Monday, 16 January 2017

The Loneliness of a Long Distance Art Historian

As you know, I have been helping out with the fundraising for a memorial for Fanny Cornforth (thanks to those of you who have donated and helped spread the word).  This has resulted in an increased interest in Fanny, with lots of people talking and writing about her. All this is really marvellous.

Then a friend said to me 'Do you mind other people writing about her?'

Of course not.  Of course I don't feel anything but joy when everyone is talking about the woman who I have spent half my life with, longer even than the man I am married to.  Certainly, for most of that time it really was just me and her, Kirsty and Fanny, friends forever, together forever.  No-one will know her like me, she's mine, MINE, MINE I TELL YOU! Wait, I seem to have gone to a weird place...

Fanny Cornforth (I'm just out of shot, honest)
And that is what today's post is about - what happens when you specialise in one historical subject, what happens when that subject is neglected then rediscovered, and a special moment I call 'Research-zilla'.

I don't think that people set out to specialise in one person.  I wandered into Pre-Raphaelite art in the first year of my degree and loved it all. Most of all I loved Rossetti, with his glamorous ladies and jewel colours, and the fact that we knew the stories of Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris gave greater depth to what I was seeing.  But then there was Fanny, poor abused, stroppy Fanny,spitting nuts and never letting go.  I wanted to know more and all there was was just rude and patently untrue; Walnut shells? Really? Thank the Lord for Jan Marsh and her Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, it gave me somewhere to start.  So I started and twenty-something years later I was stood on her grave, possibly the first person to ever go there and know who was six feet below. That's somewhat intense. Blimey. No wonder some researchers go a little bit, well, mental...

That moment when research becomes obsession...
As you will know from this post I have met my share of crazy researchers.  I have had all manner of people scream at me via email because I looked at something THAT WAS THEIRS! Reactions can be anything from sudden bombardment of hyper-excited emails that WE LIKE THE SAME THING to an equally sudden blocking and abuse. I had a right stinger of an email from a researcher who was mad because I had the same book as her. That one still makes me chuckle. Part of me is really impressed with how dedicated they are to their subject, knowing full well that the levels of passion it takes have a go at someone for owning a copy of a book you own too, have the potential of discovering great things.  In order to research, write books, write posts, you have to love your subject in order to keep digging when you are exhausted and despairing.

Fanny Cornforth (1860s) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
For some lucky people this is their job.  I am so envious of people who get to go to work of a morning and just sit and research.  For me, and no doubt countless others, my research and writing is the thing that has to fit around everything else. I have a job, I have a family and a daughter with diverse needs.  There has to be something that drags you back to it after you've done everything else and are knackered. You have to find that hook, that bond with your subject that makes a space in your otherwise heaving life.  No wonder that often spills into possessiveness and weirdness.

"Somebody mentioned Fanny and didn't mention me!"
I've had my moments of intense researcher-rage, or what I call 'Research-zilla'.  I lost my rag completely when the BBC allowed a person, who will remain nameless, to claim he was Fanny Cornforth's biographer and he had discovered her grave, two months after I had published the first account of it.  I was livid.  I argued on Twitter with the reporter.  It was horrible. It taught me that I never want to feel that way again. It also taught me that I should get a grip because a simple Google search on Fanny Cornforth comes back with my work. Whilst I was probably within my rights to be cross about a man pretty much claiming to be me (and his eyebrows weren't half as nice as mine), I was dangerously close to stumbling into the trap that seems to befall many a researcher - just because someone is your 'subject', it doesn't mean you are more important than them.

The Pier (a modern interpretation of Fanny Cornforth) by Karen Jones
Also, whilst someone is your subject, they don't just belong to you alone, however much you love them, feel connected to them or devote countless hours in pursuit of them.  Just because researchers are vaguely cultured people who spend more time reading articles on JSTOR rather than on the E-network, there are times when you should think if your behaviour has strayed into weird celebrity stalker territory.  There is a fine line between protecting your research and keeping a historical figure tied up in your cellar, in a manner of speaking.

"Hey, attractive young Rossetti, I find your artistic vision fascinating.
Would you like to see the puppies in my van?"
I suspect I get a bit possessive of Fanny because she is not the most well known of people and for rather a long time, it was just me and her.  I really don't understand researchers who get possessive of really famous people who have countless books written about them, but each to their own. I've had people tell me that they don't understand why I would spend so much time talking about someone who doesn't matter, who never really did anything important in life.  Outside your bubble of research, many, many people will not understand what the attraction is.  It's your job to show them, it's your job to share, to enthuse, to be the person that encourages others to find out more about your beloved subject. 

Me and Fanny
In fact, be the person who set you on the road to obsession in the first place.
My Fanny is your Fanny. My Fanny is everyone's Fanny.
I have the best job in the world.

