Underpainting 2


Chapter 2 of my novel Underpainting.


The sky was opaque, not sure whether to rain or just block out the sun all day. Peter looked out from the stuffy staff room window at the 9.18 train to London slowly winding its way into the station. He told himself he would be on that tomorrow morning and felt quite pleased to be going down, even though he had to meet Henry, his agent at Dover Passage Gallery, for lunch. He remembered that in all the fuss last night he’d forgotten to list what paints and brushes he required from Osborne’s, he’d get Tom to do it, he had a tutorial with him later. His mind moved on to the tutorials that morning, Rachel was first on his list, ‘Shit’, he said aloud, and thought ‘Mari won’t be here to help’.

She had gone to her Mothers’ for one of her infrequent visits and Peter knew she’d be in a foul mood when she got back, especially as he wouldn’t be there, it was his night out with Bill. Marianne did some part-time teaching on the Foundation Course and often came in when Peter had tutorials, many of the students seemed to prefer her, he thought they felt she was more interested, ‘perhaps she is’ said Peter to himself, as he watched a huge goods train amble northwards. He looked at his list again, Rachel, then Tom, then Alan, then lunch.

“What a shitty day eh, Pete? Talking to the birds again?”

Peter didn’t turn round, he knew only too well the loud voice of Bill.

“Morning Bill”.

They stood together surveying the day, Bill looked down at a knot of young women students arriving.

“’Think of football’… eh Peter, ‘Think of football’” Bill laughed at the quote and its relevance.

Peter and Bill had started at the college on the same day, Peter as a part-time painting tutor, Bill lecturing in the History of Art. When they embarked upon their careers it was still an Art School, with over a hundred years of tradition, and housed in its original Victorian home with high windows, dark corners, discarded classical casts in the life studio. In the late 70’s it had been absorbed into an Institute of Higher Education which had now changed it’s name to The North Midlands University, moving the ArtDepartment to brand new lifeless premises in 1984 which they nicknamed ‘The Fire Station’.

Bill had been vocal against every change, a thorn in the administrators sides. Peter supported it feeling, perhaps wrongly, that the changes would offer a greater educational opportunity for the students. He thought ‘…why shouldn’t science and arts students work together?’, thinking of the new ideas that could happen. But every move for mixed courses was blocked by difficulties with faculty heads, demarcation lines for technicians, timetables.

Bill and Peter were now Senior Lecturers with contracts for life, unless they did something horrendous, and Bill had been very close to it. Bill often said that whenever he saw one of the grey suited blue striped administrators, he had the uneasy feeling they were dissecting him into dozens of part-time short-term tutors.

Only two months previously Peter had to attend a meeting in the Dean’s office to support Bill after some students and parents had complained at Bill being drunk at a lecture, his language, and the treatment of them. Afterwards they’d got drunk together. The trouble was Bill wouldn’t compromise, he’d provoke the students by calling them middle class Sunday painters… who’d had it too easy and would go running back home to mummy and daddy when they’d got their precious degree, etc. Too close to the truth for many.

Peter remembered how Bill had supported him when he’d stood out against the then Head of Department, when they hadn’t short-listed any women for three lecturer posts. Peter demonstrated outside the College with hundreds of students, caused embarrassment by appearing on local TV and radio. That seemed a long time ago now, and luckily attitudes had, on the surface at least, changed.

Peter was now the University’s ‘star turn’. The Head of Faculty had the Sunday Times Magazine article about him framed on his wall; the Dean had bought one of his pictures for the ‘University Collection’ and it hung in the Committee Room; the Director of Marketing featured him in the University prospectus. All this since he had sold four paintings; one to the Tate, one to the Museum of Modern Art in Phoenix and two to a new collection in Tokyo, following his belated success in the New British Painting show at The Royal Academy. Before that he’d never been noticed, it had even been mentioned that Painting would have to merge with Printing and Sculpture, and at least three lecturers axed, perhaps he’d be one. Nowadays he was asked to all the special events, his department expanded, visitors always brought and introduced to him, and the Dean had even offered him a studio at the University, which he declined.

