THE SOCIETY PORTRAITIST Robert Engels at first said no, then yes, to the unusual commission his dealer presented to him. On reflection he concluded that he could not afford to turn down any work, now that his career was, as his dealer had put it, though a little more politely, on the rocks. Indeed the dealer had already intimated, though with a smile on his face, that after a relationship of more than twenty years of material benefit to both parties things seem to have run their course. In short, Robert Engels, the portrait painter of choice to actors, singers, assorted personalities, and, once or twice, minor members of the royal family, had fallen out of fashion.
True, the decline, though recent, might have been temporary, but the dealer’s experience told him otherwise: the painter’s, and therefore the dealer’s, celebrity clients had refused to pay the usual sums and then demand had ceased altogether. It was as sudden – as precipitous – as that. Not that there had been a decline in society’s vanity, far from it, for as everyone knew the fashion had turned in the direction of several younger painters, the sort that win competitions organised by banks, more risqué in style, less deferential to their clients’ delusions about themselves than Robert Engels had ever dared to be. People these days liked to be mocked a little – it was all part of the fashion for self-deprecation. People would notice that so-and-so didn’t take himself as seriously as he used to do, and then a thousand other so-and-so’s would soon follow. The public liked the new humility too, which was even better, especially as it did not equate to any loss in fame and fortune for the personalities concerned.
The new mood quickly spread to advertising, film, magazines and, naturally, the art of portrait painting. Everybody now carried his vulnerability around with him – it positively glowed around his head, like a halo. Robert Engels should have known what was going on when a famous actor, known to be short, had himself portrayed as short; and a model whose public persona had always been the picture of vivacity, humour and smiles was portrayed as a depressed, careworn drudge. The painters who could capture this new mood, though of course not of the avant garde, which was anyway a now meaningless term, were a select band who could rely on regular commissions from rich and famous people who wanted to be modern but recognisable.
Robert Engels had definitively been left behind by these painters, the new truth pushing out the old idealisation, as one critic had written in an article that singled out Engels’ style as peculiarly bad, Engels being incapable of seeing his sitters except as how they wanted to be seen, whereas the new painters had discovered the face behind the mask, shown their clients their ordinary selves, and therefore humanised them. This was the critic who had once written that Robert Engels expressed the reality of the cult of personality better than anyone else in our age. Now that these personalities no longer wanted to be seen as mini-gods and -goddesses but as real human beings, painters like Robert Engels were left with nothing to do and shown to be the frauds they always were, added the critic in a final dig.
This hurt Robert Engels very much but he didn’t think it was true. His clients saw themselves in a certain way and came to him because he saw them in the same way. Now that they no longer saw themselves that way they had no more use for him. That was their problem though, not his. Perhaps, he thought, I was naïve in thinking that if someone came to me to have himself celebrated in paint he had done something to earn that celebrity, possessed some special quality or talent that was rare and therefore worth noticing. He didn’t idealise these people. On the contrary, he merely tried to find what that special something was that made them the sort of people who would come to the famous society painter Robert Engels, himself a person with that special something, to have their portraits made. Yes, he had been naïve, but his work had been true to this naivety and the world had paid him well for it. The new truth was itself a sham in his eyes, for it only represented what everybody already was and not what his clients had done to go beyond what they already were, that is, their shortness, their depression, their careworn lives, perhaps even their stupidity. An unheroic Napoleon was a contradiction; that is, a Napoleon who lacked the talent to make himself appearheroic could not have been the Napoleon of history. Robert Engels wasn’t stupid, he realised that not all of his clients were good at what they were celebrated for. Indeed, pop culture itself was full of sham geniuses who would, sooner or later, be forgotten; but these people were not negligible, for, as he put it to himself with a chuckle, the student who succeeds in exams by cheating has perhaps displayed more intelligence, cunning, and sheer insight into the nature of life than his studious and honest classmate. These were pessimistic thoughts, though, and this time failed to cheer him up, as his innate pessimism had nearly always done in the past.
It was with some surprise, then, that he took the call from his dealer. A major commission. A prominent client. The money not only good but better than ever. Robert Engels breathed deeply to still his racing heart.
“Well?” asked the dealer after a few seconds of silence.
The painter, so used to these calls in the past, calls which left him perfectly cool, tried to hide his emotion: “Well, of course. When? And who?”
