1 The Company
18 May, 1882, 5pm
Mère Chevillon is at her tisanes again,
fussing over the Ullman boy. The distant clink
of tea-spoons on best china counterpoint
an evening filled with jackdaw cries,
the persistent jackass laughter of a plague
of ducks out on the River Loing that cuts off
the sloping garden of our inn. One is christened
‘Caesar’ and tonight I’d happily be his Brutus.
Ullman is ill, will die; here perhaps; we’ll have
a little ceremony in our courtyard. O’Meara,
the Irishman will speak –he always does–
of wasted youth, the confraternity of plein-air
painters who’d found a fresh disciple
in the recently deceased. I can’t be sad.
TB has done for him and he’ll go out
with the soft Grez light he’s mortgaged
everything to see, mourned by peers
who value him. And then he’ll be replaced.
They rise like hoverflies from the riverbank
brush first; disheveled, hot, smocks
sticky with willow, they cling to unlikely spots,
and hang from palettes by their thumbs,
clusters of them painting each other
painting views and the locals, none
of whom have time to stand and stare.
They smell of lavender and chew tobacco.
Who is here then? Foreigners with difficult
Anglo-Saxon, Swedish names: a Scot
called Melville, Stott of Oldham,
–wherever that may be– a genius: Carl
Larsson and a fellow-countryman,
small and tense with lots of hair
who thinks he’s one as well: Strindberg
is his name. A Simeon Solomon –utterly
improbable– and my favourite: John Lavery,
compact, gregarious, with too much charm.
Listen: the tanned vowels of young men
gathered over beer tumble up to me;
gorgeous saltimbanques of laughter
peel briefly and jag as if mocking me
for being me and absent from the company.
2 The Art
May 21st 1883, 4pm
‘Monsieur le Comte, I challenge you to a duel!’
His arched eyebrows, smile, accompanying
snigger of O’Meara and the rest suggested
a joke, a dare, another diversion
from the job of painting. Yet from the corner
of my eye I’d spied him at it, assiduous
for days before the canvas of a rower
with moustaches kissing hands at ladies
in bateaux de plaisance drifting past him.
The surface splendourof the oarsman’s costume,
a classic striped affair, replied vivaciously
to the girls’ parasols and the little sub-plot
danced among the sparkling greens and whites.
Perfect. A day of mischief, sunny far niente
summed up within a four franc gold leaf frame.
‘Well, Comte Henri de Lestrange, will you play
our game? My painting versus your photography?’
I instantly demurred: we could not find
the dapper rower and the girls were back
in Paris no doubt. And then the whole
thing was to take the moment ‘sur le vif’,
upon the cusp of being there and gone.
A replay would betray respective arts.
Or some such stuff. He shrugged,
produced another painting: ‘This one,
would be easier, “A Grey Summer’s Day in Grez”.
You see?’ It was more posed: a straw hatted
man –Lavery himself– with back to the spectator
gazes at the water. Nearby a woman sits
reading in a campaign chair. Stillness,
the minnows and the water lillies. Only
the greyhound, Fred, ears pricked,
looks down the path and is aware
of us, of me as I approach. I gave in.
Misgivings? Plenty. They wished ‘to view
“The Silver Sunbeam”’as my camera is called,
snoop beneath my hood,
‘observe the alchemist at work.’
In art they count my aristocracy
at nought. To them I am a peasant
drunk on new machinery, an artisan
before these grandees of oil and gouache.
Why humour them? Was it the friendliness
I seemed to find in Lavery’s frank face?
I should have paid attention to the angle
of the shadow cast by the ruined tower
next door. It’s called La Tour de Ganne
from Latin ‘gannum’ meaning trap,
betrayal, deception and derision.
And so I raised him: Karin Bergöö,
Larsson’s wife, sat sketching in a chair.
Lavery was himself, as was the Loing,
its coolness, light running up
the underside of leaves, ambulatory,
mechanical, mocking us at our outdoor
parlour game. The difficulty was Fred,
who did not want to play but flopped
where he should have been alert.
The picture shows him in an ugly
squat, all that Melville could coax
while dashing in and out of shot.