“Bill, what do you know about Frank Butter?” Peter could smell stale scotch on Bill’s breath.

“That bastard. I’ve got a slide I use for Media Studies of the Sun’s front page, nineteen eighty five or eighty six I think, anyway height of Thatcherism. You remember, after he’d sent in his heavies in with earth movers to get rid of squatters from houses in the way of a development he was into, filled now with yuppies with negative equity and piles. A squatter died, but no one was charged. The Sun had a huge title ‘Serves you right’. Got away with it, gone a bit quiet now, loads of grey suits and old school ties front things, but he’s still there, pulling strings, buying and selling. Why you asking, he going to get an honorary degree or something? Wouldn’t put it past them. They need a new admin block don’t they? Comes from your way doesn’t he?”

“Yes”, Peter knew very well he did and heard Bill start on and on about the evils of developers in the Thatcher years and their similarity with the Dutch entrepreneurs who paid Rembrandt to paint them, usual stuff which he churned out to Second Years each Autumn.

“Got to go Bill, see you later, are you at the Lamb tonight?”

Peter was ten minutes late for Rachel’s tutorial. She had a space in ‘The Fire Station’, a soulless modern factory space, partitioned into small cubicles each one holding a student, from above it would have looked like a beehive. Every year they had to make the spaces smaller as more students were admitted.

When Peter arrived Rachel was making tea in the corner of her ‘block’.

“Sorry I’m late Rachel”

“Tea Peter?”

“No thanks” he walked over to look at some drawings in a folder. “Mind if I look?”

Rachel waived a hand in a gesture saying “OK” as she poured boiling water on a herbal tea bag.

As Peter looked through he could judge just how good Rachel was, she drew people, mainly in life classes, with far more assurance than he could ever reach. He already knew they’d give her a First at the end of all this. The handling of the Conte was superb, the lines and folds of flesh, with subtle variations of light and the ability to convey character. She was good.

“Marianne not coming?”

“No, she’s visiting her Mother”.

Peter walked over to a large half finished painting flat on the floor, surrounded by newspapers and pots of paint. This was when he wished Marianne were there. Rachel’s used her drawings to make very graphic images of what could be interpreted as rape and violent sexual intercourse. Body parts, uniforms, seaside ephemera, shafts of light and dark; her paintings were bleak, cruel, and threatening.

‘What can I say?’ Peter thought, he knew he had to say something constructive, but he felt what he’d say would be inane and fatuous, the paintings came from deep inside, his comments from the surface. ‘Bill loves them’ he thought. Every year at least one student would become obsessive, they’d even had to have areas of degree shows cordoned off for fear of adverse public reaction, but these were different, certainly not the usual obsessions. Peter sensed Rachel would move on from these when she’d got whatever it was out of her system, using her abilities to produce some fine work, ‘but if I say that she’ll think I’m being facetious’.

They stood silent, surveying the work on the floor of the cubicle. Peter felt tall next to Rachel’s dark petite-ness. The string from her tea bag swung from side to side like a pendulum.

“Did Veronica come to see you about that multi media course?”

“Yes, I didn’t know whether I’d have time, but it looked good”.

“I know you’re in the third year and normally we wouldn’t organise these things, but it isn’t often we can get into the Media department. I thought it may help.”

Peter thanked God for finding something to talk about, and they chatted happily for twenty minutes about scanners, photo manipulation, sound, the possibility in the future of exhibitions to a world-wide unseen audience, until it was time for Peter to see Tom.

As he walked into Tom’s cubicle Peter knew Tom would get a Two/Two and go on to make a perfectly good art teacher in a school. He ‘smacked his wrist’ for being nasty about school teachers. ‘I must remember to ask Tom to go to the studio and make that list before I go’.

Peter stood before a canvas covered in a solid mass of paint that to Tom meant something.


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