capturing the spirit
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by Andrew Lee-Hart




It was only a small exhibition, something to fill a gallery during the Summer holiday before a more ambitious exhibition came along in mid-September; it was called “Pictures from Venice” and consisted of paintings and drawings from the Nottingham Castle Art Gallery collection as well as a few appropriate pictures borrowed from neighbouring galleries. Amongst the usual crowd-pleasing pictures of gondoliers, the Bridge of Sighs and St. Mark’s Square, was a portrait of a young woman by an obscure eighteenth-century artist called Simon Adonis; the subject looked straight at the viewer full of trust and hope, but if you looked hard enough and  long enough, you saw that there were tears on the edge of the young woman’s eyes, and that she was trapped within the picture, trying desperately to get out.



He called her name, “Ester, Ester” and then she appeared, hurrying from the direction of the ghetto, her brother just behind her.  She gave a nervous smile when she saw him waiting for her.

“Oh Englishman, I did not forget.”

She looked beautiful, but a little scared, and he wondered if she was already regretting having met him, as always there was a smell of oranges and cinnamon about her, but it was starting to fade, just as her face was slowly losing its colour. Once they had reached his studio, she sat down, and he set to work painting her until they were both tired and then he fed her olives and cheese, whilst her brother sat beside her scowling and not missing a thing.



The people of Nottingham and tourists visited the gallery in enough numbers to make the exhibition as success; whilst some just admired what they saw, the more artistically inclined sat and copied the paintings that they either liked or which looked easy to emulate.  The portrait of the young woman attracted several admirers; in particular one elderly man, a regular visitor to the gallery, spent most of one Saturday intently looking at the picture and attempting a (rather poor) copy.

“I have not heard of the artist, Simon Adonis? Was he local, from Nottingham?”

The attendant, who would rather have been at the Meadow Lane football stadium watching Notts County shrugged, “I don’t think so” and abruptly walked off to find a radio so that he could listen to sport.

“Well” said the man to himself “it is a lovely piece, whoever he was. And the young woman is almost coming out of the picture.”

And later when he got home he told his wife about the painting and how it had affected him, but she was even less interested than the attendant.  The elderly man kept his copy for awhile, until he realised that it was making him feel very uncomfortable and he threw it away, justifying it on the grounds that it was a very poor copy, which was true to far as it went, but was not the real reason.




There was an emptiness at the centre of him, an emptiness that he worried would overwhelm him, and which all those he came across could sense; dogs barked at him hysterically when he came into view, women turned away from him when they could, and even his own family avoided him with distaste.


Drawing was his consolation; in his younger days he had spent many hours at the easel using his mother and siblings as models, but they soon began to object to posing for him and the intensity of his scrutiny.

“You are swallowing me up” pouted his older sister, “I feel like you are taking away my spirit.”

Simon just laughed but he was soon reduced to painting views of  the house and local scenery, as even the servants and the poor refused to let him draw them, no matter how much he paid or threatened them.


He lived in Blackburn where it always rains, so it was inevitable that as soon as he was old enough he would escape to Italy where he had heard the sun shone and where there was beautiful art, which he hoped would make him whole. Simon was brave in his way or perhaps just desperate to leave England, whilst his family were glad to encourage him in his travels.  Fortunately, his father was wealthy and was able to give his son enough money to travel and to live in relative comfort, at least for the time being. 


Once free from England Simon spent a year or so wandering around Southern Italy, painting all that he could find; peasants and townspeople, temples and churches, scorched landscapes and trees laden with oranges and lemons.  He eventually found somewhere to live in Rome and thought that he would settle there, but after only a few weeks he was forced to flee after an incident with his landlord’s daughter which left her bedbound and hysterical.  He decided to head north to escape the scandal which had left him confused, because in his heart he did not think that he was wicked and he did not understand how he had hurt the girl.


Simon made his way to the Republic of Venice where he found rooms on the Calle de la Cereria, one room was large with strong light and thus made an excellent studio. Once settled he painted the canals, the churches, and often would find someone to take him to the various islands, but as always it was the people he was most interested in, paying them a few scudi to pose either outside or in his studio, and even those who viewed him with distaste would pose for a large enough amount of money.


He would set out early each morning, when the sky was white and the air cold and damp, looking for people who he felt would meet his needs. Simon was not the only one who came to Venice to paint, but he was talented, and several galleries were willing to sell the Englishman’s paintings for a reasonable commission, and thereafter Simon had a steady income, and he thought he might be able to settle down.  It was true he had no friends, but then he was used to his solitary life and would not have known what to do with companions other than paint them.