The collodion plate prepared,
I inserted it, ignored a pinch
of baited breath from the fist
of artists looking on then placed my cap
before the lens, removed it briefly
and let in the world:
at this there was some stifled laughter.
I do not despise the ingenious shutter
but my cap is my shutter. Sometimes
I use a book. With both I have succeeded.
And did so this time. That light can act
actinically the twinkling of an eye
is no tax upon the cultivated mind;
for in this wink light has circled earth
twice at least and in this trice seen more
than man can ever see, blanched the picture’s
subject with millions of fresh portions
that rebound to the lens and through it,
then nestle on the film. But could I speak
of this when afterwards they gathered
round to make inevitable comparisons?
Why did they chatter so when the photo
looked at them so frankly? Each splash
of light surging from the dark, each strand
of shadow surrounded by a ring of light
creates the illusion of looking at the one
who looks at it –even when no person
is present in the photograph.
I was lost in it, silenced, drowning
in pools of shadow that glanced
out at me like pupils from the white
of eyes; Lavery rescued me or rather
opportunely took centre stage:
as “a young un”, he’d “retouched”
to McNair of Glasgow’s Herald
drawn in a cloud or two –for skies
‘just won’t come out’– and rejuvenated
aging relatives. “For photographs so quickly
made”, he said, “you need very ripe collodion,
a well corrected lens, short focus
and a steady hand”, at this he grasped
my hand and held it up, “ –like M. Lestrange’s!–
beneath the dark hood’s tent”. His palm
was soft, soft as his brushes, as the feathers
I use to varnish the edges of my negatives.
He dropped it quickly, then turned
and fixing me without his usual smile:
“Sodium hyposulfate and acetic acid?
Ancient Egypt used this solution
to mummify their dead; its function
has not changed in several millennia:
thus, M. le Comte, you embalm
the living in baths and washes.
Like a sleuth you track the flux
of light and try to snare its vital spirit
in a print. You always fail for here
is shadow and more shadow,
a Grez of grey shades, a cave
in which the colour of the world is lost.
Yours is a necrophiliac art.” At this
there was a sharp intake of breath.
My own or from the others… I wasn’t sure.
I bowed, retired back up the garden
and for a moment saw myself as they
must see me: an awkward human tripod half
the camera’s hood flapping forward
like an elephant’s trunk,
monstrous, most strange.
Sleuth of the dandelion’s seed,
of the sunbeam volatising
mica on the parapet, sleuth
of the night-time breeze,
its taste and touch,
of the current in the trees,
tree spit and froth, intricate
scum on the surface of the Loing,
sleuth of the chevroned wake
slipping from the tails
of swans, of the dark room’s tongue
where only the earth will speak.
‘Sleuth’: I looked it up: ‘detective,
a sleuthhound on the track of crime’,
a trapper, a sniffer out; of course;
but descending from the Norse word,
‘sloth’ which means both trail and trace.
Sleuth then of the world’s
trace, the silver tracery
in the tree stump’s bole
nested by spiders’ webs;
trace of a world objectified
by light, of a person in the lit-up
world, opening lenses to it,
‘Sleuth’. He meant to hurt me.
And maybe Lavery too was something
of the sleuth: what was it in me
he sensed should be so hurt?
A strangeness; a nearness;
of art; of nature? It was when
he touched me I understood
his error, possibly his envy:
unlike painting, those traces
of the real in photographs
are not made by human hands
but by the real encounter of photons
reflected by the world’s things
and the silvered surface of the film.
Lavery works with colour, pushes
little slabs and patches of it,
kneeds it with scrabbling knuckles,
thumbs; it is wet and messy;
like the world but only like,
like, not traces of the world itself.
I stand before his paintings and look
at them. But he must step with his eyes
into the flat surface of my shady world
to recreate its depth and understand
the space that weaves between the objects
and the people shown there. He must be
a sleuth, like the maker of the photo,
retouch with his mind the images he sees.
He hurt me and I let him
because I wanted so much to smile
back beneath the dark hood
of my camera, focus on him
straw-hatted man, model of mine,
centre him between my lenses.
This poem draws on ideas presented in Serge Tisseron's wonderful study Le Mystère de la Chambre Claire (Paris, Flammarion, 1996)