Thursday, 12 January 2017


Damn it! My resident eleven year old has infected me with a really annoying ear-worm which I find myself singing under my breath in places like Lidls and John Lewis (we're a broad church in the Walker household).  It is this stupidly catchy song called Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen, which is simple and odd and just won't get out of your head.  It also makes you want to eat pineapple, but that might be me.  I do love pineapple and I love it on many layers (who can say that about fruit on a regular basis?)  It is ridiculously delicious and very kitsch too, but also exotic and, much like nutmeg, I feel absurdly rich to have one in the house because I know a little of its history, thanks to this book...

Mr Walker read this book a while ago and regaled me with many facts about the 'King of Fruits' which has a fascinating history.  Then I came across an image which made me wonder how often pineapples appeared in Victorian art. I'll come to that in a minute, but first some history...

John Rose, the King's Gardener, presenting Charles II with a Pineapple (1675) Hendrick Danckerts
I'm guessing you will be unsurprised to hear that the pineapple is not native to British shores.  It was those exploring Dutch who first brought it back from South America and started a pineapple race in Northern Europe.  The pineapple wasn't an easy task for chilly Britain and the way they managed to get them to grow was to fill trenches with manure and let the heat of the rotting warm the pineapple plants.  Well, that just sounds delicious.  Pineapple pits or stoves were the only way to get the fruit to grow, but by that point we had a pineapple frenzy on our hands.  It was veritably Pineapple Madness...

The Pineapple Hothouse (1761) in Dunmore, Scotland
The pineapple quickly became an instantly recognisable symbol of exoticism and wealth. Pineapple motifs sprang up everywhere in architecture, from finials to the most spectacular example the Dunmore Pineapple, a hothouse to grow, well, pineapples.  If ever there was a moment to shout 'Look at the size of my pineapple!', this would be it...

A Pineapple, a Peach and Plums on a Mossy Bank John Sherrin
Enough of the pineapples of the past, what about Victorian pineapples? By the time of Queen Victoria, obvious trade and colonial matters had made the transport of exotic fruit possible (if not common) and so although pineapples were still grown here in special gardens (such as Heligan), most pineapples came in from abroad and must have cost a fortune, so when an artist got hold of one, it made a very special addition to a painting.  Most often, they appeared in still life compositions, such as the charming example above.

Peaches, Pears, Plums and Pineapples Elouise Harriet Stannard
And this one...

Still Life with Fruit and a Rug William Duffield
And this one.  And actually quite a few more.  Duffield (1816-1863) seems to have made the most of his pineapples when he got them, painting countless still-life fruit cocktails, with a pineapple shoved in the middle.  Many artists seem to have loved the alliteration of a pineapple, which is a phrase I don't get to use often enough, placing them with pears, peaches, plums and pomegranates. All the delicious fruits begin with 'P' it seems.

Still Life with Fruit William Henry Hunt
Often they are paired with grapes, possibly to hint at their decadence.  Throughout the internet, it is stated that the pineapple is supposed to symbolise hospitality, but unless that involves cubing it and sticking it on cocktail sticks with cheese, I'm not sure that is true.  More likely it symbolises bounty and riches.  I especially like how in some of the still-lifes, the pineapple still has part of its stalk attached. You never see that in Tesco...

Still Life of Pineapple Plant, Grapes and Peaches on a Table (19th century) British School
Some people go the whole hog and shove the plant in too.  That is properly showing off, as if they have a pineapple plant at their disposal.  I can only imagine the artist went to a special garden to see that.  It is rather impressive though and makes the peaches look a bit rubbish.

The Gourmand Louis Leopold Boilly
Mind you, look at this chap with his pineapple in his house!  What I really wanted to see was the 'casual' use of pineapples in art, where they are slipped in to say something about the scene and the people involved.  This chap knows and loves his food.  As he tucks into his lovely roast bird he is surrounded by other delicious dishes and a pineapple plant at the front, looking almost like an alarmed person, oddly enough.  Are we meant to be worried about the amount of food he has? This chap has only the best and that includes a lovely fresh pineapple.

Kiss me and you'll get the 'Lasses (1856) Lily Martin Spencer
The 'lasses' mentioned above is molasses in the maid's bowl.  It's an unusual method of fending off unwanted advances but no doubt effective.  Spencer was an English artist who moved to New York as a child and became a very successful genre painter.  This is an American nineteenth century scene of household life.  The pretty maid is trying to get on with her work preparing the fruit (the pineapple is in the tin bowl on the stool) but is being harassed by either a fellow servant or a man she feels comfortable enough to throw treacle over.  The saucy minx.

The Marmosets and a Pineapple (1860) Edwin Landseer
If you are rich enough to have a pineapple, maybe you'd like a couple of tiny monkeys too?  Thinking about it, the monkeys might have been cheaper and easier to get hold of than the pineapple which is a weird thought.  Again, in the Landseer, notice the extended stalk and also the lovely tails of the marmosets.  I do like monkeys, and saw some at a zoo which were just beautiful.  The mother was handing her child some grapes and the child kept dropping it and then reaching out for more.  After about three the mother refused to hand any more over.  I thought, 'We've all been there, Love'.

