Foreword by Walter Hartright
My dearest wife Laura paused at the turn of the great marble stair to look for me. The great gallery at Cranmorden was thronged, murmuring with happy anticipation. It was February, the Winter Ball, but the light of a thousand candles made the ladies’ gowns into spring blossoms. Every delicate hue showed bright against the background of the gentlemen’s black formal dress. In the ballroom, the musicians’ twiddles and plinks resolved into melody as they finished tuning their instruments. Soon the dancing would begin.
Laura’s ball gown was of the palest blue moiré, unadorned by lace or trim. It struck me, not for the first time, that her dress is too simple for her station in life. But pinned in the drape of the low bodice was her sole ornament, a massive floral brooch. At this a princess would glance twice, for its central flower bud is an emerald the size of an unhulled walnut. She flaunts it because I won the stone for her from a cenote in the Honduras. Like many emeralds, the gem is flawed. Hold the brooch up to the light, and the weakness is plain to be seen: a dark fissure in the jewel’s green core. Set incautiously or struck by an unskilled hand, a magnificent gem will fall into worthless fragments.
I raised a hand, and when she caught sight of me she floated down the stair to put her satin-gloved hand into mine. “How wonderfully fine we both look, my love,” she said with a shy smile. “I am so glad Marian insisted we come.”
But I was silent. I recognised the metaphor. The emerald is the human heart. A thousand blows may rain down upon a man, and he will laugh. But let the sole weak spot be struck, and he shatters, falling forever into the abyss.
Marian Halcombe Camlet’s journal
London, 24 April 1868
The Varnishing Days at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition are open only to the artists. But my brother-in-law Walter Hartright slipped my husband and me into the gallery towards the end of the day. “Address no one, if you would,” he warned as we mounted the broad shallow stair. “Even if you recognise the artist. Their minds will be taken up with the final touches, and conversation is unwelcome.”
“Really, Walter,” I replied. “I cannot speak for Theo, but I myself am entirely civilised.”
“A wanton and unprovoked insult.” My dearest husband squeezed my hand so that I did not dare to glance at him.
The galleries at Somerset House were indeed thronged, and far too small for the number of works. Everywhere painters darted about in a fever of anxiety, work smocks buttoned over their decent frock coats, clutching paint-boxes and palettes and touching up their works even at this final moment. I am not sure where the varnish comes into it! On the great marble stair some exalted artist was quarreling with a committee member about where his work had been hung.
¶Walter shepherded us past. “Laura shall not be able to bear the crowds, but once the work is returned to Limmeridge she looks to enjoy it daily.”
Theo peered at him through his round steel spectacles. “You are certain your painting will not sell.”
Walter’s smile was sheepish. “I set what I felt was a fair price on the work: a hundred pounds. And then Laura trebled it.”
“Good girl,” I declared. “I’m proud of her.” Laura is transparent as glass, but in Walter’s cause she can be as cunning as – well, as me! “It must be the most expensive painting here.”
“It’s sharp dealing. Millais only got three hundred guineas for Ophelia, and that was unquestionably a masterpiece.”
“It’s fruitless to argue with a wife on such matters,” Theo advised. “Simply nod and move on.” He demonstrated this before an enormous dramatic canvas of Andromeda being rescued by Perseus. It was done in the modern highly-detailed style, so that one could discern every strand of the princess’s long red hair and note from her bunions that she favoured overly-pointed shoes when she was not barefoot, nude, and chained to a rock. “To sit down to a muffin and behold a young woman wearing so very little would depress appetite.”
The smile under the swooningly-barbered moustache, which dipped down to join with the side whiskers, told me exactly what my husband was thinking. He’s unutterably depraved! I was hard put to smother my laughter, and Walter quelled me with a glance.
Even when Walter was a professional artist he had not aspired to these levels. This is the most ambitious work he has ever executed. He is not an Academian, and although outsiders may submit works for consideration, nine out of ten are rejected by either the Selection or the Hanging Committees. To have Brunhilde Discovered accepted for the Exhibition fulfilled a dream that I doubt Walter dared to articulate even in his inmost heart.
We approached it with reverence, as we would an icon in a church. The walls of the galleries are hung cheek by jowl with the selected paintings, and many works are so high they can barely be viewed. The most desirable position, at eye level ‘on the line’ is reserved for members only. Walter’s was above some grand RA member’s seascape which occupied the prime spot, but this piece was smaller and so the more largely-proportioned Brunhilde was not too high to be easily examined.
The work had its inspiration in a sketch he had taken of me, without my permission, while I was asleep in Theo’s big bed at Sandett House. Admittedly I was unconscious at the time! It did make for a dramatic pose, myself in bed under the covers but with my loosened hair pouring down to pool on the floor. But to title the work Sleeping Beauty was a blatant falsehood. I may have some minor comeliness, but I am emphatically no beauty. My protests forced poor Walter to begin the work afresh.
