Sculptures stand like guards outside Mr. Whidbey’s formidable entry. They are violent displays of conquest chiseled in marble. A corner lamp post illuminates features of angelic warriors’ towering above winged devils. They stand on either side of the door, swords raised, each alabaster foot placed firmly on the ebony of a demon’s belly. The sky is heavy, threatening rain.
A young man with several art cases exits, as my coachman prepares to knock. I am at once announced and admitted, first into a darkened hallway and later into a large open room, where an aged Mr. Whidbey sits on a handcrafted chair.
“Ah, Lady Attwood, welcome,” he mumbles, remaining seated. Sit down and tell me about your previous studies and what prompts your womanly fascination with art?”
Mr. Whidbey is shielded against the cold by a long velvet jacket, his arthritic hands extending below its flowing sleeves. His eyes are half-closed from age and indifference. I study him, wondering where to begin.
“My husband has recently acquired Yorkshire Manor and I find myself with time to pursue refined pleasures. I have studied elocution, literature and French and consider the study of art part of a good education. I have been especially taken with the works of the American painter, Mary Cassatt and similar renderings by Berthe Morisot of Paris. I have fondness for impressionists and prefer the skill of portraiture to landscape.”
Mr. Whidbey looks at me as if nursing a toothache. “Did you know when I was a lad that a landowner, such as your husband had the right to bed local women?”
I am stunned into silence. “No sir, I did not.”
“Fortunate for you, that law was repealed. You live on the moors, you say?”
I am baffled by his questions. “Yes. Yorkshire Manor is on the moor. My husband has a few thousand acres, with forty of those occupied by peasants.
Mr. Whidbey seems lost in reverie. “They say abandoned mine shafts sound like someone crying when the wind whirls and whistles though the moors at night. And if such a place had been known at the time of Napoleon, that the island of St Helens would never have served as a prison.”
I feel heat flush my cheeks and anger well in my chest. “You have come highly recommended, Mr. Whidbey. How do you suggest we begin instruction?”
The old man’s beard sprays fanlike from his chin, barely moving as he mutters his reply.
“To speak frankly, Lady Attwood, you appear a dabbler in art, and it is my hope to discourage such students. My studies are for the serious apprentice only, requiring a committed lifestyle. If you were such a person, you would spend the first six years of your instruction drawing, first from plaster casts and later from live models. You would later attend lectures on perspective, geometric design and the human form. The color and paint you seem so fond of are held back for at least seven years. Given your circumstance, I would recommend, like Renoir, that you begin by painting China. Surely you can find a group of similarly stationed women to join you.”
“You insult me, sir. How dare you?”
My ring catches the beads of my handbag in my haste to leave, breaking a thread, and sending hundreds of tiny charcoal glass gems across the floor. I stand holding only its silver clasp and the satiny fabric beneath.
“I will see myself out. It seems I have wasted both your time and mine. Good day Mr. Whidbey!”
I step into the rain, fighting back tears, while knowing there is truth in his words. I do not wish to spend six years drawing, or go through the grueling ordeal of apprenticeship. I simply long to put color on canvas, to smell it, feel it on my fingers and move it about in all its sensual pleasure. I ache to make portraits so rich with vibrant hue and life, that they defy mortality.
The coachman opens the carriage door as Sonia leans forward, extending her hand. “When shall we return, Lady Attwood? Will your education be daily?”
“Yes,” I tell her. “My instruction will be daily, but perhaps not here.”
Rain drips from the tip of the angel’s sword as the horses move from the curb.