Friday, November 25, 2005

A Private History of Bleak Manor. (The Painter. Clouds Gather at Bleak Abbey.)

(Click to enlarge, by all means.)

In that tragic autumn of 182--, Lord Bleak had returned disillusioned from the Greek War for Independence, sailing by way of Cape Horn, and, stopping in London, had had his legendary meeting with that bibulous, salacious, and maniacal beacon of the Romantic movement, J.M.T.W.T. Slidesmuir, who was then at odds with the legal authorities over the wholesale corruption of a noted convent. The two immediately hit it off: Bleak had long admired Slidesmuir's landscapes, mythological scenes, and lengthy studies of the undraped female form; Slidesmuir had quickly come to cherish Bleak's dash, his wandering mind, and his easy way with his purse. Bleak spirited the put-upon artist away in a mad chase by midnight coach that later became the subject of popular tavern songs.

Arriving at the main house early the following morning, Bleak impatiently explained his abrupt departure "for a bit of a ride, you know" seven years before to his tempestuous cousin Arabella, not yet subject to more than occasional seizures, and her recently-arrived companion and relative, the stylish and neurasthenic Miss Mulu Cherchelle, a novelist and amateur botanist, just returned from an educational but much-discussed tour of the continent. Slidesmuir seemed quite taken with both of the ladies, as he did with Miss Zuleika Mole, Bleak's long-suffering amanuensis, and indeed with several of the younger members of the household staff, as well as with the gardener's wife and daughter (in an attachment that proved, in the event, to be quite unfortunate for all concerned.)

Although Slidesmuir endeavored to interest the ladies in several of his ambitious artistic projects, these were not to come about, beyond a few sketches -- an eventuality which connoisseurs of the fine arts have long regretted -- as Bleak had other plans for his talents. Because Slidesmuir was temporarily embarrassed as to his means, and was dependent on Bleak's generosity for board, drink, and bare toleration, he acceded to Bleak's requests. As we know, his extraordinary "epic landscape" of the Bleak houses and grounds (reproduced above) would soon come to be considered utterly unique in the world of art. Due to the affair of the gardener alluded to above, and the discovery of his whereabouts by several dragoons who had a bone of contention to pick with him, he was forced to leave Bleak Manor before he could complete more than a few studies for his lithographic illustrations to Bleak's highly inventive epic poem, "The Oath of the Medusae," a loss which is occasionally if mildly rued to this day.

Slidesmuir spent four months sketching and painting the scenery of the Bleak grounds, in a frenzy of creativity, occasional work, and legendary imbibing. There has in recent years been much ungrounded speculation that Slidesmuir may have had affairs of the heart with either Arabella or Mulu or both, but the surviving evidence -- Arabella's letters to Dr Praetorius at Glasgow, Miss Cherchelle's famous journals, Slidesmuir's rambling and frequently illegible diaries, and Reverend Torquemada's unpublished recollections of contemporaneous conversations with a troubled, if often silly, Bleak -- does not support such surmises. Indeed, surviving notes by a local barber indicate that Slidesmuir suffered several injuries consistent with romantic rejection -- though, to be sure, his tales of how these wounds came about were at best inconsistent.

"Bleak Abbey as seen from Bleak House Across the Lake With Bleak College in the Distance" has been a matter of dispute by art scholars for years, as no such view can be plausibly reconstructed by a visitor to the estate -- as it now stands. Nor was Bleak College established, to the best of our knowledge, until 185--. Still, the painting contains, apart from much to interest the general aesthete, many clues concerning general architecture, gardening, the extent of the grounds, and the daily life of its inhabitants and staff. A careful study of its details reveals much of intense interest to the scholarly Bleak specialist, as well as the general dullard possessed of a temporary curiosity about the family and its social circle. The above black-and-white photograph is the only one that the Bleak heirs have allowed to be taken of the painting, though a viewing of it in its full glory -- it stands nearly sixteen feet high in a fifteen-foot gallery, and its unusual use of color has caused intense reaction -- may be had by applying to the Bleak family solicitors.