Still Life with Fruit and Decanter (1860) Roger Fenton

Obviously if you had a pineapple and a camera, the two would have to come together in a wonderful still life.  Fenton did a couple, obviously not a man to waste a good pineapple, and I have to admit there is something about the texture of the pineapple 'dimples' that looks amazing in black and white (or sepia), whereas other fruit don't look as glorious as they do in colour, for example the peaches, and whatever the lumpy thing in the middle is.

Mary Hillier (and Pineapple) (1864-5) Julia Margaret Cameron
This was the picture that started me drawing the pineapple images together.  Whilst getting all Mary Hillier images into one database, I was faced with this lesser-known snap of her holding a little pineapple. There is a type of pineapple called the 'Victoria' which is very small, so I wonder if this is a Victorian Victoria?  I love that she appears to be in sort of classical dress, holding a pineapple, which is marvellously barmy.  Or maybe Cameron was going for 'native' dress?  Either way, it is a strange and lovely image. I wonder if Mary got to eat a bit of it afterwards?

In Soho (1920) Fred Taylor
Into the twentieth century, and the pineapple became a little more commonplace, especially if the above image is to be believed.  It is now hanging next to the bananas, just another fruit for our proto-flapper to cast her haughty eye over.  Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the pineapples herself...

Christmas Fare from the Empire (1920s) F C Harrison
And so our love affair with pineapples continues.  They are not quite as familiar and commonplace as bananas but a pineapple holds a dear place in our hearts due to the sweet flesh that makes your mouth tingle and the spiky, bumpy skin and leaves.  The smell is instantly recognisable, and we have found many different ways to cook them as well as scoff them in juicy chunks.  I personally still want a fancy pineapple upside cake mould (sold in Lakeland a few years back) as it is one of my favourite cakes, but in the meantime I shall hold my pineapple aloft with pride and wait for someone to photograph me...

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Happy New Year!

If you have been following this blog for more than a year, you will know I have problems with the bit between Christmas and New Year.  I slump into a malaise, a fit of ennui that lasts until I can start planting seeds in February.  It is dark, it is cold and it is pointless and filled with resolutions that I inevitably break and are painful in the meantime.  Ugh.  No wonder we need a New Year bash to cheer us up or else we'd just be circling the drain until Spring. Wowser.

We always complain that greeting card manufacturers seem to come up with new excuses for us to buy cards for each other but some of the past reasons seem to have fallen out of favour.  Is there any among us who still sends New Year Cards? While I am still struggling to get thank you cards written, I would not be overjoyed at yet another set of cards to write at this time of year.  However, some of these Victorian examples might be enough to convince me otherwise...

Nothing says New Year like an angel bringing your fat baby a canary.  Bearing in mind that the tree behind them is covered in candles, I think that scenario will end in trouble and the unmistakable smell of burnt feathers.

Well, this jolly scene is the new year dancing on the old.  Well, how smashing and sweet, and filled with good fortune and optimism or something.  In no way does it resemble this:

The Nightmare (1781) John Fuseli
And while we're at it this -

doesn't put me in mind of this at all...

Princes in the Tower (1862) Augusta Freeman
Righty-o then, moving on.

The moon is a regular inclusion on New Year cards, probably because the actual New Year business happens in the middle of the night and so you get to celebrate in the moonlight with a halberd and horn.  A few years ago our neighbours had a fancy dress New Years party which ended in a fist-fight between Elvis and a caveman over Marilyn Monroe. That's what I call a party...

In quite a few, the moon-man is being plied with alcohol by little angel-fairy things.  Alcohol does seem to play a reasonable size in proceedings, hence fist-fights I suppose.  As the nights draw in, alcohol does tend to come into its own, possibly to alleviate the gloom, cold and general pointlessness of existence.  Cider for Mrs Walker!

Of course, with drinking comes vomiting, if done to excess.  How splendid it would be if coins came out!  Okay, well maybe not splendid but rather handy at this time of year when I don't know about you, but I'm rather broke after Christmas. Maybe I should hang around outside with a sack tonight in case the moon starts projectile vomiting cash.  There's a pretty thought.

I blame the gnomes.  There is a 'drunken gnome' motif to many of the cards, seen here above being discovered by a self-righteous pig. If they are not encouraging the moon to drink so much it vomits, then they are getting smashed themselves.  Gnomes, you have a problem, go home.

No, not a clue. This is what happens when you drink - a card with a potato in leather boots seems perfectly acceptable. This is how friendships end. The Chitted Potato of New Year may arrive at your house tonight.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

It's not only weird vegetables we have to worry about tonight, but also giant insects.  This New Year lark is a nightmare.  Won't someone please think of the children?

The best thing that can happen to children in 2017 is to be sprayed by a vengeful circus elephant. I'm not sure that's a narrative I wish to endorse, however if that bunch of velvet-clad Little Lord Fauntleroys were near me, I might be tempted to unleash the nose-cannon too. Especially the one in the sailor suit.  Really, Social Services should be involved in some instances.

Case in point is a card that says 'I hope 1890 brings you child-flavoured soup'.  I see that the child represents 1889 and so is going into the soup because it's delicious, or something. I thought the old year was an old man and the new year is the child? 