Soon after arriving in Venice Simon discovered the Ghetto and thereafter he often went there to paint the Jews; some avoided him as if he had something wicked in his heart, and several times he heard the word “golem” muttered by suspicious looking old women who hid in darkened doorways to avoid him, but others sensed that he was an outcast and would speak to him and look at his work, and he became a regular feature of the area, so that even those who distrusted him became used to his presence.


And then one morning she came up to him, a young woman with red hair and a mischievous smile.

“Signore, artist, paint me, you who love the Jews.”

Next to her was a younger man, “my brother Moise” she told him, and he glared at Simon fiercely, “and my name is Ester”.

“Do you have no husband or lover?”

She laughed, “I could snap my fingers” (she did so) “and I could have anyone I would like; Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, but at the moment I just want you to paint me.” She laughed, so happy with herself and her beauty, “what about you Signore artista?”

He smiled, “art is my mistress, and Venice my wife,” he said in mock heroic tones

She laughed again and then gave him a bow. There was a faint smell of oranges and of spices and she had an air of discrete wealth about her, he wondered why she had come to him.


She became his muse and visited him in his rooms with Moise at her side, who Simon fed with bread and fruit whilst he transformed his sister. He had costumes for her; a shepherdess, a rich lady, her namesake Esther and Judith holding aloft the head of Holofernes; she suited them all, as she had the gift of self-effacement, so that she was immersed in the character she was being. And she seemed immune to the fear that most of his models felt in his presence; she laughed at him and even flirted with him in a heavy-handed way as if she was practicing for someone more worthy of her love. And Simon discovered that he could make her laugh and that she seemed to enjoy his company, something he had rarely experienced before.


On occasion they went outside so he could paint her there, with Moise watching everything; unimpressed and suspicious.  Even when he was painting other people or views of the city she would often come along anyway.

“I am your assistant for the day” she would tell him and help him carry his paints and canvases, and chatter to him as he painted, and there was that smell of citrus that was so much a part of her.

“Have you nothing else to do?” he asked her.

“No, my parents are rich and my mother just fights with me. She prefers me out of the way, especially as I have Moise to protect me” and she looked at her younger brother who was gazing at a drunk old man who was in danger of falling into the water.


“Do you believe in G-d?” she asked.

“That is a serious subject for a young woman and an artist.”

“There is something about you….” And for the first time in their relationship, she seemed at a loss, and then she came close to him and whispered in his ear so that her brother could not hear, “he does not trust you, he thinks you are a bad man.”

Simon laughed uneasily as he looked at the oblivious young man.

“I am just an artist. That is all.”


Then she did not appear for over a week, and he thought that he had lost her and did not know what to do. He did not want to go to her house as he was not her lover, and did not want to cause her problems, but he visited the neighbourhood in case he heard word of her, or even caught sight of her, but he did not see her or Moise. And then at her usual time one morning she appeared as if she had never been away, although perhaps she was a little more tired and pale, and the smell of oranges was there, but fainter.

“Where have you been?”

“My mother was not well, so I had to tend to her. Why, did you miss me Signore artist?”

“Yes, I had to clean my own brushes.”

And then she kissed him lightly on the cheek, whilst Moise glowered at him, and for a moment he thought that he was happy; her lips were dry but soft, and he wondered if she was his friend, or perhaps he was in love with her which was a surprise, because, not having a soul, he did not know what love was.




He came to me at night, when the streets around Covent Garden were full of prostitutes and gay young men, and my shop smelt of tallow and paint.

“Do you want them?” and he handed me several canvases.

When people asked me later, I said “a ghost sold them to me”, and certainly he looked pale as a spectre, and I felt that there was something about him that was unwholesome and dead. The paintings were mostly of Venice and a few of Naples and Rome, a happy contrast to London in Winter and I thought that they might sell.

“Five shillings.”

He glared at me, “I could get more for them.”

“Well do so.”

And perhaps he could have done but it was late, and he was clearly in a hurry, and he seemed weary, so he took the money without grace. He smelt of nothing, possibly the faintest whiff of oranges, but that might have been from the market nearby, and there seemed to be nothing missing from him, as if he had a hidden deformity; I shivered as he left my shop and hoped that he would not come again.


But he did come again, usually every month, looking dirtier and more ragged than the time before, and always at night. I had made more money than I had expected from his pictures, which were in fact rather good, so from then on, I paid him a little more.

“Anymore you can send please do. They sell well.”

He shrugged wearily, “I painted them many years ago, I only sell them because I have to. Even my family have nothing to do with me.”

“Can you not paint something new? I have canvases you can have in exchange. Maybe scenes of London, I am sure they would do well.”

