After living in Portugal for so long, I had forgotten how grey Birkenhead was. Under a lowering coal-tar sky, the sooty buildings huddled around Woodside ferry terminal seemed to crouch down awaiting better days. All around, omnibuses and trams jostled with lorries and carters wagons, their tyres clattering over the cobbles. A ship sounding its foghorn cut through the hubbub, startling me. If it wasn’t for the letter in my pocket – and having already cashed my advance – I would have turned around and head back to sun-warmed lands.
I looked around, hoping to see a driver waiting to take me onwards – but nothing. That’s how the rich keep their money; they hate spending it on anything unnecessary. So I had to carry my portfolio and suitcases over to the ticket office to find out which buses ran to Caldy.
However, my spirits picked up on the journey. Looking out of the condensation smeared windows, once we left Birkenhead’s grim terraced streets behind, the road wound upwards through pleasant heathland. Yellow gorse was just coming out making a bright splash of colour and, if I were a landscape painter, I would have wanted to make some background sketches there.
A little over an hour later, the driver set me and my luggage down and a kindly lady outside the village shop provided directions to Woodcote Hall, the home of my new patron, Albert Dawlish. As my shoes crunched up the gravel drive, I saw that the Hall was a hideous neo-Gothic pile of brickwork of very little architectural merit with over-large chimneys and leaded glass windows built maybe thirty years earlier.
I pulled on the bell chain next to the black, iron-bound front door and heard a distant clanging. A minute later, a plump man in black tails opened it and looked down his nose at me.
“Good afternoon; Alfonso Porlock, I believe I am expected?” I said.
“The painter. Go around the back.”
With that, he shut the door in my face. So that’s what I was; just a tradesman. So I hauled my portfolio and valise around the back and knocked for a second time. This time a pimply maid let me into the scullery. Giggling all the time, she showed me up to my chamber – an unheated guest room in the back. So I was to be treated as little better than a servant. However, this was a commission I could not turn down as work had been in short supply recently. Once I lit a fire and unpacked and displayed some examples from my portfolio, the room became tolerably cheerful.
A knock on the door and the giggling domestic announced that dinner would be served at seven so I washed and dressed and prepared to meet my employer.
It was as I suspected. Albert Dawlish himself was an industrialist who, during dinner, boasted of making a fortune out of the Great War. It seemed he had supplied timber to the War Office and he told me more than I wanted to know on that subject. He was a florid-complexioned man in his late forties, balding and stout. His wife, Beatrice, whose portrait I had been commissioned to paint, was over twenty years younger with a pleasant but pale and ethereal face. Despite her blonde hair being fashionably styled like a goddess and with diamond earrings sparkling in the light cast by the chandelier; these seemed like mere adornments on her. She was tall but thin and sadness hung over her like a veil. The few times she smiled, it was wistful and I thought she was slowly pining away.
During the meal of too many courses, all of which Dawlish consumed with gusto while Beatrice merely picked at hers; Albert dominated the conversation, telling me what he expected of the portrait.
“No modern art rubbish. I want a proper painting, you hear me?”
I nodded. “Something classical. That is my style.”
The following morning, Dawlish left early to catch the train to Birkenhead so I arranged with Beatrice to meet in the orangery to make some preliminary drawings. She was a good sitter and could hold a pose. She was quiet and pensive but we could not work in complete silence so it was inevitable that we should talk. Initially, our topics were neutral, the weather and artists we both admired, but over the next couple of days we both opened up. It was not surprising as we were of a similar age and our interests largely matched.
“You should come and see the Douro valley,” I said after a while, “see the vineyards ripening on the hillsides under the sun. Drink wine on a shaded riverside terrace cafe in Porto watching the world go by. My studio is there and you would make a fine study.”
“I would like that,” she said wistfully. “Sometimes it seems so dull here.”
“Would Albert like it, do you think?”
“No; he despises foreigners and all he thinks about is business. And making money.”
“There’s more to life than money,” I mused. Although it would be good to have more.
“I know,” she sighed.
I wondered why they were together but as we continued our sketches I found that it was as I suspected. Dawlish had married a younger daughter of the locally prominent but impoverished Mereworth family to gain an entry into high society which, with his background, he would not obtain otherwise. But they had so little in common and Beatrice felt stifled at Woodcote Hall.
“Albert wanted to expand his contacts and, as my father was in Parliament, Papa was able to put him in touch with some important people,” she sighed. “I think that was all he wanted.”
“Are you ever happy?” I asked, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked that.” I looked down to draw the folds of her dress.
She did not reply but looked out at the yews, dark in the rain, in the nearby churchyard.
“I wish I was there,” she whispered. “It would be so peaceful.”
I thought that she meant the grave but hoped she was thinking of Portugal instead.