Yes, like this, although poor Old Year looks like he is being assaulted by the cute New Year.  Actually, he's Father Time and he is being 'taken by the forelock', whatever that means.  It sounds like that motivational speech, where you are meant to take things 'by the horns', that sort of thing.  Go out and seize old men by their hair, it's what the Victorians want you to do.

Actually, don't do that, just shake them by the hand, that's more respectful and less likely to end in a lawsuit or arrest. I have a questions about allowing children that young to be socialising at that time of night, even metaphorical ones.  That can't end well.

See?  All that carousing and staying up to all hours, ends up with this sort of malarky.  This rather dubious card shows a young girl fighting off an over eager suitor.  For heavens sake. I know you could get married at 12 years old in Victorian times but it wasn't recommended.  'If you want to kiss something, kiss the door!' exclaimed little Emily as she slammed it in his face.

Wise Grandma Cat  says 'Happy New Year'.  Or rather, she says  'Meow, meow, I'm going to get you back for dressing me up like this. And you'll only find out when you put your shoe on.'

Disembodied Dog Head also wishes you a happy new year, although I'm not sure why we can't have the rest of the dog too.  Probably because it wouldn't be disturbing to have a normal dog. Maybe we are missing a trick not having New Year Cards as they are the perfect opportunity to be as surreal and weird and freaky.  I mean, look at this horror...

Why is the lute-playing pierrot doing yoga in the snow?  Why is the snowman watching him? With a broom?  How does any of this pertain to New Year?

This one is almost normal.  A goldfinch herald in the New Year with the promise of blossom and all good things, but then the words read 'O satisfy us early with thy Mercy'.  Wait, what? What do we need mercy for and why does it need to be rushed in at dawn? What exactly are we all getting up to tonight?  Heavens to Betsy, I've had some rare old times but never have I had to ask for God's forgiveness at the end of it all.  Blimey.  

So I'll end with possibly my 'favourite'.  Here is a little known fact about me that possibly I shouldn't be sharing - since I was a child my nightmares have regularly featured people screaming but no sound comes out.  Now, I'm sure that is psychologically significant but if I got to pick a New Year card that freaked me out the most, I would pick this one where everyone at the party has started screaming together while making a toast. I am left to wonder what they have seen that causes they all to scream - is it the zombie apocalypse?  Have they all noticed the little girl standing with her back to them in the corner, holding the dripping knife? Lovely.  Have a good one.
Okay, look whatever you are up to, have a lovely, safe time and I think I might have found the perfect card for you all.  I wish you all prosperity through the coming year, with very little vomiting, no matter how much the gnomes make you drink.

And I truly do send my fondest wishes to you.
See you next year...

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Saturday 24th December - The Angel of Chelsea

I had only a faint sketch of my late sister, Sophia by her husband, the artist Philip Archer.  His art, though extremely accomplished, had no charm for me, much like the man himself. That one sketch though was pressed upon me after her funeral. He had wrapped it in black tissue, a farewell present as the frost and dirt still clung to my boots.  He expected never to see me again and so I was to be dismissed with this half-work of her, dressed as an angel, her arms outstretched in a darkened room. He kept the oil, finished but never shown. I will say that in his defense, he never showed that last painting nor sold it. It hung on his landing, a curtain carelessly pulled back next to it so that it was partly obscured. My angel-sister was all but forgotten by Philip Archer until the third Sunday in December. That’s when I received a note. It was brief, heavy-inked letters spelling out two words.


I did not relish the trip to London, so comfortable had I become in my rooms in Oxford.  I had my work, my books, my little cat. His letter had disturbed me, and had been swiftly followed by a note by a ‘Dr Carstairs’, a friend of Philip’s, which did nothing to ease my mind.
Miss Davis,’ it began, ‘Forgive the imposition upon your time by one who is not known to you but I believe you will have received a letter from my friend, Philip Archer. I do not need to tell you what a shock your poor sister’s death was to him and how he has grieved deeply for her, but of late that grief has turned to something less healthy.
He has a painting of your sister, a beautiful work, but for some reason Philip has developed the notion that Sophia, the image of Sophia, moves.  Why, I cannot fathom.  They have a foolish maid who may have started this nonsense, but ever since he has been obsessed to the point of lunacy. Your presence is greatly desired by my friend who feels that you may be able to somehow contact your sister. To the contrary, I feel that your presence might settle him back into sanity, to hear another tell him this is all fantasy, that his grief has overwhelmed him, that your sister, although greatly missed by all who knew her, is gone.’
 I sent a cursory note in response and packed a meager bag, not wishing to stay for more than a couple of days under Philip Archer’s roof. Poor Sophia. I missed her every single day and the grief I felt was indeed overwhelming at times.  What that man felt was not grief.  It was guilt.

