The making of great art

the making of great art

I was about to start this anecdote by commenting that people have told me that Bartrum Keelhow is mad. Then it occurred to me that it is an introduction I have used rather more often that perhaps I ought to. But that has set me thinking, do I know a lot of mad people?
To be fair, most of them are not wealthy enough to be considered eccentrics. But none of them actually foam at the mouth and most of them haven’t bitten anybody. (At least not since they lost their milk teeth.) It is perhaps something I ought to ponder upon, but then what would it profit me? It is too late for me to stop knowing people because their lives do not fit within the parameters that lesser folk insist are the boundaries of the normal. Gods, but if I started that, would there be anybody left within my circle of acquaintance?
Still, let us not be side-tracked with peripheral matters. Bartrum Keelhow is an artist, a painter. I have no doubt he could turn out a fair miniature, or even an exquisite landscape suitable to hang in the dining room. But his forte, his real work, is in the field of trompe l’oeil.  Now I’ve seen work he did as a young man. A small piece of wall will apparently have a window out to a garden, or there will be an alcove with a vase and flowers. In one case he produced a deep-set doorway where a beautiful young lady loitered, obviously awaiting an assignation.

But as he grew older and more assured, his mastery of his art demanded larger canvasses. Now the fashion is to have him decorate one wall of your ballroom or greater dining room. A common feature of many such rooms is that one of the longer walls will have windows. These allow the maximum of light, and even permit views out over the gardens. But almost inevitably the opposite wall is blank. Bartrum will decorate that opposite wall for you.

One of his early masterpieces was to produce the conceit that the ballroom was twice the width expected, but with pillars down the middle of the room. Through the pillars you can see dancers, musicians and even a buffet table. The whole thing is so amazingly lifelike that during balls held in that ballroom I’ve seen guests walk into the wall.

To achieve this took him nearly a year. He first sketched in the pillars and suchlike, then he worked on the dancers. To do this he hired a dance troupe, dressed them appropriately and set them to dancing and as they danced he painted them. Finally he took his hostess and those of her friends that she wished to include and painted their faces upon the bodies of his dancers. So was his fortune and reputation made.

Obviously he was immediately approached by many other potential patrons. But he didn’t want to ‘do’ dancers again. After all he’d done that. So in the case of one self-advertising philanthropist, Silverton Arc, Bartrum was asked to paint the poor being fed at his table. Bartrum attended one of that gentleman’s entertainments and noted that the buffet table ran the length of the wall that was to be painted.

So he simply painted another buffet table facing away from the viewer, with serving staff on hand to help. He then hired over a hundred of the poor and dispossessed of the city and painted them queuing to be served with good things at the buffet table. Thus his patron could flaunt his generosity to all his guests. It has to be said that this was as near as any of the poor came to his table. Bartrum seems to have had his doubts about the man as well. If you look carefully, one of the poor has the features of Silverton Arc, and he is captured in the act of picking the pocket of a fellow beggar.

Another patron was Sarl Onwater. Sal is very proud of the gardens of his country house. He wanted to look out upon them even when he wasn’t there. Bartrum rose to the challenge and had his patron point out his favourite view and favourite time of year. Bartrum then spent the appropriate month at the country house painting that view. He then returned and spent a further two months transferring the view to the great blank wall of the dining room. You must have seen it. Sarl was so delighted with it, he virtually threw his house open to the public and allowed everybody to appreciate it.

Of course that merely provoked another potential patron to envy, and Bartrum to even greater works of genius. This patron had a country park with superb views and elegant vistas. So he would have that painted. Bartrum agreed. But it occurred to the artist that the herd of horrocks grazing there was an integral part of the view and they would have to be included. The patron agreed. Bartrum went to the country house and painted the view, and when the patron retired to his country park, he met Bartrum and the herd of horrocks travelling in the opposite direction. Now as you sit and eat you can see the view out across the estate, with the livestock standing in the most natural of poses. Indeed the horrocks calf peering around the pillar, gazing wide-eyed at the diners, has caused a lot of amusement.

I was booked to perform some of my verses there, and as we dined, the lady on my left commented to me that the scene was so natural she could even catch the smell of horrocks. She felt this was the ultimate tribute she could pay the artist.

I hadn’t the heart to explain to her that the horrocks had lived in the dining room for two months and it is amazing just what soaked into the floorboards in that period. Even a month of scrubbing with carbolic soap couldn’t shift the delicate aroma.


It has to be admitted, Port Naain is a fascinating place to visit.


As a reviewer commented, “Every time Benor is at a loose end, wondering where his next Alar, or even Dreg, is coming from, a messenger arrives for him…
Mutt gets to help, in his own unique way. Tallis feels decidedly unnerved and Shena gets to buy some new dresses.
This tale contains several mysteries to be solved by our Toelar Roof Runner Cartographer, but not before some interesting events and experiences.”

21 thoughts on “The making of great art

  1. I am certain that I came across one of Bartrum’s masterpieces when visiting a stately home. I was one of those unobservant enough to attempt to walk through a wall into a garden beyond. That caused much merriment for the guide, and the rest of the tour party.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I travelled from Orkney in weather so bad that we sailed through Scapa and then up the Pentland Firth. It was so rough that apparently the crew were being seasick. Me an a German guy were standing as far forward as we could get. It was too exhilarating and terrifying to feel sick 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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