This time the dealer was silent for a moment or two.
“He wants you to meet him on Sunday at one. I have the address … and I’ll send you the keys.”
“Sunday? The keys? He wants me to let myself in? Who is he, anyway?”
Who he was, the dealer couldn’t say. He read out the letter he had received that morning. It was from an old and respected firm of solicitors, based in the City, and requested the services of Mr Robert Engels, if he would be so kind, for him to paint the portrait of their client, whose name and position would remain secret, according to his wishes. Their client had also specified that during the sessions there would be no conversation whatever, nor any acknowledgement of any kind, on either side. The contract depended on strict adherence to this request. The dealer had slightly exaggerated the fee, but it was good, nearly as good as the best he had ever had. A contract was attached, with the requests listed as clauses.
The painter was to come to the address given at the same time, every day from the first day of February to the last, twenty-nine in total, this being a leap year. The sessions would begin at one and end at four, precisely. Saturdays and Sundays would be counted as working days. The client would supply oil paints, easel, canvas, a stool, and so on. On the final day the painter must finish by four, leave the finished portrait in the room, and then lock the door to the room as well as the door that gives access to the stairs to the room. The contract having been fulfilled, the dealer will be so kind as to return the keys to the solicitors’ offices, etc. The client having taken possession of his portrait, the contract will be deemed fulfilled and a cheque for the agreed amount will be delivered to the dealer by courier. Besides a few minor details, that was all.
“Absolutely not! No way!” exclaimed Robert Engels, trying to hold back his anger. “I’m not this man’s skivvy. I don’t care how much money he has.”
“Look, Robert,” said the dealer in a matter-of-fact tone, “to be frank, I think you have no choice. You’re not exactly flavour of the month, and …well, I have to make a living too.”
Yes, his thirty percent, naturally.
“I’ve spoken to the solicitor already and accepted for you. I only need your permission to return the contract, signed by me, which, I repeat, I strongly recommend you allow me to do. If not, then … well, you may have to find yourself another dealer.”
The dealer waited for several minutes. He could hear the painter’s breathing through the silence on the phone. He was a patient man.
“All right, all right, I’ll do it,” came the reluctant answer at last, before the painter, secretly pleased, put down the phone. Yes, he was very pleased indeed, but not because he thought this might revive his career: he knew full well that this would be the end, the last portrait he would ever paint.
And so on Sunday the first of February he set out to find the room where he was to paint if not talk to his last client. The letter was clear: Find the funeral parlour on such and such street. The room is directly above, but the entrance is along the alley at the back. There is no number on the door but it is green, the only one. A stairway would take him to the door to the room. The keys were in his pocket. The weather was awful. It was an area of the city, near the river, that he didn’t know well, a place of warehouses, half of them abandoned, all closed today, with their facades of chipped and worn red bricks that recorded the passing centuries. Archways led into courtyards where dray-horses must once have pulled carts full of vegetables, tobacco, wood, iron and coal. He stood looking along the street: it was empty, the funeral parlour was closed, the flower shop next door closed, even the pub, whose patrons must have been the local traders and workmen, closed. The rain was falling steadily from the solid grey sky on top of Robert Engels as he huddled into his raincoat and sheltered under his umbrella. He looked up at the room. A single sash window gave on to the street. There was no light coming through the window. He looked at his watch: it was twenty to one, plenty of time for him to go to the end of the street, turn the corner and make his way along the alley, to open the green door behind which he would find the stairs that he would climb to the door to the room, which he would enter at one o’clock precisely, as he had been instructed by this fool of a man, whoever he was. If anyone had been there to see him, Robert Engels would have cut a strange and pathetic figure as he began his anxious journey to his last commission.
