Inspired by An Old Woman (“The Ugly Duchess”) by Quentin Massys, on show at the National Gallery, room 5
Read by Claire Lacey
Thirty years after he first painted me, I’m sitting for Quentin Massys again. But this time I know what’s behind every brushstroke; he barely looks at me, he’s so focused on his mockery. I could get up and wander round to check the canvas, but I’m stiff and tired, and besides I can picture it only too well.
Tits on a shelf, last century’s fashion jauntily wrapped round wrinkled neck, and the piece de resistance, a fresh rosebud nestled between withered dugs.
Margerete Maultasch the drinkers shout after me, before they melt into the darkness of the bierkeller doorway.
I’ve heard it all before. Not so much in Durnstein, my home town, no they were used to my - how shall I say, jolie-laide features, my ‘unconventional’ looks. In rural Carpathia, we lived in a world of wounded, and those wounds festered. Club-footed children, pock-marked matrons, people twisted by arthritis or accidents of birth. Herr Kirsch had a nub of a hand where the lathe had slipped. Karolus’ right arm hung uselessly since a cart crushed him against a wall. Tuberculosis, tetanus, a rusty nail, an infection - if these things didn’t kill you they left their mark, leaving you with a harsher life and a new nickname.
We knew that nature could delight in the disfiguring oakapple as much as tender blossom. And we accepted that. But in Vienna people were less forgiving – there was an edge to their comments. What does she think she looks like? Don’t mind if I don’t. Hammel Kleider als Lamm: mutton dressed as lamb. Put them away dear. No, don’t think you’re the first to say that.
So quick to condemn my dress, no one mentions the other thing I’m wearing – a smile. I think that’s what offends you most, isn’t it? I’m not like the other respectable matrons hanging round here, guarded, modest and properly invisible beneath lace coifs and prim collars. Careful not to give away a gram of matured sensuality, lest it seem, well, unseemly.
Oh how Quinn’s old friend Erasmus hated any hint of that in women. He had a special loathing for older women who "still play the coquette, and exhibit their repulsive withered breasts". So, Quinn, in one fell swoop, savage as a hell-kite, you showed off your craftsmanship, your versatility – not just a dauber of society beauties - flattered that sly old dog Erasmus and, last but not least, settled an old score. Yes, Quinn, my portrait reveals a little more about you than me.
You’ve seen me before haven’t you? The cat-bothering psychopath in Alice. Tenniel saw me, or at least Leonardo’s copy of, and thought ‘who better?’ You’re most welcome.
And so I joined that great tradition of older women who should know better … Snow White’s stepmother, the spiteful youth-hungry stepmother of Rapunzel … a little morality tale for children: crazed women who can’t let go of their youth and will stop at nothing to close down the demure, dewy competition.
The thing you don’t know is that I was once beautiful, and that is not just to say I was once young, we all had that patina of youth. I was a real beauty. Schoene Margarete before, inevitably, I became Margarete Maultasch (Satchel Mouth). Satchmo would have been cooler but there it is.
One morning in my pillow-cheeked twenties I woke with a dull ache in my collar bone; growing pains. They said. Then purple swelling in my fingers and wrists. My collar bone began pulling at the skin as if it had outgrown its tender cover. Then it crept up to my face. The jaw and then the space between mouth and nose, my pretty cupid’s bow stretched taut and raw. This happened over months, but every day I scoured the silvered mirror as my face slowly pulled itself out of shape like a carnival mask. I’d manoeuvre the glass away from the casement and pull the shutters to a little, to soften the dawning reality.
It was at this time that I met Quentin Massys. Quinn, we called him. My husband Dolfie had commissioned a portrait. Maybe we both had an intimation of what was to come, catch the rosebud of a wife before she became a thistle.
Quinn and I met the in the great hall, that draughty barn with the oily smell of stone and waft of cooking beyond the screened passage. He painted me against a puddle of red velvet – painting velvet was his trademark skill – I heard he resented these bourgeois vanity commissions but suffered them because they paid well. He positioned me, hands on shoulders, cool appraising gaze – the easy arrogance of a craftsman assessing a lump of oak - and then he put the rosebud between my breasts and I looked him squarely. He looked surprised, affronted that I questioned the great artist at work.
“Was machst du?” He just smiled. I was to learn later that he liked my cheek.
I remember thinking the rosebud was it a sign of intent. I felt claimed.
Ah the rosebud, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, carpe diem. Well I can say we carped that diem. And many that followed. He would set up his easel, demand that no one, no servants, not even Dolphie – especially not Dolphie – disturb us, and he’d paint. And as if on some agreed signal he would abruptly put down his brush and wordlessly he’d take my hand. And so it began. Always the same: quiet, intense and urgent – more than ardent – as if we were both pouring all our unspoken wants into those few moments.
