It was only a small exhibition, something to
fill a gallery during the Summer holiday before a more ambitious exhibition
came along in mid-September; it was called Pictures from Venice and
consisted of paintings and drawings from the Nottingham Castle Art Gallery
collection as well as a few appropriate pictures borrowed from neighbouring
galleries. Amongst the usual crowd-pleasing pictures of gondoliers, the Bridge
of Sighs and St. Marks Square, was a portrait of a young woman by an
obscure eighteenth-century artist called Simon Adonis; the subject looked
straight at the viewer full of trust and hope, but if you looked hard enough
and long enough, you saw that there were tears on the edge of the young
womans eyes, and that she was trapped within the picture, trying
desperately to get out.
He called her name, Ester, Ester
and then she appeared, hurrying from the direction of the ghetto, her brother
just behind her. She gave a nervous smile when she saw him waiting for
Oh Englishman, I did not forget.
She looked beautiful, but a little scared, and
he wondered if she was already regretting having met him, as always there was a
smell of oranges and cinnamon about her, but it was starting to fade, just as
her face was slowly losing its colour. Once they had reached his studio, she
sat down, and he set to work painting her until they were both tired and then
he fed her olives and cheese, whilst her brother sat beside her scowling and
not missing a thing.
The people of Nottingham and tourists visited
the gallery in enough numbers to make the exhibition as success; whilst some
just admired what they saw, the more artistically inclined sat and copied the
paintings that they either liked or which looked easy to emulate. The
portrait of the young woman attracted several admirers; in particular one
elderly man, a regular visitor to the gallery, spent most of one Saturday
intently looking at the picture and attempting a (rather poor) copy.
I have not heard of the artist, Simon
Adonis? Was he local, from Nottingham?
The attendant, who would rather have been at
the Meadow Lane football stadium watching Notts County shrugged, I
dont think so and abruptly walked off to find a radio so that he
could listen to sport.
Well said the man to himself
it is a lovely piece, whoever he was. And the young woman is almost
coming out of the picture.
And later when he got home he told his wife
about the painting and how it had affected him, but she was even less
interested than the attendant. The elderly man kept his copy for awhile,
until he realised that it was making him feel very uncomfortable and he threw
it away, justifying it on the grounds that it was a very poor copy, which was
true to far as it went, but was not the real reason.
There was an emptiness at the centre of him,
an emptiness that he worried would overwhelm him, and which all those he came
across could sense; dogs barked at him hysterically when he came into view,
women turned away from him when they could, and even his own family avoided him
Drawing was his consolation; in his younger
days he had spent many hours at the easel using his mother and siblings as
models, but they soon began to object to posing for him and the intensity of
You are swallowing me up pouted
his older sister, I feel like you are taking away my spirit.
Simon just laughed but he was soon reduced to
painting views of the house and local scenery, as even the servants and
the poor refused to let him draw them, no matter how much he paid or threatened
He lived in Blackburn where it always rains,
so it was inevitable that as soon as he was old enough he would escape to Italy
where he had heard the sun shone and where there was beautiful art, which he
hoped would make him whole. Simon was brave in his way or perhaps just
desperate to leave England, whilst his family were glad to encourage him in his
travels. Fortunately, his father was wealthy and was able to give his son
enough money to travel and to live in relative comfort, at least for the time
Once free from England Simon spent a year or
so wandering around Southern Italy, painting all that he could find; peasants
and townspeople, temples and churches, scorched landscapes and trees laden with
oranges and lemons. He eventually found somewhere to live in Rome and
thought that he would settle there, but after only a few weeks he was forced to
flee after an incident with his landlords daughter which left her
bedbound and hysterical. He decided to head north to escape the scandal
which had left him confused, because in his heart he did not think that he was
wicked and he did not understand how he had hurt the girl.
Simon made his way to the Republic of Venice
where he found rooms on the Calle de la Cereria, one room was large with strong
light and thus made an excellent studio. Once settled he painted the canals,
the churches, and often would find someone to take him to the various islands,
but as always it was the people he was most interested in, paying them a few
scudi to pose either outside or in his studio, and even those who viewed him
with distaste would pose for a large enough amount of money.
He would set out early each morning, when the
sky was white and the air cold and damp, looking for people who he felt would
meet his needs. Simon was not the only one who came to Venice to paint, but he
was talented, and several galleries were willing to sell the Englishmans
paintings for a reasonable commission, and thereafter Simon had a steady
income, and he thought he might be able to settle down. It was true he
had no friends, but then he was used to his solitary life and would not have
known what to do with companions other than paint them.
