From the papers of Marian Halcombe Camlet
The Times of London
5 April 1866
A dastardly attempt was made yesterday upon the life of His Imperial Highness Alexander II, Tsar of all the Russias. The tsar was assailed as he was leaving the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg. An attacker armed with a pistol fired upon him as he was departing in his carriage, but the imperial coachman was able to lash the horses into a gallop and thus saved the monarch’s life. The perpetrator was immediately dragged down by outraged bystanders and arrested. A wider conspiracy is being laid bare by the energies of the Imperial Ministry of Internal Affairs…
Walter Hartright’s narrative
My artist friend Albert Moore was determined to secure me a fair shake. “Tcha, Dunsfold,” he said. “Was not your late lamented father my favourite colourman? And Hartright here’s been a member of the Mahlstick Club since Hector was a pup. Certainly he should get the professional discount.”
Harassed, the boyish shopkeeper said, “Of course, sir, of course. Your pardon, Mr. Hartright. Shall it be these paints, then?”
“My condolences on your bereavement,” I said kindly. “A shocking thing. I read of the crime in the papers.” The elder Dunsfold had been murdered in the street a fortnight ago, and the lad wore a bit of crape around his arm. “No apology is called for. I haven’t painted professionally in years.” I mulled upon my selection of a dozen or so oil-paint tubes on the shop counter. “A canvas. A large one.”
“By all means, sir. Shall our largest standard size be sufficient? It measures 45 inches by 39.”
The shop was an old-fashioned warren of artists’ materials. There were brushes in racks or tied in bundles, cabinets of wide shallow drawers to hold expensive imported drawing papers, ranks of cubbyholes from which the ends of pencils peeped, jugs of linseed oil, boxes of crayon, tins of turpentine, colourants in jars and drawers: the ten thousand thrilling tools of my former trade. I looked up at the rack of prepared canvases. “Too small. A custom job then. I need it to be at least sixty inches.”
“Ambitious, Hartright.” Moore came only up to my shoulder, but at this period was sufficiently prosperous with his portrait painting to have grown a comfortable double chin. “Landscape?”
“No, I’m poaching on your territory. It began as a portrait of my sister-in-law.”
“Mmm.” Moore nodded. “Mrs. Marian Halcombe Camlet, I remember. Fascinating woman.”
“No beauty, but I agree her face is interesting.”
Moore’s plaint was from the heart. “You can’t conceive how many pudding-faced men and cow-like women there are in London. I’ve painted them all. And children like piglets. It was a distinct relief to portray Mrs. Camlet. Turned out quite well, too. Fuchsia silk’s always amusing to render. Mr. Camlet has it in his office. Is yours to be full-length?”
“You might call it that. I began by sketching her while she was asleep in bed. The drama of the pose, her loosened hair falling over the edge to form a great black pool on the floor – it was irresistible.”
“Women abed.” Moore approved. “Always popular with buyers.”
“But like a fool I titled it Sleeping Beauty.”
“Not so dusty, in my humble opinion,” Moore said. “Makes the viewer look twice. She’s not your conventional stunner, with that square jaw and swarthy complexion, but even more attractive.”
“She vehemently disagreed. Scolded me up one side and down the other, denouncing it as false advertising and sharp practice. I fobbed her off by telling her it was a sketch for a larger conception. My notion now is to turn the figure into a sleeping German warrior maiden, and perhaps add another figure, a Siegfried, to her Brunhild.”
“Ah! Mythological matters, the coming thing.”
“The bed curtains can become walls of flame, and there’ll be armor, gems, and such. A technical challenge shall be good for me.”
Moore grunted. “Splash out and show what you can do.”
“But to get all the gubbins in, I need elbow room. How long shall a custom panel take?” I added to the youthful shopkeeper.
“Wouldn’t take our artificer but a fortnight, sir.”
“Too long.” Laura had come up to town to consult a dentist, and incidentally attend Parents’ Day at Marlborough, where our son Wally was a pupil. In a day or so Marian was to take her two younger children and return with Laura to Limmeridge for a visit. The ladies would carry all these supplies back to Cumberland for me. My London rooms had neither the light nor space for a studio, and my time in town was solely dedicated to my duties as a member of Parliament. “Perhaps I can find one elsewhere,” I mused.
Young Dunsfold’s boyish treble warbled in his haste. “My mother the manager is not in, sir. But I happen to know of a canvas, ordered but never paid for, in the back. I’m confident she would approve of its sale to you. It’s 65 by 50, somewhat larger than you require, sir. But if you would care to inspect it?”
“Bring it out, by all means.”
Moore was stern. “It had better be solidly morticed and braced. None of your patchwork! And the canvas without any flaws. Don’t want a defective reject foisted off on you,” he added to me.
The panel was carried out by two of the smallest shop boys I had ever seen, probably more Dunsfold sons. They set it on the floor, leaning it against the counter so that the light trickling in from the rain-wrinkled bow window could fall full upon the fabric surface. It appeared quite pristine. The canvas was smoothly woven, awaiting its primer coat of base colour – white? Perhaps primrose yellow would be better, to lend punch to the flames.
The fabric was tautly and evenly fastened on all four edges. I tipped the chest-high canvas forward so that I could inspect the back. At the beginning of Victoria’s reign when my father was a drawing master, oil paintings were executed upon actual wooden boards, and occasionally smaller ones still are. Venetian artists invented the canvas tacked over sturdy wooden stretcher bars, lighter, cheaper, and easier to construct.
Because of its size this frame was notably sturdy, the four sides braced by three crossing horizontal timbers and one vertical one. At every morticed joint and at all four corners, triangles of wood were nailed to keep the angles true and the entire framework rigid. As is customary, a square label was gummed over one of the central junctions. This proclaimed the name of the firm in curly letters: “Dunsfold & Son, Artists’ Colourmen since 1839.” When I leaned on it the frame betrayed no wobble or give. The entire thing was not heavy, but surpassingly awkward to handle, like a kite as large as a tabletop.
I gazed into the blank white surface again, and my fingers itched for the pencil or charcoal. The hero of Nordic legend, the great Volsung himself, seemed to hover on the verge of existence, with perhaps a sweeping cloak, leaning back in astonishment from the supine figure on the bed. A stormy Northern sky, to make the flames show up well…
“It’s a monster, though,” Moore said. “We can’t possibly take it with us.”
“Can you have it crated for rail shipment, and delivered to my rooms? Safely, mind.” And when the young shopkeeper promised it should be carefully boxed and carried to my rooms off St. James Street that very afternoon, the bargain was made. I left him my card and we stepped out from the comfortable linseed-oil fug into the April drizzle of Fitzroy Square. “I owe you a drink, for introducing me to your favourite colourman. The one up in Carlisle is unreliable. The madder he sold me went orange after but two years, another reason I have to redo the picture.”
“Shameful! No, Dunsfold’s crimsons are stable as Gibraltar. One couldn’t use them otherwise; if their portraits fade or turn purple my clients would yowl. Let it be your club, then. You fly high these days, Hartright, and some political custom would be very welcome.”
“What, even if they have faces like puddings?”
“Needs must, when the devil drives. Mrs. M is in the family way, did you hear?” It was too wet to walk, so we hailed a hansom and were off to the Reform Club.