The effects of light

J. A. Gibson

The villa was at the end of an alley of cypresses, and as the taxi whizzed through the trees I caught glimpses of rocky deep-focus vistas like pictures on postcards that seemed tasteless until you remembered that the views were real. The two women waiting for me, as I got out of the car and trailed my suitcase across the gravel, were suntanned in white shirts that picked up the flashes of their teeth when they smiled and the impenetrable milk of their eyes.

Inside there were vases of roses and a crystal pitcher of water with sliced lemon. I sat on a firm, pale sofa facing a garden of figs, quince and rosemary. I’d thought there was just one client, Patricia, and that her companion was perhaps a secretary, but it was immediately clear, from the manner in which they introduced themselves and the easy way they touched one another just lightly now and then, that they were partners.

After the greetings and some chat about my trip they suggested that I must be exhausted after such a long journey. Patricia showed me to my room. As she left me she touched my wrist gently, as though confiding, and said that she was so pleased to welcome me and was so looking forward to us working together. Which was a sensitive way of putting things; the truth was that I was there because I’d been hired. Close up she smelled of jasmine, and there was a peppery undertone that lingered after she left.

A robe was laid out on the bed, a fresh cake of citrus Marseille soap had been placed in the bathroom. I showered and stepped out into the kind of towel that I could never imagine owning. I put on my glasses and wrung out my hair and my eye caught a small framed picture beside the vanity. Even from across the room through the steam and the fogged glass and the water ringing my lashes I recognized an early Paul Klee, and I remember feeling that it was a good sign, an auspicious way to begin the job.

I initially assumed I’d been chosen to work with Patricia’s collection because it was so wide-ranging, and my expertise runs across several historical periods. But I wonder now if I was only there because Patricia and Del had specifically requested a woman: it was hard to imagine one of my male colleagues coming to this house, in its remote location, and staying for the two nights the project would require. My co-workers had envied me the assignment. I’d briefly thought of turning it into a holiday, bringing Andrew with me, staying in a hotel nearby and then heading to the coast after the work was done. But, once I arrived, I found myself glad to be in Patricia and Del’s villa, and on my own.

My job has taken me inside a lot of expensive houses, but I’ve found most of them to be vulgarly ostentatious – reassuring evidence that authentic style can’t be bought. This house had the kind of undone luxury that pretentious interior decorators can never quite replicate. Even as I dressed in the late-afternoon sunlight slanting through a window, I was feeling a bittersweet longing not for the obvious fruits of my clients’ wealth – the house or the paintings – but for the effortless elegance of the room I stayed in, perhaps. There’s an art to being casual that I’ve never really mastered. I’m too attached to a kind of order, wanting things clean and lined up, and it was a strange sensation to find myself immediately seduced by the rose petals floating in crystal bowls perched atop piles of old books, the papers held down by bleached driftwood, and the slightly rumpled linen sheets. In the midst of this room my own clothes, which had seemed right when I’d laid them out on the bed at home, now looked unoriginal and out of place.

On the first evening we ate together on the white stone terrace under a canvas umbrella. There were dishes with saffron sauce and pomegranate molasses; to eat them was like eating pigment. Patricia and Del told me they made their own olive oil from trees on the estate and their own wine from the nearby vineyard and their own bread with rosemary they clipped from the hedges. When I was returning from the bathroom through the kitchen filled with copper-bottomed cooking pots and bunches of drying herbs and flickering candles, I saw them licking the sauce from one another’s hands like kittens. The image stayed with me as, a little drunk that night, I lay in bed wrapped in a fringed silk shawl Patricia had lent me when the air cooled after sundown. You keep it for your stay, she’d said. It goes with your eyes. Beside me the big square window swung outwards and through it the starlight moved towards me, and I thought that I would be happy never to leave.

I was surprised when Patricia said that in the morning Del would walk me through the collection because it was Del who had assembled it. Del had been to art school, had been a painter herself before becoming a dealer. The collection was the story of their romance, starting with the fourteenth-century Italian Madonna and several of the Dutch still lifes. After Del had sold her those first paintings, Patricia had thought she wanted to become an art collector when really she was just falling in love with Del. Of course she’d always appreciated art, but she had never thought of owning it, which is why, she laughed, it was so strange to have the works evaluated. Although the insurance people did want a proper appraisal, she was more interested in the conservation issues because she planned to keep the paintings forever.

 

In the morning, after dressing in a T-shirt and the jeans I’d worn on the plane, I found Del in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. She brought coffee and hot milk in separate jugs, fresh figs in a Korean celadon bowl, a plate with pastries and butter and jam and a little knife with a carved wooden handle. The sleeves of her loose printed shirt were rolled up and her suntanned arms glinted with the kind of light summery down I remember longing for as a child. When she poured my coffee and milk at the same time, as the waiters still do in some old French cafés, to make the streams mix in the air, she looked at me mischievously. I thought I saw her properly then, as though she’d slipped into focus. When she turned it on she had a lot of charm. Not like a lamp, but like the sun.

