"I do hope you weren't too offended by some of the opinions my next-door neighbour permitted himself before tea," Harding apologetically and almost rhetorically inquired of the figure seated beside him on one of the four available back-garden benches. "I hadn't realized he harboured such radical sentiments."
Henry Grace appeared momentarily upset, then, remembering his self-appointed role, burst into a dismissive smile, as though to say he had already forgotten about the affair and didn't consider it worth his while to recall anything. "After all, people are entitled to their views, even if we can't approve of or relate to them," he averred, as a kind of afterthought. "I hadn't realized you'd brought an antichrist with you."
"Neither had I," Harding confessed, averting his eyes from the critic's vaguely reproachful gaze and instinctively turning them towards Carol Jackson, who sat directly opposite. "In point of fact, I knew very little about him, not having known him all that long. Had I not recently executed his portrait, it wouldn't have occurred to me to invite him along with us."
"Oh, don't worry yourself about it!" Mr Grace advised him, adopting an almost fatherly tone. "A new voice in our midst every now and then is by no means a bad thing, particularly if it only serves to strengthen us in our convictions. I assure you that I'm not opposed to free speech, no matter how much I may disagree with or disapprove of what's being said. We must be tolerant, mustn't we? Although I must confess to not having been able to tolerate everything he said, as, for example, when he considered himself my spiritual superior. That sounded too presumptuous by half!"
Harding sighed faintly in commiserating response to this blunt reminder of Mr Grace's former outrage. Obviously the man had been offended to some considerable extent, though politeness or tactfulness now restrained him from making a point of it.
"He was just following-up the logic that transcendentalism is on a higher spiritual plane than Christianity," Carol opined, somewhat to both men's surprise, "and that a transcendentalist is therefore spiritually superior to a Christian, since less dualistic, less given to the sensual, and consequently indisposed to anthropomorphic projections relative to an egocentric humanism. I find that an admirably objective viewpoint, actually."
Harding wasn't at all pleased with his girlfriend's defence of Andrew Doyle's logic, nor with her uncharacteristic sophistication, and would have cautioned her with a look of reproof, had she not been focusing her attention exclusively on the shocked face of their host.
"Admirable or not, it was still presumptuous of him to say what he did," Mr Grace responded testily. "How does he know how good or bad I am? Can he read my soul?"
"I can't answer that," Carol replied. "But he evidently assumes that a man who's at home with Christianity, like you, is less spiritually advanced than one who finds it beneath him. Perhaps, on the other hand, you're not as much of a Christian as you tend to imagine, and simply did yourself an unconscious injustice by defending Christianity the way you did."
"Carol!" protested Harding sharply, becoming embarrassed on Mr Grace's account. But the critic seemed not to be offended, or at least to show it if he was.
"That may be true," he conceded. "Though it's hardly for him to say what I am. Common decency should forbid."
"Ah, but you did accuse him of being an antichrist," Carol insisted, ignoring her boyfriend's disapproval.
"Well, that's what he is, isn't he?" Mr Grace retorted with impatience. "And, to my mind, anyone who's against Christ is for the Devil. That much I have always maintained! But he doubtless wouldn't agree, being a transcendentalist or whatever he calls himself." He attempted a dismissive chuckle. Then, evidently disappointed that it didn't sound as dismissive as he would have liked, rhetorically added: "Have you ever heard such nonsense?" to the man beside him.
Harding automatically allowed himself the luxury of a conspiratorial smile. "Perhaps I ought to have painted a dove above his head when I did his portrait the other week," he murmured, by way of verbally siding with their host. "But I hadn't realized, at the time, that he harboured such an allegiance. He was remarkably secretive with me. Didn't even let-on about his socialist sympathies, though I guessed from the start that he must have had some.... Could tell by his reaction to certain of my statements. Yet because he was my new neighbour and something of an artist in his own right, I was doing my level best to establish a friendly relationship, to remain polite and optimistic, as the situation seemingly warranted. Unfortunately, life too often has a way of obliging one to attempt friendship with people who are really anything but kindred spirits, yet whom circumstances have thrust upon one with the implicit stipulation that one makes a determined effort to treat them as if they were! It has often happened to me in the past, and sometimes with quite disastrous results! On one occasion, for instance, I found myself befriending a communist without in the least being aware of the fact until a number of weeks had elapsed, and I discovered a letter, which he'd evidently mislaid, from the Communist Party. I immediately severed relations with the jerk and ceased to befriend him there and then! You can imagine how surprised he was by my sudden volte-face. But, fortunately to say, most of my social incompatibilities haven't been with men." He avoided Carol's eyes but was perfectly aware, from the tone of the ironic a-hem she faintly emitted, that she assumed he was primarily alluding to her. The incompatibility in her case, though hitherto of a less radical nature than a majority of the incompatibilities he had known with women, appeared to have acquired a new emphasis and slightly extended itself beyond its previous bounds; though he couldn't quite fathom the reason or reasons for this change in her - even given the fact that she was evidently sympathetic towards Andrew Doyle. No, this modification in her attitude towards him, although for the most part artfully concealed, had stealthily insinuated itself into her some time before Doyle had elected to deliver an extempore lecture on religion and politics. But why and how? This he hadn't been able to ascertain, even after he had inquired of her if something was amiss.