I arrived at 15 Wisteria Grove, Chelsea, on foot, not wishing for, nor affording, the expense of a carriage from the station.  The walk did not put me in a better mood, as the approach to the house was too heavily reminiscent of that day almost a year before when I had rushed to my sister’s side, but found all her beautiful life extinguished.  A young maid let me in to the hall and I immediately averted my eyes from the staircase.
‘You came.’
Philip Archer was motionless in a gloomy doorway and so I did not see him to begin with. When he moved towards me I was frankly amazed at the damage a year could do. He was wrapped in a smoking jacket that had seen better days and his hair and beard were unkempt. I was too surprised at his appearance to avoid his embrace, so my cheek was grazed by his lips and the smell of brandy assaulted my senses.  I stepped back in disgust and for a moment he looked aware of how far he had slipped.  He brushed a hand over himself to smooth the inconsequential creases and fiddle with cuffs.
‘As you see,’ I finally replied and he nodded before beckoning me to follow, striding purposefully towards the stairs. The maid bobbed at my side, her fingers taking my bag from me.
‘Glad you are here, M’am,’ she whispered, and I nodded.
‘Where are you Olivia?’ the artist called, sounding angry suddenly, his voice travelling down the stairs to the little maid and me.  She jumped and scurried away, up the stairs.  I followed.  There on the landing he was waiting in front of the painting.  His breathing had become rapid and he turned to the picture, closely studying it before turning back to me as I approached.
‘Mr Archer? Philip?’ I asked, trying to keep my voice gentle.
‘See now, here, look here. Closer!’ he barked at me as I moved to view the painting, and tried to grab my arm but I easily shook him off and he seemed to remember himself.
‘Yes, yes, the work. It is almost too painful to see it because you caught her likeness so well.’
For a moment, the artist fluffed a little with pride, and turned to view his work like he used to, the conceit of talent angling him. Then he saw Sophia again, her arms wide and the pretense slipped, like my poor sister’s feet on the stairs.
‘But do you see?  She has moved.’
I looked at the painting, then back at him in confusion.
‘I see nothing out of the ordinary, why do you imagine the painting moves?’
‘It was Bessie saw her first.  Bessie!’
The small maid was summoned and she appeared at her master’s side swiftly.
‘Sir?’ Her voice was soft and I remembered her quiet sobs when I had arrived a year ago.
‘Tell Olivia, tell her, tell Miss Davis everything you told me. Tell her!’
Bessie paused, her lips forming words but none arriving.  Her eyes flicked to the side repeatedly and she closed her mouth, her chin decisively dipped as if her story was ordering itself for the consumption of others. Philip gave a roar of impatience, but was drowned out by the bell at the front door clanging. Torn between following her master’s instruction and the call of duty, Bessie hurried out her story.
‘I was dusting, Miss, and said that I was sure the mistress looked different, that was all.’
Philip dismissed her unpleasantly, his hand pushing her away so that she wobbled at the top of the stairs.  I moved forward sharply and caught her forearm.  She and I exchanged a look of solidarity.
‘Answer the door, Bessie,’ I instructed softly, releasing her arm and she nodded, grimly.
‘I’m glad you’ve come, Miss,’ she repeated.

The visitor was Dr Carstairs, or Albert as I was instructed to call him.  A jovial man with red whiskers and a ready smile, he was Philip’s physician and had grown to be his friend, mainly due, he confided, to a lack of others. I think this last piece of information was meant to make me feel an appropriate sisterly warmth towards the artist.
‘How long have you attended my brother?’ I asked as we sipped tea in front of the parlour fire.  Albert cast a look over at the snoring form of Philip who had fallen asleep in the far chair.
‘Since this wretched business began,’ he murmured, then gestured at the sleeping man. ‘It is good to see him sleep.  That's your influence.' I gustured to me with a smile of relief. 'That has been half the battle I fear, his insomnia.  That fuels the fire of his imagination, and such idle words of a parlour maid can start wildfires in the minds of men.’ He flapped his hand in dismissal, ‘No, no, I don’t blame poor Bessie for all this, she can’t have known what she was starting.  I’m sure she meant nothing by it.’ He cast down his eyes, then added, ‘I was also the doctor who attended your sister a year ago. It is when I met Philip, and why he called on me again.’
I nodded, letting the subject of my sister rest for the moment.
‘And he claims the painting moves? That it starts in one room and ends up in another?’ I asked and he gave a short laugh.
‘No, if only that were the case, that would be easily explained. He could move it in his sleep or the maid could be up to mischief.  No,’ he repeated, the smile fading, ‘no, he claims, well-‘ He paused, suddenly looking self-conscious, ‘my apologies, but he claims your sister moves.’
‘What?  How do you mean?’ I exclaimed and he gave a pained look.
‘You see, that is the madness of it.  Philip claims that your sister, the figure of the angel, she moves within the picture.’ He raised his hand as I began to object. ‘I do not for a moment think this is so, obviously, and I have examined the painting and it looks just the same each day.’
‘Well, of course it does!’ I exclaimed and he nodded.
‘Indeed, but still, he is adamant and cannot be dissuaded. It began as a fancy but lately, lately, it has grown to a mania. I felt you might be able to reassure him, to bring him back to himself.  The anniversary, you see…’
‘Yes, I see.’ I spoke sharply for which I was sorry. ‘I shall do what I can,’ I added, my tone softening, and the doctor nodded, a tentative smile on his lips.
‘I am grateful, he thinks highly of you.’ I doubted that. I doubted he thought of me at all. ‘I met your sister once, before, well, when she lived.  Were you too on the stage?’
I relaxed a little in the chair as the man leaned forward with interest.
‘No, my sister was the actress, as was our mother, which was how she met our father.’
‘Of course, I saw your father in Macbeth at the Lyceum, he was a powerful actor.’ There was something of the enthused school-boy about Dr Carstairs as he spoke. I nodded indulgently.
‘Some consider it his finest performance. It was one of his last.  The influenza took him and our mother the year after.’ My voice trailed off and again our guest looked embarrassed.
‘My condolences, a great loss,’ he hurried out. I felt guilty for my folio of tragedies and attempted to alleviate his discomfort.
‘I had no talent for the boards, I could not remember the lines. My father set me to work with Edwin Gordon on sets. That man could make you think a city lay stretched before your eyes, or the inner sanctums of a baronial castle. I was fortunate to see the theatre from such an angle.’ I ended with a smile and he looked relieved and genuinely interested. There was a moment of silence as I sipped my tea and he looked over at his friend. When he looked back at me, he gave a quiet chuckle of relief and self-congratulation.
‘I am glad you have come Miss Davis,’ he murmured, ‘I am so glad.’

