You sit across the table from me, fingering your empty glass. The Milk Bar is the place you like to come to in between sittings, an unselfconscious place with urns dispensing tea, cold milk or day-glo orange squash and a woman in pink overalls making the cheese or ham sandwiches. There are only two tables, each about two foot square, so that your knees press into mine and your red knuckles brush against my glass, which is still more than two thirds full and flecked with clots of milk about to turn. Basically, you say, you’d like to sleep with me. But it is probably illegal.
I don’t know why this statement fails to make me uncomfortable, but it doesn’t, just as the odd way you are dressed doesn’t make me fear the sort of glances I think I attract when I walk down the street with my mother in her too-tight suit. You are wearing an orange fishing smock, which reaches down to your knees, and jeans tucked into wellingtons. Your hair is long and thick and red (though long hair is still fashionable for men) and you have full red lips and milky teeth. Your voice is a cultured baritone. If we had been sitting in the Latin Quarter, drinking cloudy Pernod instead of milk (or better still, absinthe), I could not have felt more thrilled than I do here, in this Plymouth milk bar, with some old biddy at the other table peering at us through her Woodbine smoke and obviously not liking what she sees. I am fourteen years old, which, I compute, is only 1.25 years away from the age of consent, or near enough. Not that I have the slightest intention of sleeping with you, now or in the future. It is the thought of it – the dirty deed, and the fact that it fails to confound me.
And so we go back to your studio, where I pose in an attitude of contemplation, my arms arranged as though cradling an imaginary man (to be painted in later), a sad expression on my face because the man is dying. In the afternoons, I sit for you unchaperoned, although my aunt, with whom I am spending the holiday, insists on coming along for the evening sessions, bringing her knitting. I watch her watching you paint me through the corner of my eye, and when we break for milk or juice and biscuits, you ask her searching questions, such as why she still lives with her parents and chooses to work as a secretary. She is coy with you, and when we walk home through the summer twilight, which softens her edges, she tells me that she thinks you fancy her. A misunderstanding, of course, because you have already observed to me that she has a dried-up nature, like a rose nipped in the bud, and seems uninterested in life, or sex, which, you sigh, is only messy and disappointing. But that doesn’t stop you kissing my hand or stroking my hair from nape to waist and telling me to come back and see you again, when I am eighteen and cynical.
The sketch you gave me at parting, almost as an afterthought, still hangs on my living room wall. The frame I got for it is made of plastic with fake gilding that fools no one. But you admired fools, all marginal people you admired: tramps, sad-eyed clowns, people with red hair. You saw yourself as less of a painter, you said, than an observer, someone whose primary concern was social and philosophical investigation; and for that you really need to target nonconformists. You drew them from a highly formalised perspective, though, a conventional style that cuts right against the grain of current art trends. A standard academic painter was how you described yourself, a traditionalist preoccupied with two much-tested themes, Eros and Death. You painted fleshy, come-hither nudes and tramps about to croak, or already in the grip of Thanatos (“Diogenes Listening to Wagner”). Once, you painted your idealised dead self, your jaw bound up in a cloth, your corpse supported by a crowd of red haired women, lit by candles. But you always put yourself into your paintings, peeping like a Goya from the edges of the frame, or taking centre stage like Rembrandt, or glimpsed from behind like Vermeer. Your face even imposes on the sketch you gave to me. You gave me your eyes, your cheeks, the lie of your hair, the masterful strokes of your shading technique correcting my unformed features. However imperfect this is as representation, you were still, to my mind, the greatest painter working in Britain since Francis Bacon, and he himself was thin on the Eros content which crowns your work, giving it both its cheesiness (the cock of the barnyard content) and also its tragic edge. The seriousness of your investigations stripped the subjects bare, even down to the last thin layers of kitsch, which worries some people because of your lack of playful irony, your refusal to splice the figure from the ground, like cleaved cows in formaldehyde or piss holes in the snow. You did not separate out your work from your life, but entered into the allegory, rolling with the carnival of clowns or drowning in the ship of fools; and so you and your work must stand together, for better or for worse, without the comfort of distance or qualification. You looked the part of parody but didn’t play it. You didn’t want to play that too too clever game.
Long after I turned eighteen and was living in London, I would sift through the postcards in the National Gallery, looking for something suitable to send to you by way of renewing our acquaintance. I was torn between two favoured paintings, Caravaggio’s “Boy Bitten By Lizard” (an allegory of the sting of love) and Piero di Cosimo’s “Death of Procris”, treating Ovid’s tale of jealousy and regret. Sometimes, I felt as though I had climbed into that painting, walking onto the beach at dawn, where the shore and sky share a sorry blue, the sorrow of the hunter, Cephalus, reflected in the eye of his large dog, upon whom the fact of death has just dawned also, so that animal and man are united in this experience of truth. The man I was seeing at the time (also a figurative painter, who, like you, was running against the grain of abstract installations) had told me to look at di Cosimo’s work; and so in searching out this artist, I felt that I was looking you up too. According to Vasari, Piero di Cosimo was an eccentric character who ‘lived off eggs boiled twenty at a time along with his glue’. My painter friend called this mode of existence, ‘working to the edge’. It may be art, it may be affectation. Who is to say?
The coda to this memorial should have been how I called in on you decades after I sat for you that summer and talked about those thirty intervening years. But I never sent the postcard. I stood in front of your studio several times after moving back to the south west, reading the sign you had put in the window inviting strangers in to talk with you about sex and death. I felt awkward about doing this, however, even though I had acquired first hand experience of both of those subjects since you first talked about them to me in the Milk Bar, and I could relate now to what you had said about the sex being messy and disappointing, though not universally so. There were other less loaded subjects I could have chewed over with you, such as the art-dealer I’d met in London, who had shared a studio with you in the 1960s, not far from where I lived, in fact, in Belsize Lane. He told me you had taken it in turns to sleep behind the partition while the other worked or made out with some model. And then I had shared an agent with someone who had written a novel about your work. Even the father of my child was a friend of yours, who called in regularly as he passed through Plymouth to listen to you philosophise, and to whom you gifted several of your palettes, vibrant testimonials to your engagement with the medium, the spots of paint still palpable. But I never had the courage to ring and catch up with you, although I had not shied away from knocking on your door when I was fourteen years old. You had risen from your stool and opened up, towering over me in your orange smock and rubber boots like Turner’s Colossus – a case of once seen, never forgotten. And before I could ask you the same question, you asked if you could paint me.
But now I can only endorse what you said last Christmas, when you were interviewed for BBC Spotlight South West. You said it would be inconvenient if you died within the next few years because you still had a lot of things left to investigate. It is very inconvenient. I wish you had not died at only sixty years old. There were still things I wanted to ask you.
Copyright and all rights remain the property of Anne Morgellyn. http://www.about.me/annemorgellyn