She had arranged a workroom for me, with the first set of paintings and paperwork laid out on a white sheet like the handbags sold on the street in midtown Manhattan. It was hard to imagine Del as an art dealer, but that morning she seemed to genuinely love the paintings she showed me: pointing to the skill that could be seen in the line of a hand or a lip or a brow, discussing gold ground and bole and haematite. She singled out a Dutch still life in which a lead-paned window was reflected in the curve of a drinking glass beside a plate of oysters, a curl of lemon, and a twist of printed paper that held ground peppercorns, everything shining in sunlight that looked as real as that which streamed onto the page of my notebook.

The collection included four previously unknown still lifes by Willem Claeszoon Heda, a painter of the Dutch Golden Age, which had, Del explained, been in a single private collection for over a century before Patricia bought them. ‘See how the reflection is perfectly distorted by the glass,’ she said, ‘and how the reflected window is the light source for the whole scene.’ It was just what I’d been thinking. She’d watched the direction of my gaze, of course, and was smart enough to know what I would have noticed. At the time I thought she was insecure and wanted to please me. I wished then that I could reach out and touch her arm the way that Patricia had touched mine, just to reassure her.

I felt comfortable in the villa, even though it seemed that every time I left the room Patricia and Del started something intimate. Not sex—I don’t mean that—but some kind of activity that was meant for only two. When I came down for supper there was husky-voiced music playing and they were in a languid kind of hip-locked waltz. I stopped in the doorway and they didn’t spring apart the way you’d think they would, but continued a couple of quick turns with Del leading. I’ve never danced like that, alone, with anyone. They weren’t embarrassed at all and seemed not to notice my awkwardness. Patricia poured me a glass of wine and asked me why I always had my hair tied back when it was so beautiful, and such a unique colour, and they made me take it down so that it lay hot and stuck to my neck for the whole evening. It’s easier, especially when looking closely at a fragile object’s condition, not to have hair everywhere. But surely you’re not at work now, said Patricia. Which was thoughtful, and I felt then that they didn’t see me simply as somebody they’d hired. I’m rarely at ease the way I was that night. Having had a little too much to drink, the three of us ended up laughing together with an abandon that felt new to me, as though I was laughing properly for the first time, and we talked, I thought then, openly about everything.

It was kind of Patricia to take notice of my hair because I don’t get many compliments on my appearance; it seems my face is forgettable and I’m often mistaken for other people. So I’ve never been physically vain, yet when I woke the next morning and saw myself reflected in the mirror with the Klee behind me I somehow looked different. My skin was clearer, luminescent, the lines by my eyes smoothed as if my face were in soft focus. And my hair did seem a nicer colour, just as Patricia had said. I didn’t braid it but left it loose against my shoulders. Then, as it was early, I put on my swimsuit and went quietly down to the outdoor pool wrapped in Patricia’s shawl, which slipped from my shoulders and billowed behind me as I walked. In the water I felt as sleek and streamlined as a diving bird and I put my head under and swept my arms wide as though they were wings. When I came up for air I saw Del in one of the upstairs windows, a three-quarter view with her hand on the sill like a portrait courtier and her eyes in shadow. She must have been watching me, but when I raised my arm to wave she was already gone.

 

When, over lunch on the second day, I told Patricia about the frame of her Renaissance Madonna, singed along the bottom edges just like the Duccio in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, possibly from candles at a private altar, Del gave me a careful look.

‘It’s amazing that you noticed that,’ she said.

It was my job, of course, but I joked that I’d always had a good eye. Del seemed not to know what I meant. She said that everybody had an evil eye and a good one. She covered half her face with the flat of her palm and looked out at us with her right eye, which, alone, did look somehow colder, even cruel. Patricia laughed and asked her to stop it.

‘It’s so easy to scare her,’ said Del. ‘She was so protected, such an adored child, that fear comes as a surprise to her.’ Del reached her hand to Patricia’s and said, as if she was teasing, that Patricia was a hothouse flower, an innocent. I wondered to myself whether it was true that being loved too much makes people too trusting, puts them at a disadvantage. ‘Nonsense,’ said Patricia, laughing. ‘I’m not a simpleton.’

 

Not all of the artwork was fake. There were several pieces that I’m almost certain were genuine: an eighteenth-century portrait miniature with a fat face and flaking varnish, some of the drawings and several engraved prints. The rest was forged. The four Dutch still lifes were particularly well painted, especially the one with the transparent drinking glass reflecting the window that Del had singled out. But after only a few minutes alone with the artwork I saw that the craquelure was of uniform depth: the canvas had been rolled to crack the paint. ‘Fake’ is a funny word. The paintings were real paintings, but I knew they weren’t the kind of real paintings that they pretended to be and they were not made by Willem Claeszoon Heda in the middle of the seventeenth century. I suppose it was somehow possible that so many counterfeits had ended up in Patricia’s collection by chance, but I doubted it. Had Del painted them herself? Or had she been in league with the forger? I felt sure, for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on, that Patricia did not know the truth.

