National Gallery Painting: A Girl at a Window – by Louis-Leopold Boilly
Henry was tired. On his feet for hours, art galleried to death, had enough of London’s culture, couldn’t take another step unless he had a cup of tea tired.
Lunch? Well that never happened did it. And he knew unless he put his foot down (a very tired and throbbing foot at that) he wouldn’t get a moment’s rest. Anyway, not this side of the yet-to-come British Museum plus that ‘best kept secret’ of a place Peter and Jeanette had got wind of a few streets off bluestocking Bloomsbury. Far too many streets as far as Henry was concerned.
No, whatever the pain, his foot had to be stamped and surrounded by the crowds and clamour of the National Gallery’s foyer Henry finally stamped it. Thus, five minutes later, he was sitting in the downstairs coffee bar enjoying his first sip of strong English Breakfast tea and an bite of Bakewell tart. Both ecstasies enjoyed to a blissful third - massaging socked feet along a table foot rail while his sweaty brown brogues growled in pain on the floor like kicked curs.
Henry took another sip from his stylish china cup and afforded himself a chuckle. His middle-aged son and unexpectedly much younger daughter-in-law were no doubt still pounding the galleries upstairs in their never-ending search for ‘it’. All that art, all that beauty and realism, all that Impressionism and all the Dada and Lah-di-da-isms too. ‘It’ was their own Holy Grail quest.
Henry wondered if they actually ever stopped to look at a painting, really look, and take in what they saw. Or did they just tick them off like bingo card numbers in a get-rich-quick race for enlightenment, refinement and one-up-personship over whatever the like-thinking circle of friends they had. All those Turners and Constables, and Rembrandts and Monets up there baring their souls, all life’s precious secrets, and podgy, small-town Bohemian Pete and his independently wealthy, hard as nails Yorkshire-born and bred Jeanette were no doubt speeding by completely ignorant and untouched by any artistic hand of God.
Feeling began to swim back into Henry’s 75-year-old feet and he smiled yet again at his only remaining family members’ non-stop life-style. Culture tours (Venice to St Petersburg), safaris and endangered species treks (Africa to the Arctic), cinema, plays opera, literary festivals, art, music weeks or fringes and all sorts of binges, eager-beaver Peter and Jeanette were always in search of the elusive ‘it’.
But Henry knew the truth. Yes, simple South East London born and raised, retired local government officer, ten years a widow Henry knew all right. Eternal seekers of ‘it’ they may be, but his son and his wife wouldn’t know ‘it’ if it poked them in the eye. Henry understood. You don’t tick off a life. You experience it. Peter and Jeanette wouldn’t know the beauty of a Velazquez, or a Snow Leopard, or great book or symphony if it bit them hard on their Sunday paper arts section.
To Peter and Jeanette, merely seeing something was the thing. But the thing itself - the quality of it, the beauty of it - never mattered. To them, Turner and Constable might be just a partnership of solicitors.
And today was no exception. Let’s have a big day out in town so you can see everything before we take you back up North they said. Stupidly he had agreed, more from a misguided sense of gratitude than anything else. Well they were taking him in he supposed. They were 'saving' him weren't they? The rapid onset of Altzheimer’s and he would be needing people to look after him pretty soon. So, a whirlwind arty day in the Capital before it was all change to Yorkshire and an imposing house by the moors. Henry assumed he would somehow be neatly fitted in around the fringes and binges as he doubted Peter and Jeanette were going to give up their quest for an old man with a creeping condition.
Eventually, Henry finished his tea, wiped some Bakewell crumbs from his mouth, and managed to re-brogue without screaming. But making to leave the National’s coffee shop, suddenly he saw a gallery leading away into the bowels of the building and on a whim decided to enter. His first few steps were stiff and achy but soon he had straightened himself out and was meandering in a long, brightly lit room full of paintings.
Henry was more jazz than visual arts but he knew what he liked. Stuff the modern stuff, he preferred more easy to understand classical pictures with nice, pretty faces in them. Like the one he had been unconsciously staring at for the last ten minutes for example. The one which was holding him spell-bound. The one that had temporarily made him forget any aches and pains. The one of a girl at a window - a girl with the lovely face and the eyes like his long-lost darling Franny.
Beauty in the eye of its beholder. Beauty in the moment and the now. Beauty in the unveiling of truth. Beauty like Henry hadn’t seen for many, many years. The beauty of a young girl reaching into his now all too vulnerable brain and seeing the fading future there. The beauty of a pretty girl in white soothing him - she had the power and the authority to do that. The beauty of a young goddess sitting on a window sill looking out and giving reason to the world.
Then the girl was speaking to him, right out of the painting, and at her words Henry was conscious once more. At some level he could still feel his sore feet and had a lingering taste of Bakewell, but these were far away sensations - tiny wafts of air from a distant breeze.
