Culture Magazine

Friday 24th December - Violet and Gold

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata

Friday 24th December - Violet and Gold

Violet and Gold (1905-6) John Lavery

                      John Ainsworth stood before the portrait of his wife in silence.  It had been half an hour since his friend Meredith Lewis, the artist, had left and all the pretense of smiles, back-slaps and laughs had slipped into a look of puzzlement as he regarded the piece he had commissioned. Violet would be delighted at the change in their friend, no doubt, his spirits seemed more on an even keel, his tone lighter, but when she saw the painting surely, she too would say what he could not help but think right now. A slight hush of skirts in the doorway announced her presence and he turned to see Violet swish into the room. She gave her husband a smile before coming to stand beside him before the display easel that held the painting of her they had awaited for months. In paint, she was dressed in a gold-black shot silk jacket from which the white billows of sleeves foamed before being snatched in at the wrists.Her expression was intelligent, calm and perceptive and her arm rested on a small black and white bull terrier who looked attentively out at the viewer. The light caught her golden wedding ring as her hand rested on her hip and the golden tag on the dog’s collar. 'Oh.’
            Her one word was a mixture of surprise and something that sounded like guilt. To her husband’s amazement she briefly chuckled. Ainsworth relaxed into a laugh too, rubbing a hand across his chin before shaking his head with humor. Violet took his arm and swayed against it with a grin.
            ‘Well, look, it’s a lovely portrait,’ she laughed, adding, ‘Was Meredith pleased?’
            ‘Oh, yes, very much so, and refused the fee I gave him.’ He waved his hand as Violet opened her mouth, scandalised. ‘I paid him, don’t concern yourself, he shall not starve on our account. Least-ways, not before New Year when he is coming to dinner.’
Violet smiled, content, and regarded the painting again with an air of satisfaction.  Her husband watched her, waiting for the comment he had expected all afternoon, but she didn’t offer it, so he did.
            ‘Lewis looked better than I have seen him all year, certainly better than the Summer when I really felt – well, let’s not dwell on that – but this seems to have given him some relief from his troubles.  We can only hope that the relief remains for a while, if it can’t be permanent.  I like the man, it was a shame to see him so…’ Ainsworth paused as his wife’s hand tightened on his arm with nervous agreement. He nodded, then added, ‘Anyway, he was so pleased with the portrait - and rightly so, you look charming – he was so pleased that, well, I didn’t like to say…’
            Violet grinned, then looked back at the canvas at the little black and white dog. ‘No, quite right,’ she agreed.
            John glanced at his wife, then joined her gazing at the little black and white face, ‘I didn’t like to say, we don’t own a dog…’
 
