Wednesday 19 June 2024

A Private View by Jane Spirit, a glass of the finest champagne

Refreshed by a glass of the excellent champagne reserved for donors, Frederick Longsdale was poised and ready to peruse the exhibition of 1890s photographic prints. He had already walked appreciatively through the newly refurbished galleries of the museum’s permanent collection and hadn’t minded in the least feeling obliged to do that. After all he was still on the board of his old firm whose trustees had contributed a substantial sum to the renovations. Now, duty done, Frederick was particularly looking forward to enjoying a private view of one of the remodelled institution’s inaugural exhibitions, featuring works by the recently rediscovered Victorian photographer, Olivia Stanton. From his little knowledge, Frederick supposed that Stanton’s newly found critical acclaim had been inevitable, given the tendency of museum curators to leave no feminist stone unturned. In any case, Frederick had always loved nineteenth-century photographs. Their subdued tones appealed to him, as did their amalgam of artistic vision and technical expertise in evoking a moment in time. Photographic portraits seemed to him to be akin to the Victorian predilection for netting exotic butterflies and then pinning them in place within some splendid recreation of nature under a glass dome; the dead reharnessed into an eternal purpose. If only, he thought, and laughed at himself a little as he set off to walk through the re-appointed exhibition gallery, aware that he had turned into a sentimental old fool recently. He had spent much of his free time looking obsessively through all the family photos he could gather since his wife had died.

He remembered too how, as a small boy, he had looked through the album that was surely one of his mother’s most treasured possessions, sadly lost somehow in the clearance of her effects. He had been fascinated by its tiny black and white pictures of her as a little girl, pasted alongside slightly fuzzy shots of her and her parents on a day trip, or perhaps a boarding house holiday, somewhere on the south coast not so long after the first world war. He had spent hours with her looking at that album in lieu of playing outside or of re-reading one of the few books in the house then, before his mother insisted to his father that she enrol him at the library when he was about eight. Now he wondered idly whether studying the album with his mother had helped to fashion his ability to remember faces and to be able to attach the right name to them as well. If so, he was grateful to her for encouraging what had turned out to be such a useful skill in his working life. It had set him above others; suggesting an amiability and an interest in people whom he had perhaps only met once before. That, in turn, had allowed him to make deals more easily, to shake on them as if with an old acquaintance, a valued contact.

Frederick began to examine Stanton’s black and white photographs with great care. Their themes were somewhat affected, he thought, as he lingered over the details of their dates and titles, many with mythic overtones, mounted next to each image. He smiled at a small cherubic ‘Cupid’, artfully posed with his dark curls tumbling over even darker eyes. The small boy had been photographed holding a little bow firmly in both hands, as if instructed not to drop it, whilst his diminutive quiver of arrows had been captured clearly edging down one shoulder to lie slightly, endearingly, askew. In another image a statuesque girl dressed in a Grecian style dress clutched a pomegranate in a sepia garden. Frederick knew it immediately to be a representation of Proserpine emerging from the dark confines of the underworld. The girl’s serious expression suggested how, amidst the joy of her release, she remained conscious that she would so soon be forced to abandon the brief delights of earthly life to return below yet again. Yes, he thought, these pictures dealt with stories, but also with the actual stuff of life, the nature of love, the sweetness of spring, the awful inevitability of death. That was something his own generation had preferred to gloss over with the advent of technicolour; its brightness and lightness knocking the stuffing out of Victorian gloom. He had grown up in the sixties after all, although in the small, terraced house where he had come of age, there had been no room for swinging of any kind; only the merest hint of a shift towards daylight and a shaking off of the old rigidities, a warming towards colour, movement and the hope of better things to come.

Savouring these reflections, Frederick paused by the next photograph, captioned ‘The Gardener’s Daughter’. He looked again, momentarily hesitant, but then certain that he recognised it and that this was not merely because he had seen the image reproduced in some Sunday supplement article. He stared into the framed portrait, incredulous to find himself intimately reconnected with its every detail. The girl was posing in profile to admire the bloom she was holding in her hands, presumably plucked from the massive rose rambling along the wall behind her which framed, to her left, an open gateway into a field beyond. He recalled the whole image in detail, the girl’s slight figure and long hair, which he could only see as being auburn and stirred slightly by the summer breeze. It was as if he was with her in the garden himself, watching the shadows of the late afternoon playing on her unfussy pale cotton dress that trailed ever so slightly on the dampening grass. He knew that face so well. He had studied it so many times. Not in his mother’s album of snaps. No, he recalled that this picture had been kept in the large box that had once held his grandmother’s vanity set which his mother now kept on her little dressing table. Inside it, the large photographic print had been carefully wrapped in layers of tissue to keep it safe. It had been a gift to his great grandparents, his mother would love to tell him each time she showed it to him, a portrait taken at the grand country house where his great-grandfather had worked to tend those roses and his grandmother Ellen had started work aged twelve as an indoor maid. The picture, his mother explained to him, had been handed on down the family to her, as a precious object. When his mother had died, Frederick had searched assiduously for it in his grief, finding neither the box, wrappings nor print itself and realising that he had not in fact seen it since his grammar school days. And now tonight he stood before it once again. Of course, he could see that it had been re-mounted and re-framed for its public appearance, and yet to him it remained so extraordinarily personal, so treasured by association.