But he said nothing, just looked at me, his eyes blank and dark, as if there was nothing behind them, and then he left until next time.


The paintings were excellent, but there was something dark and unsettling about them as if they had been painted by a demon or someone who was disturbed; drawn through a glass darkly. Despite their sinister aspect they were far better than my usual wares, and consequently I made a good profit from them, but even so I still felt my heart sink when I heard his strong rap at my door and saw his cold and empty face with more paintings to sell.


The last time he visited my shop it was August and he brought only one painting, that of a young red-haired girl, there had been others with the same model, but this one was exceptional; she looked alive, as if she wanted to leave the painting, and it was as if she was in the shop beside us. His eyes looked wet when he handed it over.

“Only the one?” I asked.

“It is all I have left.” And before I could speak or offer assistance, he was gone into the summer night, taking my money with him.


I often gazed at the painting, and oftentimes I could not help but think about it, I am sure that it was a work of genius, but it was so unsettling and even unpleasant, seeing this girl trapped and frightened. At first I left it in the shop in a prominent position, but it cast a chill over the place, and customers stopped coming in, or hurried to do their business without staying to browse or to talk, so eventually I covered with a sheet and left it in the back room, hidden away with all the unwanted junk I could not sell, and even then it gave me awful dreams so that I cried at night and woke cold and scared.


I have shown the painting to many of my customers but although without exception, they realise its greatness, none of them want it; Lord Dawley did pay me for it – a discount really because I was desperate by then – but he returned it after two days, at his wife’s insistence and since then it has stayed hidden away, but still haunting my shop, I should destroy it because it is clear now that nobody will buy it but I just cannot bring myself to do it, hopefully one day someone will buy it and I will be able to sleep soundly once again.




“This will be my masterpiece” he told her, “I can feel it.” Was it his imagination or did Ester seem colder towards him, more distrustful? She did not seem to smile as much, and with a jolt he realised that it was many weeks since he had heard her laugh.

“Why are you so sad?” he asked her.

“Oh Signore artist, it is you who grow serious.” But she did look sad and fearful, more like her brother than the young woman who had introduced herself to him the previous year.


He dressed her in red and with a yellow band round her hair.

“I feel you are taking part of my soul” she told him, “as if you are stronger than me.”

He flinched, feeling betrayed by someone who he thought was his friend.

“You make me sound like a monster.”

She shrugged and bade him carry on with the painting, but he felt that if he turned his back on her that she would flee back out into the city and not come back.



Twice after a long session she was ill for several days and lay in her room hardly eating, and shivering.

“Why do you go to the artist?” her mother asked her, “it is making you ill, tell him you no longer want him to paint you.”

“You are right, I won’t go.” But then a day or two later she was gone at dawn, before the household was awake, and spent the day with him, her vitality and spirit transferred to canvas.



At the end of July she came to him for the final time, the canals were starting to smell a little and she looked tired and unhappy; without a word she sat on his bed and gazed at him, whilst he started to paint. Her brother was not there, but she knew that whatever power the artist had, her brother could not save her from it, and she did not think Il Signore would try to seduce her; it wasn’t her body that he was interested in.

“Please finish soon.” She told him.

“It will not be long.”  But he did not want it to be finished soon, because he knew that once it was complete, she would not come again.


A few days later he went to her house and knocked.

“La Signorina is unwell” her mother, almost spitting out the words, told him, “and she cannot come to you anymore.”

He shrugged, “but the painting is unfinished.”

She slammed the door in his face, and he stood there, wondering where Ester was, and hoping that she would come out, but the door and windows remained closed and eventually he walked away. After a few days he understood that she was not going to come back, so he finished off the painting, remembering how she looked, posing in his room, and thus whilst she faded away in her bedroom, so she became real on the canvas.  Within a week the portrait was finished and then Simon too took to his bed for awhile as if recuperating after a long meal.


By the end of the week he was up and about and feeling better, more whole, and thought he would see how Ester was. But the blinds were down at her house, and he stayed and watched from a distance, hoping for a sight of her, but eventually it was her brother that he saw coming out, his eyes looked dark and his face pale with anger.

“My sister is dead Signore.”

“I am sorry.”

“She used to be so happy until she met you. What did you do to her?”




Simon left Venice soon afterwards; and travelled North, he felt remorse, an emotion that he had never encountered before, and which made him uneasy and he hoped that it would soon pass. He reached a town by the sea, where it was cold and damp, and he found a cottage to live in, and began to try to paint, but unfortunately the people were not interested in art, they had no time for anything but fishing, and keeping warm.  He sat on the shore and drew; fishing boats going out on the wild sea, the young fishermen and a woman in black watching them without emotion, but when he looked at the painting it realised that it was dull and lifeless, so he destroyed it.


