St Ives, 1926
When other artists painted Alice Aubrey they would focus on her hands: long and raw with turpentine and salt, too angular and strong to be feminine, pigment ground into calluses like soot into finely grained wood. In winter when the seafoam froze in the corners of the harbour, she could be seen climbing the rough slopes of the island, the small easel she kept for outdoor work balanced on her shoulder like some arcane theodolite, and a canvas satchel bouncing the long rhythm of her strides against a bony hip.
She painted the town: the little chapel on the jetty where fishermen said their silent, stoic prayers; the narrow streets caught in the throat of the land between two beaches; the way perspective conspired to flatten the swoop of the coast into a string of thin white beaches that ended in the small railway station beneath the cliff. On winter afternoons, when the lamps in the carriage were turned on, you could see the train sliding silently along its track above the shore.
Around this time she started work on two paintings that were later to become her most well-known works. The empty train in winter is a large canvas that took only weeks to complete. It shows a bleak winter landscape bisected by the shore, the sea a dark mass of potential energy on one side, and on the other a steep hillside topped with trees that lean away from the wind. The rookery in their branches is a clot of dark paint; frost has dulled the colours back to greys and muted greens. And from the right, hard to distinguish from the gathered shadows at first, a single train carriage enters the picture, its windows lit with a yellow light that is the only point of warmth in the painting. Too small for us to see inside, we are nevertheless drawn to its hermetic interior, the suggestion of curtains at the windows, the way light spills onto the wet rocks below. It was finished almost five months after the death of her brother, Reuben, in Yorkshire.
The painting can be seen, partially finished, in the background of several photographs, most notably those taken at a party held in the artist's studio in November of 1926. In these photographs it is partially obscured by the figure of Elizabeth Kidd. She is caught in motion: her long hair a grainy smudge; one thin arm with its articulated elbow; the suggestion of a smile and downcast eyes.
The artist is next to her in profile. It is impossible to tell where she is looking.
* * *
A bell ringing down in the harbour. The boats coming back early ahead of some minor storm. Rain on the attic roof. And the birds, always the birds.
The skylight in the centre of the studio ceiling casts a rhombus of light against the floorboards, flitted with the momentary shadows of gulls. That morning frost furred the edges of her windows, but melted before she had finished lighting the stove. Standing in the bay window with the glass rattling and a thick draught moving the hair by her ear, she can smell it still. That coldwater smell. That leaf-mould November smell. Wet wood and iron. She will work on the train painting today.
She calls it that in her head. Titles never come easy. She jokes sometimes that words come to her in lists, and not sentences. Things she takes note of. Things she wants to remember. Things precious and annoying, strange and ordinary. This Saturday morning: the jackdaws cracking shells on the stones of the pier. Coffee and a stale cinnamon bun for breakfast. The studio still scattered with glasses and crumbs and little flowers made from newsprint that someone brought to the party.
Aubrey finds she does not mind the mess so much. She tends towards sparseness and finds the change rakish. She stands for a while in the window which looks out from the third floor along the length of the pier, where lobster pots are stacked neatly against the stone windbreak. The White Rose. Elizabeth Kidd sang it standing by the window, and laughed as she sang. The neck of her mandolin, afterwards, hanging from her hand like the neck of a dead bird. Her brother's foot tapping the rhythm on the bare boards. They had all pleaded with her for more, him included. It had been so late by then.
The big canvas against the back wall is waiting. Aubrey finishes her cinnamon bun, licks the sugar from her knuckle, pulls on her fraying gansey, and opens the windows wide. She does not think of cleaning but takes the stiff broom from the cupboard and sweeps the area around the easel clear. Rain drips onto the windowsill. The birds and their shrieking.
She wants to paint them both: Elizabeth and Augustus, with their black and white clothes and their dark hair and their eyes underwritten by shadow. She'll ask them sometime.
The rain eases off as she works. Every now and again she stops and wipes off her brushes and goes to stand in the window to look at the sea. The rain gives it an odd granular texture and the light falls flat upon it. There are seals sheltering in the space between the piers, little black heads that hang in place, then vanish, then rise again.
She hums The White Rose as she works, but somehow nothing is working. She's bored with the expanse of the sea, the train, the hill in shadow. Even painting those little yellow-lit windows does not cheer her. Even their brocade curtains, their suggestion of seats. By the afternoon she is sitting on the damp windowsill eyeing the thing disparagingly. Winter light has slid across the floor until it falls on the skirting board next to the fireplace and shows off the dust there. There is a good clean hunger in her belly that feels like a bubble of light expanding into her chest.
She unscrews the easel and props the canvas against the back wall. Replaces it with one of the gessoed blanks in a stack by the door, protected from dust with a coffee sack slit down both sides.
This moment: the white space in her twinned with the new white canvas. The White Rose. The birds. The sense that, beyond the room where she paints, the town climbs its hills under the blank November sky, patient and unconcerned, complete.
An extract from Fret, a novel in progress by Rhiannon Hooson. Rhiannon has appeared twice at the Hay Festival, and was one of this year’s Writers at Work as well as one of Literature Wales’ bursary recipients for 2019. Her poetry collection, The Other City, available now from Seren, was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award.