            Four months before, Meredith Lewis had been shown into the spacious drawing room of the exclusive Portman Square home of Mr and Mrs John Ainsworth. The man who had shown him into the room had done so under orders, that was absolutely obvious from the expression on his face and the look up and down he had received on delivery to the drawing room.  He was left unwillingly, and Lewis wondered if the staff were in fear of losing valuables.  He caught his reflection in the mirror and grimaced.  The year had been unkind and cold, with aborted commissions hounding him and a dwindling bank balance driving him to seek more work he did not feel capable to complete. He clutched the edge of his canvas bag, feeling the ripple of pencils moving inside, as if to escape. This commission too, he just knew would end the same way, in excuses and avoidance. A mounting sense of panic filled him and he wondered if this time he could just dispense with the meeting and go straight to the avoidance. Too late, as at the door appeared the smiling form of Mrs Ainsworth, who glided into the room in a glow of golden silks and warmth. He backed up sharply, colliding with a low table and almost tumbling.
            ‘Goodness, are you alright?’ she exclaimed and he wondered if it would be bad manners to hurl himself from a window into the street.
            ‘Quite alright,’ he blustered, and took the proffered hand of greeting stiffly.
            ‘It has been an absolute age since we have seen each other, but I know your work, of course.’ Mrs Ainsworth drew him to the window, a dangerous temptation, but also to a collection of ornate chairs with large curved arms and backs. He sat mutely, as her voice chimed on in a practised manner, ‘I should have realised that as you were at school with my brother, you would have known John then too.’
            Lewis nodded, ‘Briefly.’
            She waited for more detail but once more he lapsed into retreating silence. She gave a brisk nod, and started again.
            ‘Well, then, I heard from Andrew – my brother currently up in Scotland, his wife is from those parts – well, anyway, I heard from him that you had seen each other in York…’ She trailed off and looked to him for confirmation.
            ‘Briefly,’ Lewis repeated, and felt a momentary wince as he touched the sharp edge of socialising. He had known this woman when she was fifteen, a hushed little presence in his friend’s house, watching them from a window as they played tennis on the lawn, a pair of large dark eyes at the dinner table. Her brother had teased Lewis about her, and she had flushed with mortification. She had been awkward and he had liked her. She was barely recognisable now. He felt his hands tighten on his bag.
            ‘My husband has explained that he wishes for you to paint me?’
            ‘Yes.’
            ‘Good.’ She paused for more again, but he felt unable and sunk further back as she began to look flustered as if she was pulling at different chords to see which would pull him to her. He felt, and had felt for over a year, detached. She gave her fine golden skirt a brush, with staged self-consciousness. ‘Will this do for the painting?’ she asked, tilting her head and almost flirting now. He held back the desire to sigh and look around for a means to escape.
            ‘I meant to explain to your husband –‘ he began but she stopped him with a brief clap of her hands and she stood suddenly, taking him by surprise.
            ‘Splendid,’ she continued, and gestured to the scrolled arm of the chair as the light caught the golden tones in the carving. ‘I thought I might stand here, in the light if that suits you?’
            He nodded, not replying There is as good as anywhere for a picture I will abandon by supper time tomorrow and from his canvas bag he drew out a small sketch book. As he flipped back the pages and drew out a stump of a pencil, Mrs Lewis gave a forced smile of victory before settling into her pose, her hand on her hip and her hand on the arm of the chair.  He didn’t miss the brief uncertain frown that played across her forehead for a moment as she watched him, then her gaze found neutral space and they began.
 
            She remained still and silent for longer than he felt able to work, so for the last half an hour he merely moved the pencil over the same patch, pretending to work and wishing the time to be over. She broke her pose with a look of gratification and a humorous stretch before exclaiming ‘Tea!’ with such zeal that he jumped, lost in a fog of his own thoughts.  She hurried away and he sat for a moment, exhausted by the effort of doing this again. The silence and solitude was welcome, only for it to be for nothing when at his feet, a small bull terrier appeared.  She sat down heavily, half on one of his shoes, and looked up at him expectantly. For a moment, artist and dog regarded each other before Lewis gave a gentle shove with his shoe.  The dog was jogged but was not moved and remained sat there, her head slowly titling as her brown eyes tried to make sense of him. He reached down to the black collar to a small golden disc, turning it in his fingers.
            ‘Sixer?’ he murmured, and the dog made a small noise of recognition, before shuffling a little closer to him.  Lewis put down his pencil and pad on the table to his side and leaned forward, his chin on his hands. ‘I have nothing for you, little one, go and find your mistress if you are after food.’
Sixer stood, made a grumbling noise of discontent and then jumped beside him on an adjoining chair.  The bulldog rested a slightly mournful face on the arm where moments before Mrs Ainsworth had leaned.  Again, a grumpy whinge erupted, followed by a little bark. Lewis sat back, a frown covering a slight smile.
            ‘Well, look, you seem a nice girl, Sixer, but I’m not the company you are after. Go on along and find the kitchens.’ He waved a hand of dismissal which Sixer regarded but did not move.  His hand reached over to move her but rested on the warm, hard dome of her skull, her thumb moving down the white stripe that led to her nose. Sixer sat very still and allowed the hand to stroke the velvet of her head for a moment, before hastily licking her companion and bolting from the room. Moments later, Mrs Ainsworth appeared with a maid carrying a tray and Lewis allowed his patroness to pour him tea and feed him cake while he considered the feel of warm velvet in the palm of his hand. He didn’t even refuse when she offered to pose again tomorrow, and found he actually wanted to return.
 
