The Portrait by Iain Pears is set in 1913, Henry MacAlpine, a top society-portrait painter, has abandoned his career and gone to live on a small island off the Breton coast. His former friend William Nasmyth, “the foremost critic in the land”, suddenly turns up demanding a portrait.
The story takes the form of a menacing monologue spoken by MacAlpine to Nasmyth as the picture is painted.
In this interview, rather than speaking to MacAlpine, I shall be speaking to and interviewing Nasmyth, as well in the book, he has spoken only once, on page 95.
I have crafted a tale, which picks up from where the book left off, and used incidents and occurrences in the book, to a powerful effect, in a spine-tingling climax.
And so let us begin.
I reached the gates of that majestic house, in North London. Now a shadow of its former self, it still garnered certain glances and bouts of appreciation occasionally. I entered through the metal gates, reddening with rust, moss growing freely on those white walls. A lone butler welcomed me, and asked me my concern, I replied, “ I am here to meet, one Mr. William Nasmyth.”, “And who shall I say is at the door?”, I replied albeit hesitantly, “I am a reporter from the Marlinton Daily.” He disappeared up the flight of stairs and left me, to myself, in the large hall. The place seemed rather untouched, tad dusty, and a few things were on the verge of dilapidation.
He appeared soon thereafter while I was looking at a few trophies. And in a voice that shook me out my preoccupation, said, “Mr. Nasmyth will see you now. Follow me.”
And so up those Victorian stairs I went, into a quaint little room in the west wing.
The room had a large crystal chandelier overhead, a large grandfather bed to the left, the walls had many murals and an array of portraits and paintings. Towards the right, there was a small desk, and two chairs, to the right of which were two French windows.
I went near him. “Good-day, do take a seat,” said he, and gestured towards the chair nearby.
I thanked him. I noticed now that Mr. Nasmyth, had dark glasses on, and I enquired “Sir is the glare a bit much in the room?” He seemed puzzled and then replied, “Oh no nothing of that sort, I just cannot see, I lost my eyesight. Rather hesitantly I asked, “Sir if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your eyes?”. He seemed flustered and replied, “Oh nothing. Nothing of importance. What is your business?”
“I’m a reporter with the Marlinton Daily. I have read your reviews on art over the past few years, and so decided to do a story on the greatest critic of our times.”
A bit flattered, “Why that’s brilliant, what is it you want to know?”, paused, “By the way, would you fancy some tea?”. “That would be delightful”, I replied. “Robbins, do get this gentleman a cup of English tea please,” paused, “with sugar?”, I replied “yes, 2 lumps.” I thought to myself, so the butler is called Robbins, quite interesting.
Robbins brought us the tea and I started casually talking.
“You have been an avid art critic over the past few years, but ever since the past months, you have slinked into obscurity. Any particular reason?”
He looked at me, and then looked away at the French windows to our right, and said, “Ever since, my dear wife, Evelyn, passed away, I haven’t really been the same.”
“Passed away. Natural death?”, I enquired.
“What is a natural death? Can death by illness be called a natural death? It is sort of a dilemma. They say a natural death is when you die peacefully. But when your death, is caused by an illness, is it peaceful? Would it rather not be better to die by one’s own hand, since that would be the ideal definition of a natural death.”
“So you mean to say she killed herself?”
“I would like to term it, she liberated herself from the chains of life. She broke away from these fetters that bound her to this earthly existence. A creative mind like hers, needed freedom, and this was the only way it could be sought. The ultimate freedom. A great painter like her was bound to have a great ending, and I doubt she would have wished for anything more.”
“There has been much speculation, that the suicide of your wife, was due to your repeated infidelities, with various female artists. One of them being, Jacky?”
I could not see his eyes, but sensed from his face, that probably, I had picked a sensitive bone.
“There will always be rumours. That is an occupational hazard, one that Evelyn and I, were accustomed to. She trusted me completely, and I her.