Breaking the oppressive silence which threatened to drive a psychological wedge between him and his two principal guests, Mr Grace said: "Well, I think that you and I can at least be assured, Robert, of an acceptable degree of temperamental and social compatibility, regardless of any superficial differences which may exist between us. I liked you from the start, and I continue to do so ... whatever your new neighbour's views might be. As far as art, politics, and religion are concerned, we're fundamentally two of a kind, brothers in a common cause - the cause, namely, of liberal decency and tradition. We have enemies everywhere, that goes without saying. But we also have friends, and it's our moral duty to aid them wherever and whenever we can. For I'll aid you, Rob, you needn't be in any doubt about that! Your technical abilities as an artist greatly impress me, not least of all in the aesthetically gratifying example recently made available to me in the form of a highly competent and elegant portrait, which I assure you I shall always treasure. The other two in the lounge - the one of me as a young man of approximately your own age, painted by Gareth Stephens, and the one of my late cousin, Reginald, done by the artist himself - are decidedly overshadowed by your work, believe me, and I flatter myself to think that you may be prepared to execute other such portraits of me and my family in due course."
Hardly able to believe his ears, Harding was overcome with a mixture of gratitude and relief at the sound of these generous words which, all along, it had been his pet ambition to hear. "I most certainly am!" he exuberantly averred, blushing profusely. "The prospect of executing additional commissions from you gives me immense satisfaction, I can assure you, Mr Grace. I'm deeply honoured."
"No more than your talent deserves," Henry Grace nonchalantly assured him, taking the opportunity to extend an encouraging hand to the artist's nearest shoulder. "It's the least I can do, to offer you further opportunities of expressing it. Otherwise you may feel obliged to waste precious time on the production of works you're not temperamentally suited to - if, indeed, one can term such productions as those to which I'm alluding 'works' at all!"
Harding smiled knowingly and nodded in eager complicity. He knew exactly to which kinds of productions the critic was alluding and was only too grateful for this further confirmation of the latter's professional confidence in him, this new indication of their mutual distaste for and opposition to modern art, with its non-representational bias. Now there could be no doubt that Mr Grace was firmly on his side, he felt confident he could establish a firm reputation for himself as a champion of the representational tradition and an enemy of abstraction, in any and all of its modes. The art world would come to appreciate his cause in due time, tired, as it was, of the insipid productions of the painterly avant-garde and hungering for something with real substance, hungering, in fact, for art itself. Yes, the art world had been deprived of genuine creativity for too long, it was spiritually famished. But it would be fed, and Harding knew how to feed it! And not only with portraits, nutritious though they undoubtedly were, but with landscapes, depictions of great events, interpretations of classical myth, and illustrations from world literature. He would pour fresh blood into its moribund veins, re-animate it with all the vigour of his soul, and create a veritable revolution in taste. Representational art would acquire a new lease-of-life, and thus be restored to full bodily strength.
Such was how Harding mused as, oblivious of Carol, he sat in Henry Grace's verdant garden, that fair evening in late July, and pondered his future world-saving destiny, no more than a foot or two from the man who would help him to realize it. But even as he basked in the smug complicity of their mutual conspiracy, a dark cloud passed across his soul at the recollection of what Doyle had said, during tea, about his preference for progressive abstract art and conviction that, if it hadn't already done so, such art would soon reach its painterly consummation and thereupon die out - a remark made in response to a question put to him by young Edwin Ford which, at the time, neither artist nor critic chose to comment on, but which nonetheless caused a certain heightening of tension at table. Even Carol had shown signs of being visibly affected by it, though not in a way he would have expected. Indeed, her half-humorous response suggested more than an inkling of sympathy for Andrew Doyle's viewpoint - one that could only have been tied-up with his socialism and transcendentalism!