The next morning, three days before the anniversary of Sophia’s death, I awoke to the sound of ranting from outside my room. Hurrying into my dressing gown, I did not stop to consider my appearance before opening my bedroom door. In the narrow passage leading to the stairs, my brother-in-law was electric with excitement. I knew where he would be even before I saw him.  Sheltering on the stairs below, her face creased with concern, was Bessie, who did not dare to come any closer. 
‘Philip?’ I called softly and he turned, looking delighted.
‘See now! See, come closer!  See!’
He ran to my side and dragged me to the painting of poor Sophia.
‘What is it I am meant to be seeing?’ I asked, and his fingers suddenly pressed the back of my head closer to the image.  I felt strands of hair pluck from my scalp under his grip.
‘She has moved, it is unmistakable!’ Look!’
‘Please release my head from your grasp, brother,’ I whispered coldly, all pity gone in the sting on my scalp. His hand retracted with a jerk and suddenly was on my shoulder, as if to steady me.  I stood back, brushing his touch away.
‘I see nothing different.’
My answer was partly fuelled by the soreness of pulled hair, but his face was suddenly doubtful and he turned again to the picture.
‘But her arms, look at her arms.’
‘Philip, please, let us go down stairs, let us eat breakfast. It is too early for this.’ I raised my hands in defence as he moved sharply towards me.
‘Olivia, please, please say you can see it.’ His voice was plaintive, pitiful.
I bent forward, and made a show of studying the painting.
‘My sister was so beautiful, you captured her likeness exactly,’ I said softly, raising my face to look at him.  He frowned, and I continued. ‘I find it hard to look at this painting. Please understand…’
To his credit he looked ashamed and reached out a conciliatory hand which I flinched from but then allowed him to place on my arm.
‘Dearest sister, I quite understand. At least now I know I am not going mad.  She has moved!’
With that he moved past me and down the stairs, as Bessie skittled away in front of him. After he had vanished below me I realised I had been gripping the banister so tightly behind me, my fingers had cramped. 

Two days before the anniversary of Sophia’s death, and I was once more awoken by the sound of Philip’s voice.  This time it was near, very near, invading my dreams and dragging me into consciousness.
‘Look now, Olivia, now, look!’
I was plucked from my bed by strong, manic hands and, in my nightdress, I was hustled to the top of the stairs.  I gurgled complaint that turned fearful as my hand slipped on the banister, but he hauled me to the painting and waited for my comment like an excited child. His hand was hot and tight on my arm.
‘You cannot behave like this, Philip, it is madness!’
I tried to pull away and he looked crestfallen but still maintained a grip upon me.
‘Please, Olivia, the painting.’ He pointed to the angel with a shaking finger. ‘Tell me you see no difference.’
‘You have pulled me from my bed, dragged me, undressed, to a painting of my poor sister.  How would she feel seeing you this way?  Seeing you treat me so?’
We were too near the top of the stairs. With my free arm I was holding the banister but if he fell into me we would both follow Sophia to the bitter end. There was a pause and his fingers slackened on my upper arm, then released. He brushed past me and down the stairs, murmuring apologies in a distracted, disturbed voice. I did not relax until he had vanished into the dining room. In front of me the painting of my sister with her golden wings was bathed in morning light coming from the windows on the landing.  She had drawn closer to the frame.  She was smiling.

