Last February, we visited the island of Ruegen on the morning after a great storm. The usually calm Baltic had raged for a day and a night, trees were torn out of the cliffs, and firefighters in the state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern had been called out two hundred times.
Next morning, the coast looked pure and innocent, the sand beaches, white rock, and grey sea as unruffled as two hundred years ago when Friedrich had painted his view of the chalk cliffs, jagged as canines, snapping at the inverted blue triangle of water, while three deranged travellers tottered, elegantly, on the lips of the maw.
The only signs that violence had been committed were the wounds left in the cliff face, and the broken limbs of trees. The sea whispered indifferently. We took photographs.
One day, a few weeks after our trip, I caught up with myself, nine months into my term, time to have a baby instead of bearing sorrow like a malignant tumour.
You reach a time when you realize you’ve stopped falling in the chasm and you should drag yourself up to peer over the edge for everyone else’s sake, if not your own.
Even the dreams have quietened down. There was one last night that took me somewhere new, not into the turbulent darkness of a bottomless well, or boxed up in a suffocating, windowless room, but outside into the sunlight of a boundless landscape.
I was looking for her; I’d lost her. In my dreams I was always losing her. It was my fault. We were supposed to be doing a roleplay job together as simulated patients in a hospital, and she’d gone missing. It was unlike her to miss a job.
She must have left the building to go out for a walk, and I panicked because she was supposed to be under medical supervision, though she did not know, or at least admit to me, how ill she was, and I would have died rather than let her find out.
After a frantic search through dressing rooms rigged in crowded corridors and on staircases blocked by actors putting on their makeup, and, on landings further down, by wounded soldiers being evacuated in the middle of a war. They were real soldiers, not actors, or, if they were, very good actors, because of the pain in their eyes as they shared jokes and smoked their cigarettes.
I ran until I reached the auditorium of a shabby Victorian theatre, dusty and ashen with disuse. It was a cavernous husk, where no human voice would speak again, so I knew she would not be there.
I ran to the first exit I could find, and opened a door expecting to see the concrete paths and dejected trees of the hospital grounds. They weren’t there. The world had shifted on its axis. In front of me was Richmond Park, on a bright summer’s day, packed with people having picnics under a cloudless blue sky.
The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, one of Gainsborough’s intimate studies of his daughters made in the late 1750s, which took 18th century sensibility forward into a Romantic awareness of individual development through the senses. Image © copyright The National Gallery London
He sees beyond the fragile innocence of two little girls, in the glancing light of a fashionably Rousseauian childhood idyll, to a more profound understanding. He is not just a portraitist exploiting vulnerability and shimmering fabric; he is their father who loves them and worries about them.
He would prefer to think his daughters are happy and well, hale and whole, but he dared to paint the anxiety showing in their faces as they ran, clutching each other’s hands, through the sinister half-darkness of a wood, which is both catalyst and externalization of their unconscious minds.
Happiness as represented by the decoratively winged insect is always out of their reach; they experience, as Keats described, “the feel of not to feel it”.
Love and madness disturb a summer’s day two hundred and fifty years after two little girls chased a butterfly.
I try to imagine again my first happy impression of this painting, first seen on visits to the National Gallery, when I was no older than the girls in the picture had been when their father painted them.
I took for granted they were living the ideal childhood of which I could only dream, long before I knew for a fact that both girls suffered from a genetic mental disorder, and grew up into deranged middle-aged women.
I didn’t see the sadness in their eyes, because I didn’t want to see it. The mysterious twilit wood looked enticing, not forboding.
When we look at their father’s painting, in ignorance of biographical details about the girls, shouldn’t our hearts still ache for them, with some knowledge intuitively divined, as Keats put it, “without irritable reaching after fact and reason”?
Or do we always impose our own preconceived ideas on everything we see, until some bossy person lectures us about it?
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the girls would have fared better in our time. Nowadays, Mary and Margaret might be taken away from Thomas Gainsborough, who loved them so, and his unstable wife, whom he also loved, to be put into mental hospital or a lifetime of unreliable drug dependency.
The painter’s wife, Margaret Gainsborough, by Thomas Gainsborough, c 1779, when she was about fifty years old.
Image © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Imagine being both the painter and the parent of those little girls, chasing their butterfly, never being able to catch it.
One person’s wistfulness is another’s indifference. Nothing we see feels the same to the person in the picture. We congratulate ourselves on feeling so deeply about art that we must be good people or, at least, better than we thought we were a moment ago
Good or not, we cannot help the girls in the picture.
We chase the butterfly.
Please don’t ask me
“How do you feel?”
In the garden of how I feel
but tears and sighs and bitter aloes.
I cannot speak
it swells inside me, fungating tumour,
choking words and ulcerating thoughts.
In the garden
of how I feel,
there is no light; sunken corner
of mind’s eye,
knotted stems writhe and mould; torn out of earth,
the mandrakes scream;
rustle angrily as rats tunnel through,
dragging tails and leaving stench of death
in her garden
lily and roses used to grow.
of absence displaces memory.
Past and present,
nothing looks nor feels the same to me
that once was seen and felt by her, too.
Please don’t tell me,
“you must move on”-
fresh amputee crawling towards
a closed door,
my only way out through catacombs.
the wild and tender flowers that she loved,
colours breaking heart of stone and clay,
ancient arts of sweet disorder,
patterns swaying with summer stems
like her the most while having little,
look – she’s climbed to the highest branch again –
she stands, laughing in the dappled light.
Written after seeing a photograph of a woman in a garden