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The Shadow Beneath the Pines

Or Lear in Euboea

By Joshua Barley

As you will be aware, it is generally accepted – at least, in the relevant circles – that few painters have captured the landscape of Greece with the same skill as that of Edward Lear. (I should know: I have spent half a career attempting the same). But it’s not just precision of draughtsmanship, they say: it’s the spirit that he captured – its protean essence. In fact, speaking for myself, I can hardly look at a view – I mean, a real view – of that landscape without it forming, of its own accord as it were, a Lear drawing or painting. I look at the mountains and they become his blue; I look at the river valley and it becomes tinged with his oat-brown; I look at the pine trees and they shimmer upwards in his flush of green. (There is a great luminosity about these trees in all of his Greek works, and I think you’ll agree that, even if it’s near-impossible to show such luminosity in a pencil sketch, the spirit is ever there). I have often had the sensation, emerging onto one of those balcony views of mountain and plain (as you may know, I have travelled widely in the country myself), that the whole scene – as I look at it – dissolves into pencil lines against a white paper background. I even seem to see those notes jotted across the page when the travelling artist didn’t have time to draw properly: ‘arbutus’, ‘amethyst mountain’, ‘dense pine’, ‘fierce morning light’ etc.

I am losing myself. Such is the way with Lear – he gets into my head; he gets into my work. 

But I doubt that you need any convincing of the artist’s skill. Let’s be plain: you would hardly have agreed to our meeting if you didn’t share my respect for Lear – at least, if you didn’t appreciate the value of his work. What interests you more, I venture, is the provenance of the sketch in question. People like you are so preoccupied with authenticity. 

Let me explain, then, how it came into my possession. 

I had received an invitation from Herr M. to paint on his island estate. You know him and his house by reputation, I assume: a number of other items of similar interest have been unearthed there. The place has long been a station for artists travelling through Greece, who have enjoyed the hospitality and patronage of generations of his family. The thought of my own work joining this constellation was reason enough to accept the invitation with alacrity. What’s more, I was beginning to feel a want of inspiration in my life in Athens. My work wasn’t progressing – you may have heard about the disappointing sales of my latest exhibition. Under the circumstances, no better invitation could have arrived. 

Lear was shadowing me from the outset. I knew of his visit to the estate in 1848 on his first journey through Greece and I had a vague idea of the impression made on him by the place. I brought his diaries with me – the published ones, I mean – with the intention of absorbing something of the spirit of the master. This is one of the things that struggling artists do. 

The landscape has changed little since his visit – and the house, likewise. So when you talk of authenticity, the question somehow sounds entirely false; foreign; irrelevant; dissolves into the truth of lived experience. Nothing can be more authentic than this: walking in his steps, seeing what he saw, smelling what he smelled, touching what he touched.

I left Chalcis on the morning bus, the sour conductor loading my canvases into the belly of the animal, which whinnied and bucked as it turned out of its concrete caravanserai. Crossing to the outskirts of the town, we passed under the arch of an aqueduct and began making our lumbering way along the Euboean coastline. Some miles away, as the island curved, a mountain stood higher than the rest, sheer down to the sea. Kandyli: the mountain that dominates the house, which lies on its other side. No view is more majestic, more varied than this one: the curling coastline, ascending to the mountain, and beside it an infinite horizon.

Forgive me if I am gushing. But you must understand: it is the very enchantment I felt that makes me all the more convinced of the truth of what I discovered – and indeed, of the authenticity of the work. Even now – and my visit was only a matter of weeks ago – I look back at that place with a kind of awe, or rather with the elated, dreamlike sensation of being in love. 

The plain of Castella was aglow with pearly winter light. A raft of gulls flew overhead, soundless against the hum of the vehicle, making for the fishing trawlers that had been snaking the coast all morning. Alongside the road were the low, makeshift dwellings of gypsies, hanging up their garish nylons and brewing instant coffee on toads of camping stoves. 

The road diverged and cut upwards towards the pass to the north of the island. At the highest altitude there was an intimation of snow – not seen, but given away by a vibration in the air. Several old diners – windows broken, chairs de-throned – stood like the pecked carcasses of big game. After the pass, the vehicle entered a defile, whose flank was shored up with wire netting to prevent the collapse of the mountain. Then we passed through pine forest into the plane-lined river valley and, finally, reached a village cradled in the crook of the mountain’s arm. 

