Andrew Lee-Hart was born in Yorkshire many years ago but now lives near Liverpool. His short stories have appeared on several Web sites and in print magazines.
In 1848, whilst Karl Marx was writing the Communist Manifesto, the well-known society portraitist Graham Caldecott sketched a man decapitating a naked woman. The man in the painting, young and handsome, seemed to be enjoying his bloody work, whereas the woman writhed desperately in her death throes, her nudity fully revealed. There was agony in the picture but also lust and enjoyment of the blood and death.
Caldecott drew quickly and skillfully, but then he had been drawing for most of his life, so knew what he was doing. The picture was clear and exact; every spurt of blood was clearly delineated. He sketched as if in a trance and when he had finished it he looked in amazement at what he had done. He was tempted to smash it up, disgusted at what he had created but instead he hid it in a far corner of his studio with other sketches and paintings he was not sure what to do with, and went downstairs to talk to his wife Isabella.
Caldecott is not as well known a painter nowadays, his portrait of that underrated novelist William Makepeace Thackeray is in the National Portrait Gallery, but otherwise it is in provincial galleries that you are most likely to find his work; for instance, there is a fine portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Knaresborough standing in front of the castle of that fine town in Leeds City Art Gallery. They are both formally dressed, but he has a twinkle in his eye, whilst his younger and extremely pretty wife looks modestly down and yet there is definitely a smile on her face as well. It is as if all three of them, the Duke and the Duchess and the painter, will burst out laughing as soon as the viewer’s back is turned.
Caldecott had slowly made his way to respectability. He had grown up in the small but well-connected town of Ware, which was rather further north of London than it is now. His skill as a draughtsman was spotted by a local man made good and occasional artist Ivor Watkins and with his recommendation he went up to London, eventually became one of society’s favourite painters, where later on he married and had two children. Now, at the age of thirty, he lived in a large house in Hackney that he had bought two years ago. He felt that he had made it; he was respected as a painter, earned enough money to live comfortably, and had friends, some of whom were well-known or moderately aristocratic. He had a wife who was presentable and kind, and children who seemed healthy and did not bother him too much.
As he ate his evening meal with his wife that evening he puzzled over the painting that he had spontaneously produced. He had sat down to do preliminary sketches for a portrait he had been commissioned to do of the Bishop of Lichfield. He was just messing around waiting for inspiration to strike when he had produced this...well, monstrosity. Opposite him Isabella sat watching him, a puzzled smile on her face.
“Are you all right, Caldecott?” she asked him.
“Sorry my love, just thinking about art. That portrait of that pompous Bishop. Not going to plan.”
After that they talked about servants and the children, who had eaten earlier and who would come down later. As they talked he looked at her; she was beautiful, he supposed, the daughter of a well-known merchant in the city who was something important in the Wesleyan Methodist church. She was slightly plump, with full breasts that he hardly ever got to see, her skin was pale and she had luxurious dark hair. They got on well enough but he still felt as if they were acquaintances who happened to share a house, and perhaps as time went on they would become closer.
That evening he went to see Elizabeth, an artist’s model and seamstress, but he told Isabella that he was going to his club, and perhaps he would go along there afterwards, if he had time. He and Elizabeth had met quite recently when she had modeled for him as Bathsheba and they had swiftly reached an understanding. Some of the understanding was sex; she was an attractive woman and, unlike his wife, seemed to enjoy the sex act. But also he loved talking with her, particularly about art. She was clever and, as she knew lots of artists, she was able to talk with him and understand what he meant. Of course Isabella would talk, or most often listen to him, when he talked about his paintings but she was not that interested and never ventured an opinion, whereas Elizabeth had strong views and enjoyed talking and even arguing with him.
They lay in her bed in an attic not far from his own home, where Isabella and the children were presumably doing irreproachable things. He told her about the painting that he had drawn, that it had seemed to come from him without conscious thought. She said nothing but just stroked his chest. There was a silence between them for a while.
“Have you ever been in love?” she asked. “Truly in love, with someone who meant more to you than anything can, who was the centre of your life, and without whom you would be nothing?”
“Well there is you.”
She laughed, “No not me, you like me very much, and I like you, but we both know that this could end anytime. What about Isabella?”
“No, the same, I have affection for her, and she is the mother of my children, but it is not the passionate relationship you mention.”
They lay together; he kissed her small breasts and slowly they started to make love again.