He travelled towards England, painting as he went, but his art had gone and he did not know why, he managed to sell a few things, but he knew that it was trash. He met a woman in France who was older than him, and austerely beautiful and who he called “Madame”, she looked after him and tried to love him, but in her arms he felt as if he were a cold, lifeless thing and he was worried that he would destroy her beauty and warmth, so he left her, she cried a little but he could tell that really she was relieved he was going.




I was preparing for bed when a man I had never met before knocked on my door.

“Your artist is dying.” I worked with many artists, but I immediately knew who he meant, and so I went with him, not sure why he had come to tell me. I was not being entirely selfless, there was the thought that there might be more paintings hidden away that I could sell, but when I reached the cold and damp room in Stepney there was nothing but an empty room, not even a bed.


He lay on the floor, with just a couple of blankets on top of him. I don’t think that he knew who I was, after all we had only met a dozen or so times, and in the candlelight. The room smelt of damp and urine and I gagged.

“I am so cold.” He muttered.

He seemed too ill for me to move him to my house and I was not sure that I wanted that anyway, but I brought him blankets and food, and sat with him whilst he talked to himself.

“Ester” he would say, “take an orange, and one for your brother.”

“Did you take my skill?  What have you done to me? I thought that I was the monster.”

I listened to his ramblings, and at times what he told me filled me with horror, and I longed to go out into the night air which was pure in comparison, but something kept me there and I do not think that it was humanity.


And then one evening I came to the house, it was a little later than my usual time, as I had been visiting my Lord Dawley and in truth I had not wanted to visit the dying artist, and had tried putting it off, but something compelled me to go. When I arrived the landlord told me that the artist had died that evening and I could tell that he was as relieved as I was.


I watched them prepare his body; he looked so gaunt and yet still strange and dangerous, and I wondered was there much difference between his being alive and being dead, or perhaps he had always been both. I gave some money for his funeral and attended the service along with the landlord, and then we followed the body and watched them put it under ground.  As I stood there musing, I thought I heard a movement behind me, but I did not turn around, and there was the patter of light steps and then whoever she was, had gone, and I went home.




The attendant saw her just for a moment out of the corner of his eye, and at first he did not know what to do or what it meant.  He was sad because Notts County had lost on Saturday, and because his wife did not love him and because he was old and had spent his life doing jobs that he hated. It was eight o’clock in the morning and he was preparing the gallery for opening, and then there she was, a figure flitting past him, almost as insubstantial as a shadow.

“Hey” he shouted and ran after her.


But then an alarm went off in the gift shop and he thought she must have double-backed and gone there, but there was only the other member of staff, Naj who was fiddling with the alarm and looking cross.

“Bloody alarm system,” he said crossly “it is always going off for no reason”, but between the two of them they soon got the ringing to stop.

“I thought I saw someone” said the attendant, “a young girl with red hair, she looked familiar somehow….”

Naj smiled, “was she pretty?  Send her down to me if you like. It is probably someone from the council, they are always poking their noses in.”


The attendant went back to do his rounds feeling cross and wondering if he had imagined the young woman. The Venice exhibition was beginning its last week and then there would be workmen and noise as they took all the pictures down and got ready for something else.  He wondered how many times he would see these exhibitions come and go before he could retire, he sighed slightly and continued to do his rounds.


He decided to look at the painting of the young girl which seemed so popular, but which made him uneasy. As he came round the corner he almost slipped on the frame that was lying broken on the floor at his feet, he swore as he looked round for the painting, but the broken frame was empty, and there was just a space where the portrait had been, whilst all the other pictures were just as they should be. He panicked, knowing that he would be held to blame for the theft, and he hurried through the galleries in case the picture had been dropped in haste by the thief, or she was hiding somewhere, waiting for the gallery to open so that she could escape.


He stopped for a moment, and quite distinctly he heard a laugh and the sound of the lightest of kisses, and he saw the back of someone with red hair running ahead of him, he shook his head in bewilderment as he recognised the young woman from earlier, but immediately she was gone, disappearing round a corner, far too fast for him to catch.


And then just for a moment, as he stood there, confused and worried, there was a feeling of light, he could feel the glare of the sun on his face, he could smell oranges – almost taste them -, and it was as if he were in a bustling Venetian market, with chatter and sunshine all about him. He stood there, transfixed by a moment of pure joy, all the sadness in his life forgotten.


Slowly he came to himself, realised who he was and where he was, and that all he could smell was polish and disinfectant, and that the only light was artificial and dim.  Wearily he pressed the alarm and winced as it echoed noisily throughout the gallery.



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