Soon after arriving in Venice Simon discovered
the Ghetto and thereafter he often went there to paint the Jews; some avoided
him as if he had something wicked in his heart, and several times he heard the
word golem muttered by suspicious looking old women who hid in
darkened doorways to avoid him, but others sensed that he was an outcast and
would speak to him and look at his work, and he became a regular feature of the
area, so that even those who distrusted him became used to his presence.
And then one morning she came up to him, a
young woman with red hair and a mischievous smile.
Signore, artist, paint me, you who love
Next to her was a younger man, my
brother Moise she told him, and he glared at Simon fiercely, and my
name is Ester.
Do you have no husband or
She laughed, I could snap my
fingers (she did so) and I could have anyone I would like; Jew or
Gentile, rich or poor, but at the moment I just want you to paint me. She
laughed, so happy with herself and her beauty, what about you Signore
He smiled, art is my mistress, and
Venice my wife, he said in mock heroic tones
She laughed again and then gave him a bow.
There was a faint smell of oranges and of spices and she had an air of discrete
wealth about her, he wondered why she had come to him.
She became his muse and visited him in his
rooms with Moise at her side, who Simon fed with bread and fruit whilst he
transformed his sister. He had costumes for her; a shepherdess, a rich lady,
her namesake Esther and Judith holding aloft the head of Holofernes; she suited
them all, as she had the gift of self-effacement, so that she was immersed in
the character she was being. And she seemed immune to the fear that most of his
models felt in his presence; she laughed at him and even flirted with him in a
heavy-handed way as if she was practicing for someone more worthy of her love.
And Simon discovered that he could make her laugh and that she seemed to enjoy
his company, something he had rarely experienced before.
On occasion they went outside so he could
paint her there, with Moise watching everything; unimpressed and
suspicious. Even when he was painting other people or views of the city
she would often come along anyway.
I am your assistant for the day
she would tell him and help him carry his paints and canvases, and chatter to
him as he painted, and there was that smell of citrus that was so much a part
Have you nothing else to do? he
No, my parents are rich and my mother
just fights with me. She prefers me out of the way, especially as I have Moise
to protect me and she looked at her younger brother who was gazing at a
drunk old man who was in danger of falling into the water.
Do you believe in G-d? she
That is a serious subject for a young
woman and an artist.
There is something about
. And for the first time in their relationship, she seemed at a
loss, and then she came close to him and whispered in his ear so that her
brother could not hear, he does not trust you, he thinks you are a bad
Simon laughed uneasily as he looked at the
oblivious young man.
I am just an artist. That is
Then she did not appear for over a week, and
he thought that he had lost her and did not know what to do. He did not want to
go to her house as he was not her lover, and did not want to cause her
problems, but he visited the neighbourhood in case he heard word of her, or
even caught sight of her, but he did not see her or Moise. And then at her
usual time one morning she appeared as if she had never been away, although
perhaps she was a little more tired and pale, and the smell of oranges was
there, but fainter.
Where have you been?
My mother was not well, so I had to tend
to her. Why, did you miss me Signore artist?
Yes, I had to clean my own
And then she kissed him lightly on the cheek,
whilst Moise glowered at him, and for a moment he thought that he was happy;
her lips were dry but soft, and he wondered if she was his friend, or perhaps
he was in love with her which was a surprise, because, not having a soul, he
did not know what love was.
He came to me at night, when the streets
around Covent Garden were full of prostitutes and gay young men, and my shop
smelt of tallow and paint.
Do you want them? and he handed me
When people asked me later, I said a
ghost sold them to me, and certainly he looked pale as a spectre, and I
felt that there was something about him that was unwholesome and dead. The
paintings were mostly of Venice and a few of Naples and Rome, a happy contrast
to London in Winter and I thought that they might sell.
He glared at me, I could get more for
Well do so.
And perhaps he could have done but it was
late, and he was clearly in a hurry, and he seemed weary, so he took the money
without grace. He smelt of nothing, possibly the faintest whiff of oranges, but
that might have been from the market nearby, and there seemed to be nothing
missing from him, as if he had a hidden deformity; I shivered as he left my
shop and hoped that he would not come again.
But he did come again, usually every month,
looking dirtier and more ragged than the time before, and always at night. I
had made more money than I had expected from his pictures, which were in fact
rather good, so from then on, I paid him a little more.
Anymore you can send please do. They
He shrugged wearily, I painted them many
years ago, I only sell them because I have to. Even my family have nothing to
do with me.
Can you not paint something new? I have
canvases you can have in exchange. Maybe scenes of London, I am sure they would
But he said nothing, just looked at me, his
eyes blank and dark, as if there was nothing behind them, and then he left
until next time.