“Yes, there was someone, still is. A lady, the Duchess of Knaresborough. One of my first commissions. I went up to Yorkshire to paint her and her husband the Duke. They were friends of Ivor Watkins, my patron. And we all got on really well. I stayed two months. I liked him almost as much as I liked her. That was the pity of it. But she and I became attracted and soon became lovers. And yes she became the most important thing in my life, and I will never forget her. Wherever she was, she became the centre of it, like the sun and everyone else was small, insignificant stars. I still hope that she will knock on my door, and come to me, but of course it is impossible.”
“My Lord became suspicious, starting questioning her. She regretted what had happened between us I think. She told me to get the painting done and leave. So I did whilst they went away to London for a fortnight, and that was it. They paid me and the painting is on display in the castle where they live.”
“There was no child, I take it.”
“She did become pregnant, I don’t know if it was mine or his, but then she lost it.”
“You think it was yours don’t you?”
“Oh yes, but no point in thinking about it. She has had two since, and I am sure she is the proper duchess, laying down the law to the ladies of Knaresborough and Harrogate. But I miss her, more than I can possibly say. I met Isabella soon afterwards and we are happy. But if she came back, then I am hers.”
“That is terribly sad,” she said.
Shortly afterwards Caldecott left for his club but did not stay long. For some reason his thoughts were in turmoil at the moment. Painting that picture had certainly been strange, and of course there was all the news from abroad and meeting Elizabeth. He felt that the world was a fragile place and, despite his relative wealth and fame, so was his place in it.
Caldecott, even at the height of his fame was not known for his landscapes, yet in fact he enjoyed painting them more than he did his portraits of the great and wealthy, which were what had made his name and paid for his house. The next morning he went to Hampstead Heath and spent the day sketching what was in front of him. He seemed to go into a trance, hardly aware of the people about him, the smell of humanity from the nearby city or the moving of the sun. He came to around six o’clock; the May evening was becoming slightly cold and he hunched his jacket about him and looked at what he had painted.
On the canvas in front of him was the park, but under a dark cloud and with smoke billowing into the sky. In the foreground was a man, obviously poor, with a devilish glint in his eye and some kind of sword in his hand, and at his feet lay a dead soldier. Throughout the park a battle was raging as an unruly mob, with bodies lying around them, attacked all in their path; you could almost smell the death and fire, and hear the screams.
At first Caldecott was curious about what he had painted and studied it intently, but soon he became more horrified. He kept looking up at the park itself just to check that what he had created had not become a reality. He wrapped the painting up in a cloth and put it with his easel and paints. Even as he made his way home he kept expecting the sound of running feet and the shouts of horror as revolution came to London’s suburbs.
Over the next week his disquiet faded, and he threw himself into his considerable social life. Around the same time Caldecott had met Elizabeth, he had been introduced to the novelist and satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, who just finished what would prove to be his best known work, Vanity Fair. The two men cautiously began a friendship and soon Caldecott began work on the portrait that would eventually end up in the National Portrait Gallery, so that exactly one hundred twenty years later, in this, another time of turmoil, I can gaze upon it, and wonder what Thackeray was thinking when the intense but dashing painter drew him. Unlike most of Caldecott’s portraits, there is no real humour in this one; the writer, perhaps born out of his time, gazes sternly out at the viewer, with the light illumining him fully.
One night, shortly after finishing Thackeray’s portrait and after a long session at the club, Caldecott returned home drunk and almost as if compelled he went to his studio, got out his paints, sniffing that familiar smell, and painted. In the morning his wife found him asleep and in front of him a large picture of him naked, chained to a bed whilst either side of him a naked woman caressed him; one of the women was herself, although she took a moment to realise this, so lascivious did she look, and the other woman was Elizabeth although Isabella did not know this.
Hurriedly she covered the sketch with a cloth so that the servants did not see, took it off the easel and hid it away. She then woke her husband, who, still dazed and more than a little drunk, went to bed where he slept for most of the rest of the day. When he awoke he had forgotten about his painting. He came across it two days later, hidden behind some old portraits where Isabella had put it.
It all came back to him then: the late night and drawing it in a fever. He was embarrassed by the picture, which was graphic, but he also admired it, because it was not trash, and he had drawn it well. There was enough of the artist in him to be pleased with it, the vitality of the thing, and the colours of flesh. It could never be exhibited, but he did not want to destroy it.
