilder end of the King's road.

  'This is Anne,' said the Mouse.

  'Alias the Freak,' said Breasley.

  Breasley waved to David to sit beside him. He hesitated, since there was a chair short, but the Freak sat rather gauchely on the grass beside her friend's place. A pair of red briefs became visible, or conspicuous, beneath the black singlet. The Mouse began to pour the tea.

  'First visit to these parts, Williams?'

  That allowed David to be polite; sincerely so, about his newfound enthusiasm for Brittany and its landscapes. The old man seemed to approve, he began to talk about the house, how he had found it, its history, why he had turned his back on Paris. He handsomely belied his rogue reputation, it was almost as if he were delighted to have another man to talk to. He sat turned away from the girls, completely ignoring them, and David had a growing sense that they resented his presence; whether it was because of the attention he distracted, the formality he introduced, or that they must have heard all the old man was telling him before, he wasn't sure. Breasley wandered off- again belying his reputation--to Welsh landscapes, his early childhood, before 1914. David knew his mother had been Welsh, of the wartime spell in Breconshire, but not that he r
etained memories and affections for the place; missed its hills.

  The old fellow spoke in a quirky staccato manner, half assertive, half tentative; weirdly antiquated slang, a constant lacing of obscenity; not intellectually or feelingly at all, but much more like some eccentric retired (it occurred to David with secret amusement) admiral. They were so breathtakingly inappropriate, all the out-of-date British upperclass mannerisms in the mouth of a man who had spent his life comprehensively denying all those same upper classes stood for. A similar paradox was seen in the straight white hair, brushed across the forehead in a style that Breasley must have retained since his--youth--and which Hitler had long put out of fashion with younger men. It gave him a boyishness; but the ruddy, incipiently choleric face and the pale eyes suggested something much older and more dangerous. He chose transparently to come on as much more of a genial old fool than he was; and must know he deceived no one.

  However, if the two girls had not been so silent--the Freak had even shifted her back to rest against the front of the other girl's chair, reached for her book and begun reading again--David would have felt comparatively at ease. The Mouse sat in white elegance and listened, but as if her mind were somewhere else--in a Millais set-piece, perhaps. If David sought her eyes, she would discompose her rather pretty features into the faintest semblance of a formal confirmation that she was still there; which gave the clear impression that she wasn't. He grew curious to know what the truth was, beyond the obvious. He had not come prepared for this, having gathered from the publisher that the old man now lived alone--that is, with only an elderly French housekeeper. During that tea the relationship seemed more daughterly than anything else. There was only one showing of the lion's claws.