Ascending the small rise to the house, my arm swelling with the canvases, I saw Herr M. standing in the porch, wearing a green and brown suede hunting jacket, hair combed to one side. On various sides of the courtyard his progeny burrowed like termites through monastery-style doors, and a girl with long blonde hair carried a pile of logs from the stables. She backed into the side door of the house, opening it with her waist, and the hinges creaked with history.

The past is always intruding in that place – you can cut and paste it into the present. A fallen branch on a dry-stone wall; the eye of a goat through the pine needles; the echoing shot of a rifle: all these jump out of time, defy its linear passage. And so as the days passed with painting and I spent the long evenings reading the journals I had brought with me, it seemed entirely probably that I could actually live – if only for a moment – what Lear lived too.

We were arrayed around the hearth as always, the children scattered on the sheepskin rug like spools of wool. Scruffy and chirpy, their father had them reciting limericks and nonsense rhymes. The youngest plays the piano quite beautifully, and his naïve melodies made for an atmosphere of almost surreal cheer. We talked of – who else – Lear, always of Lear, like we were summoning him from the grave. M. guided me through the house and we touched everything Lear had touched – the bed where he slept, the table where he ate, the gong that had been rung for him. 

The discovery itself is steeped in wine and hazy from excitement: I remember an oil lamp like a little bird, the removing of a piece of chequered floor, the bird-lamp descending to a basement, and the glowing face of the master of the house as he returned with a clutch of papers. 

There is no need to describe every sheet that I sieved through. The only one of relevance is the sketch I have before you now. It shone at me like a fleck of gold to a panner: I could recognise those lines anywhere.

I sat at the desk beside the bed, poring over the pages of the diaries, drawing and redrawing conclusions, making and remaking histories, only stopping to arrange kindling under a log, like a bullfighter hedging around his target, then blowing the flames, coaxing the black mass to yield its warmth. I smoked three pipes, one after the next. At the anonymous hour came the vision. Something from the forest. A completely white cat, an utterly pristine cat, and when it curled to sit down it wrapped its tail around its legs and became like a cloud against a black sky. It sat beside the stove and purred as I worked, and yet the strange thing is this: no one had ever seen this cat before – not M., not me, not the servants, not the children, no one. And when I stepped onto the wooden balcony, the cat stretched out its front legs completely straight, yogi-like, its rear in the air, and followed me there, and sat on the rampart and together we watched the moon sail over the village, now and then clouded by the smoke spiralling in helixes from the houses, unruffled by wind but spreading from its own diffuse compulsion, and the light of that round moon shone onto the tooth of the mountain and we could see every single one of the black pines that were marching up towards the molar ridge.

I can see you remain doubtful, but there is no need. Ignore my words if you will, just look at the lines:  I assure you, any expert on the matter will confirm that they are in Lear’s hand.

The way down from the wooden balcony was short and quick, even though my room was on the upper floor. The cat was ever beside me. And as we walked through the village, the dogs, which had barked so furiously at midday, were now meek and placid, resting their snouts on their paws behind the iron gates. Passing the old inn, we left the village on the road to Chalcis. There was no vehicle at that time of night, and the way was exceedingly bright from the moonlight.

Beyond the pale village houses we came to the bend in the road, where we were to turn. On the right, Barba-Yiorgis was sleeping beside his goats, wrapped in a thick capote. Passing across an open expanse we reached the river – shallow at the lower end of the gorge, easily forded at first. Thenceforth the cat led the way, lightly jumping from boulder to boulder through the rushing water – sometimes making use of the stepping stones in the stream, sometimes leaping from bank to bank – as we ascended through the narrowing ravine. Above us on either side towered the pines, their old, straight trunks standing like candlesticks beneath the smoke of their needle-mass. All along the banks were animal tracks – a boar’s, I supposed at first, but they were not, nor a cow’s or horse’s or of any animal I knew. At length the cat settled on a black boulder apart from the rest. Not a drop of water was on its white paws. 

Look: you can see for yourself how the view opens out above the gorge. And take it from me: the line of mountain is a carbon copy of the line in the sketch. The gorge winding down through the pines also bears the same exactitude. And the shadow you see beneath the pine – the creature – if a creature it is – yes, there… You can make out the great beak, the feathers, the long tail. Can you not?

*

I know what you will say: I am seeing things that aren’t there. And you have already made it clear that you find this sketch less artful than Lear’s usual standard. But allow me to continue, since there is another element that pertains to its authenticity, and provides further evidence for its importance to the artist’s whole biography. 

