Stella Gibbons – Westwood or The Gentle Powers, 1946

S Gibbons westwoodSuddenly a door opened in the wall and a hatless man came through into the garden, shutting it after him. She recognized him as one of the two she had seen on the Heath that evening; it was Alexander Niland himself! He was unusually tall, and had a high round forehead and his dark hair was thinning on the top. He looked up even as she was staring down at him, but immediately glanced away again, and she could see that his mouth was deeply dimpled at the corners. He crossed the garden and went through another door immediately under the window. He’s gone up to the studio, she thought, and slowly released the fold of the curtain which she had been grasping.

She was disappointed. His baldness was disconcerting enough, but an appearance of slight oddness and of deficient health, which was noticeable even at that distance, was more so. She had been unconsciously anticipating something like the disdainful leonine beauty of Augustus John, of whom she had seen photographs in Vogue, and she was still inexperienced enough to expect famous makers of beautiful works of art to be themselves physically attractive. But she had no time to think any more about what she had seen, because the door opened and he came into the room.

……..

‘Who is that?’ demanded Alexander of his wife, as soon as Margaret had gone. ‘She was in the nursery when I got home this afternoon.’

‘Her name is Stubbles or something. She bought back my ration book. She’s been nursing it for weeks.’

‘Oh yes, she did say something about it, but you know I never hear what anyone says,’ said Alexander. ‘She has a rather striking head.’

Hebe made a face.

‘Do you want to paint her? I should think she’d faint with joy. She never took her eyes off you.’

‘Not while I’m still doing raids. Do you think there’ll be one to-night?’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ laughed Hebe, and she glanced at Lev, who was also laughing. Earl looked argumentative.

‘Would you say,’ he began, ‘that while you are making your mental colour-notes (if you will permit a layman to use the expression) in an air-raid, the danger and the loss of lives mean nothing to you?’

Alexander shook his head.

‘I’m so interested in what I’m looking at that I forgot to be afraid, and I don’t think about the poor devils who’re being killed.’

‘That shows a vurry high degree of artistic detachment,’ said Earl. ‘I am afraid that I should never be capable of that.’

‘You never know,’ said Lev

Alexander looked a little bewildered and offered Earl another drink, which was accepted, and in a few moments they went in to supper in the studio.’

Alexander had recently become interested in the colours of winter, and had taken to spending hours on the roof of his studio wrapped in airman’s kit which belonged to a friend who would fly no more, and studying the light and size of the winter stars, and the varying shades of black and brown and blue that make up the winter night sky. On one of these occasions a raid had occurred, and the effect and the effect was so awesome and fine that he had been excited by it, and had afterwards made some sketches which he now thought of expanding into a picture. The noise was unpleasant and he did not like it when large pieces of shrapnel fell on the roof, but it was not possible to make satisfactory sketches of the night sky during an air-raid without such events. Hebe, who had never been afraid of anything in her life, found his new experiment as amusing as it was natural.

‘I have often wondered about something in connection with your art, Alexander,’ pursued Earl as they sat at supper, ‘and if it will not give offence I should be glad to state my difficulty and get the matter cleared up.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Alexander. ‘Isn’t this salad good?’

‘Yes, vurry; thank you, I will take a little more. My difficulty is this,’ went on Earl, steadily dealing with the salad as he talked, ‘why do you not consider it your dooty to paint contemporary subjects? How do you reconcile your natooral urge towards escapism with your obligations as a citizen and a member of the United Nations?’

Alexander thought for a moment or two, while he ate celery, but from his expression it did not appear that he was thinking very deeply. At last he said, ‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, ‘ said Earl, taking another roll and turning his glasses upon alexander, ‘you have, if you will permit me speaking frankly, a definite Pollyanna complex. You look on the bright side. All around us we see death, danger, despair and the collapse of civilizations (more than one civilization), and this world-sitooation is reflected in the works of such of your contemporaries as Henry Moore and Salvador Dali – ‘

Can’t he draw! Exclaimed Alexander, looking up quickly with a smile of pleasure.

‘To name only two,’ continued Earl, ‘among the sculptors and painters, while among the black-and-white artists it is possible to detect the same sense of insecoority and the disintegration of the capitalist system. Of course,’ he added more tolerantly, ‘we all have our private worlds, but surely there was never such a difficult time for the artist as to-day, when he must choose between retreating into his private world and thereby losing touch with reality and hence his prospects of healthy artistic growth, or else paint the chaos and horror he sees about him and do violence to his own vision; in your case, alexander, what our Dr William James would have called a once-born, or optimistic, outlook on life,’ ended Earl, not without a note of triumph at having coiled up his sentence at last.

There was a silence. Hebe was serving a cold sweet while Lev wheeled a trolley packed with plates over to the door, where Mary silently received it into the kitchen. Alexander appeared to be thinking over what had been said, while gazing at a bowl filled with red and dark-blue anemones. Some of the fringed green sepals were already hidden beneath open curved petals, dusted with black pollen and flushed at their base with deeper colour, while others were buds, still bloomy and closed on thick stems. Earl waited patiently.

‘I don’t think Alex does only paint cheerful things,’ said Hebe suddenly, putting a plate of something pink down in front of Earl so quickly that she made him start. ‘Look at that one called Old Man Asleep. My mamma can’t look at it without dissolving. Of course I know she belongs to a weepy generation; she actually is an Edwardian, you know; she was born in 1901, but it even gets me and Beefy and Auberon down, and we aren’t Edwardians.’

This was a long speech for Hebe. She took up her fork and began to eat pink stuff in silence. Earl looked slightly dazed.

Alexander suddenly looked up. ‘I’ve never thought much about what you’ve been saying, Earl; and I’m not quite sure that I see what you mean. But look here. Renoir was painting all through the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. People still looked paintable and enjoyed things, and Renoir enjoyed painting them. It’s like that with me. That’s really all there is to it.’

‘Don’t you mind him, ducky,’ said Hebe, and Lev suddenly laughed.

‘It all sounds too simple to be convincing,’ said Earl, shaking his head. ‘When I am faced by a simple Aesthetic statement, I suspect it. That was what my Professor of Modern Aesthetic Trends used to say to us at Swordsville Carllage. You quote the example of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. But surely that cannot be compared with the struggle which confronts us to-day. You must have some theory behind your work.’

Alexander shook his head, and congratulated his wife on having obtained some brown sugar; which he preferred in coffee; he did not seem to want to talk any more.

Stella Gibbons, 1902-1989.          Westwood  or The Gentle Powers, 1946

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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