About Jacky, all that I would like to say, is that she was a delightfully talented girl, but her art was truly not up to her potential, she could do much better. I knew her. To me she was more than an acquaintance. She was Evelyn’s muse. Much of Evelyn’s work concentrated on the bonding she and Jacky shared. Look at the wall to your left. Those portraits of Jacky on the couch, and Jacky in the nude among the bushes was painted by Evelyn. So you see, there was every possibility of horrid rumours leaking out. But we are professionals, and Jacky was confident with us.
It is a pity that she died.”
“Yes I do remember reading about it. What happened exactly?”
“She was found in at the bottom of a lake, where she had to pulled out by policemen. The official report said she drowned.”
“Drowned..as in accidental or intentional?”
“That is unknown to me unfortunately. I wish I could help you, but the only information I receive is from the newspapers and the radio. She was a very sweet lady.”
“My condolences.”, I sipped at the tea. “Tell us about your friend, Henry MacAlpine, he is a famous painter also is he not? But he’s a recluse, lives on the coast of Brittany on an island I hear?”
“Yes he does. He is the kind of man, who works better alone, he cannot stand the hustling crowds of London, and prefers tranquillity and natural atmospheres.”
“We believe you went to meet him, at his home, a few months back? What was that about?”
“Well I went to meet him to get a portrait painted of myself. He is a close friend of mine… and it was only right for him to paint my portrait after all. I feel he could capture one’s portrait in the best way possible. He could bring out emotion from even a lifeless face. He was a great companion, and once upon a time my protégé. One who I have been very proud of.”
“You used the word ‘could’, why the past tense?”
“My dear friend, Henry, passed away a few weeks away. He wasn’t such a famous person in social circles, so not much was heard of him in the newspaper, or on the radio. He met with an accident on his way to the market. He fell into a stream I presume.”
“Mighty odd, that most people who know you end up with life ending injuries, wouldn’t you say. So you had been in constant touch with Mr. MacAlpine?”
“No, not really. We met after a gap of four years. We had been in and out of touch, mostly because well, I preferred the connected life here in London, and he liked the quiet life.”
“So you say that he was your protégé? They say over time styles change… what changed about his style of painting?”, I realised my error. He couldn’t see, how would he know the style of painting?, “I’m really sorry I forgot.”
“Well no there’s no need to be. I could see very well back then. I met with an accident while hunting, and that’s how I lost my eyes. It was rather clumsy of me, hence I decided not to speak about it.
About MacAlpine, his style had changed completely, from when I first knew him. Earlier he would paint according to the styles of Monet and the line theory as was taught. When I met him, he had evolved as a painter, and new exactly what to use when, and he had evolved from the teaching of Monet and other theories, by which we try to teach art."
“So you were there to get your portrait made? Being a seasoned artist, MacAlpine, must have decided some concept by which he wished to paint your portrait.”
“Well he hated Monet, I could never get him to agree that Monet was a great painter. He wanted to capture all aspects of my character. He felt that I had a plastic face, without emotion and he wanted to bring out the emotion. He wanted to paint me in different lighting circumstances. He felt that it was light not a brush that could bring out the different facets to a person’s character.”
“That’s quite interesting. MacAlpine you said was your protégé. Why did he exactly need you?”
“Well when I first took Henry under my wing, he was a runaway from a Scottish home. He’d come to England for the first time, and fancied art. But being from a non-art background, he lacked confidence, and the prowess to succeed. And so in me he found a mentor, one who was a great artist, and a great critic, an all encompassing personality you see.”
“He needed me for it was only I, who could teach him the various facets of art, and expose him to this magnificent world.”
“The sun seems to be disappearing into the horizon. I really am enjoying our conversation. What would you like to drink? How about some wine? Red or White?”
“Red,” I replied.
“Robbins!”, he beckoned. “It isn’t necessary, I’ll go get it”, I said.
I walked across to the bar. The sun had set, and had set the sky ablaze with hues of oranges and pinks. Quite a sight to see. I poured two glasses of Pinot Noir and walked back to my seat.
“Here’s your drink,” saying so, I handed Mr. Nasmyth his drink.
“Thank you,” he replied.