He turned the corner at the end of the street, expecting to find one of those long straight cobbled alleys full of puddles and rubbish. Instead there was an archway leading into an empty courtyard, surrounded on three sides by old three-storey buildings. To the left there was another archway, slightly lopsided, deformed by the pressure of centuries of matter. He went through it into another courtyard, almost identical to the first. Great wooden doors to buildings that were dark and empty bore signs of trading companies and manufacturers that must have ceased operating decades ago: Johnson & Sons, Harness Makers; Lambert & Co., Wheelwrights; Fielding, Ironmonger; … He closed the umbrella and drew his raincoat tight about him. Where on earth was he? He went through another archway, then another. He was getting soaked through but had left his umbrella leaning against a wall in one of the courtyards. He went back to where he thought it was but found himself in a courtyard with two archways. Which one had he come through? He didn’t know. He tried one and then went on across another courtyard and through another archway, only to find himself standing in a deep, wide and expanding pool of dirty water, its surface alive with slowly swirling clouds of dust and a thousand mad colliding circles. Above the warehouses there was a dilapidated railway bridge, overgrown with lank grass and weeds from which the rainwater dripped in a constant stream. Lost, confused, his skin clammy with sweat and rainwater, and, it suddenly occurred to him, quite out of fashion, Robert Engels felt the tears rising to his eyes. He stood there for a few minutes and then walked through another archway and out onto a long cobbled alley that ran along the back of a street. He had gone to the wrong corner from the funeral parlour; as he could now see, the other end of the alley opened out onto a quite ordinary street. There had been no one to ask, though, except perhaps for the two or three corpses he imagined must be lying there awaiting their final journey.
He quickly found the green door. It was one minute before one o’clock. He opened the door with one of the keys and entered a dim narrow hallway, made narrower by piles of old and yellowing newspapers and telephone directories. He climbed the stairs, steep and uncarpeted, at the end of the hallway, and unlocked the dirty-white peeling door at the top. As he opened the door it was exactly one o’clock.
A large square room with bare floorboards and a high ceiling. Walls once painted white now grey with damp patches here and there. To the left the sash window he had seen from the street, with rivulets of rainwater running down dusty glass panes. In the opposite wall another window, bricked up. A sink in a corner at the far end. A single light bulb hanging from a long wire attached to the centre of the ceiling. At the back of the room, opposite the door, an easel with canvas already stretched and a small table with paints, brushes and cloths. A stool behind the easel. Three yards in front of Robert Engels, the high back of a wicker armchair. He tried the light switch and knew straightaway that it would be of no use to change the bulb. Apart from the painting materials and chairs there was nothing. Probably, he thought, the funeral parlour’s lease had included the room above, for which they had found no use, not even for storing corpses.
The painter walked across the room in the rain-soaked half-light and stood before the canvas, which he saw was already primed white. Fifteen yards in front of him his client, the mysterious nobody he was to observe for three hours a day for the next twenty-nine days, sat in the wicker armchair. The thin body in grey jacket and trousers and white tieless shirt sat perfectly still, with legs crossed and entwined fingers resting on its lap, like a small sleeping animal. The thin long face with its round glasses and, from this distance, lustreless staring eyes, struck the painter as infinitely uninteresting.
The painter draped his raincoat over the stool and stood watching the faraway man for a long time. Neither moved at all. The distance was wholly inappropriate for a portrait. It was as if the painter were observing him through the wrong end of a telescope. It was impossible to tell if the man were sleeping or watching him through the round glasses. The dim rain light was almost no better than darkness. The silence was unnerving. The man might be dead, for all that the painter could tell, as he sat there in the wicker armchair dressed in grey, with legs crossed and hands folded on his lap, and his uninteresting face. In the past the painter had always known something – in fact, a lot, if not too much – about his clients: who they were, what they did, the tics that made their personalities so … lovable. And they had all been personalities. If any of them had asked him to paint him as he was, stripped of his reputation, his fame, his charisma, the painter would not have known what to do. It would have been as though he were trying to capture the inner essence of a mannequin. Was this man with the round glasses and thin drawn face aiming to know himself in his purity through the eyes of a painter? If so he was fooling himself. Not only was there no way to see below the surface to some permanent inner self, there was, more likely than not, no self to see at all. The round glasses, the thin face, the crossed legs, the resting hands, the grey jacket and trousers, the white tieless shirt, the thin body that supported all these, it was all just like a mannequin. And he presumed that the man in the wicker armchair was not paying good money to have himself portrayed as a mannequin. This face, which gave nothing away, this body, composed and without breath in the grey light, nameless, without a history, indeed without a future, so far as the painter was concerned. Ever since he had begun painting in his teens he had had a notion that his talent for expressing the personality of his sitters had enabled him to find out something about himself. The first half of the equation is what had no doubt made him popular, when he was popular, and eventually rich, but it was the second half that had appealed to him, quite apart from the money and the fame, and driven him towards portrait painting as his raison d’etre, as the supreme form of painting.
