Iris Murdoch – The Sandcastle,1957

i murdoch the sandscastle c Mozely 1

Chapter Seven

Already the light was leaving the earth and taking refuge in the sky. The big windows of Demoyte’s drawing-room stood open upon the garden. A recurring pattern of bird-song filled the room, not overlaid now by any human voices. In the last light of the evening Rain Carter was painting.

It was the day following the disaster with the Riley. The breakdown men had in fact managed to right the car fairly quickly, and towed it to the garage. The engine was badly jolted and drenched with water, but there was no serious damage to the car except for a certain buckling of the roof. The garage had promised to restore it, almost as good as new, in a short while.

Rain, however, was not thinking now about the Riley. Nor was she thinking about William Mor, although that was a subject which had preoccupied her for a while before she retired to bed the previous evening. She was completely absorbed in what she was doing. Early that morning Rain had found herself able to make a number of important decisions about the picture, and once her plan had become clear she started at once to put it into execution. A white sheet was laid down in the drawing-room on which the easel was placed, together with a kitchen table and a chair. Paints and brushes stood upon the table, and the large canvas had been screwed on the easel. Enthroned opposite, beside one of the windows, sat Demoyte, his shoulder touching one of the rugs which hung behind him upon the wall. Through the window was visible a small piece of the garden, some trees, and above the trees in the far distance the tower of the school. In front of Demoyte stood a table spread with books and papers. Demoyte had been sitting there at Rain’s request for a large part of the afternoon and was by this time rather irritable. During much of this period Rain had not been painting but simply walking up and down and looking at him, asking him to alter his position slightly, and bringing various objects and laying them upon the table. ‘

Demoyte was dressed in a rather frayed corduroy coat and was wearing a bow tie. This particular capitulation had taken place the previous morning after breakfast when Rain had said sharply, ‘Don’t think me eccentric, Mr Demoyte, but these are the clothes I want to paint you in’ – and had laid the very garments on the chair beside him. Demoyte had made no comment, but had gone at once in quest of Miss Handforth to tell her exactly what he thought of this betrayal. Handy had informed him that needless to say she knew nothing about it and surely he knew her better than to imagine she would give information to that imp or make free with her employer’s clothing. Demoyte had pondered the outrage for a short while, made a mental note to give Mor a rocket when he next saw him, changed into the clothes in question, and felt immensely better and more comfortable.

Rain, surveying now at leisure the object placed before her, could hear her father’s voice saying, ‘Don’t forget that a portrait must have depth, mass, and decorative qualities. Don’t be so fascinated by the head, or by the space, that you forget that a canvas is also a flat surface with edges which touch the frame. Part of your task is to cover that surface with a pattern.’ What Rain had lacked was the motif of the pattern. But this had lately occurred to her, and with it came the definitive vision, which she had been seeking, of Demoyte’s face. The old man’s face, it now seemed to her, was of a withered golden colour, like an old apple, and marked with the repetition of a certain curve. Supremely this curve occurred in his lips, which Rain proposed to paint curling in a slightly sarcastic and amused manner which was highly characteristic of him. It appeared again, more subdued, in his eyebrows, which met bushily above his nose, and in the line made by his eyes and the deep wrinkles which led upwards from their corners. The multitudinous furrows of the forehead presented the same motif, tiny now and endlessly repeated, where the amusement was merged into tolerance and the sarcasm into sadness.

Rain had chosen as part of the background one of the rugs which, as it seemed to her, spoke the theme again. In some obscure way this patterned surface continued too to be expressive of the ‘character of the sitter, with his passionate interest in all—over decoration. Rain selected a noble Shiraz, of a more intense golden shade, not unlike the colour in which she proposed to paint the old man’s face, and wherein the curve occurred again, formalized into a recurrent flower. This rug, which was the same one which Rain had been studying when William Mor first beheld her, she had persuaded Demoyte to move, exchanging its position with another one so as to have it in the picture. He had done this with many complaints.

Rain was aware of the dangers of her plan. She was not especially worried at the possibility of depth and space being sacrificed to decoration. That was a risk which had to be run in any case – and she found in practice that if she thought about decoration first, and then forgot it and thought about depth, the thing would usually work out. It was rather that this particular motif, combined with the colour scheme which seemed to be imposing itself, was a somewhat sweet one and might soften the picture too much. To counteract it she would rely upon the sheer mass and strength of the head – that would be her most difficult task – and upon the powerful thickness of the neck. The hands and the objects upon the table would have to play their part too, especially the hands. Rain did not yet see this very clearly. The treatment of the window was also to some extent problematic. She was tempted to paint the trees in a stylized and curly manner, but suspected that this was a false instinct. Something different must be done with the trees, something rather austere. What she could not bring herself to sacrifice was the idea of putting in the neo-Gothic tower of the school in the top left-hand corner, rising into the sky with a fantastic flourish. The sky itself would be pallid, cooling down the rest of the picture, so far as was consistent with a strong light in the room. Demoyte himself would be looking back, away from the window, his glance not quite meeting that of the spectator.

‘It’s time you stopped that now, missie,’ said Demoyte. ‘There isn’t anything like enough light to paint by.’ He shifted restlessly about in his chair. He particularly resented being kept there when Rain was not painting him but painting a piece of the rug. Rain had told him when he complained that ‘all the colours belong to each other, so the rug looks different when you are there.’

