Elizabeth Bowen – The Death of the Heart, 1938

Girl with a Kitten 1947 by Lucian Freud 1922-2011Chapter 6. The Flesh

The set of temple bells had not yet been struck for dinner, so Portia sat down near her chest of drawers and looked hard at the pastel-portrait of Anna. She did not know what she looked for in the pastel – confirmation that the most unlikely people suffer, or that everybody who suffers is the same age?

But that little suffering Anna – so much out of drawing that she looked like a cripple between her cascades of hair – that urgent soul astray in the bad portrait, only came alive by electric light. Even by day, though, the unlike distrubs one more than it should: what is it unlike? Or is it unlike at all – is it the face discovered? The portrait, however feeble, transfixes something passive that stays behind the knowing and living look. No drawing from life just fails: it established something more; it admits the unadmitted. All Mrs Heccomb had brought to her loving task, besides pastels, had been feeling. She was, to put it politely, a negative artist. But such artists seem to receive a sort of cloudy guidance. Any face, house, landscape seen in a picture, however bad, remains subtly but strongly modified in so-called real life – and the worse the picture, the stronger this is. Mrs. Heccomb’s experiment in pastels had altered Anna for ever. By daylight, the thing was a human map, scored over with strawy marks of the chalks. But when electric light struck those shadeless triangles – hair, the face, the kitten, those looking eyes – the thing took on a misguided authority. As this face had entered Portia’s first dreams here, it continued to enter her waking mind. She saw the kitten hugged to the breast in a contraction of unknowing sorrow.

What help she did not find in the picture she found in its oak frame and the mantlepiece underneath. After inside upheavels, it is important to fix on imperturbable things. Their imperturbableness, their air that nothing has happened renews our guarantee. Pictures would not be hung plumb over the centres of fireplaces or wallpapers pasted on with such precision that their seams make no break in the pattern if life we really not possible to adjudicate for. These things are what we mean when we speak of civilization: they remind us how exceedingly seldom the unseemly or unforseeable rears its head. In this sense, the destruction of buildings and furniture is more palpably dreadful to the spirit than the destruction of human life.

Elizabeth Bowen, 1899-1973              The Death of the Heart, 1938

Image: Lucien Freud,1922-2011. Girl with a Kitten, 1947. oil on canvas, 41 x 31cm ©Tate Britain, Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury,2006, © The Lucien Freud Archive