MysteryHe was a big man. Broad of shoulder, chest like a barrel. Seeing him gazing out at the harbour like this, you might think he was a fisherman. Except for the hat. Fishermen wear those woolly things, knitted by their wives, useful for pulling down over the ears in stormy weather. They wouldn't be seen dead in a flash hat like this; it has a dramatic air, as if it ought to be brandishing a sweeping feather. No, he's no fisherman.
He was an artist. Benjamin Dew, his name was. He had a studio down in the cobbled streets of the old town. The old sail-lofts down there make good big studios, but Benjamin Dew didn't have one of those: he had a small attic, with a skylight to give a clear north light.
Nobody knew him very well. He had an amiable enough manner, and a deep, friendly, booming voice when he spoke at all - which wasn't often - but he doesn't seem to have had any close mates or muckers. This painting is the only one which shows us what he looked like, and as you can see, he's been caught half from the back, and probably didn't know he was being sketched. He doesn't turn up in any of the group photographs of the period, where someone snapped the local artists at play or relaxing. I have a theory on why he isn't in any of them, when he was undoubtedly sometimes present, but I'll tell you that later. He's remembered as a quiet type who "often seemed miles away in his head", and he could frown dauntingly between those bushy grey eyebrows when he wanted to. A private sort of man.
He painted miniatures. Tiny, jewel-like things, in colours which glowed, and with brushstrokes so fine you'd hardly believe that those great ham-hands with their thick fingers could have achieved them. His output was small, since each painting took him a long time to do; they were roofscapes mostly, or tiny interiors like miniaturised versions of those early Dutch masters. He only put people in very occasionally, and always in archaic dress. He'd give his work away as soon as sell it - and to casual trippers, not gallery-owners or proper collectors - which is why there are so few of his pictures extant. Once I started studying him, I realised what a pity that is, since his paintings have an extraordinary grace. It's as if some olden-time miniaturist had come back, with all his skills.
This is where you'll probably think I'm crazy, but I believe that's who he was. A man out of time, doomed to living on like the Flying Dutchman. Maybe he was a court painter who was guilty of some awful crime; or a monk whose skill lay in illustrating manuscripts but who committed a blasphemous breach of his vows...I think that's why you don't see him in the old photographs: he was on a different vibration, so all that turns up on the print is a blur, or a gap where he would have been standing. It makes sense of a lot of things about him. The sadness under the jollity. The distance in his gaze. The lack of any recorded history - and believe me, I've looked. There's no birth certificate. No note of his arrival from anywhere No census record. Zilch.
And then there's the fact that the only thing anyone really seems to know about him is the way he disappeared.
He vanished overnight. Half a mug of coffee left on his studio table, and a biscuit with a bite out of it, and his brushes laid down half-cleaned. According to the newspapers of the day, the conclusion was that he went out, got drunk, and fell in the harbour. There's a sucking tide around there which could carry a body for miles and roll it to the bottom of the sea, so that's what everyone supposed.
I don't think it happened that way. A meticulous artist like him wouldn't have gone out with his brushes only half-cleaned, for starters.
I prefer to think - hope - that a messenger arrived. And said, finally, "You can come away, now. It's enough."
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