6. Still Life, with Cyril
Angus Lordie thought about Matthew’s wedding as he laid out his palette and brushes in preparation for Monday morning’s painting. Angus had always been somewhat ritualistic in his approach to his work; the image of the bohemian painter in a chaotic studio may have fitted Francis Bacon (whose studio was a notorious mess), but it did not suit Angus. He dressed with care for the act of painting, usually wearing a tie which he fixed to his shirt front with a small gold tie-pin – a practice which gave him a slightly raffish air. His shirts were double-cuffed, fastened with a pair of worn gold cuff-links on which his father’s initials – HMcLL (Hamish McLennan Lordie) – had been engraved more than forty years ago. The cuff-links were something of a talisman, and Angus would have found it difficult to paint without them; a common concern of artists of all sorts: of the opera singer who cannot perform without a favourite teddy bear propped up in the wings; of the writer who cannot write without a statue of Ganesh on his desk; and so on. And lest any Freudian should mock such superstitious reliance, let it be remembered that the desk of Freud himself was covered with his Egyptian statuettes; his familiars.
Angus was working that morning on a still life – not a common subject for him, as he was principally a portrait painter. At that time, though, there were no commissions in hand, and rather than wait for something to turn up, he had decided to embark on this still life, which now sat on the table in front of him, perched on a blue gingham tablecloth of the sort that used to cover the tables upstairs at McGuffie’s Tavern near the Waverley Station. As a student at the Art College, Angus had lunched at McGuffie’s once or twice a month, in the days when Jimmy McGuffie himself was still the host. He remembered the courteous welcome that Mr. McGuffie gave his guests as they came to the top of the panelled staircase which led up from the street, and the kindness of the ancient waitresses in their traditional outfits of black skirts and white bibs. And he remembered those tablecloths over which various journalists and politicians had exchanged information and anecdotes. There one might meet, as Angus had, the likes of Owen Dudley Edwards, the scholar and raconteur; or Stephanie Wolfe Murray, the publisher; as well as others who had books and ideas within them that they were yet to reveal. McGuffie’s tables were always democratic.
That, of course, was a time when people still had lunch, and talked. Now, thought Angus, with a degree of regret, lunch as an institution was threatened. The world of work had become all-consuming, as fewer and fewer people had to carry out the jobs that used to be done by so many more. To have lunch now was an indulgence, a guilty pleasure, disapproved of by employers, frowned upon by colleagues, many of whom had, at the back of their mind, the unsettling thought: while I’m eating lunch, people like me in Shanghai or Bombay are working – such were the implications of globalisation, that paraquat of simple security. And so restaurants that had once been a hive of conversation at midday were now largely deserted, or spottily populated by tables of one or two people, largely silent, eating salads and drinking mineral water. Mr. McGuffie, were he to come back, would be dismayed by the change, and would wonder what had gone wrong. Perhaps he would think that another Reformation had occurred; that the iconoclasts had turned their ire on restaurants, having destroyed all of Scotland’s religious imagery in the previous show.
Angus smiled. The moral energy, the disapproval, that had fuelled Scotland’s earlier bouts of over-enthusiastic religious intolerance were still with us, as they were with any society. It wore a different cloth, he thought, and was present now in the desire to prevent people from doing anything risky or thinking unapproved thoughts. Oh yes, he muttered, they’re still with us, and they’re still ready to carry out the burning of witches, even if we don’t call them witches any more. All that moral outrage, that self-righteousness, that urge to lecture and disapprove – it’s all still there.
He looked at the objects resting on the tablecloth that had triggered these thoughts. The real secret in a still life, he thought, is to give the painting the sense of there being something about to happen. The objects might be quite still, but there had to be in the painting a sense of suppressed energy, of expectation, as if somebody were about to come into the room, to render the still life living; or lightning was about to show through the window behind the objects.
He wondered how he could suffuse these few ordinary things with a feeling of immanence. What were they? A blue jug of the sort painted by so many Scottish artists – a Glasgow jug, as it was called. Indeed, the presence of a blue jug was more or less a requisite of any echt Scottish still life; so much so, perhaps, that it might have been the same blue jug that appeared in all those paintings. One might imagine William Crosbie telephoning Alberto Morrocco and asking him if he had finished with the blue jug, as he wanted to start work on a still life. And Alberto Morrocco would have replied that unfortunately he had just passed it on to William Gillies, who said that he would need it for a week or so, until he had finished his current still life, but would a bowl, replete with apples, do instead?
There was the blue jug, occupying centre stage on the tablecloth. And beside it, a modest green glass Art Nouveau inkwell, with its top open, plus a small posy of dried lavender, and a bunch of over-ripe grapes on a Minton plate. The over-ripeness of the grapes could be remedied in the painting, Angus thought, but could he remedy the essentially static nature of the objects he had chosen?
He was searching for the answer to this unsettling problem when he heard the doorbell ring. His dog, Cyril, who had been sitting beside the table – although he would, by nature, have to be excluded from the still life – perked up his head at the sound. As he did so, he uttered a low growl, baring his teeth slightly; the sun, slanting down from the studio window, caught the dog’s single gold tooth and flashed a tiny glint of light, like the warning of a minute Aldiss lamp.