“I hate it here Henry! They’ve moved me down here and I hate it. You don’t want to move either do you?” The girl’s voice calmed and resonated, rose and fell, whispered and roared.
Henry eyes were locked on hers and at length he swallowed to answer the sweetness.
“No. No I don’t. I don’t want to move. I want to stay in Greenwich where I belong.”
The girl at the window turned her head, Henry believed it so, but in a flash she was back looking squarely at him, her smile widening as she spoke again.
“My place is upstairs, in Room 33, the corner one just down from the Turners and along from the Caravaggios and Velazquezes. That’s where we belong. But they’re carrying out repairs so we’ve been shunted down here.”
The girl swung her heard again, turning from side to side as if taking in new surroundings.
Henry found it easier to talk now.
“I’m having to move to Yorkshire to live with my son and his wife. I think I will hate that too but I have to go as I am going to get quite ill fairly soon. That’s what they say anyway.”
The girl raised her delicate hand in sympathy. It had been resting on a thin telescope lying on the sill.
“Oh poor you! Well at least we will be moving back soon … my brother and I …”
And she held her other arm out to a little boy sitting in the dark of the room just behind her. Henry only noticed him now, crouching at another telescope - a long shiny one pointing slightly upwards out of the window.
“Are you young astronomers?” Henry probed.
The girl laughed. Beauty in the joy of a lovely face. Beauty in the grace of wonder. Beauty in the presence of awe.
“We like to look at all the things happening in the other pictures in our Room. The trees, the buildings, all the people and what they’re doing. It’s always lots of fun. I sit at this window and see everything going on.”
Henry was pinched by thoughts of home.
“Where I live, in Greenwich, there’s a big Observatory up on the hill in the park. The Royal Observatory. It’s very famous. They’ve looked at the stars with telescopes there for centuries.”
The girl gasped as she claped her hands together and brought them to her mouth.
“Oh my! The stars. How I wish I could see them. I know they must exist, somewhere out there, in the sky, but I have never had a glimpse. Have you seen them, at your Observatory? Have you? What are they like?”
Henry saw the girl’s eyes soften slightly with what he thought were tears and he felt pain in his heart.
“It isn’t my Observatory but I have been there many times. It looked at the stars to find out about time.”
“But stars… they are beautiful aren’t they?”
The girl was utterly enchanting.
“Yes they are. Beautiful. More beautiful than you could ever imagine. As beautiful as you are.”
The girl laid her hand back down on her telescope on the window sill and resorted to her usual position in the painting.
“Oh I wish I could see them from my window. Wouldn’t that be something. If I could only do that. Well, I would sit here and never want to move again.”
Then lifting her eyes to Henry’s once more, she smiled her beaming smile.
“Goodbye Henry. Goodbye. You have to move you know. It’s for the best. Soon you will need your son and his wife. But they love you and will show it. Goodbye and good luck.”
And the girl was gone. The painting was still there, Henry stepped a pace towards it, but a spell had been broken. Then all at once he felt a touch on his shoulder and Peter and Jeanette were standing beside him.
“There you are!” said his son, breathing hard, “We’ve been looking for you. It’s been ages. We were worried!”
Inexplicably, Henry’s daughter-in-law threaded her arm through his and spoke to him more softly than she had ever done before.
“Why don’t we pack all this in for the day and go and get some early dinner. We can get a table at the restaurant here at the National. Would you like that?”
Henry was stunned. The less eager beavers.
“What about the British Museum and your secret Bloomsbury place?”
Peter puffed. “Can’t be bothered. Let’s get dinner instead!” And the three of them turned to leave the girl at the window still looking out onto the world.
Just as they were entering the restaurant, Henry said he needed to go and buy something from the National shop. He left Peter and Jeanette to order some red wine, asked a gallery attendant where to go, and within minutes was back at the table raising a glass to Peter’s toast.
“To you Dad. To happy times in Yorkshire!”
Henry drank his expensive Burgundy and realised his feet weren’t aching anymore.
Two days later Henry woke in his Yorkshire bedroom, got up and walked to the large bay window looking out on a wild panoramic view of the moors. Light poured in, the curtains hadn’t been closed for the night, and Henry stretched up to take something off a wooden window beam. It was the picture postcard of A Girl at a Window by the artist Louis-Leopold Boilly he had bought at the National shop.
Turning the postcard over, he looked again at a girl sitting at her window - a beauty for the whole wide world.
“Well?” Henry asked, “It was such a clear night. Did you see the stars?”
The girl smiled her wonderful smile and blew a kiss at her new friend.
“The sky was full of them. Thank you. Thank you so much. A window full of stars.”
© Keith Bradbrook 2019