The rain it raineth

The painting in front of me hangs proudly on its wall, rich in its age, an age that I cannot begin to comprehend. It began life as a white canvas. An Irishman, slender, red-bearded, set it on a stand in his Newlyn studio in 1889 and made it into a work of art.  It was one of the largest canvas boards he’d ever worked upon; it was to be his masterpiece.

He needed it to be. He was not long married. He had a young child and a second on the way, and he was struggling to make a living from his work. Years of hesitancy over careers must have weighed heavily on Norman Garstin as he painted: he’d attempted engineering, architecture, diamond mining and journalism, all without success. An accident whilst hunting had blinded his right eye; it was while he was adjusting to partial sight that he decided to become an artist. He had trained for years in Europe and then settled in remote Newlyn, having heard of its promising art colony. He was now 42 years old. He had to make this work.

The Rain It Raineth Every Day hangs in Penzance’s Penlee Gallery, and is a work of realism that captures an unmistakable English scene: a wide promenade on a rainy day, across which stride dark, coated figures with sturdy umbrellas, indifferent to the spent wave breaking across the walkway in the background.

As I stare at it now, I try to suppress a feeling of disappointment. It’s just that it’s different from what I remembered. My parents had hung a print of it on the wall of their old living room, directly over the TV. It would gaze austerely out at the room, whilst technicolour sparked and fizzed underneath. I remember it as gloomy and grey. I would stare up at it sometimes when I was trying to do my Maths homework, or whilst eating my tea. It sobered me.

The original is not so gloomy, not so grey.  It carries hints of pinks and blues that provide it with a luminescence, another layer of meaning, that the print couldn’t carry forward. ‘Time and again, when looking at a Garstin picture, one’s initial reaction is of slight disappointment,’ writes Richard Pryke, the artist’s main biographer. My disappointment differs from the sort towards which he gestures, but I take the reassurance all the same.

Pryke says: ‘If one concentrates on the picture, its true composition becomes evident and its different parts fall into place’, and it is true that I have walked around this gallery, looked at the other works, and returned to this one alone for another look. I stand at different distances and angles, trying to catch the light off its surface; I puzzle over the unfinished quality to the main figure’s face. I work hard to make my disappointment disappear.

I guess I feel guilty for preferring the print. The Rain It Raineth is Penlee Gallery’s jewel, and the fact that it is here at all carries sadness. Garstin never managed to sell his masterpiece, and left it to the gallery as a gift. Not being able to sell it changed the course of his life, reducing the number and quality of works that he produced, uprooting him from Newlyn, triggering mental illness and marital strain.

The original now hangs with pride and does not disclose its creator’s misfortunes. As for the print – The Rain It Raineth that I know was taken down when my parents moved. It lies in their new living room, torn and unframed in the dark behind the sofa, while brighter, more disposable prints take its place above the flickering screen.

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New Years Day and the ephemeral feeling of promise

The road to Maenporth, which has been shut for months, was temporarily re-opened over Christmas and New Year. On New Years Day, the very last day before the drills are taken up again and the yellow diversion signs are set back on roundabouts, we take our dogs to the beach at low tide. We put them in the boot of the car and settle into the front seats. The dogs bark excitedly all the way. I have my wellies on.

The beach is busy as we park in the beach car park. Dad opens the car boot – ‘I’m going to try and grab Maddy. You take hold of Sandy. I’m going to do this quickly, so one, two, three-’ and we each grab a dog. We clip leads onto collars, and when we are a little way down the beach and away from the road, we unclip them.

This is the best bit, because Sandy, our golden retriever, goes bananas in a way that I wish I could emulate when I myself experience joy. Freed from her lead, she bolts but cannot settle upon a direction: she runs towards a gang of black headed gulls which scatters and disperses into the cliffs; runs to the beach stream that cuts across the sand like a crack on a plate; runs back to us in loops and swirls, checking up on our progress, eyes glinting with craziness, tongue escaping from her mouth. Her paws print the damp, compressed sand with her movements, which perhaps replicate the direction of thoughts in her own mind. Maddy, the collie, is fully focused upon the ball which my Dad inserts with wet, sandy fingers into the ball launcher, and tears off down the beach every time that he raises it in the air and brings it down like a scythe. We walk to the beach stream and begin to cross it. The water threatens to break over the top of my wellies; the current is strong, strong enough to momentarily paralyse me in the middle of the stream with the fear that I will fall. We reach the other side without incident, however, and have to ourselves a part of the beach where caves can be found in the cliffs, where pebbles form concourses around much larger rocks and where rock pools are, for a few hours, exposed.

Sandy heads first for the sea, running over sand only recently exposed by the receding tide. Low tide sand is never land for long: in the hour in which it breathes in the open air, it is so saturated that a thin layer of water lies upon it like a mirror. As Sandy runs, two dogs are visible, one in this world and one in an exposed world underneath. I mooch around in the shallows and amongst the rocks, from time to time calling the dog to me, rewarding her with treats as I go. I take to standing in the sea, the waves passing over the top of my boots as the tide turns and they start the ceaseless tasks of cleansing and erasing. I watch as a trail of my own footprints are lost, then a deep scuff in the sand made by the hind paw of a dog taking off in another direction, perhaps after a ball.

My brow loosens and I uncurl toes that were gripping the insoles of my boots. Out on the horizon two great container ships, painted red and green, manage to look jolly. The sun breaks through cloud that for weeks has been thick and heavy with rain; so bright is the light that as I move back among the pebbles and the rock pools, I feel like I am walking in an Instagram photo. Reality feels more colourful, more yellow. It has been a long time since yellow has been here.

After half an hour, my Dad tires of slashing the ball launcher through the air. There is satisfaction written into the creases of his face: his eyes are more open than usual, and his shoulders are relaxed. The sea moves its way up the beach, shooing us inland, and we make our way over the stream and reach the car. Dad opens the boot  – ‘come on Maddy, in’ – and shuts it.

We settle into the front seats, and as we drive back up the road, the dogs begin to bark. The noise rings in my ears and is so loud that it is all that I can focus on. It seems to hold something open all the way home, something that is trying very hard to close.