Reflecting now on his life, as he mixed his paints, he suspected that perhaps he had been wrong, that the mysterious nothingness of an uninteresting face, at fifteen yards distance and hidden by round glasses and the greyness of a bleak February afternoon, might be just what he had needed all this time to discover who and what he himself was. For what had he really learned about himself through the personalities he had understood, or thought he had understood, and captured on canvas throughout thirty successful years? He couldn’t say. Was he then a fraud to himself, if not to others? The others had abandoned him though, and so perhaps he had been a fraud, now unmasked, to them too. With brush in hand and the blank field of the canvas before him, which even after all these years appalled him by its nothingness full of the seething invisible life of an infinity of possible forms, he stared across the fifteen yards of empty space at the still figure in the wicker armchair.
And the still figure seemed to stare back at him across the same fifteen yards of empty space, which seemed to take on a strange opaqueness, not of a wall, nor even of turbid water deep beneath a sunlit surface, but of dense foliage and branches, through which a creature could be glimpsed far off, crouching, waiting, watching, in a space that was slashed and carved by a blunt-edged knife.
He held the brush, its tip soaked in grey-green, near to the canvas. It was important for him to get the first touch right, no matter if he erased it later, for it was from this – a line, a curve, a mere blotch – that everything would come. He held it for a long time and then for the first time in his life he found that he did not know what to do. He put the brush down. He felt no surprise or disappointment come from the lonely man across the room. The surprise and disappointment were all in him. And yet it was with relief that he looked at his watch and saw that the three hours were nearly up. He cleaned the brush and then washed his hands in the brown rust water that ran in a weak stream from the tap. He put on his coat, glanced at the blank canvas and then at the man, and left the room at precisely four o’clock.
Back out in the alley he considered searching for his umbrella among the maze of archways and courtyards of his anxious journey, but decided that one journey such as that was quite enough in a single lifetime. Instead he took the easy way, walking the few miles home in the rain, exhausted by his thoughts.
For the next week Robert Engels sat out the mornings drinking tea and gazing at the clouds drifting by as he impatiently awaited the taxi that would take him to the end of the back alley, where he would open the green door and once again enter the room at one o’clock. The man was always there before him, wearing the same clothes and sitting in the same manner in the wicker armchair. No words, no gestures, just silence. Some days it rained, others it was merely overcast, and then on the eighth day the sun shone. On that day a bright shaft of light, slowly turning with the turning day, shone on the man and made the space around him glow with dust. His glasses became two shining discs. Robert Engels felt that here, at last, after a week of nothing, there was something to work on: the man was someone who attracted dust to himself, which was something real, or at least felt like something real. He mixed his grey-green colour, dipped the brush and held it poised above the canvas. Out of the dust the man would emerge, and into the dust the man would eventually dissolve. Dust and time, he thought, but after that the portrait would remain. He would have done his job. He studied the man, the sitting mannequin in its bundle of grey clothes; he met the blind gaze of the reflecting discs, so like the eyes of a gigantic insect, behind which the eyes of the man were no doubt staring at him, the painter Robert Engels, or staring into himself, as he sat quiet and still with crossed legs and hands folded on his lap. Was the man happy or sad? the painter asked himself. Not happy, for sure, but not unhappy either. It was irrelevant, of no consequence. The dust hanging there in the sunlight made the space cement-like, imprisoning the living man in a body-shaped mould that almost touched his clothes, his skin, his very thoughts perhaps, but left just enough air for him to breathe.
The eighth day had been the best of all, thought the painter as he turned away from the still blank canvas to clean his brushes. The best day of all, the day he nearly began painting the portrait. He left the room at four o’clock precisely, and in the alley, with the late afternoon sunlight on his upturned face, he closed his eyes for a moment and imagined that today he had almost been happy.
That night his dealer called him. Was it going well? Had the man spoken at last? Did he recognise him – some famous recluse perhaps? It would be between just the two of them – he promised not to tell a soul. Robert Engels, in an expansive, talkative mood, merely said, “I know nothing about him at all, and yet the portrait is my masterpiece,” and then put down the phone.
