Chapter 1 Louise
It’s unexpectedly beautiful, this room I will be working in for the next twelve months: white walls, polished floor, spacious, serene, and full of natural light. Skylights overhead showcase the deep blue sky – startling against all the white – and the view from the window includes a rippling corner of Sydney Harbour I am not yet familiar with.
‘She’s over here.’ Tom Clifford, the curator, leads the way to one of the large work benches. There, stripped from its frame, lies my project, my raison d’être, and I can’t quite contain my gasp of dismay.
For a while we both gaze at the portrait, a young woman whose pale hair and skin jump out from the comparatively dark background. Her hair, a frizz of tiny curls, and her mouth, with its slight smirk, inject a playful note into the otherwise formal setting. She’s wearing a magenta gown with frilled cuffs made of the same white lace as thfled neckline. Her figure seems voluptuous under the stiff bodice of the gown, but her hands and fingers are slender. She has one flaw. Correction, it is the canvas that has the flaw, not the girl. It’s quite badly damaged. In the worst possible place: the face. It looks as though it’s been poorly repaired around the right eye and a good part of the cheek area below. The effect is rather like a large tea stain. Unfortunately, it draws the eye and detracts from the beautiful colours and detail in the rest of the work.
Tom sighs softly beside me. My first impressions of him are that he’s mild-mannered and a little bit vague, but has the potential to be pernickety when it comes to things he cares about. His hair is grey, his face youthful. I estimate his age as late forties, which is relatively young for the profession: the curators I worked with in London were dinosaurs, museum relics in themselves.
‘Analiese has completed a full examination of the work.’ He gestures to the lever arch folder lying on the tabletop next to the painting. ‘Everything is documented both in hard copy and on the collection database … You’ll find that her notes are meticulous.’
Analiese is my predecessor and now the mother of a two-week-old baby girl. Apparently the baby arrived early, before Analiese had begun her maternity leave, and almost before she got to the hospital. Gabriella, the flamboyant frame conservator who works in the room next door, filled me in on all the details a few minutes ago, as soon as Tom had made introductions.
‘The pains came from nowhere. Bang. One minute Analiese was quietly working on the painting, the next she was howling in pain. The ambulance got stuck in the lunchtime traffic on the way here, and we all thought the gallery was about to give birth to its first bambina.’
Gabriella went on to assure me that the ambulance had eventually arrived, and that Analiese’s baby, Stella, was in fact born in transit to the hospital.
‘She is our bambina, little Stella. She belong to all of us. She love the gallery so much she want to be born here.’
The warmth in Gabriella’s voice, the unbridled affection for both Analiese and her baby, was so genuine and heartfelt that for a moment I felt quite inadequate as her replacement.
Gabriella is working on the frame of what is now my painting. From what I’ve heard (when Tom steered Gabriella away from the subject of baby Stella to request a brief update on her part of the project) and from what I could observe for myself (only one corner of the ornate frame remained fully intact: the others were either broken or extensively damaged), the frame is in even worse condition than the painting. Gabriella has weeks, if not months, of intricate moulding and reconstruction to make it structurally sound.
Now, with Tom looking over my shoulder, I flick through Analiese’s folder, quickly scanning her photos and notes.
‘All the testing is complete,’ he informs me. ‘Analiese was about to begin surface cleaning the work. If everything had gone to plan, she would have had that stage completed and you could have started on the varnish removal. But the baby had other ideas!’
So, one to two weeks of surface cleaning, followed by a couple of months removing the varnish, onto which hundreds of years of dust, smoke and grime has attached itself. Then the real work: repairing the terrible damage as unobtrusively as I possibly can, before inpainting and revarnishing.
Tom clears his throat. ‘Do you mind if I leave you to it? I have an important meeting …’
His voice trails away. Clearly he feels guilty about abandoning me so soon on my first morning.
Making sure my smile is warm enough to dispel his doubts, I reply, ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll spend most of today reading these notes, I imagine.’
‘Excellent. Peter or Heidi should be able to help with any queries.’
I nod. Peter and Heidi seemed friendly and helpful – though not quite as forthcoming as Gabriella – when Tom introduced me earlier. I will work alongside them, if such thing is possible in this enormous room.
Tom departs, and I pull up a swivel chair, Analiese’s notes on my knees. For the rest of the morning I am absorbed. There’s lots of technical information to take in, but by far the most surprising and compelling fact is that the artist who created this painting is unknown. The work is believed to be from the late 1700s, and is being restored in preparation for an exhibition of portraits from that era. It came into the possession of the gallery three years ago, donated by the executor of a deceased estate, who recognised the considerable skill of the artist but could not sell the painting due to the extensive damage. Analiese’s notes suggest that the painting originates from Europe, most likely The Netherlands, as this is where the deceased’s ancestors lived before they migrated to Australia after World War II. It’s hoped that as the piece is restored, more information will come to light.
Reading takes its toll, and eventually the letters and words begin to blur and make no sense. I set down the folder and press my fingers into my temples, moving them in small slow circles until the tension has eased. When I stop, it feels as though the girl in the painting has been assessing me, her one and only eye overcompensating for the missing one, seeing deeper and wider, bearing witness. It’s such a shame that the worst of the damage is to her face. If only it was in a less conspicuous place: her dress, for instance, or, better still, somewhere in the background. Then again, the damage is so confronting that it absolutely must be dealt with. That’s a good thing, because I know only too well how damage, if not brutally evident, can be underestimated and brushed aside.
It’s ironic, really, this anonymous work being assigned to me. I can see how it will play out: months and months of painstaking research, hope creeping in despite my best efforts to keep it at bay, the crushing sense of defeat as every clue, every lead, ends in nothing, absolutely nothing. Maybe I should confess to Tom that I don’t have a very good track record when it comes to things like this.
I stand and walk towards the window, which runs the full length of the wall, bathing the room in light. Looking down, I see Sydney buzzing below me: cars, trucks, ferries, and lots and lots of people. I like this city, with its blue water and skies. Though I’ve lived here less than a week, I’ve already been wooed by its beauty and glamour, and the startling sky that makes me want to reach up and scrape away a colour sample to preserve for darker, gloomier days. The sun catches off the water and the glass windows of the skyscrapers, and everything glitters. I can see greenery, both in the foreground and background, and I know this city can breathe, that it’s open and airy and has somehow escaped that boxed-in, contained feeling that other cities have. Yes, this a good place to visit … to live … to stay.
Is this where you are? I whisper under my breath.