The paintings were excellent, but there was
something dark and unsettling about them as if they had been painted by a demon
or someone who was disturbed; drawn through a glass darkly. Despite their
sinister aspect they were far better than my usual wares, and consequently I
made a good profit from them, but even so I still felt my heart sink when I
heard his strong rap at my door and saw his cold and empty face with more
paintings to sell.
The last time he visited my shop it was August
and he brought only one painting, that of a young red-haired girl, there had
been others with the same model, but this one was exceptional; she looked
alive, as if she wanted to leave the painting, and it was as if she was in the
shop beside us. His eyes looked wet when he handed it over.
Only the one? I asked.
It is all I have left. And before
I could speak or offer assistance, he was gone into the summer night, taking my
money with him.
I often gazed at the painting, and oftentimes
I could not help but think about it, I am sure that it was a work of genius,
but it was so unsettling and even unpleasant, seeing this girl trapped and
frightened. At first I left it in the shop in a prominent position, but it cast
a chill over the place, and customers stopped coming in, or hurried to do their
business without staying to browse or to talk, so eventually I covered with a
sheet and left it in the back room, hidden away with all the unwanted junk I
could not sell, and even then it gave me awful dreams so that I cried at night
and woke cold and scared.
I have shown the painting to many of my
customers but although without exception, they realise its greatness, none of
them want it; Lord Dawley did pay me for it a discount really because I
was desperate by then but he returned it after two days, at his
wifes insistence and since then it has stayed hidden away, but still
haunting my shop, I should destroy it because it is clear now that nobody will
buy it but I just cannot bring myself to do it, hopefully one day someone will
buy it and I will be able to sleep soundly once again.
This will be my masterpiece he
told her, I can feel it. Was it his imagination or did Ester seem
colder towards him, more distrustful? She did not seem to smile as much, and
with a jolt he realised that it was many weeks since he had heard her
Why are you so sad? he asked
Oh Signore artist, it is you who grow
serious. But she did look sad and fearful, more like her brother than the
young woman who had introduced herself to him the previous year.
He dressed her in red and with a yellow band
round her hair.
I feel you are taking part of my
soul she told him, as if you are stronger than me.
He flinched, feeling betrayed by someone who
he thought was his friend.
You make me sound like a
She shrugged and bade him carry on with the
painting, but he felt that if he turned his back on her that she would flee
back out into the city and not come back.
Twice after a long session she was ill for
several days and lay in her room hardly eating, and shivering.
Why do you go to the artist? her
mother asked her, it is making you ill, tell him you no longer want him
to paint you.
You are right, I wont go.
But then a day or two later she was gone at dawn, before the household was
awake, and spent the day with him, her vitality and spirit transferred to
At the end of July she came to him for the
final time, the canals were starting to smell a little and she looked tired and
unhappy; without a word she sat on his bed and gazed at him, whilst he started
to paint. Her brother was not there, but she knew that whatever power the
artist had, her brother could not save her from it, and she did not think Il
Signore would try to seduce her; it wasnt her body that he was interested
Please finish soon. She told him.
It will not be long. But he
did not want it to be finished soon, because he knew that once it was complete,
she would not come again.
A few days later he went to her house and
La Signorina is unwell her mother,
almost spitting out the words, told him, and she cannot come to you
He shrugged, but the painting is
She slammed the door in his face, and he stood
there, wondering where Ester was, and hoping that she would come out, but the
door and windows remained closed and eventually he walked away. After a few
days he understood that she was not going to come back, so he finished off the
painting, remembering how she looked, posing in his room, and thus whilst she
faded away in her bedroom, so she became real on the canvas. Within a
week the portrait was finished and then Simon too took to his bed for awhile as
if recuperating after a long meal.
By the end of the week he was up and about and
feeling better, more whole, and thought he would see how Ester was. But the
blinds were down at her house, and he stayed and watched from a distance,
hoping for a sight of her, but eventually it was her brother that he saw coming
out, his eyes looked dark and his face pale with anger.
My sister is dead Signore.
I am sorry.
She used to be so happy until she met
you. What did you do to her?
Simon left Venice soon afterwards; and
travelled North, he felt remorse, an emotion that he had never encountered
before, and which made him uneasy and he hoped that it would soon pass. He
reached a town by the sea, where it was cold and damp, and he found a cottage
to live in, and began to try to paint, but unfortunately the people were not
interested in art, they had no time for anything but fishing, and keeping
warm. He sat on the shore and drew; fishing boats going out on the wild
sea, the young fishermen and a woman in black watching them without emotion,
but when he looked at the painting it realised that it was dull and lifeless,
so he destroyed it.