How I looked forward to those sittings as the summer faded into autumn. Hour after hour, my collar bone ached and I began to feel my jaw tingling as the disease crept along my marrow, blighting my looks as soon as Quinn has committed them to canvas for ever. I was able to appraise him: his thinning forehead, impatient pursing mouth, veins reddening his cheeks – while he stayed in Durnstein he would join carters and burghers in the Am Weissen Rossl with the others. Our little town’s most notorious beerhall. A man’s man. You see artist didn’t mean sensitive bohemian, not for my Quinn, he was just another craftsman like the men who made wheels, walls and carved the wedding chest with Dolphie’s and my initials.
So stolen days passed, accompanied by a soft stippling sound and the smell of linseed oil as the light moved round the hall and then faded altogether. By September, the painting was finished and it was understood that our affair would finish too. At least I thought so. I had a duty to Dolphie and to our family and though we never spoke of it Quinn had to return to his long-suffering wife… that was the order of things. Wasn’t it? And what would we have done, a duchess and an artist? How long would it have lasted, if we had eloped? As long as a rosebud, just as verganglich.
He said I had a quality that the other sitters didn’t – a directness, ach, but he maybe said that to all the women he painted.
On the last day he came to finish the painting I told him we had to stop, it was obvious the picture had been finished weeks ago. People were beginning to talk. Even dear Dolfie was beginning to wonder why I had to sit again, missing another visit from his mother (no bad thing, but it was the third time) and welcoming him back from the hunt.
Anyway, that day, the day I said it had to end, he did not reply. The whispering brush strokes stopped. He didn’t even look from behind the canvas. He just slowly began to pack up brushes, wiping them methodically on rags. I hadn’t understood that Quinn liked to be the one to call time on sittings, paintings and liaisons.
“Well, your picture is done,” he said with a brittle smile, “Your husband should be pleased. It will give him something to look at when you’re a fat old hausfrau.” I wasn’t offended, I just laughed:
“But you will also be fat and bald then too Schatzli, none of us improve with keeping. You can come and paint me then too, if you like.”
Thirty years later, he did.
By then, of course Dolfie was gone, struck down by falling sickness. He languished for two twilight weeks of bedside vigils and lowered voices. Before he went he gripped my hand so tightly I cried out, he seemed suddenly so strong I thought he must have rallied – but he just wanted my attention and fixed me with rheumy eyes to say a silent goodbye.
By the time Dolphie departed this world, something else had fled too. The face that was mine. Not just a casualty of time which turns firm jaws into dough and furrows eyes and brows. No, it had been stolen. There’s no other word for it. Taken from me by the disease. Some had hinted it was God’s retribution for my affairs, village people can be casually cruel that way, but whatever the reason gradually the bone lengthened as the internal aches became manifest - hence Maultasch: not unkind, the citizens of Durnstein, just stumpf, direct.
The mirror became my enemy. Each day I examined the progress of my condition, and although sometimes I cried, one day, a drizzly summer morning, I looked into the glass hoping it might have halted and I felt the strangest thought pop into my head. It was the phrase we say behind our hands when a friend’s child is not blessed with conventional beauty … I was ‘growing into my looks’. Becoming authentically myself. Grotesque, yes, ugly-pretty, with a too-strong face, a simian face … nah, a monkey for sure, but an amused monkey.
And so I let him paint me, and how he relished it. He said it was to celebrate the distinguished elders of the town. He couldn’t be bothered to hide his smirk, or the lie. I knew it was no such thing. He wanted to mock me … his bitterness had lasted all these years. After all the women he must have loved and left, I was the one that rankled.
Of course it was a sensation, a painter at the height of his powers and the scandalous subject: bold, shocking, a finger wagged in the face of uppity women. Lest you forget yourselves ... it said.
As for the old Franz, my consort in this dubious double portrait, I don’t know if he thought he was being mocked, but he seemed happy enough to be paid for sitting… and he went straight down to the Weissen Rossl and drank his fee in one go. That gives you some idea of the distinguished stature of my fellow ‘elder’ statesman.
So maybe we weren’t nobles – neither Franz nor I could claim to be ‘upright citizens’ - but ours are the faces you’ll remember, not the damask-draped worthies or the identical pearly beauties.
Quinn has painted my footnote in history, and I here I am: brutally, authentically myself. How many of us can say that? That’s why when he set up his easel again, in the once-great hall, I placed the rosebud between my breasts myself, tilted my chin up. And smiled.
(c) Fiona Salter, 2016
Fiona Salter is a communications officer for a sexual health charity in London, trying to save her sanity on her commute by writing fiction in trains, tubes & queues. She lives in Sussex with her two diverting children.
Claire Lacey: is a former member of the BBC English Repertory Company. Recent screen work includes Brief Encounters (currently on ITV) & feature film The Hippopotamus; on stage, she has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and Gratiana in The Revenger’s Tragedy. She is also an experienced voice-over artist.