The account of Lear’s visit to the estate found in his diary is corroborated – with significantly inflated interest – by the story of an old man of the village, Barba-Dimos. He must be ninety years old – so Herr M. says, anyway. And Herr M. knows about such matters. Barba-Dimos’ father Argyri had been a goatherd on the mountain. Argyri had the story from his father, Barba-Dimos, who had it from his father Argyri, and so on and so on. You know how these things go. You could say that it is enshrined in the village folklore, or whatever the correct expression is. In any case, the story – like others of its kind – concerns a scourge to the village and its rescue by a hero of supernatural powers. 

No – I know your time is short – but bear with me and you will appreciate the relevance.

In modern times, such scourges are put down to bacteria or mosquitoes, attributing blame to the tiniest of creatures. But to Barba-Dimos’ forbears the enormous disorder wrought on their lives was naturally ascribed to a beast of equal size – the most awful creature of all – the stichio

The στοιχειό, they say, is a creature of indeterminate form – though often considered to be serpentine – that roams or slithers through the village it inhabits, doing evil as it pleases. Every village has – or rather, had – one. Their deeds are normally limited to minor misdemeanours such as stealing sheep or goats, throwing trees across the road or stirring a peeving gust of wind. They are hardly seen, and never in their entirety – rather, they are made known by the beating of wings through the trees, the snaking of a leather-hard tail behind the rocks, giant footprints in the snow, or simply the windless rustling of leaves. The rare sightings are usually linked to disturbances of the land. For example, we have the famous instance of the stichio of Kerasovo, in Eurytania, which appeared when the road to the village of Vrayanni was being hacked through the mountains. With every fresh explosion of dynamite, the stichio was seen in the cleft of rock. They say that it had a snake’s body and a horse’s head and eyes like golden sovereigns – but no one saw its full extent, since the distraught workers took fright each time and retreated to an hour’s distance away.

I’m coming back to the story. There was a time, Barba-Dimos says, when the stichio of that village in Euboea was particularly perturbed. All the old folk talk of this time: “Έπεσε θανατικό”, they say. “Death fell upon the land”. Sightings of the stichio became more and more frequent. And one by one the villagers were falling ill and dying. Desperation beat its wings through the place. 

It happened then, according to the old man, that a stranger came to the land. He was abnormally tall and had only one arm. Given the circumstances, this stranger was considered a hope of salvation. One night, beneath the full moon, he was taken by the goatherd – who, of all the villagers, knew the stichio’s hiding places – to a gorge beside the village. There they laid the bait of milk and rusks, and hid behind a boulder. When the creature appeared, the goatherd took fright and ran. But, they say, the one-armed man stood his ground and fought with the creature. Changing shape in the manner of these beasts, it transformed from serpent to wasp and settled on his shoulder. But the stranger soothed its buzz because he had a gentle voice. From wasp it turned to eagle, soaring above him. But he dodged its dive because he had a keen eye. From eagle it turned to goat, skipping from boulder to boulder. But the stranger cornered it under a pine, for he had a quick mind. From goat it turned to fox, and fox to horse, and horse to ox, and through all the animals of the the mountain and the plain, until it was subdued under the arm of the stranger.

The stranger left the next day, never to be seen again. The stichio, it appears, went with him – for it was never sighted again either.  

I descended the gorge, easy as a knife through butter. The return was at most half as long as the ascent. Never has a journey felt so swift. We threaded the village houses and glided up the track. Pausing at the gate we surveyed the great house, blue under the moonlight. At this point the cat left for the forest. I crossed the courtyard and was soon on the balcony again. The French windows were ajar as I had left them, and nothing had moved in the room – nothing, that is, until I opened the stove and saw that the black log, which I had cajoled so patiently into flame, was nothing but ash. 

 

Am I going to spell this out for you? Folklore, it is well known, conceals worlds of meaning, but there is one interpretation that cannot help but appear. Do you not see it? The timing is exact: Lear’s visit is known to coincide with a malaria epidemic. And the one-armed stranger is none other than that lanky artist himself. He had fallen off his horse shortly before arriving in Euboea and temporarily lost the use of one arm (this information is easily found in his published diaries). On the day in question, as he approached the great estate, he had sent his servant on to Herr M. while he himself remained in the forest sketching. It is my supposition that he was spotted there by the goatherd, who had never seen an artist of Lear’s skill. Such a person – I think you will agree – would have received from Lear the impression of sorcery upon seeing his sketches. It is well attested that on Lear’s travels he was frequently considered to be a possessor of an evil spirit for his ability to conjure animals and people onto the page. The goatherd implored the artist to help the village in any way he could with the pestilence that had befallen it. Lear, whose first employment had been as an illustrator of birds and animals – I believe you have a copy of his book of parrot illustrations – was easily persuaded to see and attempt to draw the unknown creature.

