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.