The next day the grey skies returned, the man sat in the grey half-light, the painter had lost all the expansiveness – the feeling of potential unlimited – that the sunlit dust of the day before had inspired in him. He went away disappointed, depressed, angry even. As he opened the door at four o’clock he turned towards the back of the wicker armchair hiding the silent sitting man, and felt himself on the point of shouting something vile, insulting, crushing. But of course he did not, and closed the door quietly before stumbling down the dark staircase to the alley once again. It had just begun to rain.
At the end of the day after three weeks, Robert Engels stood in the alley in deep thought. There was one week to go. The canvas was still blank. The man was not only impossible – he was a non-entity. The money was neither here nor there. It was his pride that was at stake, therefore his life. If he could not complete the portrait, then he was a failure, for he had always completed what he had begun. What, though, would he become if he could not even begin? The thought of his own nothingness, his utter worthlessness, terrified him. It was dark when he looked at his watch and realised that he had been standing outside the green door for three hours, thinking, accusing himself of every crime imaginable. It was then that it struck him that the man had not come out of the room. Before this the painter had immediately gone from this terrible place after the day’s work and had always assumed that the man, who must arrive just before him, must leave soon after. There was only the one entrance and exit, therefore the man must still be inside. Was the man mad? Was he painting a ghost or a corpse from the funeral parlour below? He felt around in his pocket for the keys, opened the door, and crept up the stairs in the quiet darkness. At the top he hesitated – after all, nothing outside the hours of one o’clock to four o’clock, for the twenty-nine days of February, was any of his business here – but then he opened the door. He walked quickly to the far end of the room and turned towards the wicker armchair. Empty, quite empty in the light of the street lamp outside the sash window, which was closed and locked from the inside, as he could see perfectly clearly.
As the days passed, one now much like another, and the last day approached, a dull resignation invaded and set up home in Robert Engels’ being. He felt terribly old and worn out, with only enough energy to crave release, which he desired enormously. Everything he had been, and now was, seemed to be draining away right there in the room, into the emptiness that surrounded the man, still and silent as ever in his wicker armchair, and into the emptiness that surrounded himself. He felt himself collapsing into himself, a bottomless dark hole. The memory of the day of dust now seemed like the dream of a lost paradise. He recalled that he had once read a book in which the author had described the man of faith as someone who was infinitely resigned and yet, in a paradox that Robert Engels had been unable to grasp, also filled with infinite hope. At the end of the twenty-eighth day he could barely bring himself to look at the blank canvas, which seemed to him to be infinitely emptier than when he had begun. Resignation without limit. There was no hope for him. He was a man of little faith. He glanced at the man in the wicker armchair, in the grey light of the silent room, a man he had come to hate, and for the first and, as it would turn out, last time, felt a deep pity for him.
On the twenty-ninth day of February, the last day of his ordeal, Robert Engels, the painter of society portraits, rich, famous, successful, though now in a decline that he knew was irreversible, entered the room for the last time. The rain was falling again and the grey half-light had come to inhabit the room permanently. He walked to the far end – to the easel, the canvas, the paints and brushes, the stool which he had not yet sat upon, the assorted tools of his trade – and turned towards the man for the last time. It was without surprise that he saw that the wicker armchair was empty. He prepared his colours: black, white, brown, grey-green. He painted quickly, as if an invisible hand, far more masterful than his own, were guiding him; painted the tormented, shattered space; and painted the dust, universal, eternal and meaningless. And out of this there emerged, at last, the figure of a man – distant, silent and still – sitting in a wicker armchair.
As four o’clock approached, Robert Engels cleaned his brushes and laid them neatly in a row by the side of the sink. The portrait filled him with a terrible fear, just like those faces that children scribble and that come to haunt their dreams. He walked over to the wicker armchair and sat down. With legs crossed and hands folded on his lap, he sat perfectly still in his grey jacket and trousers and white tieless shirt, gazed through the round unbecoming glasses he had worn for many years, and thought of nothing at all.
The last portrait of Robert Engels had taken just three hours to paint.
It was four days before the police, responding to a call from the painter’s dealer, broke open the door to the room. One unkind obituarist, who had been allowed a glimpse of this last, mysterious self-portrait, the only one Robert Engels was known to have painted in his career, quipped that it was perhaps the only really good painting he had ever made.