But there was more that led Lear to that gorge – more than mere curiosity, at any rate. Artists, I can assure you, go to gorges for many reasons. He too was in a state of desperation, still not having found by his late thirties the renown he felt he deserved. I know: I have been at that gorge too.

The rest is easy. The stichio’s rapid transformation from animal to animal is a reflection of the artist’s sorcery in conjuring any creature that he wished with his pencil. The sketch, made under the moonlight, naturally isn’t as accomplished as the other works we have become accustomed to. In the end, he gave it to the goatherd, who took it to Herr M. as proof of the ‘capture’ of the creature. There it has remained ever since, forgotten even by Herr M.’s descendents. Forgotten, that is, until my visit.

There is a coda to the story, which – I think you will agree – confirms my findings. A week after his stay with Herr M., Lear, having left Euboea and crossed to mainland Greece, was afflicted with an illness that almost killed him. He was bedridden in Athens for several weeks, unable to eat or walk. At length he achieved some level of recovery and went to convalesce with friends in Constantinople. He only shook off the mysterious disease when he set himself to wandering again through Greece (he notes this himself in his diaries). The works he produced from these subsequent travels were collected in his illustrated journals in Greece and Albania, which he published to great acclaim and which ushered in his long-sought-after fame. Thereafter he painted entirely landscapes, rather than natural history, until his death. Greece dogged him forever: his magnum opus, which he never completed, was to be a collection of illustrations of all the Greek lands. 

He never knew true companionship, despite his craving for it, but remained always alone: alone, that is, apart from a kind of demon he carried within him, which he referred to as the ‘morbids’. It took various forms, but was always an animal: an animal that he could never see in its entirety, but which he recognised from the way his breathing quickened and his mouth became dry and the only remedy was to walk and paint. (I have sensed that animal too; I have seen its tail disappearing into the woods in the most beautiful places of Greece, under the most brilliant sun. I have tried to capture it too.)

It was only later in life that Lear found some consolation by transforming these morbids into his pets. The animal closest to him has even become famous in its own right: Foss, the cat. You will have heard of this beloved creature. Lear revered him with the intensity of divine worship. And surely it will be clear to you now where the cat’s name derives from: not αδερφός (brother) as Lear claimed (employing his renowned skill at false etymology), but simply ΦΩΣ. Light. Pure, plain light. The light he saw for the first time over those days in Euboea. 

 

You will now, I imagine, have an idea of what kind of deal was struck in that gorge. Let’s be clear: this sketch represents nothing less than Lear’s making as an artist. As for its authenticity, well, just look at my paintings of the estate and its landscape: I think you will agree that they are some of my best yet. The colours are bolder, the mountain lines stronger – almost, I like to think, as strong as Lear’s. Do you see what I mean?

More pressingly, you might have an idea of what kind of deal the two of us can strike. You know how valuable Lear’s works have become. Prices are rocketing. You will not regret your investment. And Herr M. will be happy. As I’m sure an experienced buyer such as you can understand, it’s not easy running an estate of that size. I hope it wouldn’t be indiscreet of me to say that he could well do with your assistance. And in turn, you would do well to stay in his favour. One simply doesn’t know what else he might have hidden in that basement of his.

This work of fiction has drawn on the following books: Edward Lear, Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania etc. (1851), Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer (1968), Nikolaos Politis, Παραδόσεις [Traditions] (1904), Stefanos Granitsas, Τα άγρια και τα ήμερα του βουνού και του λόγγου [The Wild and the Tame of Mountain and Plain] (1915).

Note on etymology: the word stichio (στοιχειό) derives from the medieval Greek στοιχεῖον, ‘element’. This word originally referred to the fundamental, unbreakable, natural elements of the universe. For this reason it is also the root of the word στοίχος – a ‘line’ or ‘verse’.

Joshua Barley’s translations of the poet Michalis Ganas (with David Connolly) were published by Yale University Press in 2019. An anthology of Greek folk songs in translation is forthcoming from Aiora Press in 2021. He lives in Athens.

Image: 

William Roper-Curzon

Landscape

2021

https://williamropercurzon.co.uk