A hand grabbed his shoulder and a cheerful voice shouted above the din,
“Tom, you young dog, what do you mean by skulking into corners and not advising your friends where you are?”
Before Tom could answer, his fellow artist Ned Richardson, had whipped out his sketch book and with a few quick satirical strokes, had comically exaggerated Tom’s features and stooped posture. A second lightening sketch showed Tom’s amazement as he was discovered by his friend, his wig apparently slightly awry. Imperiously waving over one of the coffee house waiters, Ned ordered coffee for himself and a re-fill for his friend.
“What news?” he enquired of the old waiter as the coffee was poured out in an aromatic stream.
“His gracious majesty, the King, will be driving down the Mall shortly,” returned the old waiter.
“Pah! You know better than that Simon. We’re after the real stuff – which prominent whig will defect to the other side or which Tory minister has a new aristocratic mistress? Best of all, which important personage is come to town and wishes to have their portrait painted?”
The old waiter smiled, shaking his head, ready to serve another customer.
“Now Tom,” and Ned’s more boisterous tones were muted. “How was the desolate North? The only time I was ever in those regions, I still recollect the dank chill. But what of Lord Arnedale and your great painting commission?”
Tom’s face showed some strong feeling as he said slowly, “My painting will remain unfinished.”
Ned stared hard at him and said bitingly, “So, having lured you up to those frozen wastes, my lord decides, in his infinite wisdom, that your talents are insufficient for his commission.”
“No, you err, that was not so.”
As Ned’s brow furrowed, a sly grin appeared on his face and he wagged an admonishing finger. “Tom! You sly dog!”
“Ned, I can assure you it had nothing whatever to do with me directly. I’ll tell you what occurred without making too long a tale. The journey north by coach and cart to Arnedale Hall was somewhat wearisome. The Hall itself is a fine fashionable tastefully furnished Palladian establishment, with landscaped grounds and a considerable estate. The young heir, who has an arrogant mien, judging by his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds no less, was mercifully on the Grand Tour with his tutor in Italy or Greece and would not return for some time. Two younger children, daughters who were eleven and ten, were the subjects of my commission; the particular wish of my Lady Arnedale who was in poor health. She felt that Sir Joshua’s style was too dramatic and wanted softer contours and colours. Ned grinned again, delighted, but he asked
“So you lived at the Hall?”
“I was given a room on an upper floor for my sleeping quarters. A room overlooking the parterre was made available on the ground floor for the sittings. Fortunately it was airy and well lit. There was also a useful deep closet nearby with a lock where I could keep all my equipment. I had the freedom of the grounds, was given a tour of the principal rooms and even occasional permission to use the library. I could also escape to the local inn some evenings with local villagers for company or even some of the young bloods of the squirearchy. Yes, I can see the question in your eyes. I was not always successful in my games of hazard.”
“But the two daughters Tom? – of course, you have two of your own …”
“The girls came in with a very starchy governess which dismayed me a little. I introduced myself with a slight bow. I knew that my life would be much pleasanter if the governess, a Miss Osbourne, did not see me as a threat to her authority. On the other hand, becoming too confidential could cause problems for me, a happily married man. These large houses, you may not be aware, are a perpetual hotbed of gossip. However, after a week or two, the housekeeper decided I must be a fount of information on London fashions and habits, quizzing me on such subjects and occasionally asking me to drink a dish of tea with her. She used to unlock her supply with great ceremony.” His friend shook his head and blew out a small cloud of tobacco from his pipe which joined the rest in the smoke-thickened atmosphere.
“When I was first introduced to the two girls, Maria the eldest and Louisa her younger sister, I saw a close facial likeness which I hoped to bring out in my painting. I explained to Miss Osbourne and the girls that a number of “sittings” would be needed. I hadn’t finally decided whether the girls would be standing or seated. I told them it was always called a “sitting” even if I actually painted them standing up. Miss Osbourne, who had occupied herself at one side of the room with some fancywork, remarked to the girls with a smile,
“You are now sitting for your sitting,” as after some preliminary rough sketches, I decided on a seated position. The two young misses were delighted at her wit, giggling in appreciation. They then glanced a little apprehensively at me, but I smiled back good-humouredly.
Our sittings progressed. Maria and Louisa were both arrayed in fine white dresses. The elder who had fairer hair, had a knot of sky blue ribbon on her dress, while the younger with slightly darker curls, wore a pink one. I felt a little constrained by the traditional full-face style that is the fashion for portraits. The two sisters were genuinely fond of one another, as I saw at one point Maria put a protective arm around Louisa. I now really had my pose. I asked them to look up as if something had attracted their attention. Maria looked very faintly amused and thoughtful. Louisa, who had a merry temperament, I discovered, also had occasionally a slightly wistful air. I was keen to incorporate something of the beauties of the natural world outside and planned to set the girls in a landscape which had elements of their own parkland. There was a splendid uninterrupted view from the pleasure grounds across to the fields where some cattle were grazing. But a woodland nook would better suit my purpose. This I sketched in with light strokes and saved for the more final stages of my work. I concentrated all my energies particularly on their faces. I left further details of their clothing again for later.
Our sittings progressed and the young misses who lost some of their shyness, made me think at times fondly of my own two girls. As Tom paused and drank down a draught of his cooling coffee, Ned asked if some particular difficulty had arisen.
Tom’s earlier animation vanished. He was now lost in thought.
“Louisa was suddenly taken ill with a high fever. The local doctor was sent for, but as her condition worsened, a messenger was even posted to London for more specialist help. The London doctor arrived in his own carriage, setting off as soon as he heard the state of the case, but by then could do little… The funeral was held a few days later. Before I left, Lady Arnedale sent for me and graciously said the unfinished painting would hang in her private quarters and give her some material comfort. I bowed my acknowledgements. She offered me her own hand with great dignity and insistently pressed into it a packet with my remuneration and a tiny keepsake marked ‘Louisa’ which of course I could not refuse. I surmised a lock of the poor child’s hair. I found it very difficult to master my emotion; a mingling of genuine sadness and real regrets.
Image courtesy of National Trust