Monday, 10 November 2008

Intermission: The Dark Lady

Many years ago, probably in the late 40s or early 50s, my mother, who was at that time in the antiques business in Hampshire, acquired an oil painting, a portrait of a woman in the costume of a bygone and remote age. So smoke-stained and dirty was the painting that the subject was christened The Dark Lady. There was no clue to her identity.

My mother had a great affection for this painting. It was never put on sale, and it stayed with her long after she retired. She clearly felt a more than aesthetic affinity with it: when asked who the subject was, she would sometimes answer airily, after a swift assessment of her questioner's credulity, 'Oh, an ancestor'. Convinced of basic methods of picture preservation, she would sometimes wash it with soap and water. This lifted the dust, but otherwise did little more than force a caulking of soapy grime between the canvas and the frame.

The painting followed my mother through several house-moves and ended up in the north of Scotland, where it acquired further layers of tarry muck from open fires mostly of resiny pine, larch and spruce logs and occasionally of peat.

It appeared coincidentally, decorated with holly, as a detail in a general photograph of my mother's sitting room one Christmas. I've shown it above. An autumn or two later, disaster struck: the house caught fire. Although my mother wasn't harmed, thanks to the prompt action of a neighbour, many of her possessions were destroyed, everything in the house was begrimed beyond further use by greasy smoke, and the paintings were damaged beyond recognition by smoke and by a heat so ferocious that it boiled the water in the flower vases. Nearest the source of the fire was The Dark Lady, and although badly charred and scorched, with the paint pocked and pitted with burst bubbles of pigment, she didn't actually catch fire.

Afterwards my mother drew a veil of oblivion over the fire, lost interest in what had been damaged and looked to the future. What remained of the now ghostly and insubstantial Dark Lady was taken away, covered in bubble wrap and stored pending a possible restoration.

Last summer I brought it home to the south of France and took it for assessment to a picture restorer in Montpellier that I'd found in Yellow Pages. The restorer turned out to be a dishy and charming blonde, diplomée d'état (with a national diploma) in the restoration of paintings. I left The Dark Lady with her, feeling that she was in safe hands.

In the months that followed the restorer kept me up to date with her painstaking and slow progress and finally last week we went to collect it. What the restorer had done was little short of miraculous: here was The Dark Lady, still dark, but brought to light as she had never been in the last 60 years and probably much more.

We could now see that her off-the-shoulder, décolleté dress, blue-grey with white lace trimmings, red shawl, cream linen underskirt and especially her natural hairstyle dated her to a few years either side of 1670. In a fold of her skirt she has gathered pink roses, complete with stems and leaves. She's wearing a pearl necklace and a pearl earring, but no rings. She's blue-eyed, with a nose whose size she may have felt diffident about; close-mouthed, with an expression either sad or sardonic or bitter. There's no joy in her. In the portrait style of the period, she's leaning on a chest or maybe a sort of altar; to her left there's a column with some folds of drapery above it, and to her right there's a small, heavily clouded landscape, with a suggestion either of evening or of the aftermath of a storm. The shapes silhouetted against the lighter sky may be figures or, more likely, trees.

Who is she? Why was this portrait painted? We've no idea. We didn't expect an artist's signature from a painting of this period. She's evidently English, probably from the south, and the artist seems familiar with the style of Sir Peter Lely, Charles II's court painter. She's a lady of fashion, of some wealth, even. Although amply bosomed, she's no great beauty, nor is she in her first youth. But is there more to her than this?

She's clutching plucked roses in her dress, strategically - and symbolically? - held against what one might call her honour. If the roses had been white, they might have stood for virginity, and if they'd been red, some element of love might have been implied. But they're pink, and they've been ripped from the branch, stem, leaves and all. Is this a painterly metaphor for defloration? Is she pregnant? And she's wearing no wedding ring . . . but maybe we've conjectured more than is good for us. (We could find no information about the customs of ring-wearing in the late 17th century.)

When I told my 97-year-old mother about all this, she listened patiently but with an occasional hint of regret that the painting had passed to me. I asked her where she'd got it from, or if she knew anything else about it. Yes, she said, after a long pause, there was some other information, but it had better remain secret for the time being. She would tell us when next she saw us. So far, so tantalising. (If you're reading this, Dave, I'm sorry to inflict another but quite unintentional cliff-hanger on you.)

We're away to Scotland for several days, so maybe the secret will be unlocked. I'm keeping an open mind about it. Secrets lose their savour as soon as they're broached. I'll try to keep you posted, with a picture of the restored painting, when we come back, before resuming normal service with Beethoven and the pilgrimage to Vienna.


Dave said...

If only she could talk...

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Ah, yes. I'm sure she would have a tale to tell, probably nothing like the legend I've invented for her. But I'd like to know her name and something of her circumstances. I don't suppose any reader can help?

patroclus said...

Hmm, a family reunion in the Highlands of Scotland...a mysterious painting...a dark secret - it's like we're all characters in an old-school point-and-click adventure game. Dark corners will conceal hidden treasures, I'll warrant.

Dave said...

Watch out for hidden passageways behind the wainscot.

Obertra said...

The gathered fruit in her dress is ever-so suggestive of a strumpet, or, easy-laid girl of the time...a sort-of pin-up - bit of top shelf maybe of The Restoration. Lol

Christopher said...

Up to a point, Obertra: what she is carrying in her lap turned out after cleaning to be roses, some with stems and leaves attached. There may be significances (as I think I mentioned) in the colour of the roses, perhaps more indicative of being left on the shelf rather than top shelf.