30. Edinburgh Noses Through the Ages
That evening, while Bruce fumed and Julia dined, Angus Lordie painted. He did not normally paint at night, but it was the high summer and the light would be good enough until nine and even beyond. He was working on a portrait, that of a prominent Edinburgh commercial figure, and he was trying to get the nose right. Everything else had worked out very well – the eyes were, he thought, exactly right and the mouth, often a difficult feature to capture, was, he thought, very accurate. But the nose, which in this case was large and bulbous, was proving more difficult. Angus had several photographs of it, taken discreetly from various angles, and was now attempting to capture it in paint; it was not working.
One should not underestimate, he thought, the significance of the nose. Angus believed that this organ, so aplastic compared with those expressive, mobile features, the lips and the eyes, was often the focal point of a painting. He had learned this lesson at the Edinburgh College of Art when a visiting lecturer had spent an entire hour enlightening the students about the importance of the nose in Rembrandt’s paintings and engravings. It had been a memorable lecture, illustrated with slides of any number of Rembrandt’s self-portraits and his studies of derelict vagabonds, all possessed of noses weighed down with significance.
Now, looking at the nose that he had been painting on the canvas in front of him, Angus remembered what it was that made Rembrandt’s noses so memorable. “Look at the nose,” the lecturer had said, pointing to the slide behind him. “See how it sits. It is not pointing towards us, you will observe, as we stand before the painting; it goes off at an angle, thus. That gives life to the face, because the nose has energy and direction. Whatever the subject’s eyes may be doing – and in this painting they are looking directly at us – the nose has business of its own, off towards the right of the painting. And our eye, you will notice, goes straight to that nose, somewhat bulbous and over-prominent. The nose says it all, doesn’t it?”
Yes, thought Angus; the nose says it all, and yet what could one do with one’s nose to mediate the message, whatever it was? One might wrinkle it, to convey distaste; one could certainly not turn it up, as the metaphor suggested one might. Some of Rembrandt’s noses were wrinkled, but that conveyed, in the etchings in question, not so much distaste as madness and terror. One might, he supposed, look down the nose, and convey haughtiness. But could the static nose say anything? Could the nose in repose, the sleeping nose, be made to convey a message of human vulnerability? Or the vanity of human dreams: one might have ambitions, one might wish to assert the essential dignity of the human creature, but the nose would act as a constant reminder of simple humanity. The sleeping nose: it made him think. Auden’s beautiful lullaby enjoined him to whom the lines were addressed: “Lay your sleeping head, my love…” Would those lines have had the same grave beauty if written, “Lay your sleeping nose, my love…”? Angus smiled to himself, and then laughed. The nose was simply too ridiculous to be the subject of lyricism.
And yet one could not ignore the nose, certainly if one was a painter. There were fine noses in Edinburgh – noses which would have given Rembrandt much to think about, and which had certainly provided inspiration and amusement for John Kay, the late-eighteenth-century barber and engraver who had been such a sharp-eyed observer of the Edinburgh of his day. Kay’s subjects came from every sector of society: Highland grandees, Writers to the Signet, the wives of the common soldiery, the keelies of the toon. All were there, captured by his engraving pen, etched onto his plates with such delicacy and humour. And Kay, like Rembrandt, understood the importance of the nose, and what it could tell us about the soul within. In some of his drawing it is the nose itself that is the subject’s burden in life – a large protruberance attached to a small body; so prominent, in fact, that one might imagine the nose catching the wind on the North Bridge and spinning the person off course, turning him towards Holyrood rather than Leith, requiring that he tack his way rather than walk directly.
“Spirit of Kay,” thought Angus, “light up this city now…” Who had said that? Nobody, he thought; just Angus Lordie, painter and occasional poet. What had come to mind was that line of MacDiarmid: “Spirit of Lenin, light up this city now…” MacDiarmid was talking about Glasgow, of course, although he had no doubt thought that Edinburgh could have done with a dose of Lenin too, even more so than Glasgow. But what nonsense MacDiarmid wrote when he became overtly political, thought Angus; and he offended everybody in the process. Any extreme political creed brought only darkness in the long run; it lit up nothing. The best politics were those of caution, tolerance and moderation, Angus maintained, but such politics were, alas, also very dull, and certainly moved nobody to poetry.
He looked at his painting. His subject, he believed, had led a largely blameless life, had loved his wife, had served on committees, had helped the requisite number of good causes. There had been, he suspected, little passion in his life, and relatively few disappointments. He had lived in Barnton, a comfortable suburb in which nothing of note happened, and he had loved the Forth Bridge, golf, Speyside whiskies, money, and going on the occasional summer cruise in northern waters – to Orkney and Shetland, to the Faroe Islands, and once, more adventurously, to Iceland. That was his life. And now here am I trying to capture this with a few strokes of my brush, to fix all this in oil paint on canvas; recording nothing very much with next to nothing.
This line of thought, connected with what Angus was doing, but only vaguely so, was now suddenly broken. The puppies, sequestered in a neighbouring room, had begun to yap again. Angus sighed. He would have to take them out again into Drummond Place; six frolicking, excited centres of canine consciousness, eager to get on with their own small lives. I am the owner of seven dogs, he reminded himself, utterly appalled.