So she’s a relative of Antoni Gaudi. My eyes skim the head-on collisions that line the gallery walls.
Inherited talents? I think not. But name dropping is the ultimate marketing tool and will always fill the minds of the gullible public with delusions of perceived value. Four-figure sums sit unashamedly in the
bottom right-hand corner of each piece, many of them peppered with red dots like angry pimples on a teenager’s face. I glance at the overblown nonsense blurbs which attempt to justify each ghastly exhibit.
‘You could put these to shame,’ I say to my wife. But Michelle is too modest for her own good.
‘I’ll never succumb to brutal and dystopian themes,’ says Michelle, ‘but it’s impossible to feel inspired while we’re living in London. I want to breathe fresh air, to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, and to reflect it in my work. London is loathsome. It saps my energy and sense of self-worth.’
This is not news to me.
‘But London is where it’s all happening - where you have the best chance of recognition. You have a great future.’
I can detect the defensiveness in my voice. I don’t want to leave London. I enjoy the buzz, the pace, the feelings of anticipation that the unpredictability of city life engenders in me every time I leave our minuscule apartment.
I lose the argument.
The pretty flint cottage in the heart of West Sussex where we now live has a vegetable plot, chickens and space in Michelle’s head for creativity.
‘Today is a yellow day,’ she announces, flopping down on our sagging sofa, nursing her coffee. The sun’s on our backs, a warm and invigorating sensation that courses through our bodies like cognac. Sherbert-yellow calendulas in the garden, lemony flashes of chaffinches’ breasts. Our daughter’s golden curls play havoc with our hearts as it blows like barley in the breeze. Scrambled eggs with mustard, followed by fresh pineapple for lunch. A leisurely walk through the electric yellow rapeseed fields in the afternoon. A bunch of daffodils in a stone jug on the kitchen table. Yellow represents happiness, success and pride. I revel in Michelle’s yellow days.
Michelle has coloured her days ever since I met her. She doesn’t know until waking what the colour will be. Burnt sienna, Vandyck brown, cadmium red, rose, crimson. These are the hot days; the days we eat chilli, tomatoes, oranges, carrots, strawberries from our vegetable plot. Her breath is warm on my face as we make love. Her paintings leap with vibrancy from the paper – sunsets, sunflowers and sandy beaches remembered from our honeymoon.
Her watercolours are fresh and evocative, with an eye for detail that defies belief. She is an observer of minutiae, teasing out the tiniest detail with her brush, sometimes plucking it down to only one hair to illustrate the finest seed of a dandelion clock or the fluffy curve of a baby bird’s feathers. When she was at college, she swept the board with awards, and now she keeps the local gallery supplied with a steady flow of modestly priced, exquisite renderings of the natural world.
But beneath her modest exterior lurks a fiery ambition, and when her paintings turn to indigo, navy, grey and black – I know that she is feeling unfulfilled, fighting a deep vein of melancholy which claws at her heart and washes away her spirit. When this happens, nothing will inspire her. All I can do is hope for the dark cloud to run its course.
The hens were the catalyst. They had been squatting on top of a fresh canvas and several tubes of acrylic paint which Michelle had lefi on the grass. As they skittered away, they left behind a kaleidoscope of colour on the canvas. Not so different from some of the abstracts we had seen exhibited in the London gallery, I thought.
‘Why not give it a title and send it off?’ To my surprise, she did.
‘Guess what? That Knightsbridge gallery is keen to see the rest of my portfolio.’
So we created one. Once the hens had provided us with several new pieces, we set about writing appropriately esoteric interpretations:
Fighting Cocks: A clash of claws searing through flesh; burst blood vessels pour out scarlet tears in a dystopian representation of our shattered senses, bleeding our souls dry through capitalist corruption.
Fountains of Fear: Chaotic clamberings erupt within a prison of our conscience; we fight, yet the fight is itself diminished by limitations of time and space. We yearn for, yet fear, the experience of release.
‘Wish me luck,’ said Michelle as she set off for London. What would the gallery owners say?
They said yes.
Yellow days proliferated as Michelle supplied abstract acrylics to the hungry gallery, as open-mouthed as a newly-hatched chick, to display. Originals and limited edition prints were snapped up for what we considered indecent prices. The bottomless pit of demand meant we were able to build a studio in our garden with the proceeds.
But over time, something else began to change. Michelle began to spend more and more time in London, attending exhibitions, private gallery previews, press interviews and so on. She had been catapulted into different circles – many of them the circles of pretension which we both used to scorn. When she came home at weekends she was tired, vague and distracted. Selfishly, maybe, I wanted her to go back to her world of botanical studies and rural landscapes.
‘I’m doing this for us,’ she said, but I could tell from the sparkle in her eyes that this was only half the story. Her love of life outside the capital seemed to be fading fast. She didn’t need the hens any longer. Maybe she didn’t need us any longer. She was soaking up success like a sponge, while to my mind it was wringing her talent dry.
With cruel irony, the magnetic pull of London, once so powerful for me, was waning. If London was a raincloud, West Sussex was a rainbow. I woke to halcyon blue skies, the clouds forming surreal landscapes free from vapour trails; chess boards of wheat-green and rapeseed-yellow hills; walls of white elderflower lining butterfly-filled lanes with no congestion or cough-inducing air. The rural scenery glistened like a fresh oil painting. I loved the garden, the fresh food, and the close-knit community.
‘I’ve invited Hermione to stay for the weekend,’ Michelle announced one day. She sounded excited, and although Hermione was the very artist whose works we had denigrated only a few months earlier, I was pleased that Michelle appeared to want to showcase her life in the country.
That Friday, Hermione made her theatrical entrance in a haze of herbal tobacco, reminding me – unnecessarily - that she was Gaudi’s great-great niece or suchlike. All tie-dye, beads and kafians, she floated around the house on a cloud of narcissism, paying scant attention to Michelle’s paintings which adorned the walls of our cottage. I noticed with dismay that Michelle appeared to be hanging on Hermione’s every word, whereas I could only detect ostentation oozing from every pore.
Hermione soon discovered she hated the countryside.
‘How do you find the pub when there are no streetlights at all? Won’t you get mugged?’
The birdsong and the church bells disturbed her Sunday morning lie-in. She tottered around muddy puddles in woefully inadequate footwear, gagging at the smell of cowpats and silage. At breakfast, she rejected our homemade bread and jam and was suspicious of our fresh farm milk (‘A TB risk, darlings’). Even the egg collecting brought her no joy – hens were dirty, vicious creatures, she complained, in words as sharp as the flints of our cottage. Come Monday, she scuttled back promptly to her comfort zone, the polluted streets of the capital.
But Michelle didn’t.
As I collapsed onto the garden seat, exhausted and relieved at her departure, I couldn’t help but muse over the disparity between Hermione and her ancestor’s abiding passion for nature and natural forms.
After a while, Michelle appeared from the kitchen, a cup of coffee in each hand.
I hesitated, unwilling to express my feelings about the visit until I had heard what Michelle had to say.
‘Hermione made it quite clear that countryside living was not for her, didn’t she? Having her here has been such an eye-opener. The more she complained, the more I realised how much I love it here. I’m not so sure London matters to me so much any longer. Gaudi’s love of nature may not be in Hermione, but it is the marrow in my bones.’
My unspoken question hovered like a dragonfly.
‘If London doesn’t want what I really like to paint, then I don’t want London.’ I gathered her into my arms, knowing that my fractured world was healed.
The straight line belongs to Man. The curved line belongs to God. (Antoni Gaudi)
Published in Issue #25