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Sport 10: Autumn 1993


There are two images—no, three—of Aunt Cora, my mentor. I have given in now and accept her as that, thinking submission can put me on my guard. I don't wish to spend my whole life in denial but to live. They are images I accept without any embroidery, as one accepts a diagnosis from a doctor one knows is blunt and fair. 'Is this spot extravagance too?' 'It has the appearance, I am afraid. But since we have caught it early. . .' I am regarding myself as 'we'.

The first image is decidedly painterly. A winter scene by Van der Velden. One of those so-European tales of hardship: Dutch courage in the jagged mountains. Aunt Cora and Uncle Henry—Uncle Henry dies soon after and he's already frail and hanging back in this—seek a loan from Fergus's bank. Fergus is now a manager, a very early promotion. Naturally he turns them down. He even seems, like Pilate, to be washing his hands. Aunt Agatha regards the approach with horror and writes more than her customary blackened pages.

The second has no visual equivalent, unless it is perhaps Bathing at Asnières by Seurat. Faces indistinguishable by flecks of blinding light. A Seurat face could be as large as Mount Rushmore and still be indistinguishable. Aunt Cora—Uncle Henry is dead now and buried—a last extravagance involving a long journey by hearse—has moved to an apartment which she shares with a young man. I see them sitting on the banks of a river—I don't suppose there was a river within miles—Aunt Cora plumper and with more than her share of Seurat splotches and beside her the stork- like legs and long torso of a boy. Seurat, like Aunt Cora, was fond of hats. Perhaps he saw them as light conductors.

You can tell from this I have begun to visit galleries, and after my nursing training was completed and I moved from the nurses' home—its plainness eventually struck me as a kind of squalor—I went on a trip to Europe. There I fell into a pattern of fountains and galleries: cooling my heels (not literally) by some great fountain with lions or cherubs or spouting fish and then climbing the steps to look at some painting I had chosen from my guidebook. In Florence it was Parmigianino's The Madonna with the long page 57 neck and in London the Turner rooms.

I stumbled out past a guard who had been kind and conversed with me when I asked directions, with one hand up before my face as if blinded. 'Are you all right, dear?' he called. 'Will you come back?"Yes,' I said, closing my eyes like Eurydice emerging from the underworld, against another single image. 'Yes, I'll come back tomorrow.' I had discovered, you see, a concentrated form of extravagance to look at and absorb while I worked out my own.

I remember the art gallery at Leeds where I took this principle a step further and learned to select. In the superior galleries this is already done but here were walls crowded with huge shipwrecks, naiads and naked but oddly modest maidens in a garden, small birds carrying an early form of signwriting, in flowers, in their beaks. I remember standing beside a tall man who seemed to share the same puzzlement.

For here was a Derain tucked and here a Piper, a Hitchens which in a small compass still swept the naiads and anaemic maidens from the room. He smiled and introduced himself because of the friendliness of having to choose. There were attractive men in the Courtauld but they never spoke.

'You make your own fun here, I guess,' he said. 'Isn't that an Utrillo?' It was clinging like a dinghy to an enormous seascape where mermen attempted to board a floundering clipper. I should not have been surprised to see the Apostle Peter walking on the water.

All the good paintings in this gallery were small: a quiet Bonnard, a lush redolent-of-wet-woods Derain, the wrought-iron Piper, the generous Hitchens. But the fantastic paintings were good too: they allowed one judgement and history and morals. Discernment always makes one feel better. And it broke down the barriers between us because Paul—that was his name—suggested we might adjourn for coffee.

'It's a gallery one could revisit.'

I agreed. I thought my sorties to the Tate or the Uffizi, to sit or stand in front of one painting, childish and blinkered. What was I afraid of? Attack by nymphs? Suffocation by garlands? All one needed to do was stand still like Keats's heifer.

We walked—or was I being led?—to a nearby coffee shop and before our espressos were brought I had decided to burden this stranger with my obsession. 'Can it be possible to use art in this way?' I asked after I had given a very confused account of a profile resemblance, a fear of mismanagement page 58 which sometimes caused outbursts of buying shoes. 'I mean, transferring my suspected extravagance to paintings?'

'Like touching wood?' he said. 'My great-grandmother used to paint on wood. Flowers mainly. She was very good at Michaelmas daisies.'

I thought he wasn't listening. Why should the stranger in the train listen? But he went on, 'Wouldn't substitution be better than transference in your case? I take it you're asking for a second opinion. Let me take a look at your profile.'

So I turned my head to the wall where coats were hanging and he regarded me with a clinical eye.

'A touch of Velazquez,' he said at last. 'Have you been to the Prado? But mostly I think it is the Portrait of a Lady in Yellow. Alesso Baldovinetti. Do you know it? In the National Gallery. Perhaps one day I could show you.'