            ‘Listen, Sixer,’ Lewis began as the sturdy form appeared by his foot the following afternoon, ‘Are you even meant to be in here? I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.’
            Sixer gave a huff, followed by an unexpectedly explosive sneeze which involved her headbutting his foot painfully.  She looked as surprised as him, but clambered into the chair again to rest her head on the arm. This time, Lewis gave her head a brief rub, then reached for his pad and pencil as Sixer regarded him with glinting eyes. ‘Yes, well, keep still, rum ‘un.’ He murmured as he drew the outline of the skull, the curve to the nose, the white flash across her snout. Sixer sat quietly, watching as he drew, occasionally tilting her head in question.  He waved his pencil at her and her head straightened.             ‘Now, keep still, I can’t have you moving. Do not tell anyone but you are actually the first thing I’ve actually wanted to draw for around two years.’ Sixer gave a questioning grumble and straightened, her ears tipping back a little. Lewis looked up into a pair of offended eyes. ‘What? Oh, sorry,’ he allowed, turning back to the drawing, ‘person, you are the first person I have wanted to draw. Does that suit you better?’ The ears cocked forward again, and she opened her mouth showing a dark pink tongue. ‘Yes, well, people are not suiting me just now, so don’t be in a rush to join them.  I’d rather your company than theirs.’
            In a slow movement, Sixer placed her paws up on the arm of the chair, stretched, her tail rigid and her stumpy nose raised, before placing all four paws up on the arm and sitting there as if on a pedestal. Lewis gave a laugh at the pose of the little dog, and flipped back another page to hastily draw her, but a noise alerted her to the approach of the tea-tray and she jumped down, before bolting for the door again. Lewis watched her with a smile that lingered as his hostess appeared, leading the tray.  She paused briefly as he met her smile with his, unexpected and relaxed. To his annoyance, she seemed to take the credit for his cheer, but as he closed his pad, an idea came to him. Before he could speak, Mrs Ainsworth was proffering a cup of tea.
            ‘Are you making progress to your satisfaction?’ she asked, cheerily.
            ‘I will be ready to paint soon I think,’ he replied, surprising himself. ‘I was wondering if you would be agreeable to me adding a small detail. I think that it would enhance the work, and it has certainly-’
            She cut him off, unexpectedly sharply, although her words were agreeable, ‘You must do as you see best, you are the artist, this must be your vision.’
            ‘Yes, but,’ he began, refusing the cake offered by the maid as he tried to explain, ‘I really wanted to add-’
            ‘Meredith,’ she interrupted again, dismissing the maid efficiently, ‘it is your choice entirely. I trust you.’
            He sat back, for a moment gripped by the threat of giggles as he imagined making sturdy Sixer the object of the portrait with Violet, excuse me Mrs Ainsworth, the esteemed, young hostess somewhere in the background. He nodded, and then grinned, helping himself to cake.
 