“So tell us, why did he leave England?”
“Well that’s a long story. He was sort of not the type to take to criticism lightly. And well there was this art show of mine, that went horribly wrong and was ripped apart by critics. In the same respect, I wrote an article damning my own show, and he understood my style, and asked me about it. I told him, that my show was bad, so I wished to voice my opinion, and hence I did. This upset him, and decided to move away from this critical world.”
“Let us take a rather interesting turn at this point? Do you believe that artists can commit a murder in cold blood?”
Laughed, “Well now that remains to be seen,” takes a sip from the glass, “throughout history, never had an artist committed any murder in cold blood, but as they say, history is made, every passing day.”
“True. So where is that portrait now?”
“Well I never got down to picking it up, I mean after his death and everything. It must be at his place.”
“Truly, but haven’t you seen the portrait?”
“Well not really, you see it was his unwritten rule, that no one but him can see his portrait until it is finished. During the whole time I was there, to get…”, coughs, “sorry…yes…so the whole…umm…time I was…there…to…”
“Cannot talk anymore sir I wonder why?”, I asked sarcastically.
“So the whole time you were there, he didn’t let you look at the painting.”
“Well yes, and I also know that, Jacky didn’t die. You killed her.”
“What? That’s preposterous.”
“Not really, I read in the papers, Jacky had to be fished out of the river, and it was then I knew that you had killed her. What did she want from you? Only 10 shillings to take care of the baby you burdened her with. That’s less than the cost of wine.
By now Nasmyth cannot move. Paralysed in his seat.
“Don’t try to move, you will not be able to. Myristicin is quite a powerful poison. Do you know that it paralyses your nervous system in minutes, and that it has no taste whatsoever.”
“Well now so where was I…yes…so you killed Jacky. If that wasn’t enough, because of you, Evelyn killed herself. You were a worthless husband. You kept having affairs with these younger artists looking for a break, and she kept trusting you blindly. You misused her trust, and you used her. One more sin for which you must seek redemption.”
“I’m sure you must be wondering now, as to who it is that I am? Well…you did survive the fall from the cliff, you are lucky, and I was the only one who saw you falling down that cliff. So now take a guess who am I?”
“Brilliant…so the eyesight loss, would be a boon for me…though I would have loved for you to see the great masterpiece that I am about to create. You see, we artists never kill in cold blood. And what is murder, but a representation of art, wherein the canvas is the human itself, and what better canvas, than a living human.
And what better canvas than you.
I know you must be wondering my brushes are for this purpose. Well I’m carry my usual thick brushes, and a few implements to initiate this masterpiece.”
“Please be so kind as to hold out your hand for me,”, taking his hand in mine, I took out my scalpel, “ You see, blood is the life-force of any living thing, and what better colour, than red”, saying which I glided the scalpel deftly across his wrist, causing the veins to rupture, and blood to squirt out and fall on the white marble floor, and trickle across it, creating, tiny rivulets of bright red blood.
“You know your face looks flushed. You never had a great face to paint a portrait on. And you never did collect your portrait. I mean if you did survive I think the least you could do would be to collect your portrait, I mean, how long would it possibly take you? I just cannot stand callousness.”
Saying which, I cut a diagonal across his cheek from this ear to his mouth.
The blood trickled down the side of his face, down his neck, and on to his spotless white shirt.
“Beautiful, smears of red, on a white, pristine. It’s like the death of an angel, or an angel maimed.”
“You know you really shouldn’t have tried to kill me. I mean, you know I wouldn’t tell anyone about your little secrets.”
“Oh I almost forgot to ask, is this causing you any pain? Because well since the poison has affected your nervous system, I think you might be numb. I wanted you to feel pain. I wanted you to feel the pain, like Jacky and Evelyn felt. Jacky, as she was pushed into the water and drowned by you, and Evelyn as she killed herself, dangling from the chandelier, by that rope.”
“I had told you that I would return to London didn’t I. Try not to bleed too much, it’ll spoil the portrait. I take your leave now. So long old friend.”