Sir David Wilkie Administering
Tea in Kensington
“A Mr. Delacroix to see you, Sir.
With a brace of partridges
And a very handsome turkey.”
There was chat: how gendarmes, “Damned gendarmes” nicked
the Scot for sketching Calais gates;
how old Hogarth was beaten up, deported for the same; linked arms upon a sunlit lawn, strolling
towards talk of paint: tête de negre, vert bronze; the Frenchman lost
in fumée de londres;
the mere sound of a smile, “Monsieur”, stopped Géricault from working; most shadow
contains violet: is there a recipe? “Cassel earth, dear sir” mixed
in with white. Gleams from a teapot
strike them on the tartan rug: a housemaid tries to still
a storied platter, cakes
swinging to the motion of her walk across the greensward,
steam and silver swaying
like a censer through the air;
a doll in the distance, the sloping garden magnifies her step by step
until she spreads a tablecloth of sacramental white,
stands beadle-like and pours:
“Macaroon or shortbread, Sir?”
Later, Wilkie bids her fetch
his ‘shadow-box’, a tiny Knox
carved out of clay, spirited wings of his little cloak
flung out indignantly at the idol
the artist will make of him.
Delacroix smiles, recalls small windmills on the angle
of a barn, automata
of a pint-sized coach and horses
that trundled through the Dauphin’s childhood;
a large red butterfly settles
briefly on the head of Knox,
canopies the preaching toy
beneath a ruby shimmer.
The Frenchman laughs aloud
to see it sip and read the pulpit’s book:
“Draw this my friend? It’s worth more than all our canvases.” Wilkie gestures and falls
Silent. Delacroix looks up,
is dazzled by the sun, struggles to follow the fritter
of the butterfly among the stars of History.
It dances out a crazy line
around the picnic party
and the artists – abashed – allow the summer’s day
to take their measure, make them models
in this laboratory of space:
the maid, starched and glittering with sugar spoons, the men’s heads, clear and dark as jewels,
the white cloth spread in quiet communion, bodies on a rug at just this to each other.
Moonlight becomes blades, blades moonlight as they lilt and pivot out of shadow into yellow pools: I make a point and stop:
steam breath into air that cracks like ice, close eyes upon a world that gleams and scrapes and rasps; ‘Look out!’
Brown, behatted, a figure grasps
my arm and birls me about; I make a run: circling to the centre of the loch –
cross stroke, chassé, cross over slip – turn and look back across the white and shining field: the huddle of ‘ingénues’
practising their 8’s, the cries of ‘off!’ and ‘change!’, the silver scales
of safety ropes slithering from baskets;
silence set off by distant swish.
And so I see the scene again: late afternoon; the little minister, still svelte but on the verge of portliness, breasting the ice with a frank and open stroke;
his friends, the painters, smiling, betting: which one could lay down just that shade of lilac shadow cast by the suburban Mercury, silhouetted ‘contre jour’?
Then, the sudden hush as water tensed
at his instruction, trout gazed up at his incisive feet. I felt that God must be in clarity like this
and listened to the valley echo
the striations of his silver blades.
Far out on Duddingston Loch
our true apostle sped with twice the speed of Christ who walked the waves.
I saw him harrow ice with grace of the elect and scar the transubstantiation
of wintered elements. At once I heard
a tapping from the hills
as if a tiny hammer big with work sought to split this world: the shelf of ice with all its merry skaters cracked from side to side then tipped
like a sinking ship; loch made meadow loch as little cows, aristocratic blades, the Reverend and his painters clung to trees
above a sundered castle, floated off
to villages, new towns, enlightened schemes and sunken moonlit pastures. With a sense of real presence
he crossed my vision: and I wondered if it mattered which man would win the bet: Raeburn or Danloux?
Both helped him to untie
the fine pink inkles strapping blade to boot and walked away with him
arm in arm towards the village.
for John Fowler
My little nephew holds my hand; together we stare up at the big picture, its rows
of Free Kirk ministers raked up towards two skylights in a barn-like roof. Pointing to a young man in a neckerchief looking down on the assembly, he asks “What’s that one called?” I check my map of all the holy folk: “He’s Willie Liston,
a local fisherman”, come to witness
the disruption of his church.
My nephew stretches up his hand, palm
open, then snaps it shut, as if he wants to open
up the tiny distant heads like windows in an advent calendar. He’s right. This box needs light:
washes, waves of it that Willie could drop
in nets upon the douce and sober company
who all await that Fisher of the guid elect.
His body blocks the aperture but if my nephew prized these faces back upon their canvas hinges he’d find them all in miniature, upended
on photographic slides the artist cribbed
their portraits from. Here, behind these windows on the painting’s past, the sun imprints
kirk bodies, lords and ladies, fishermen improvising stillness with a liveliness
only the camera is true to: Willie Liston
‘redds’ his fishing line, a sturdy slouch
of crumpled clothes, his breeks and half
his face blanched to dough-like white.
He’s ready in the changing weather, can’t
stay for the exposure: five minutes
on the lens but twenty three good years
before that picture of him boxed in against
the clouds is done. And so he leaves mid-pose, bored by inertia, his features blurred
like the see-through cat that quit the shot because the basket did not smell of fish.
The skylight fills up with a choppy sea,
a ghost boat steers from frame to frame
and there is Liston perching in the sunlit window
of a painting that inspired the one he’s travelled from. Beneath him now: a covered tennis court, French voices bouncing off brick walls as revolutionaries
knock oaths of liberty, fraternity back and forth
across the mock-up of a lithe, impromptu parliament.
A gust of wind unfurls a curtain like a sail. It billows through the dusty air carved by the slash of republican salutes and Willie spies the features of a Patriot,
a Protestant, a President standing on a tailor’s table. The democratic crowd behind is sunk in too much light.
My little nephew looks up at Willie Liston sailing
on the pitched roof above the minute detail of his church. The boy, the fisherman seem almost spirited
away, caught in the half-light from two windows;
the bosun and his mate: out for a catch beyond
kirk and parliament, sounding out the skylit deep between two sketches of the world. My nephew absent-mindedly strokes my hand then
turns and smiles at me: a grin without a cat.