Beryl Bainbridge, novelist and painter
Dr Johnson in Albert Street with his Cat Hodge (2000, oil on board) © The Estate of Beryl Bainbridge
By MICHAEL CAINES
"Turning, he was confronted by an image of himself in the vast mirror on the gallery wall and did not recognise his features. It was as though the shaving glasses at Streatham Park and Johnson's Court, deceived by familiarity, had presented a false portrait, for here the mouth that he had privately considered generous appeared licentious in its fullness, and his large eyes, at home seemingly so expressive of candour, were lit with a sly regard, as of a man fixed on himself."
Which, as portrayed by Beryl Bainbridge in this paragraph from According to Queeney, Dr Johnson really is. The oil painting above, however, is also her work. It has Johnson, by contrast, sitting for his portrait at the table of her house in London, stroking his cat Hodge, and looking back at us.
He is a guest here as he is in the Thrales' house (as depicted in the novel); his head seems to me to be pretty much dead-centre on the canvas, but the scenery around him draws attention to itself, too, in the details of the cut-work, the flowers rising over him and the beaded lamp, as well as the aslant rectangles of the table and the window before and behind him. Perhaps something similar is going on in the passage I've just quoted from According to Queeney: Johnson's disturbed view of himself comes in the middle of another spectacle, a royal dinner; relief only comes when he escapes into the outside world where "white clouds flapped the heavens", "like sails in a blue sea".
This painting is one of two Johnson portraits Bainbridge produced as she was writing that novel about him and the Thrales fourteen years ago. Those who know According to Queeney and Bainbridge's other novels (Young Adolf, say, in which the protagonist describes himself "bitterly", following his rejection by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, as a "painter of postcards") will perhaps find much "harmless pleasure" (Johnson'sseemingly grudging praise of his friend David Garrick's achievements as an actor) in the exhibition Art and Life: The paintings of Beryl Bainbridge, presented by the Cultural Institute at King's College London.
Curated by Susie Christensen, it opens next week, on May 22, in the Inigo Rooms at KCL, Somerset House East Wing, and runs until October 19. Bainbridge had no formal training as an artist, but drew and painted all her life, apparently, and made a little money from that work, too, before she made any from her writing. She's by no means unique, I suppose, in being an adept in both visual and verbal media (step forward, Mervyn Peake, Ian Hamilton Finlay et al), but the close ties between the two are intriguing. Out of the associated talks, I'm particularly looking forward to hearing Brendan King talking about working with the novelist and his forthcoming biography of her, but also about a painting that depicts the same shooting incident from life that Bainbridge put into The Bottle Factory Outing. As above, such connections prompt the thought that maybe the concision and acute observations in the fiction are the result of her having, in some other sense, seen it all already.