Monday, October 26, 2009

The Barred by The Landless Landlord

A newspaper's a thing to open with trepidation. If it's not blaming landlords for binge drinkers it's hysteria about the effects we have on the nation's livers, and if we escape these intimations we should all be closed down, it's only to make way for despairing reports about how many of us already are.

But one story rumbling away over the last couple of years seems to have gone unnoticed, articles which, collectively, undermine a vast swathe of the country's signs. Since there's no portrait of Shakespeare, the experts tell us, that can be said to have been a painting of the man himself, there is, of course, no substance in a sign of the Shakespeare pub using his representation in illustration. The name itself 'the Shakespeare' is in doubt.

The pub opposite me, for instance, based upon one of the greatest frauds in the history of art - the 'Flower Portrait' artist unknown, product of some nineteenth century joker. In fact, looking closely at the Flower Portrait, a sly smile reveals a secret awareness of the fraud. Perhaps the portrait represents, then, not the appearance drawn from the life, but the spirit of the man - actor, that is, and fictionmonger. Although on the pub sign the smile has been expunged, it's only to displace the acknowledgement to the masks at his shoulders: don't trust the sign, there's no such thing as this Shakespeare.

Of course along with the image, sufficiently little is known about the life to give credence to the deniers. Since one thing we do know of is his links to Edward Alleyn and his company, anyone seeking to get behind the smile to the flesh would, like me, jump at the rare showing of the Dulwich Picture Gallery's original Alleyn bequest. Here at least we find paintings of people who had looked at him and worked with him, and could tell us, yes that smile is genuinely his - the knowing eyes and improbable forehead - or no, not even the spirit of the man is recognisable there, close the pubs, proven beyond foundation.

Perhaps the portrait of Alleyn could make a sturdier sign.

This drift from the original was chastening, and it was with a tinge of melancholy that I made my way back down the drive of the gallery and away towards the city, a mood only deepened by the discovery of the Beer and Wine Houses, not one room, you can be sure, kept aside for an industry worker on hard times.

It was then I recalled one of the most enchanting encounters I think I've ever had nearby in Nunhead. It was only last March, shortly after one of the more recent Shakespeare portrait debates broke. I'd recently closed the pub, hadn't long been single, had been happy to find myself invited to a party. There'd been a woman I'd never met before, intelligent, oval face slightly tilted forward as though in world-weary thought, smiling, but melancholy, the dress in flowing white folds, leaning her body onto a full hip, her skin so pale it had, as well as an ethereal and perhaps goth quality, gothic, a gentle sensuousness I found it hard to keep from looking at, but also, throughout the evening, impossible to address, as though a product of my own imagination. I'd stayed the night, and, the next day, not a little hung over, still, after a late breakfast, had headed for the station, diverting the route through the cemetery on the host's suggestion: follow the paths, see the headstones, charming lodges, at the centre the ruined chapel. There I'd met the woman from the night before, wandered around with her on the way.

At the time, depressed as I was about having lost the job, I was also excited to be discovering the city again. I had a new camera, too, bought to photograph the signs for the new blog. As we talked I'd train it on details around us, not for the blog, but just happy to be discovering them, wanting to confirm the happiness.

I sensed that something slightly irritated her about this. We were sitting on a bench. We'd done the circuit of every path there was in the cemetery, but I, and retrospectively I realise obviously she too, hadn't wanted to part company, happy to drift from subject to subject sharing our thoughts, finding out about each other, joking, silent. I'd been wanting a shot of her, hadn't known how to do that naturally, decided that doing it unnaturally, asking her to pose for me, would be exciting in itself and perhaps bring us together, but she'd refused.

She'd been reading this book. The world's always had ways of representing, the camera just another. The first means of photographic representation was the pyramid.

Time, she said, holding up a flat hand, the fingers together, parting one by one as she spoke, is a process of splitting, the present a permanent branching off into the past. The pyramid's a representation of that, the top in the present, the base the memories. That's not symbolism, it's how it works as a mechanism, what it is. The camera's always at the top, as you press, the present divides, splits with the click into itself an image of itself that slowly descends the pyramid, towards the past. An early photographic approach, now sadly forgotten, was lithographic, photocromosomes, light engraving stone. These stones around us here now, too, are film like a camera's or sensors, now, in your digital, taking the light, the elements, the lichen on them, moss, photosynthesing images, too. And not only the stones, the leaves, traces of light as they grow, the cells splitting, the veins, or as they shake, of the wind. Even my hand, my face is a photograph. Places themselves and the things in them. There was a spring wind, she looked to the left as I sat on the right, some of the words were taken away, I was tired, but I felt I grasped the sense, the shot there already, in the stones, her, the place.

The pyramid, she said, became fashionable for headstones in the 18th century, as a result of Newton's investigations into light, the cone, the relationship to perception, the camera.

She seemed to know a lot, hard to follow. I'd been too busy to read much in a long time, found her intimidating. My thoughts of getting close to her receded. Instead, I asked for one last photograph: that of the cover of the book, with the aim, since dropped, since I've been unable to track down a copy of the thing, untraceable, of bettering myself that way.

I'd largely forgotten that morning until then, coming out of the Dulwich gallery, it came back, with the idea of returning.

Everywhere, all there was seemed to be photographs producing themselves at various speeds without camera, the present splitting, forking, dividing and dividing, piling into images.

I let out a chuckle to be taken off by the wind, again pronounced, this time autumn's: to have gone for a likeness for Shakespeares after even the woman in the cemetery felt unreal.


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