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Figure with Window

by Michael O’Connor

    I do sometimes wonder if I should have been a better painter without it – without my unearned income. It has been of course a great advantage in life in so many ways, oh, yes, indeed, but perhaps the prick of genuine need would have given my work more – more what – urgency, assertion? I shall never know. Certainly it has enabled me to build up, for the education and pleasure of myself and others, a beautiful collection of books filled with the works of the great painters – and as I bathed successively in the mysterious mosaics of Cezanne, the dancing colours of Derain, the voluptuous impastos of Soutine, I began to apply in my own developing work some of the techniques and precepts of these masters.
I exhibit frequently – but I must say without success: here again, although I don’t need the price of a picture to put fruit and wine on my table, I should dearly love to see a work of mine – well, touch someone and go home with them. At the opening of a recent group show by the local Art Society (held as usual in the Rotarians’ hall above our largest hotel) I was pleased to see from across the room, while advising Mrs. Millhench on the colour principles of Seurat, that my own small view of the town hall in the pointiliste style (very sensitively framed in natural materials) was apparently receiving constant attention. Whenever I glanced over, two or three people were halted before it with attentive expressions. Later I realised that it had been hung beside the door to the only lavatory, and my imagined admirers were in fact a queue.
This month saw the annual exhibition in the town hall, to which I sent several canvases in my current style after the Fauves. The one accepted was a window study in the manner of Matisse, being an oblique view of the market place behind a seated figure – a not unsuccessful exercise in planes of muted colour. A week before the exhibition’s closing date I was thrilled to find in the mail a cheque for sixty pounds! My scalp crawled with pleasure as I read “Please find enclosed a cheque in respect of your painting entitled ‘Figure with window’.” I was bought! A purchased artist! Had the life I wanted begun at last? The light in the hall-way seemed to brighten around my fingers holding this accompanying slip – a formality to which I could now hope to become accustomed, like those red adhesive dots on the frame, like a sweet soft bell that signals the proper and happy transfer of a piece of work to a room in somebody else’s life. Attached beneath the slip was a letter in a precise but unfamiliar hand:

Holmwood House Hospital
Waywards Heath
June 15th

Dear Mr Blakiston
I feel I should enclose with our payment an explanation of the regrettable destruction of your (excellent) painting “Figure with window”. This was wrought by a Mr John Latham, a patient released from our care this morning. There was, I gather, no time for intervention to preserve the painting as he marched directly up to it, seized it from the wall and, after totally destroying it by jumping repeatedly through the canvas, left immediately.
I understand from conversation since Mr Latham’s re-admission here that your (splendid) painting reminded him strongly of an aunt, in Ipswich I think he said. To look on the bright side if I may, Mr Blakiston, this singular reaction may well be of great assistance to us here in further unravelling this unhappy man’s difficulties.

I am, with apologies again,
(Dr) J.H. Stroke (Director)


Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’ (1991), pages 68-69.

Michael O'Connor

J. Oswald