• Vol. 09
  • Chapter 01

The foundling

This was a tricky commission. Not something that I would normally agree to, but when you are an only child and your father asks you to take on a project, then it is difficult to refuse. As a benevolent trustee of the workhouse, he had always taken his responsibilities seriously, and in our small town he was considered the perfect example of a fine upstanding mayor.

So it was that I found myself on the doorstep of the forbidding Victorian building, home to many women and children who had fallen on hard times.

The matron, stiffly informed me that Mr Robinson had been most specific in his orders: these two unfortunates were to be my models and I was to portray their likenesses in a suitable manner.

From the outset, it was awkward. I am used to forging a relationship with the subjects of my paintings and often find that they are happy to chat about their lives and loves, but these two appeared to be hesitant and distant. They stood stiffly, their starched aprons crackling if they moved.

I fell upon the idea of giving the youngest one something to do and asked her to go to the kitchen for a pestle and mortar, hoping that she would forget about me if her mind was occupied with a task. Her mother, as I assumed the older woman to be, however continued to gaze away from me, placing her hand protectively on the child’s back, while the child chattered on. It was a soulless room that we were given as a studio. The air still heavy with the smell of the lunchtime’s fish soup, the table was bare, there were no paintings on the wall and the pristine tablecloth showed no sign of any meal.


The foundling

After about twenty minutes, during which time the only sound was the scrape of my charcoal on the paper and the child’s voice, a cat wandered into the dining hall, and settled itself in the last of the afternoon sun.

I mused about their attitude towards me. I considered myself a handsome man, I was not used to women not being attracted to me. Surely there must have been an element of humility and gratitude towards those of us who were responsible for saving their souls from lives of penury and pain?

However, my father was delighted with the finished work, and it hung in his study for many years until his recent death caused me to move it and take a closer look.

With the experience of years, I can now see that this painting was well executed. The light is a triumph, and the cat a lucky accident which helped to lift the execution of the subject.

For the first time today, I noticed how I had perfectly captured the stiff posture of the older woman and the thickening waist which implied her pregnancy.

I still wonder at my father’s reasons for choosing these particular models.