Chapter 9 of my novel Underpainting, completed in 2007. This starts the second part moving on to 1991. To read chapters 1-8 either click the Underpainting Category for each chapter or click above for the whole novel up to this point. If you are reading this I would love to hear from you about what you think.
The dome of St. Paul’s, the banks and offices of the City of London could be seen through the windows of ‘the studio’. Tom said you could see the Tower but Rachel and Peter had never been able to. Dominating the space were huge canvases that had been sewn together at a specialist stage set makers. There were theatre lights to see how the gauze’s worked, to check colour changes and shadows. Peter was absorbed by the technical aspects of the project and was more like a site manager than the creative painter he was in his studio. They wore hard hats and had to learn how to skip up and down scaffolding like monkeys. Peter had been given a six month sabbatical which the University had owed him for some time, they hadn’t liked it but when he’d told the Dean that at least one princess, probably Diana, would be at the opening night, and “… of course you will be invited”, things seemed to slip easily into gear.
It was eleven in the morning, Peter, Rachel and Tom had been at work since nine. They were working on one of five gauze’s which hung in front of the main canvas, it was one that would disappear when blue light shone to reveal the inside of a tenement block. The studio was blacked out so the effect could be seen. Rachel was working high up on the scaffolding as Tom and Peter were blocking in an area near the floor. Colours were hard to see but this was the best way they had discovered to gain the effect. They heard familiar footsteps and a shaft of daylight flooded into the studio as Henry breezed through the large double doors.
“Oh damn” Rachel shouted and a brush clattered down to the floor.
“Watch out Henry you’ve spoilt the light…”
Henry quickly closed the door. The darkness returned and it was impossible to see anything for a minute or two.
“You OK up there Rachel?… Don’t move until your eyes adjust”
“I’m OK Peter… just a brush. Is that you Henry?”
Henry and Rachel had got on well since the project began. She’d shown him some of her work and he knew there was a market for good figurative paintings and drawings, on spec he’d taken some for a mixed show in Brussels. They had sold quickly.
“Tom… Rachel… you ready for a break?”
“OK” the two voices came back in harmony. Peter let up the blackouts and daylight filled the studio.
“It’s coming on Peter, it really is. By the way Constantine was very pleased to meet you, he couldn’t believe that you would take so much trouble. Good bit of PR on your part Peter, I think you’ve made a good impression. He’s inviting you to a do at his house, to unveil your pictures, next Thursday. He doesn’t usually do that sort of thing.”
Peter looked at Henry as if to say ‘Oh no!’ This was not Peter’s scene.
Constantine Levy-French lived in a contemporary white and glass house on the banks of The Thames near Cookham. The garden, Peter had noted, was bigger than the park round the corner from his own house. The house was full of paintings, he had three bold Turner water-colours, a magnificent Nicholson relief, two intense tiny Palmers, the list was endless, a microcosm of English art. He’d been very pleasant to Peter and Tom. They’d driven down with a van full of brushes and paints for the set and the two six foot square landscapes carefully crated up for travel. Constantine had shown them round his collection and given them a good lunch.
“Well Peter it is an honour for me to have your pictures in my collection, you know I must organise a party to unveil these”. Peter never expected to hear from him again.
Peter was trying to think how to get out of it, he hated to be the centre of attention. Henry and Rachel were discussing plans for more pictures. Rachel was trying to explain that she hadn’t anything else available, because she was busy trying to pay off her overdraft by working on the set in the day and a pub at night. She couldn’t afford a model and that the last set of nudes were drawn from herself reflected in a long mirror, hence some of the strange distortions that made the pictures so interesting. She was also trying to explain that drawing when nude is quite hard, especially in a cold flat. Henry laughed and said he understood her problem and that they’d have to have a serious talk when this was finished. There were ways the Gallery could help her.
Peter and Tom were standing together drinking their steaming tea surveying the canvases.
“I’m really enjoying working on this with you Peter,” Tom rather shyly said, “it’s so different and such a big idea”
“Thanks Tom, I needed someone I knew would be reliable”
Then Tom tumbled out all at once.
“But we don’t talk about things… about the picture… about the content… about why it is and how it is… like we did at college… you and the others were so hard on me and the rest of them… you know… about having meanings for everything, knowing why we do things, paint this, use this colour, you seemed to want to know all that was inside our heads then chew it up and turn it round and round, then spit it out”
Peter was somewhat taken aback by this.