When I consider the mountainous obstacles that surrounded even acquiring the canvas, it’s a triumph that the work is at long last complete. The bed canopy was gone and the heavy red bed curtains had become sheer, orange and yellow hues added to transform them into wavering walls of flame. Over in the corner what had been a mahogany chifforobe was now distant snow-capped mountains, clearly inspired by our visit to the Italian Alps a few years ago. Another yard or so of length had been added to the abundant black hair of the heroine, increasing its resemblance to an ebony waterfall pouring into a rippling black pool, and her flannel nightgown sleeve was now chain mail. And her sleeping face had been subtly prettified. Closed, the eyes are no longer so protuberant, and I am certain that British art lovers shall prefer a Germanic roses and snow to my own rather swarthy complexion.
The hero Siegfried, on the further side of the bed, was an entirely new addition to the composition. He had just hauled her helm off and was holding it to one side with his mouth agape, leaning back in a melodramatic attitude of startlement. Walter had coerced one of the gardeners at Limmeridge to pose in this uncomfortable attitude hefting a flower pot. But between his sweeping blue cloak and his upraised arm the hero’s face was not terribly prominent.
The eye was instead drawn to the gleaming armor, glittering with gems, heaped beside the bed. The lady clasped to her breast a great sword in a golden sheath that weighted down the covers, which had been changed from the homely coverlet to a very Nordic polar bear’s fur, tanned head and all. Imaginative! No one I know possesses such a rug. Walter must have spent hours outside the polar bear’s cage at the zoological garden, studying the fall of light on its shaggy pelt.
“Did you take sketches at the British Museum?” I stood on tiptoe to see better. “Surely a German warrior maiden is not going to wear a Roman corselet.”
“This isn’t history,” Theo reproached me. “It’s art, and of the most romantic. You handle surfaces well, Hartright. I can distinguish gold, brass, and silver inlay with ease. And one may almost feel the bear’s pelt and the velvet of the hero’s cloak.” He examined the plaque at the bottom of the massive frame. “And this blue label. Is it significant?”
“Label?” Walter looked, and started. “There must be some mistake.”
“You aren’t alone,” I said. “See, that one over there has one.” I nodded at a portrait of three girls by Millais, an artist so famed even I can recognise his work.
“It’s a ‘sold’ label,” he said, in strangled tones. “There’s an error. Excuse me, Marian, Camlet.” He pushed through the crowd and vanished.
Theo went on musing with his usual practicality. “How beautifully polished her armor is. Perhaps the magical flames keep tarnish at bay. One would never carry such a heavily jeweled sword into combat. The lady was therefore immured with her parade armor, a sensible provision by her father Odin. Upon awakening she would need assets, and a ruby or so is easily converted into cash.”
But his reflections were hushed as some others paused to look at Brunhilde. An elderly artist sniffed. “Pho! Another scene from myth and legend. One would never think there were suitable incidents in British history to portray. D’you remember Wollen’s Last Stand at Gundamuck? Now that was a noble painting.”
“Who is he, George?” His companion nodded at the plaque and its blue label.
“Not a member. Humph! They’ll buy anything these days. No discrimination of eye left any more, in the GBP.”
“How sharp the tooth of envy is,” I murmured to my husband. “Can it indeed be sold? Walter will have made a fortune.”
“And so soon, before the public opening, even. It’s a coup.”
“Who could have spent such a sum on a work by an obscure artist? Walter is known, but not for his painting.”
A frantic artist made to pass with a stepladder so that he could reach his masterpiece high up near the cornice, so we moved out of his way back to the hall. I looked over the marble baluster and saw Walter’s tall athletic figure pounding up the stairs, his face red and his tall hat in hand. “This is unbelievable,” he panted as he came up to us.
“Then I congratulate you,” Theo said.
My poor brother-in-law seemed half-mazed, and I steadied him with a hand through his arm as we descended again. “You work has caught the fancy of a rich connoisseur. Who?”
“I shall not know the purchaser until after the Exhibition.”
“So that a buyer may think twice,” Theo guessed. “Well! Any way one considers it, it’s a mighty honour, brother. And now the work shall be the cynosure of the exhibit.”
Outside a chilly evening was closing in, and the evening mist from the river made each gas lamp a fuzzy yellow ball of light. In spite of the dark, the street was as crowded as the gallery, and we had to walk down to where Matson waited at the kerb with the carriage.
The coachman opened the door for us. “A note for you, madam.”
“Yes, madam. A lady passing by recognised the brougham, and left her card.”