He travelled towards England, painting as he
went, but his art had gone and he did not know why, he managed to sell a few
things, but he knew that it was trash. He met a woman in France who was older
than him, and austerely beautiful and who he called Madame, she
looked after him and tried to love him, but in her arms he felt as if he were a
cold, lifeless thing and he was worried that he would destroy her beauty and
warmth, so he left her, she cried a little but he could tell that really she
was relieved he was going.
I was preparing for bed when a man I had never
met before knocked on my door.
Your artist is dying. I worked
with many artists, but I immediately knew who he meant, and so I went with him,
not sure why he had come to tell me. I was not being entirely selfless, there
was the thought that there might be more paintings hidden away that I could
sell, but when I reached the cold and damp room in Stepney there was nothing
but an empty room, not even a bed.
He lay on the floor, with just a couple of
blankets on top of him. I dont think that he knew who I was, after all we
had only met a dozen or so times, and in the candlelight. The room smelt of
damp and urine and I gagged.
I am so cold. He muttered.
He seemed too ill for me to move him to my
house and I was not sure that I wanted that anyway, but I brought him blankets
and food, and sat with him whilst he talked to himself.
Ester he would say, take an
orange, and one for your brother.
Did you take my skill? What have
you done to me? I thought that I was the monster.
I listened to his ramblings, and at times what
he told me filled me with horror, and I longed to go out into the night air
which was pure in comparison, but something kept me there and I do not think
that it was humanity.
And then one evening I came to the house, it
was a little later than my usual time, as I had been visiting my Lord Dawley
and in truth I had not wanted to visit the dying artist, and had tried putting
it off, but something compelled me to go. When I arrived the landlord told me
that the artist had died that evening and I could tell that he was as relieved
as I was.
I watched them prepare his body; he looked so
gaunt and yet still strange and dangerous, and I wondered was there much
difference between his being alive and being dead, or perhaps he had always
been both. I gave some money for his funeral and attended the service along
with the landlord, and then we followed the body and watched them put it under
ground. As I stood there musing, I thought I heard a movement behind me,
but I did not turn around, and there was the patter of light steps and then
whoever she was, had gone, and I went home.
The attendant saw her just for a moment out of
the corner of his eye, and at first he did not know what to do or what it
meant. He was sad because Notts County had lost on Saturday, and because
his wife did not love him and because he was old and had spent his life doing
jobs that he hated. It was eight oclock in the morning and he was
preparing the gallery for opening, and then there she was, a figure flitting
past him, almost as insubstantial as a shadow.
Hey he shouted and ran after her.
But then an alarm went off in the gift shop
and he thought she must have double-backed and gone there, but there was only
the other member of staff, Naj who was fiddling with the alarm and looking
Bloody alarm system, he said
crossly it is always going off for no reason, but between the two
of them they soon got the ringing to stop.
I thought I saw someone said the
attendant, a young girl with red hair, she looked familiar
Naj smiled, was she pretty? Send
her down to me if you like. It is probably someone from the council, they are
always poking their noses in.
The attendant went back to do his rounds
feeling cross and wondering if he had imagined the young woman. The Venice
exhibition was beginning its last week and then there would be workmen and
noise as they took all the pictures down and got ready for something
else. He wondered how many times he would see these exhibitions come and
go before he could retire, he sighed slightly and continued to do his rounds.
He decided to look at the painting of the
young girl which seemed so popular, but which made him uneasy. As he came round
the corner he almost slipped on the frame that was lying broken on the floor at
his feet, he swore as he looked round for the painting, but the broken frame
was empty, and there was just a space where the portrait had been, whilst all
the other pictures were just as they should be. He panicked, knowing that he
would be held to blame for the theft, and he hurried through the galleries in
case the picture had been dropped in haste by the thief, or she was hiding
somewhere, waiting for the gallery to open so that she could escape.
He stopped for a moment, and quite distinctly
he heard a laugh and the sound of the lightest of kisses, and he saw the back
of someone with red hair running ahead of him, he shook his head in
bewilderment as he recognised the young woman from earlier, but immediately she
was gone, disappearing round a corner, far too fast for him to catch.
And then just for a moment, as he stood there,
confused and worried, there was a feeling of light, he could feel the glare of
the sun on his face, he could smell oranges almost taste them -, and it
was as if he were in a bustling Venetian market, with chatter and sunshine all
about him. He stood there, transfixed by a moment of pure joy, all the sadness
in his life forgotten.
Slowly he came to himself, realised who he was
and where he was, and that all he could smell was polish and disinfectant, and
that the only light was artificial and dim. Wearily he pressed the alarm
and winced as it echoed noisily throughout the gallery.