“It’s different Tom when you produce something like this.” He realised that he was getting nowhere fast. “College is different. As a tutor I was there to make sure you learn, not just about painting… but about yourself about whether you want and have it in you to be an artist… to bring out what is really inside you… d’you know what I mean?”
“Mm.. I suppose so… do you feel you are an artist or a teacher?”
“Oh an artist” Peter quickly replied.
“Then why do you teach?”
“I suppose at first it was the only way to pay for time to be an artist”
Peter looked at Tom, these were difficult questions that Peter knew he had to answer for his own need, but didn’t really want to face.
“So you were only in it for the money”
“Oh that’s not fair Tom, no….”
“What’s not?” Henry butted in joining Peter and Tom by the table.
“Tom’s asking me why I’m still teaching”
“And I ask him that all the time Tom, he needs to give it up, concentrate on painting, leave that to people like you and Rachel who really need the money”
“I enjoy teaching Henry… I like working with people, seeing them learn, seeing them develop”. This was the stock answer he gave himself, it reassured him and gave him a reason.
“Have you decided whether to come to Cookham or not? Constantine really would like it you know, could be good business… bring Marianne”
“I suppose so, next week isn’t it… are you going?”
“I wouldn’t miss it”
Henry left saying goodbye to them all.
“Let’s have a couple of days off, it would be good to have a rest. Would you like that, paid of course?”
Tom and Rachel looked pleased and agreed. Peter pulled down the blackouts again, Rachel climbed back up the scaffolding and Tom reset the lights.
Rachel and Tom were contrasting people and that was what Peter required for this project. Tom was a hard worker but had little flair, and was planning to do a post graduate teacher’s course after a year off. On the other hand Rachel’s work came from the soul. Peter felt she should go on to the Royal College or the Slade, but she’d had enough of college, at 23 she’d lived a lot already and didn’t like the cosy world of academic life. Peter didn’t know many of the details of Rachel’s life, only that she’d worked in a circus, had family problems, and seemed a lot older than she was. He’d recognised a strength in her work that few students possess.
“No, I can’t go…” Marianne said, “I’d have liked to but… you know there’s all those squares to get sorted… you don’t mind, do you?”
Peter and Marianne were sitting at the scuffed blue painted table in their kitchen. They’d just finished a Chinese take-away after they’d spent the last few hours in her studio, joining some of the squares together for the upcoming exhibition. It was a big job. Peter finished off the dregs of a can of beer.
“That’s OK… I don’t fancy going myself, but you know Henry?”
“His big night I suppose, another lot of contacts, you know he ought to pay you to go!”
They both chuckled at that.
“Will Mark be there?”
“I suppose so. Henry doesn’t usually go anywhere without him, not to that sort of do anyway”
“Mmm… Any news of when the first night will be”
“Yepp… They put it back a bit, some problems with the music, something about needing some more sampling or something. June 12th they’ve agreed on. Princess Di should be there!”
“Henry’ll love that. I’ll have to buy a frock I suppose”
Marianne stood and cleared away the foil packs and crisp brown greasy bag. Their kitchen was unfinished, they both spent so little time at home it didn’t seem worth finishing things off.
Marianne sat down and poured some white wine into a dark red glass.
“Didn’t your Mum buy you that?”
“Yes, from that coach trip she did to the Black Forest… Why not take Rachel to this do?”
“D’you think so… You know Henry sold some of her drawings?”
“Yes, you said. She’d enjoy it, see what she’s up against”, Peter looked at her quizzically. “You know what I mean. If she’s going to make it, this is the sort of place she has to be seen… She’ll need clothes, I don’t suppose she’s got anything decent. Get Mark to take her for something, he’ll know what looks best… but for heaven’s sake don’t you take her. What about that?”
“Yes, why not. And what should I wear?”
“Oh, you’ll do in anything, no-one will care less”, Marianne said it sharply and Peter felt a little hurt, but he knew what she meant.
Peter went to the sink and filled the kettle, switched it on and sat down again.
“I’m seeing Malcolm tomorrow”
“You’ll enjoy that… He keeps going doesn’t he, must be the fresh air and all that exercise”
“Mmmm…” Peter was fiddling with a three day old newspaper, turning the corners and making nonsense of the text.
“Did I tell you that Angela’s pregnant” Marianne announced.