The day before the dreaded anniversary, I woke to a house subdued by quiet.  For a moment I bathed in the luxury of my surroundings but then I remembered where I was and I stiffened, waiting, listening.  In the peace of the early morning there was the softest of sounds.  It was muffled sorrow, unhurried and gentle. I rose, wrapped myself securely in my gown before steeling myself for what was awaiting me. On the landing, Bessie was between my room and the crumpled figure of Philip, seated on the top step.  Her hand was raised as if she had been approaching my door to summon me but had been stayed by the huddled form of her master.  Caught between pity and panic she had frozen in indecision. I nodded to her, releasing her from her task. She gave me a brief bob, but her face was grim.
‘This is not right, Miss,’ she whispered. 'This is too much to bear.'
‘That will be all, Bessie, continue with your duties.’
She left, her expression grim and as she passed Philip I saw her hand hover over him for a moment before she continued by without the comforting touch she obviously felt she should bestow. I approached with less pity in my heart, but felt unequal to the task of handling the man.  I had been foolish to underestimate his madness.
‘Philip, come now, what is this for? It will do no good.  Shall I call for Dr Carstairs?’
He raised his face, wet with tears, but he smiled at me. Smiled. Broad and uncontrolled.  Silently, he raised his hand and gestured to the wall. I shook my head with my eyes closed. I crossed my arms impatiently. He laughed, a horrible noise and his finger shuddered insistently. I already knew what he was pointing to and so looked at the canvas. Then I moved forward to his side, my jaw lowering. The golden frame held a room, dark and undefined without any light to illuminate it. I tore my gaze from the painting to my brother-in-law’s crazed expression.
‘She’s gone,’ he whispered.

The day was shattered into pieces that tore at us. Philip paced from room to room, seeking my sister who had fled her frame.  I summoned Albert Carstairs and gestured to my brother-in-law as he moved between rooms with a restless excitement. Albert took my hands in his and made a comforting sound.
‘What is the matter, my old friend,’ he called to Philip, who paused, smiling.
‘She is here, my angel has escaped her frame and is waiting for me!’
‘Come now, Philip, come and sit with Miss Davis and I and have some tonic. You will wear yourself out.’
‘I cannot, Carstairs, you do not understand.  She is here, my angel, my Sophia, she is here!’
I made a noise of distaste, of pain, at hearing my sister’s name, and Albert’s face grew grim.
‘Come now, Philip, this has to stop.  You are causing Miss Davis distress.’
Albert caught Philip’s arm as he passed. For a moment Philip looked confused as to why he had stopped then seemed to notice Albert’s presence, Albert’s restraining hand.
‘She has gone! Flown the painting and is here in the house.  Where is she? I must find her before…’ he trailed off and looked at me fearfully.  Albert shushed him, and he too looked to me, a curious expression creeping over his features. He looked guilty.  They both looked guilty.  Then, as if drawn by the same thread, both heads turned to look at the stairs. There was a moment of silence between us, then Philip’s head jerked up to look at the ceiling and grabbed my arm.
‘She's at the top of the stairs,’ he whispered, absolutely terrified.
‘It’s Bessie, it’s obviously Bessie,’ I laughed, despite myself. It was too dramatic, too melodramatic, and had spilled into farce. Both men looked at me and Albert too relaxed into a smile at the three of us clutching each other like children fearing the dark.
‘Philip, my dear Philip, only you could have us cowering from your maid as she dusts!’
He gave a chuckle which spread to Philip, looking between Albert and I with moment of clarity. He closed his eyes and placed his hands over his face, laughing softly with relief and embarrassment. He only opened his eyes again when he realised that Albert and I had stopped laughing and he followed our gaze. In the doorway to the dining room, wiping her hands on her apron was Bessie.  She had been in the kitchen washing dishes.  Looking puzzled but smiling at our good humour, she approached us, and with terrible accuracy she stopped at the foot of the stairs. Philip crumpled into an unconscious heap between us.

He shook so hard his teeth chattered. We wrapped Philip in blankets and placed him by the fire, as Albert and I spoke in hushed tones.
‘I refuse to believe anything is amiss in this house beyond my friend’s piece of mind.’
Albert’s face was shaded in darkness as we sat away from Philip, in the corner of the room.
‘What could disturb him so?’ I asked insistently, my hand lightly resting on the doctor’s. ‘This is something other than grief.  This is mania.’
Albert leaned right back, vanishing into the darkness, his hands withdrawing from me.  When he spoke, it came from the shadows.
‘I am loathed to speak, I know nothing of certainties.’
‘I am frightened of what will face me when I wake tomorrow morning,’ I exclaimed, and he suddenly leaned forward, his face concerned for his friend.  His lips formed a quietening noise but I persisted. ‘Please, he believes my sister is roaming the house.  Why would that fill him with such terror?  I would be filled with joy at such an impossible prospect.’
I waited for my answer. The kind doctor steepled his fingers in front of his lips, his brow furrowed with deep, dark lines. When he spoke after several minutes, it was halting and careful.
‘I arrived at this house a year ago to find chaos and horror.  Your sister,’ he paused, looking apologetic, ‘your poor sister was at the foot of the stairs. She tripped, they said, she tripped in the night and toppled. It was tragic, but nothing-’ Again he paused, as he nodded to me in acknowledgement, ‘-nothing else. But, Philip…’
He trailed off, his eyes lingering on the shivering bundle by the fire.
‘Go on,’ I urged softly and his fingers rested on my hand lightly. He turned back to me.
‘He was hiding from me, hiding away in the attic rooms.  He was drunk as a lord and talking such nonsense.’
I sat up straight.
‘Nonsense?’ I repeated warily.  He nodded, his eyes dipping, but then he met my stare again with determination.
‘He was rambling wildly, but amongst it he seemed to feel responsible for Sophia’s death.’ He waited to see if I would respond but I was holding myself still. I nodded stiffly for him to continue. ‘I thought he meant he had driven her to it.  I told him to stop talking before he said something that could not be taken back.’ His fingers pressed mine in reassurance. ‘I didn’t want to hear she had thrown herself down those damn stairs on purpose.’
I made a noise of shock and disbelief.
‘No!’ I snapped, withdrawing my hand, but he caught my fingers again in his.
‘No,’ he agreed, ‘she did no such thing. Lord knows I heard he had given her reason enough…’
He tailed off and I waited for more but he was silent again.