‘I know,’ said Rain abstractedly. She was wearing her black trousers and a loose red overall on top, the sleeves well rolled up. ‘It is too dark. My father would be cross seeing me painting now. I just want to finish this tiny square.’

She had filled in in very considerable detail one small segment of the rug in the top right-hand half of the picture. The rest of the picture was vaguely sketched in with a small number of thin lines of paint. Rain, following her father, did not believe in under-painting. She painted directly on to the canvas with strokes of colour which were put on as if they were to stand and to modify the final result however much was subsequently laid on top of them. Rain also followed Sidney Carter’s system of painting the background first and letting the main subject grow out of the background and dominate it and if necessary encroach upon it. In particular, she recalled her father’s dictum: ‘A little piece of serious paint upon the canvas will tell you a lot about the rest. Put it on and sleep on it.’ Rain hoped that the following day she would be able to construct, from the small and finely worked segment of rug, great deal more of the rest of her picture.

She laid the brush down. It was too dark now. Demoyte began to get up. ‘Please wait a moment,’ said Rain, ‘ just a moment more, please.’ He subsided.

Rain came forward and studied him, leaning thoughtfully across the table. The hands. Much depended on that. The hands must be another mark of strength in the picture, shown solid and square, somehow. But how exactly?

‘I don’t know what to do with your hands,’ said Rain. She reached across and took one of Demoyte’s hands and laid it across the top of one of the books. No, that wouldn’t do.

‘I know what to do with your hands,’ said Demoyte. He captured the one that was still straying about on the table and lifted it to his lips.’

Rain smiled faintly. She looked down at Demoyte, not studying him this time. Now it was quite dark in the room, although the garden was glowing still.

‘Have I given you a bad day?’ she said. She did not try to free her hand. Demoyte clasped it in both of his, stroking it gently and conveying it frequently to his lips.

‘You’ve kept me sitting here in one position and an agony of rheumatism for the whole afternoon, that’s all,’ said Demoyte. ‘Let me see how much you’ve done by now.’ He lumbered over to the easel. Rain followed him and sat down on a chair to look at the canvas. She felt exhausted.

‘Good God!’ said Demoyte. ‘Is that all you’ve done, child, in the last two hours? You’re still on that square inch of carpet. At this rate you’ll be with us for years. But perhaps that’s what you want-like Penelope, never finishing her work? I wouldn’t complain. And I can think of one or two other people who wouldn’t complain either.’ Demoyte leaned on the back of Rain’s chair and touched her dark hair. His enormous hand could cup the back of her head in its palm. He drew his hand slowly down on to her neck.

‘The picture will be finished,’ said Rain, ‘and I shall go. I shall be sorry.’ She spoke solemnly.

‘Yes,’ said Demoyte. He fetched another chair and placed it very close to her and sat down, his knee brushing hers. ‘When the picture is finished,’ he said, ‘you will go, and I shall not see you again.’

He spoke in a factual voice, as if requiring no reply. Rain watched him gravely.

‘When you go,’ said Demoyte, ‘you will leave behind a ‘picture of me, whereas what I shall be wanting is a picture of you.’

‘Every portrait is a self-portrait, said Rain. ‘In portraying you I portray myself.”

Spiritual nonsense, said Demoyte. I want to see your flesh, not your soul.’

‘Artists do paint themselves in their sitters,’ said Rain, ‘often in quite material ways. Burne-Jones made all his people look thin and gloomy like himself. Romney always reproduced his own nose, Van Dyck his own hands,’ She reached out and drew her hand in the half darkness along the rough cord of Demoyte’s coat, seeking his wrist. She sighed.

‘Your father, yes,’ said Demoyte, ‘he taught you many things, but you are yourself a different being and must live so. Here I prose on, an old man, and must be forgiven. You know how much at this moment I want to take you in my arms, and that I will not do so. Rain, Rain. Tell me instead, why do you think artists make their sitters resemble them? Will you paint me to resemble you? Would such a thing be possible?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Rain, ‘whether it shows a limitation, if we want to see ourselves in the world about us. Perhaps it is rather that we feel our own face, as a three-dimensional mass, from within — and when we try in a painting to realise what another person’s face is, we come back to the experience of our own.’

‘You think that we feel our faces as if they were masks?’ said Demoyte. He reached out and touched Rain’s face, drawing his finger gently down over the outline of her nose.

Miss Handforth came noisily into the room and switched the light on. Rain sat quite still, but Demoyte jerked awkwardly backwards, jarring his chair along the floor.

‘Deary me!’ said Miss Handforth. ‘I had no idea you two were still in here, why you’ve been sitting in the dark! Mr Mor has just come, I sent him up to the library, because I thought you were upstairs.’ Miss Handforth strode across the the room and began lustily pulling the curtains. The garden was dark.

‘I wish you wouldn’t enter rooms like a battering ram, Handy,’ said Demoyte. ‘Leave all that and go and tell Mor to come down here.’

‘Do you want all that stuff left here, or am I to clear it up every night?’ asked Miss Handforth, indicating the white sheet, the easel, and the other paraphernalia.

‘Please may it remain here for the moment?’ said Rain.

Iris Murdoch, 1919-1999                  The Sandcastle,1957

Publisher: Chatto and Windus. 1957.

Image: Charles Mozely, 1912-1991. Iris Murdoch,The Sandcastle, 1957. Back cover. First edition, Chatto & Windus,1957.

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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