The Boots of the Fisherman

People to whom the strangeness and fear in Carel’s paintings appealed would try to help, by suggesting locations and situations that he would enjoy and that he might use. They rarely got it right. Certainly I rarely got it right.

We went once for a week in the south west of Ireland, where I then had a cottage. We spent so much time fretting about the arrangements that it was November by the time we got there. He was in his 80s and this was too late in the year. It was cold inside and outside the house, and it not only rained a lot, but the light, as is its way there, changed constantly – to Carel’s fury. He would stamp back into the house, leaving the plein air behind and shouting ‘Bugger!’, the only expletive that he ever in my hearing permitted himself.

The local people were delighted to have a famous painter from London in their midst and suggested local beauty spots for him to paint. He thanked them politely, but I knew that there was no chance of his painting a beauty spot. Indeed the two paintings that he completed in the week were one of the back of my house and the other of an industrial gate leading onto a scene of soggy farm rubbish.

One evening we went out for supper. There is nothing quite as dark and uninviting as Castletownbere in the rain on a November evening. A café was open, however, and we went in and ordered something to eat.

There was a woman who was both cooking and serving the food, and apart from her and us the only person there was a fisherman. He was paralytic drunk. He sat as upright as he could, gazed unseeingly into the middle distance and from time to time collapsed head first onto the table.

The woman served him some soup, and went back into the kitchen to prepare our fry-ups. The fisherman dabbed at this but was still prone to collapse. This now became critical since the soup intervened between him and the table so that there was now a danger of drowning. In retrospect a sandwich would have been safer. But every time that he started to tip forward, the woman abandoned the range, ran out of the kitchen, caught him just in time and propped him back up, with the spoon back in his hand.

I watched fascinated. Then something caught my eye in the darkened window. Twenty or thirty children holding lanterns and in face paint were drifting up the street. They gazed silently and lugubriously in at us as they passed.

It was like nothing so much as the boys and girls recently dead coming out to play.

I have no idea what they were doing there. It was too late for Halloween and they don’t have Guy Fawkes, for obvious reasons, in West Cork.

Why ever they were there, I could see it all as one of Carel’s paintings: the bright painted faces coming out of the darkness, the woman’s arms unnaturally lengthened as she stretches to save the fisherman from drowning, all too ironically, in his soup.

The street cleared, leaving the window black again. The fisherman with sudden resolution stood up and left, making purposeful but aquatic sounds with his gumboots. The woman retired into the recesses of the kitchen. Silence descended.

I turned to Carel.

Wasn’t that wonderful?

He gave me a faintly reproving look.

Very interesting wallpaper in this room, he muttered.

*******

After I had posted this piece, the moral occurred to me.

Except in special cases, like The Seven Deadly Sins, the story was secondary. The starting point was the location and the figures grew out of that. They responded to the atmosphere of the location, or more likely its geometry. If the figures made a story so much the better, but that was at the third level of importance.

This was not of course what people expected. It was not after all how Spencer constructed his paintings and Carel Weight was expected to perform like a poor man’s Spencer. And for the sake of a quiet life he played along with the expectations.

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