To see the picture was to experience again those quiet moments he had spent with his gentle mother, sharing her thrill at unwrapping the picture and talking about her own mother whom, he was told, had met him as a baby shortly before she had died. And now he knew that Ellen’s girlhood had been so beautifully preserved by the skill of Olivia Stanton, whose signature he had barely discerned at the bottom of the print and which he had thought was equally indecipherable to them both as they examined the image reverentially. Those had been good times, Frederick remembered, the bright happiness the picture generated seemingly intensified by the gathering tones of domestic chiaroscuro that surrounded them. He remembered his father’s terse words when he came home to find Frederick reading, his insistence that his son should leave school as soon as possible to work, which his mother resisted, only deepening the rift between them. Lingering in the muted lighting of the exhibition, Frederick experienced afresh memories that he imagined his considerable brain had filed under those too painful to be readily retrieved. He recalled the letter sent from his Headmaster to his parents, doubtless written with good intentions, encouraging them to let him stay on for a seventh term in the sixth form to prepare for the University Entrance examinations. His father had seemed immovable, unwilling to provide for his ‘idle’ son any longer, whilst his mother’s eyes glowed with pride, though she kept her head bowed slightly as if in submission to her husband. Then came another scene a few days later. He pictured again his father’s disbelieving face when his mother announced that she had come into a little unexpected inheritance, and that the sum would be enough to tide them all through another year of Frederick’s study. It had been just enough to pacify his father, to keep the wolf from the door so to speak. With his anger scuppered, Frederick’s father had seemed to fade quickly into his own gloom and an early death. But for Frederick it had been the start: the extra term, the exams, the scholarship to university, the networks, the nepotism that had propelled him into comfortable work, into wealth, happiness, security, a good life.

And now, admiring once again the picture of his grandmother on the cusp of adulthood, he wondered why he had never seen before what his mother must have been prepared to do for him. He imagined her alone, interrogating that line of signature scrawl and hoping that the photograph might be worth a little something. In his mind’s eye, he watched her hurrying to the library, perhaps confiding in the librarian in her desire to do right by him before finding the address of some dealer in the phone book there, to sell it on and secure her hopes for him. The photograph must have entered the collection of some speculative investor in Olivia Stanton’s oeuvre, whilst he had walked his way towards the place where she had always wanted him to be, in a sunny rose filled version of a life, and one in which he was the proprietor of the estate, not the child of one of its servants.

Frederick scrutinised the information plaque one last time. He knew that in any case he would not forget the name of the private collector who had loaned the photograph for the exhibition. He was conscious then of how much he longed to share his discovery with his wife, but reminded himself that he would never be able to show her how much their troubled granddaughter Elly bore the likeness of her great-great-grandmother Ellen. She would have liked that; it would have heartened her. It might perhaps still hearten his daughter. With that thought he moved purposefully on to thank his hosts and to depart the Gallery with praise and appreciation on his lips. As he strode onto the entrance steps and towards the waiting cab organised for him, he was aware only that he was no longer listless. The numbered tasks ahead were clear to him. He owed it to his mother to buy back the photograph if he could and to begin the search for other photographs by Stanton, whether of Ellen, or perhaps of her father. He could imagine his great grandfather being asked to pose as Old Father Time with a scythe or as a bearded Moses with a tablet in his hands. There might even have been other members of the wider family who had been asked to model for Stanton. First thing tomorrow he would call his daughter and tell her all about his discovery. He knew she would be interested, as would his granddaughter. They would want to help him, he was sure, and he realised as he stood in the cool air, how very much he wanted them to do just that.


About the author 

Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk UK and has been inspired to try writing fiction by going along to her local creative writing class. 

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  1. Very lovely story, Jane. I feel calm after reading it. Frederick is great character. Nice writing!

  2. Thank you. So glad you enjoyed the story.