Short Story Competition 2023 Adult Category Highly Commended Tommy Smith 'Mr Copley’s Painting’
"Follow Carter" they said. "Paint it like Carter" they insisted.
Why would you ever mimic a second-rate artist? You resisted their ridiculous suggestion and told them you wouldn't commit to changes until your meeting with the general. They nodded dismissively and shrugged their shoulders; annoyingly polite as only British officers can be.
Like the Spanish sailors clutching at flotsam struggling in desperation to stay alive. Everything you said, every attempt to convince, rebutted in chorus as you tried in vain to rescue the painting. 'The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar', the largest painting commissioned, the pride of the City of London, drowning in bile and with it your reputation.
Two days later you arrive early, anxious to meet the legend. Everything is intimidating. The hall dripping with militaria, the paraphernalia of earlier victories. You think back to that awkward first meeting — what you remember most, what still makes you squirm uncomfortably — the servant's
averted gaze when you arrived and how he ignored your attempts at politeness as he escorted you to the lounge.
"Copley, my officers tell me that our position on the painting is removed
from the action in Kings Bastion."
A full-frontal attack when you had hoped for a little chit chat and the offer of refreshment. You apologise and grovel when you needn't, compose yourself and clear your throat, worried a stutter will betray nervousness.
"M-m-may I have a glass of water? Please..."
Pause and breathe in deeply — one... two... three... Breathe out slowly — four... five... six... seven...
You get the easel out and prepare your materials; the charcoal sticks, the paint encrusted pallet, the coloured oils in their bladders and your favourite brushes. Always the brushes last. The same ritual over and over. Why change the habit of a lifetime? You're almost ready, nearly comfortable when
he returns in full uniform and you tighten up. ..... twitching buttocks, sweaty palms, dry mouth.
"This won't take too long?"
More command than question. You want to tell him you don't like to rush, that it never works when you're pushed. It's what happened with his officers and look how that ended. Instead, you bite your tongue and tell him that you're pleased to be painting him on his white charger.
Sukey will tell you later that you should have been more confident, more assertive. You have your prepared excuses telling her you wish you could, that she doesn't understand. You'll tell her once more that's' how you've always been and, once more, she'll reply with her best withering look.
The general taps his cane on the floor impatiently and you snap out of it. Time to start sketching. You tell him how you want him to stand, where he needs to look. You insist that he remains still and ask him to fix his stare somewhere behind you. He interrupts but you insist he holds his pose. He doesn't know that he could move if he wanted to, that it's fine to avert his gaze or to scratch an itch. He tries to interrupt again, and again you insist he holds his pose and give him hogwash about capturing him in the commanding pose of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill. Perhaps it's the
firmness in your voice but it works. You're in control and it feels good — very
If only Sukey was there to see it for herself.
You draw careful lines in a grid on the canvas, more maths than fine art. Meticulous measurements; six inches by three inches, ratios in proportion, a right angle for the general's commanding arm, more measuring and calculating. Tedious graft but it's the only way and it works. Benjamin West said in a Royal Academy meeting that artists should use a camera obscura to make it easier but that's cheating. You don't need to cheat. You scratch the canvas with your charcoal, shapeless, nonsense lines only you understand pausing for an instance before peering around the easel and drawing more deliberate, less frenetic lines. The general emerges in shades of grey on the paper. You stand back to review your work, take another step back when you're too close and look again at the gaps needing attention. A
nuanced touch with the charcoal for his beaked nose, that's all. No need to overdo it, no point sketching anymore; it's as much as it needs.
Time to mix the oils and start painting. The grey charcoal disappears replaced by the oily pigments. First the vermillion on the jacket, then the gold braiding, the white on the tunic and the black on the bicorn. Broad, gliding brushstrokes that come alive on the canvas. The mood changes as the paint flows and the general insists you've earned a cup of his best
Twinings tea. He's keen to chat and full of advice.
"You should meet General Picton. Henl 'instruct' you on the officers' placement on King's Bastion."
"Sir, I am at an important point in the painting and need to concentrate."
You let the tea go cold and continue with your painting adding thin layers of colour and detail. You ignore the general's suggestion and remind him to hold his pose. He stops talking and mumbles while you pause and smile to yourself. A dab of pink on a cheek before inviting him to see his portrait. The
Cock of the Rock gets up slowly, walks to the canvas to study his likeness and nods his approval.
"How is it you paint so well so quickly?"
Did you just see him smile? Is that warmth you felt? You pause briefly wondering if he meant it and convince yourself it was your imagination. Anyway, he doesn't need to tell you it's good; you know it is. What does he know? What does the great General Eliott know about portraits or history paintings? You purse your lips, pretend to smile and say nothing. No need to.
If only Sukey was there to see you; assertive, confident, in total command.
Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:
Highly Commended: Tommy Smith with Mr Copley’s Painting. Mr Copley’s Painting is deceptively simple. Copley is a painter of historical scenes who has been engaged to paint an equestrian portrait of General Eliott. The general is tetchy, arrogant, querulous, manipulative and condescending. Copley is timid, hesitant, uncomplaining, but deep down he is sure of his painterly skills. He has already rejected the suggestion he follow ‘Carter,’ convinced he is better than that second-rate artist. The main section of our story reflects the tension and moods of both artist and sitter.
An earlier attempt to paint a scene from one of the many sieges of Gibraltar has been a flop. Copley needs to prove to himself and, especially, to his partner Sukey, that he has the strength of character to impose his will, even on someone as proud as Eliott. As the painter grows in stature, he exacts petty revenge by making the general hold his pose and ignoring his many interruptions. Copley becomes more self-confident, and the painting is executed according to his wishes and exacting standard.
Tommy has depicted a clash of wills; he has also crafted a detailed account of the painting process, showing a rare understanding of pigment, palette, easel and charcoal. This story is full of matter, insights into the artistic personality, the recalcitrant sitter and the craft of painting. A rare achievement indeed.