On a later session, she looked up from her lap.
“I loved a man once,” she told me.
I said nothing, but carried on mixing paints on my palette, hoping she would continue.
“Charles was a second lieutenant in the Cheshire’s. He was killed at Passchendaele.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said lamely as I had spent an undistinguished war in Portugal liaising with their Expeditionary Force.
“He was a little like you,” she whispered. “He was thoughtful and enjoyed painting.”
She looked up at me and fiddled with a locket at her throat. Tears filled her eyes. Putting down my paintbrush, I sat beside her and held her in my arms. I do not know how it happened but our lips met and we kissed. She was very beautiful and I wished I could put more colour in her face, both on my canvas and in reality.
We broke apart and looked into each other’s eyes. I was about to stumble into an apology when Beatrice put her hand behind my head and drew me down. We kissed again and again and all thoughts of painting vanished for that afternoon.
Saturday evening and Dawlish had invited a number of his friends and business colleagues to dinner. I sent my dinner jacket down to be brushed and cleaned and carefully prepared. Even as I entered the dining room, I heard the racket of voices and laughter. There were several more men than women, all of them drinking whisky or sherry.
“The dauber,” a rotund man called out to a burst of laughter. “What’s he charge to paint a room?” to more guffaws.
Dinner was the horror I expected. The food was good and the wine flowed like water but the conversation was all about business, golf or how the lower orders needed putting back in place.
“Bolsheviks, all of them. Next time they strike, hang the ringleaders and flog the rest. That’ll put the country back on its feet,” the rector declaimed. With his boozer’s nose and shaking hands I would not have wanted to be his parishioner.
The ladies, especially Beatrice, were more silent and seemed relieved when it was time for them to withdraw leaving us men to our port and cigars. In that company, she seemed like a pearl cast before swine. Inevitably, the conversation turned to my painting and they wanted to see it.
“It’s barely started yet,” I protested.
“I want to see what I’m paying for; let’s see if you’re as good as I’m told,” Dawlish demanded.
This to me who had exhibited at Paris. Taking our drinks, we trooped upstairs to my studio and I drew back the cloth from my canvas. I had concentrated on the background while at this stage the figure was merely hinted at.
“It’s very black,” said Dawlish, with the air of a critic, pouring himself more whisky.
I tried to explain that my style was influenced by Caravaggio with his dark, Spanish backgrounds but when it was finished it would look like Beatrice was bathed in a ray of sunshine in a dimly lit interior.
Another man stepped forward, possibly the most inebriated. Evans had been a war photographer but now was a jaded drunk. He peered owlishly at my unfinished portrait.
“More exposure; it needs more… more… exposure…,” he tailed off, stumbling towards the door with his hand covering his mouth.
Dawlish stepped up into my face. “I’m not interested in this Cabbagey fellow. I don’t like it and, like Evans says, I want more exposure.”
“You want more exposure?” I asked for confirmation.
“Yes, I’m paying for this and if I want more exposure, that’s what you’ll give me.” With that he stamped back downstairs with his guests to re-join the ladies. Reluctantly, I followed.
The next day, we met in my studio with the curtains drawn rather than the more open orangery. During our sitting, I explained to Beatrice what had been requested. Today, she seemed more cheerful and looked me in the eye and said something that made my heart sing.
“I cannot take any more of this life here; it is dragging my spirits down to the abyss so when I come away with you, let’s give Albert something to remember me by.” There was a mischievous glint in her eyes that I had not seen before.
I thought that was a good idea and rapidly amended our portrait accordingly. I worked hard and faster now that I was fully inspired.
The following weekend, I announced that my painting was completed although not dry. Dawlish wanted to see it but I suggested there should be a grand reveal and so I brought down my easel, still covered in cloth, and set it up in the dining room. The only disappointment, as far as Dawlish himself was concerned, was that Beatrice had said she had to go and visit her sick mother in Oxton. However, I knew she was waiting for me in Liverpool to book a ship for Lisbon.
The dinner was a repeat of the previous week’s. Without his wife’s moderation, Dawlish matched the reverend and photographer drink for drink and soon the talk grew coarser until the ladies withdrew early, for which I was grateful.
“Well, let’s have it, man,” Dawlish shouted above the uproar. “Let’s see this masterpiece of yours.”
I stood and crossed to the easel and bowed to the men. With one fluid motion I pulled the covering off the canvas revealing Beatrice Dawlish in all her glory. The room fell silent.
“You asked for more exposure, Mr. Dawlish. So that’s what I’ve given you.”
It was a nude which left nothing to the imagination. Beatrice lay on rumpled sheets, hands behind her head with legs spread wide and a welcoming smile on her lips.
“I hope that is to your satisfaction.”