            ‘Sixer, please sit up, you shall not appear in the painting at all if you insist on flopping about like a baggage!’ Lewis wagged the end of the pencil at the sprawling bull terrier who wiggled on her back in rebellion. He poked her side with the end of it and she furiously struggled to get up and seize her tormentor, almost rolling from the sofa in her exertion. Lewis sat back, laughing, and she sat up looking almost offended at his mirth. He placed the paper and pencil down for a moment, looking at the golden-brown eyes of his companion.  She climbed on the arm, then stepped across to the arm of his chair. Lewis raised a hand to her head, scuffing the velvet back and forth.  Over she stepped, then on to his lap where they remained for a while in silence.  The light outside was dimming and looking out of the wide window, he could see bare fingers of trees reaching into a blushed sky in the square. After a while, he spoke again, close to the soft fold of ear.
            ‘There will come a day, soon, when I will not come here.  The painting will actually be finished and that will be that.’
            Sixer leaned against him for a moment, then grumbled.
            ‘Four months ago, I did not really wish to live anymore.’
            Lewis said the words in a matter-of-fact manner and artist and dog watched the light fade over the square in silence, his hand occasionally stroking her forelegs and crisp fold of her ear. Sixer turned her face to him in an unspoken question and he gave a weak smile.
            ‘We’ll see,’ he replied.
 
            ‘So, has Violet offered any explanation?’ Sir George Crosby, Violet’s father enquired as he and John Ainsworth regarded the painting as it almost glittered in the lights of their evening party. 
            ‘None, and it’s such a fine-looking pup that people assume we have a dog somewhere and that it is Vi’s pride and joy.’ Ainsworth replied, frowning. Sir George leaned forward with a conspiratorial whisper.
            ‘Odd thing is, it looks just like Flora, a little bulldog that we had when Violet was a child.  She doted on that dog, they could barely be parted when Violet’s mother, well, when she passed.’ Sir George paused, looking again at the painting, a frown briefly creasing his features. ‘Curious coincidence, but possibly Violet said something?’
            ‘It’s possible,’ agreed Ainsworth, mainly to close the matter, as he looked across the room to his wife.
             The murmured pleasure of the guests as they viewed it swelled the room and Violet watched Lewis sip wine while three different women, all very wealthy, attempted to extract a promise from him to paint them. He nodded to her and she glided over to rescue him.
            ‘May I borrow you for a moment, I believe someone has a technical question for you, Mr Lewis,’ she breezed, and he felt his arm taken and he was spirited from the women gracefully and gratefully.
            ‘My thanks,’ he whispered, and she beamed as she walked him through to the dining room where the painting was displayed.
            ‘The thanks are all ours, it is a fine portrait,’ she replied as her husband drew up to them.
            ‘My wonderful Vi looks positively golden,’ added Ainsworth. A complicated series of looks passed between husband and wife before Ainsworth patted Lewis on the back fondly and retreated into the party.  In front of the picture, Mrs Ainsworth and Mr Lewis both looked at the portrait but not at the stately figure of Violet, but of Sixer, sturdy but noble.
            ‘Your guests are surprised you have a dog,’ he finally admitted, and Violet looked away smiling broadly.
            ‘Ah well,’ she replied, and squeezed his arm. Glancing around swiftly she looked back at Sixer and added in a low voice, ‘I have always found the company of dogs to be very soothing in times of despair. Do you remember Flora?’
            A bolt of memory flourished in his face and his eyes widened.
            ‘But, her collar said…’
            Violet laughed, ‘That’s not Flora. She has been gone for almost twenty years. Sixer is what is left of the warmth and joy that a dog can give you when you really need it.’ She squeezed his arm but continued to look at the dog in the portrait. ‘Sometimes, life alters without your hand to change it. Things that were easy become impossible, damaging, frightening. Maybe, just then, that warm companionship is just what is needed. I can’t think of anything else I wanted.’ He looked at her, and she shrugged. ‘Pain never lessens, but somethings allow you to see the breadth of it without feeling quite so afraid.’
            They stood together in silence, just for a moment more, but she patted his arm and left him in front of his work. Moments later, Ainsworth appeared in the doorway, stopping abruptly as he found only Lewis.
            ‘Oh, I was in search of Vi, I thought she was with you.’
            ‘Gone back into the fray, just now,’ Lewis replied, and his slightly harassed friend disappeared back into the throng. In the peace of the dining room, Lewis heard the soft tap of claws on floorboards and he sat down on a dining chair, waiting. Sixer’s warm, velvet head nudged under this outstretched hand, and he smiled.

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