When I came into the kitchen for dinner, I was watching my hosts differently. Del made pasta with a sauce she said was rose petals and parmesan – a celebration for my final evening – but it looked like mostly tomatoes. She chopped garlic with a neat precision, cupping her hand around the pieces to keep them from flying off the board. Her knuckles were dusted with constellations of golden freckles. Even after seeing the paintings for what they were, I watched her fingers and wondered what their texture felt like. We sat down to eat and Patricia wanted to talk about my work, and because the Dutch still lifes were preoccupying me I said some fairly obvious things about changes in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century that led to the development of new artistic genres. Still lifes were the result, I said, of an art-buying Protestant upper-middle merchant class attracted to subject matter that was not overtly religious. They were consumers, interested in objects, the worth of them and their minute description. Paintings that didn’t miss a detail and understood the drama that can happen in the smallest places – a cup overturned, a curtain pulled back.

It was a lovely evening, which made things worse for me, especially when we walked into the garden to look at the moon, which was round and full. The tractors in the valley looked like crouching giants and the rolling hills looked like the curves of bodies furred with trees in the pale light. Everything seemed like something it was not but I was probably a little drunk again. We said goodnight and I went to my room and walked straight to the Klee and took it off the wall. I looked at the back, the framing, and the image itself by the bedside lamp. It seemed real enough. It’s harder with modern works, but I can usually tell even before the paint analysis and the forensic tests.

I took out my notes and laptop and I began to write the preliminary report on Patricia’s collection with my mouth still tasting of her wine, her shawl around my shoulders smelling of her scent. Our firm prides itself on collection management, so I sketched out sections on condition, conservation and repair, and I suggested that several works would benefit from cleaning, most notably the fourteenth-century Madonna whose surface was damaged in the area around her hands where she, it appeared, originally had been holding something. A book, perhaps, or some symbolic fruit. The frame, I observed, was singed along the bottom in exactly the same manner as the Metropolitan’s Duccio. Because of candles, I explained, at a private altar. For each object I made notes on appraisals within the current market – relevant for insurance polices but also useful for clients who might consider selling with our auctions department in the future. Willem Claeszoon Heda and his style, in my opinion, were likely to appreciate reliably. It was late by the time I shut off the laptop. The moon’s tilted, questioning face hung low over the dark garden and somewhere in the house Patricia and Del were asleep.

When I mentioned the report casually on the final morning I thought Del’s expression would reveal something, but she looked as relaxed as always, smiling a smile as open as the sky. I told Patricia she shouldn’t hang her Klee next to the shower, and she laughed and said she’d inherited it from her mother and had never really found a place for it after she began to buy pieces through Del, but yes of course she should move it. Then the taxi collected me and I said goodbye and was driven back down the alley of cypresses. I turned in my seat to wave through the window but Del and Patricia had gone inside.

 

Andrew picked me up at the airport and said I looked ‘glowing’. He, on the other hand, looked so much like himself that I felt a protective sadness for him. Everything was exactly as I’d left it but it all looked worse: cheap and without charm. When I submitted a final copy of my report to my firm, nobody said anything about it. My colleagues wouldn’t think to question my attributions any more than I ever questioned theirs.

Shortly after getting back, I sent an email to Patricia and Del, saying what a pleasure it had been to get to know them, and thanking them for their hospitality. Patricia wrote back expressing gratitude for my work and signing the email with both their names. I replied the next day, and over the following days and then weeks I checked my email over and over. They never wrote to me again, of course. I found myself dropping them into conversations – My friends Del and Patricia; When I was staying with friends in Italy – as if saying their names aloud would call them forth. I caught Andrew giving me a sceptical look now and then – I didn’t usually discuss my clients, and he must have noticed something unusual in my tone – but I didn’t care.

 

I saw the photos as soon as our firm’s auction catalogue arrived on my desk in the spring. The Dutch still lifes were on the cover, listed as Willem Claeszoon Heda, and when I opened the booklet I recognized the prose of my own report in the descriptions. I turned the slippery pages and there was the Renaissance Madonna with the damaged hands and distinctively burned frame. Patricia was selling the whole collection, everything I had appraised except the small Klee, the inheritance from her mother. None of my colleagues in the auction department had told me; perhaps they preferred to avoid asking the questions they ought to have asked.

I closed the catalogue and put some other papers on top so I wouldn’t have to see it. I could picture the auction department staff unpacking the works, unwrapping them from layers of protective corrugated cardboard but only giving them the most perfunctory glance. The art handlers probably wouldn’t notice anything. In all likelihood, the paintings would be sold and it would be a long time before anyone looked at them carefully again. But it was possible that somebody would notice and call for a second opinion: forensic authentication, Morellian analysis, X-rays. There’d be a small scandal. My colleagues would phone Patricia and she would speak to them from her study overlooking the garden’s rosemary hedges through an open window, her smooth, pepper-scented fingers playing with the decorative objects on her table, the house bathed in soft clean light and just as beautiful without the art collection.

To read the rest of Dublin Review 60, you may purchase the issue here.