Together, we led Philip up the stairs to his room.  His head jerked at the slightest sound and he called my sister’s name in terrified tones until I snapped at him to stop.  As we passed the canvas he whimpered and urged Albert to look, but darkness shrouded it.  Albert looked to me and seemed to redouble his efforts, heaving the muttering artist along the hall to his room.  After Philip had been placed between the sheets and swaddled in blankets, the doctor turned to me.
‘I can’t leave you here,’ he whispered and took my hands.  I raised my chin and forced a brave smile.
‘Doctor, there is nothing here to harm me. There are no ghosts in this house.’
‘It is not spirits I fear, rather my friend, my friend who is very unwell. I could arrange for him to take a rest cure.  I could arrange some treatment.' Just for a moment, the doctor looked desperate and I feared he would embrace me for want of something heroic to do. He shook his head sadly, adding, 'I can’t believe it has gone so far.’
We closed the bedroom door and the doctor squinted into the darkness towards the painting.  It was lost in shadow.  He turned his gaze to my face, searching it as if to find his strength. I drew myself up in an act of bravery.
‘Tomorrow is a sad day for us, for both of us.  I lost my sister, he his wife. That awful anniversary will arrive whether we like it or not, then it will pass. The fear of the day is the spectre in this unhappy house.’
‘And the painting?’
I thought of my sister, my poor broken sister, at the foot of the stairs, with her husband looking down at her, his hand still raised.
‘It is just a painting,’ I replied, simply.

Dr Carstairs found me the next morning, sitting by the fire in the same chair Philip had sheltered in the night before.  I too was shaking and a glass of brandy was cradled in my hand.  He made his way through the men clearing the hallway of the debris of the night: a broken cup, a torn curtain, the body of my brother-in-law.  A sheet covered him as I could not bear to see his face, his stretched mouth, his wide eyes.
‘What happened? Dear God, Miss Davis, Olivia, what happened?’
I could not respond, exhausted by the effort of remaining sane in the face of madness. He sank to the floor beside me, his hand on mine, and he gazed into the fire with me.
‘He fell? Was it an accident?’
I wanted to nod, but instead I frowned.
‘Was it an accident when my sister fell?’ I asked hoarsely.  I needed to hear it from someone sane, someone outside this house. He looked as if I had wounded him but he relented with the truth.
‘A year ago, in that morning of ranting he admitted – or implied at least – he had been present, his hands had been on her. They argued and he…’
I nodded, my eyes closing, relief flooding me and leaving me peaceful.
‘Last night,’ I whispered, ‘she did the same to him.’

I remained in London until all had been settled.  Our occupancy of the house, Bessie and mine, was allowed by the landlord until all of Philip Archer’s effects could be sold and his bills settled. Albert excused himself from my presence and did not return, his own guilt a barrier to our further communication. I counted his loss as part and parcel of Sophia's return and for a moment felt a twinge of regret, but that passed with the sales and the removals. When everything had gone, all that remained was my meager bag I had arrived with almost a month before, and a trunk of things that by necessity or desire would return home with me. 
Elizabeth Hemshaw, poor Bessie, faced me in her coat and hat, her bag clutched in front of her.  I offered the cheque to her and she took it, concealing it away, fighting a look of guilt.  When she looked at me again, it was with sad finality.
'I have so much to thank you for.' I offered, inadequately.
She gave a stiff nod and I hoped that it was not guilt I saw in her eyes.
‘Goodbye Miss Davis.’
‘Thank you Bessie, Miss Hemshaw. I hope the money will help you as you have helped me.’
She nodded stiffly, then turned and walked out of my life.  A carriage arrived and two strong men lifted my trunk onto the back and strapped it in place.  In it were my sister’s possessions, to be safely cosseted in my little home back in Oxford, together with four paintings.  The first was by my late brother in law of my sister, a beautiful angel in a darkened room. 

The other three were by me:

In the first painting, the angel had raised her arms.

In the second, she had approached the front of the frame.

The third, the room was empty.