Art and Mrs. Willoughby

by MARY ELIZABETH PLUMMER

1

FOR some time, Mrs. Peter Willoughby had been trying to kindle in her young an interest in paintings. Each Friday afternoon, she either took Peter and Joyce to a museum or sat down with her children at home to look at books containing pictures of pictures. Her role on these occasions was that of guide, interpreter, and barker at the doors of the temple of Art.

The effect on the children seemed to be negligible, but Mrs. Willoughby was learning a great deal. She was seeing things in pictures which she never saw there before. Joyce and Peter had a gift for spying little people and animals far in the background, and demanding what these minor figures on distant lakes or hills were doing. Mrs. Willoughby was required to spin great tales about where they had come from and where they were going. For these expositions, she drew freely on her imagination, and sometimes was deeply impressed with her own ingenuity.

They had trudged through three wings of the Metropolitan Museum — expeditions which involved going to the Central Park Zoo first, because it was on the way, and gazing at big black yaks and complacent llamas until Mrs. Willoughby felt stupefied. Joyce always had to buy a balloon in the Park, and the balloon then had to be checked in the Museum coatroom, where it hung, floating straight up from a hook, until she jubilantly returned to claim it.

In their sessions at home with the great masters, Joyce and Peter inquired into the ways of man and beast, and also of the Deity. Once Mrs. Willoughby became greatly involved in the Garden of Eden. In addition to Adam and Eve, there were some animals in the picture, and she had to give a dissertation on the life habits of the pheasant and the kangaroo.

There also was a man’s head in a cloud over the garden. Mrs. Willoughby was not sure whether this was God or not. Nevertheless, she endeavored to explain.

“God came over the garden in a cloud,” she said authoritatively.

“How did He get in the cloud?” asked Joyce.

“With God, all things are possible,” said Mrs. Willoughby, turning a page.

The next page contained a picture of a painting by Breughel the Elder, of three men lying under a table spread beneath a tree. Obviously the men had eaten and drunk to excess. Joyce and Peter were fascinated.

There were large, round cakes and casseroles on the table, and off to one side a roast pig was running about with a slice out of his back and a carving knife under his skin. There also was a boiled egg with a spoon in it, and the egg was running around on three legs.

“Do eggs have legs?” asked Joyce, marveling.

“It is a dream,” said Mrs. Willoughby. “The men are dreaming of a great dinner.”

The children started chanting, “Eggs have legs,” and the rhyme made Mrs. Willoughby’s life miserable for a while.

Finally Peter’s interest returned to the picture. “Somebody ate part of the pig,” he said. “How can it run?”

“It is a dream,” repeated Mrs. Willoughby doggedly. She wished the artist had omitted these phenomena.

2

AS RELAXATION from such strenuous duties, Mrs. Willoughby often went alone to her favorite museum, the Frick mansion on Upper Fifth Avenue. It contained many lady portraits — “Lady Innes,” by Gainsborough, in an aquamarine gown, holding up one pink rose; “Lady Skipwith,” by Sir Joshua Reynolds, with roses on her bosom, and plumes and blue ribbons on her hat; “Lady Hamilton,” by Romney, smiling tenderly and holding her little dog.

There were hangings of gray damask and ashesof-roses velvet, pale, soft rugs, a fountain that splashed in the distance, and an organ that sometimes played. Bronze and ormolu clocks ticked softly under some of the pictures.

From the world of taxis and doormen, of babies and nursemaids bound for the Park, Mrs. Willoughby would walk into this quiet world of complete harmony.

Rather wistfully, she would look at the pictures which had been painted for Madame de Pompadour: “The Charms of Spring,” “The Pleasures of Summer,” “The Delights of Autumn,” “The Amusements of Winter,” and at the panels called “The Romance of Love and Youth,” which had been painted for Madame du Barry. There were a couple of French needlepoint chairs which had some connection with Madame de Maintcnon, and in the library there was a leather-bound book about Madame Recamier.

Mrs. Willoughby felt that it was her particular discovery that many things in this collection pertained to interesting, historic women. Mentally she grouped all these portraits and books together, and formed for her own pleasure a museum within a museum: The Mrs. Peter Willoughby Gallery of Lovely Ladies.

One Friday afternoon in spring, when Central Park was showing its first green, Mrs. Willoughby decided to take her children to her beloved museum.

