I’m not sure whether I have ever mentioned Wilony Sneel when recounting these anecdotes concerning my past? Wilony deserves to be called the leading portrait painter of her generation, and she specialised almost entirely in paintings of other women. Because of her skill and reputation for excellence women flocked to be painted by her, but it has to be said that for many, it was literally a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.
The problem seems to have been that Wilony had no time for the comfort of her sitters. She would choose a pose and they would sit in it, often for as long as eight hours at a time. A woman was wise to refuse offers of refreshment whilst sitting. Unfortunately it has to be said that many of her sitters were painted with expressions of terminal boredom.
Eventually even Wilony realised something had to be done, and initially tried administering a laxative, assuming the expressions arose from chronic constipation. When this failed spectacularly to cure the problem, and rather than just allowing her sitters to squirm occasionally, she retained her stern insistence that they must not move but instead decided to find a way to entertain them. Thus she asked me if I would be willing to spend a day with one of her sitters, providing witty conversation and idle banter to keep the stoically immobile lady at least marginally amused. In all candour this seemed to work reasonably well, there was a period when I might be called in as often as twice a week, and my own business profited by it as ladies who had been forced to endure an interminable eight hour conversation with me recognised my virtues and asked me to attend their various soirees and social events.
Things took something of a downward turn when Wilony took to more ‘outside’ work. It is one thing to expect your model to sit for innumerable hours on a couch in the warmth of a studio; it is quite another thing to expect her to pose immobile on a grassy bank with various creeping things working their way through a ladies foundation garments.
To an extent Wilony had the ‘creeping things’ problem solved for her when changes in fashion dictated that the lady pose naked, which at least mean that during the witty conversation I could pick off any interlopers with a well aimed flick of a towel.
Where Wilony ran into further troubles was her insistence on having her ladies pose naked in the less clement seasons. To an extent she was comparatively blameless. Fashion in painting demanded the lady be painted naked and in a sylvan setting. When clients booked to have their pictures painted they were put on a waiting list which was as rigid in its way as the poses the models found themselves holding. So if you booked in autumn, you were not going to get your picture painted until at least the following spring.
By and large things matters were almost self rectifying. After all, if the weather was too cold, Wilony’s hands became too cold to use the brush effectively and so she would have to either paint faster or call a halt to the proceedings. It was in the case of the three daughters of Madam Dameroon that we ran into problems. While technically spring the day in question was bright but excessively cold. Wilony had a brazier next to her so was little effected by the chill, but the three girls were so cold they were starting to turn blue and their shivering, whilst involuntary, brought curt rebukes from the artist.
Finally, at the suggestion of my friend and colleague, Benor Dorfinngil, who had joined me this day in case he could be of assistance, we solved the problem of the cold by rubbing the models down in cloths dipped in hot water.