But Harding refused to be impressed by this sombre recollection and quickly made an effort to dispel it by launching-out on an impassioned vilification of Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Tachism, and kindred extremist movements in modern art, all for the benefit of the elderly critic, who would doubtless concur.
"Yes, it's a wonder to me that such phenomena get taken for art at all," Mr Grace agreed, nodding his patrician head in persevering affirmation. "And it's a still greater wonder that people expect me, an experienced eye, to appreciate them! Of course, there are times when I have to make an effort at doing so, times when I even have to simulate appreciation to pass muster as an informed and informative critic.... Not that I go out of my way to do so, or make a regular habit of betraying my deepest responses, my true feelings. But I'm not always able to speak my mind, believe me! I sometimes find myself being obliged to refer to a certain work as art when, in reality, it's anti-art or some artless daub. Not a very flattering situation, by any means! Simply one forced upon me by the degenerate nature of the age. Alas, I'm unable to entirely transcend it! I must make an effort at toeing-the-critical-line, even when it's crooked and no longer easy to see, else give up criticism altogether. However, since that's something I'm not in a position to do, I persevere. But I'm partly compensated by Modern Realism, which I prefer to concentrate on whenever possible. A much better and more acceptable branch of contemporary art, even given the threat and, in some sense, technical victory of photography. At any rate, one of the few painterly developments, this century, to which I can unreservedly subscribe, albeit without that degree of enthusiasm I ordinarily reserve for more traditional forms of realism. It's really the best of a bad job, so to speak."
"Or the worst of a good one," Harding facetiously suggested, in an attempt to defer to his host's banality. "It has the merit, anyway, of solid form and dependable technique, which is more than can be said for most latter-day abstract art. Any fool can paint a modern abstract, but rare is the man who can reproduce external reality with an almost photographic exactitude, like, say, Andrew Wyeth. It is certainly a task requiring the utmost technical mastery if it's to materialize in anything approaching a convincing way. Like trompe-l'oeil, for which, as you know, I have a great admiration, having experimented quite extensively in the genre."
"Indeed you have," Mr Grace confirmed, suddenly
reminded of the vexing examples of this long-standing mode of painterly
reproduction which he had recently encountered in the artist's
"Robert would have been more flattered by his achievement had you in fact actually attempted to do so," Carol opined, abandoning the torpor into which she had protectively immersed herself while the attack on modern art prevailed. "A few people have already distinguished themselves in that respect, haven't they, darling?"
The artist felt obliged to admit as much, though he had no specific recollection of the fact. In all probability, Carol was simply endeavouring to mock him, to emphasize the impossibility of anyone with any degree of intelligence and a relatively unimpaired vision possibly being deceived by the trompe-l'oeil in question, never mind the other and more blatantly ineffectual examples which adorned his house! No doubt, Henry Grace was being a shade over-generous in his estimation of it from a sense of humour, not stupidity, as she probably suspected.
"And which side of Rob's art do you particularly admire?" the critic was asking her.
"A bit of all sides but all of no particular one," Carol ambiguously confessed, somewhat to Harding's embarrassment. "I tend to be fairly eclectic in my tastes."
"Like my wife, who doesn't know enough about art to have any specific prejudices," Mr Grace commented, smiling ruefully. "She changes her tastes like a chameleon its colours, preferring now this, now that, but never staying on any given tack for very long. She'd be incapable of taking a stand on moral or philosophical grounds against any particular branch of modern art. Too eclectic by-half!"
"So it is with women generally," Harding averred, slightly amused. "It's only a comparatively small minority of them who cherish strong aesthetic or moral prejudices, or perhaps I should say principles? Most women are quite indifferent to such matters as right or wrong, good or bad, progress or regress, in art. After all, matters like that don't strictly concern them as women, do they?"
"Perhaps not," Mr Grace replied, not without a slight feeling of uneasiness in the presence of Carol Jackson. "Though they must certainly concern us, Rob, else our cause is lost and the philistines of modernity will have it all their own damn way! Still, we know on which side we must make our stand, don't we, Rob?"
The latter nodded and smiled in eager confirmation.
"Sodding good for you!" exclaimed Carol under her breath, patently contemptuous of them.