They appeared at the doors of the Frick Collection smartly turned out in matching gabardines, Joyce with a feather in her cap. Immediately, the expedition hit an obstacle. Children under ten were not admitted, under the rules.

“Even with a parent?” asked Mrs. Willoughby.

“Even with a parent,” said the turnstile attendant.

Mrs. Willoughby explained that they had come from a great distance — from Sutton Place South, twenty blocks away; that her children were seriously interested in art, and, moreover, were very quiet and good. Also small for their age. She thought about how, if they didn’t get in, they would have to go back to Central Park and visit the yaks. She looked so persuasive that the attendant finally made an exception, inasmuch as it was a quiet afternoon and the children were students.

Mrs. Willoughby smiled gratefully and went in with her children. With the first picture they confronted, she found herself back in the Garden of Eden. It was Albrecht Dürer’s “Adam and Eve.”

“Why are they wearing leaves?” asked Joyce in a ringing tone.

The guard in the room looked at Joyce with a Gothic expression. Mrs. Willoughby decided to give her fig-leaf lecture elsewhere.

“Notice the animals in the picture,” she said enticingly.

The picture was a rich field for a natural history discussion. The serpent was coiled on a limb near Eve. There was a parrot on a limb overhead — “Or perhaps it is a parakeet,” explained Mrs. Willoughby. There was a cow with large horns lying in the background.

“‘This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog,’” remarked young Peter. He then spied on the tall cliffs in the background a tiny antelope — or perhaps it was a goat — getting ready to jump. They speculated for a while on this animal’s motive.

In the foreground were a rabbit — or perhaps a squirrel — and a mouse — or was it a mouse? They argued about whether the beast with its tail curled around Eve’s right foot was a cat or a lynx or something else. Mrs. Willoughby began to think she might as well have gone to the Zoo after all.

She had a fleeting thought that the head of Dürer’s Eve looked a little like a picture she once saw of Percy Bysshe Shelley — or perhaps she merely imagined the resemblance. At the same time Peter commented, “Eve was a large woman.”

Mrs. Willoughby felt that the whole discussion had been undistinguished. They passed on to another picture. It was a Rubens study of three women, with cherubs hovering about. The women were in a reclining position.

“What are they doing?” asked Peter.

“I really don’t know,” said Mrs. Willoughby.

“Thinking,” said Joyce, with an air of certainty.

“Perhaps,” said Mrs. Willoughby.

3

THEIR little procession straggled into Mrs. Willoughby’s favorite room, where the carpet and the paneled walls were soft gray-green. She never was sure whether it was green or gray, because the light seemed to change it. It was a perfect background for the paintings. The tree branches in Central Park made a pattern through the windows, and there was another pattern of trees in a big gray-green Corot on one wall. The marble tops of the French buffets and the heavy brocade draperies were graygreen too; and there were silver-gilt wine coolers under some of the pictures, with clusters of grapes on them. As Mrs. Willoughby and her children came in, a bronze clock with a flower garland and two fat cherubs on it struck one musical note for the half hour.

She hoped that her children would exclaim over all this beauty, but they said nothing. Joyce went to a big circular table, with a mirror-like dark wood surface, and started looking at her own reflection in it.

“Who are those people?” asked Peter, looking up at a Romney portrait of Lady Warwick and her children.

“They are British people,” said Mrs. Willoughby. She glanced in the catalogue she had brought along, and read that the Countess of Warwick’s first name was Henrietta, and that she was born in 1760. She had married the Earl of Warwick in 1776. It was her husband’s second marriage.

Mrs. Willoughby realized that this would not be of consummate interest to Peter. “It is a British countess,” she told him. “The little boy, her son, was a nobleman.”

“Her son has bangs, sort of,” said young Peter with contempt. “His hair is bobbed, and he has on a silly collar like a girl’s. . . . He was a stupe,” Peter added.

Mrs. Willoughby pointed out that the fashions in little boys’ clothes in the day in which the picture was painted — which was many years ago — had nothing to do with the quality of the painting; but Peter was not to be won over.

She found herself admiring Lady Warwick’s satin gown, but not caring much for the coiffure, which was rather wind-blown, and also noting that Lady Warwick’s little daughter’s dress was cut too low for a child so young. She thought, “ My children always cause me to see irrelevant things in pictures.”

