67. A Private View
Matthew’s telephone call produced an assurance from Angus that he would be round at the gallery within half an hour. “With the painting,” Angus added. “It may as well have another outing, since it’s been carried around the streets of Edinburgh ever since Mr. O’Connor graced us with his presence. And he brought it over from Glasgow in the train. He probably put it in the guard’s van.”
“There are no guard’s vans any more,” Matthew pointed out. “In fact, many of our trains don’t even have seats any more. Look at the number of people who have to stand.”
Angus rang off and Matthew returned to his pile of mail. There was a sale of Scottish art coming up at Sotheby’s, and he had been sent the catalogue. There was a Raeburn, but an undistinguished one, thought Matthew; one might walk right past it and not bother to enquire as to who the sitter was. But Robert Burns… One could not walk past him.
He was still looking at the catalogue when Angus arrived twenty minutes later. He was carrying a large, wrapped parcel, and Cyril was with him. On entering the gallery, Cyril, who liked Matthew, ran across the room to greet him, licking his hands appreciatively. Then he lay down at Matthew’s feet and stared at his ankles.
Cyril had long wanted to bite Matthew’s ankles. He did not want to do this out of hostility – quite the contrary: Cyril admired Matthew’s ankles, which he thought presented the perfect target into which to sink one’s teeth. Had he been able to articulate this desire, he would have had to resort to Mallory’s famous explanation as to why he wanted to climb Everest: because it was there. Matthew’s ankles were there too, and the sight of them made Cyril drool as he rested his head on the carpet below Matthew’s desk. Just one little nip, he wondered. If he was quick enough about it, they might not even notice. But it was not to be. Cyril knew that he was just a dog, and that it was not given to dogs to do all the things they might wish to do. There was neither rhyme nor reason for this limitation; it, again, was just there. Angus, who fed him and took him for walks, was a god; and in Cyril’s theology, vaguely sensed, like some obscure article of faith handed down from a previous generation, it was the duty of dogs to do the bidding of their gods and to accept whatever small mercies they might be shown. Cyril’s heart, therefore, was filled with gratitude: gratitude for Angus, for whom he would sacrifice his life if called upon to do so; gratitude for the smells which suffused his world, smells sometimes so strange and beguiling that they challenged even his acute olfactory memory; gratitude for being here with these two men rather than outside.
After a quick enquiry about Matthew’s trip, Angus busied himself with the unwrapping of the painting. “Your fat friend from Glasgow has surpassed himself,” he whispered. “The missing Raeburn portrait of Burns. Absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt. And he had it! Lard O’Connor had it!”
Matthew examined the painting carefully, crouching to do so, and exposing a further portion of ankle. Cyril watched, his eyes narrowing, focused on the glimpse of taut white flesh. His whiskers twitched.
“Well, it looks like Raeburn all right,” Matthew said, straightening up. “Did Lard know what he had?”
“Not the first clue,” said Angus.
Matthew was thinking aloud. “Of course there’s the question of provenance,” he said. “We can assume that it’s stolen. Lard is a gangster, you know.”
Angus’s face fell. “Does that mean that we have to hand it in?”
Matthew sighed. “Well, we can hardly ignore the fact that it probably belongs to somebody else.”
“But can’t we just ask him where he got it from?” asked Angus. “There may be an innocent explanation, for all you know. People sometimes have these old things in the family. They don’t know what it is they have. Maybe the O’Connors had…”
Angus stopped in the face of Matthew’s sceptical look.
“I doubt it. But we can certainly see. We can ask him.”
“And perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Angus.
Matthew conceded that this would be possible. He had begun to see the headlines: Edinburgh Art Dealer Discovers Missing Raeburn. And there would be a quote from Sir Timothy Clifford, who would say, “This is a major moment for Scottish art. The nation can be very grateful to this young dealer whose eye it was that unearthed this treat of Scottish portraiture.”
And the Culture Minister herself would say, “Another piece of Scotland’s artistic patrimony has today been brought home. Well done all concerned!”
“All right,” Matthew said. “I’ll get in touch with Lard and ask him to come over to speak to us about it.”
Angus agreed that this was the best way forward. But for Matthew there was another question to be resolved, and he now asked it of Angus: how could he be sure that this was what he said it was? Could authentication be based purely on the style in which the painting was executed?
Angus was aware that Matthew’s knowledge of art was spotty, to say the least. He was learning, though, and this painting would let him learn further.
“Style may be the test,” he said. “But there’s the internal evidence of the painting itself. The sitter. The clothing, and so on.”
Matthew looked down at the painting. “He’s dressed the right way, isn’t he? Burns wore those white neck thingies. And it looks like him, doesn’t it?”
“It certainly looks like him,” agreed Angus. “But there’s something else. You see that jardini`ere there – in the background. You see it? It’s very interesting. I’ve seen it somewhere before, I’m sure of it.”
“In another Raeburn?”
Angus stroked his chin. “I don’t know. Maybe. But take a look at it. It’s ceramic, probably Chinese, or possibly Western chinoiserie. Lowestoft, for example, did some very Chinese-looking things. It could be from one of the English potteries.”
Matthew leaned forward to examine the painting more closely, and as he did so, Cyril gave a growl. Somebody was at the door of the gallery, peering in. A man of bulk; of stature. A Glaswegian. Cyril could tell, and he growled.