Isabella had clearly seen it, but she did not mention the fact, and he realised that she was being even more reserved and cold with him than previously. She was devoutly religious, attending a small Wesleyan Methodist church every Sunday morning and afternoon and also many of their activities during the week, and no doubt would have been shocked by the picture she had seen. Caldecott and his wife continued to talk about everyday things: the children, the servants and food but never of anything more intimate, and there was no touching at all, not even a peck on the cheek.
Soon afterwards he spent the afternoon using charcoal to sketch a picture of the young Queen Victoria being clubbed to death by a large man with a stave, whilst surrounding them a mob cheered and laughed. Another day he painted Victoria, or at least her head being held aloft by an old woman with fire in her eyes and not many teeth. Caldecott was ashamed of his pictures, yet could not stop drawing them and something in him would not let him destroy them.
He continued to visit Elizabeth and talked with her about what was happening to him, but she was unable to offer any suggestions. It was only when they were in bed together, making love, that he felt at ease and calm, and even then he could tell that his fervour and passion was starting to frighten her.
“Perhaps you could go abroad?” she suggested. “I am sure you can afford it. Just get away from everything.”
But he wouldn’t, citing the problems in Europe and the portraits that he was engaged to paint.
A month later Caldecott caught a coach to Ware to see his old friend and patron Vernon Watkins. Caldecott’s parents were both dead and, although he had not been close to them, he felt a wave of sadness as he walked the familiar streets where he had spent his youth. He had not had a particularly happy childhood; his father had not approved of his painting and had forced him to work in the inn that he owned, with a view to eventually take it over. It was only when Vernon Watkins, the nearest they had to a lord of the manor, had taken an interest in their son that they had relented and allowed him to follow the path that he wanted.
Vernon lived in a sizeable house near the centre of the town. Caldecott and Vernon had still kept in touch, although Vernon was now ill with gout and rarely left the small Hertfordshire town where he had lived most of his life. Caldecott trusted Vernon and regarded him as a man of the world. Vernon was proud of his protégé, and always wanted to hear of the people in London who he had met and painted.
They drank coffee for a while, talking of Caldecott’s life in London and about what was happening in Ware. Eventually the younger man started to explain what was happening; he had not brought any of the disturbing pictures with him, but he described them in vague terms, not wanting to upset his patron.
Vernon looked at his old friend, remembered him as a young man, and even then he had had a certain darkness about him which he had never quite been able to quell.
“Have you not got a mistress?” he asked, wincing with pain.
Caldecott told him about Elizabeth. “But she doesn’t take my mind off it, well only temporarily. Everywhere I see death and congress, nakedness and destruction. I see the streets covered in blood, with screams and crying, babies lying motherless, young girls with no place to hide. I just draw what I see.” He looked pale and Vernon wondered if he might outlive his friend. Like Elizabeth, he was unable to offer any suggestions apart from his going overseas.
Caldecott stayed two nights and then returned home; the visit had not achieved anything. He felt that there was nobody there to guide him. As soon as he entered his house he went up to his studio and drew Prince Albert being sodomised by a Prussian soldier, whilst a naked Victoria knelt in front of one of his fellows. Isabella came in whilst he was sketching and was clearly shocked at what she saw.
“This has got to stop Caldecott,” she said. But it was as if she was not there, and he kept on sketching.
For the next few days Caldecott only left his studio to eat and to defecate. Otherwise he was drawing: sketch after sketch full of nudity and violent death. The house was quiet, and Caldecott’s children had gone to stay with Isabella’s parents, whilst most of the servants kept out of sight.
Isabella stayed at home, occasionally popping into the studio to see what her husband was up to, and left appalled by the increasing filth that he was drawing. It was Isabella who was there for the arrival of the Duke of Knaresborough with two burly footmen one bright Wednesday morning, and she who watched them go ten minutes later, with her husband carried out between them, her husband’s shouts fading in the July sunshine.
Nobody knows how Graham Caldecott spent the last years of his life, but we do know he died less than two years later in Knaresborough castle and that the Duke was present at his death. He is buried in the churchyard of Knaresborough parish church, with a small inscription on his gravestone. I sincerely hope that these last months of his life were peaceful ones, and that he was amongst friends.
No paintings survive from the last period of Caldecott’s life; in fact, the last painting that we have from this talented artist is the aforementioned portrait of Thackeray. Who knows, perhaps hidden away in a chamber or recess of Knaresborough castle there are some pictures by Caldecott just waiting to be discovered by a visitor, somebody who would probably be a little titillated by what he or she has discovered and then perhaps more than a little disturbed and horrified.