“Look at the fine painting of the red chair the Countess is sitting in,” said Mrs. Willoughby.

Peter made a disdainful noise, as if to say he didn’t think it was anything special.

They crossed to a portrait of the Ladies Bligh over the mantel — the two sisters, sitting on the grass, in their summery light dresses. The picture was one in Mrs. Willoughby’s Gallery of Lovely Ladies.

“The little boats are having a race,” said Peter.

Mrs. Willoughby looked at him with surprise, and then back at the picture. Yes, there were some little indistinct shapes in it, far back at one side, that might indeed be boats. She never had noticed them before.

“The women arc British ladies,” she told Joyce. “Do you think this is a pleasing picture?”

“One of the women hasn’t any shoes on,” Joyce objected.

Mrs. Willoughby looked. A small part of one foot showed beneath the long dress of one of the sisters.

“It is a light shoe,” said Mrs. Willoughby.

“She is barefoot,” said Joyce.

Mrs. Willoughby searched in the catalogue for a line on the ladies’ footgear, but couldn’t find it. She propelled her party to the Corot painting, “The Lake,” and pointed out the cows in it. Peter raised the question of whether there were only three cows, or whether there wasn’t another lurking in the shadow.

Mrs. Willoughby and the children stood away at all angles and peered at the picture, to see whether they could detect another cow.

Off in the court, the fountain splashed. The Museum organ started to play.

“I wish we could go somewhere and eat something,” said Joyce,

“We’ll hurry,” said Mrs. Willoughby.

They streaked through several rooms, into the library, and Mrs. Willoughby paused in front of a picture.

“I wanted you to see this picture that the artist Gainsborough painted of Lady Innes,” she said. “Gainsborough was a very great painter.”

“The woman’s first name was Sarah,” added Mrs. Willoughby. “She lived in England, in Ipswich.”

They stood looking up at Lady Innes merrily holding her one pink rose — with her low-cut blue gown showing her perfect white neck, and with the lace frills falling from her sleeves.

Mrs. Willoughby listened to the small, exquisite tick of the ormolu clock under the picture and thought, “What difference does it make? There she is, in her youth and beauty.”

She was almost at the point of telling her children about her Gallery of Lovely Ladies, and how Lady Innes was in it, and Lady Hamilton, and those ladies whom Sir Joshua Reynolds painted, in their wide, creamy gowns, with all their ribbons and plumes, but Peter interrupted her thoughts.

“Ipswich, Ipswich!” he exclaimed loudly, liking the sound of this word. He started chanting it, and prancing in rhythm, and Joyce tried to imitate him. A guard came up and requested the Willoughbys to leave.

4

THEY went to Rumpelmayer’s for tea. The sun was low as they walked down past the park. The children marched sedately by Mrs. Willoughby’s side. A sadness had come over the day. The towers on Central Park West were veiled in a bluish haze, and looked like the towers of another city. Down Fifth Avenue, flags were flying, looking like a 1918 war poster, Mrs. Willoughby thought, and something like a painting she had seen of the flag-hung Champs Elysees in Paris.

In Rumpel mayer’s she ordered tea for herself, and for the children Gugelhof, a Viennese cake with raisins in it. She sat sipping her tea and looking at the little napkins, which said on them, “London, Paris, the Riviera,” and listening to the subdued chatter in French at the next table.

Everything deepened her melancholy. She tried to analyze it. It had something to do with wartime and something to do with art. She thought, “I wanted my children to see beautiful things in these times. I tried to show them things I love.” She had thought that they, being her children, would love them too. But they didn’t. They were too young. They weren’t going to love them for years yet. Maybe never in the way that she did.

It had something to do, too, with the way Lady Innes, on canvas, could defy the clock ticking near her — Lady Innes, with her indestructible halfsmile. What Gainsborough was going to paint Mrs. Peter Willoughby in her prime? She sipped her tea and thought, “Mrs. Peter Willoughby Beside a Bowl of White Lilacs.”

“Well, how did you like the Museum?” Mrs. Willoughby asked her children.

“Pretty well,” said Peter.

Joyce continued steadfastly eating her Gugelhof,

“Maybe some day one of you will create a beautiful picture,” said Mrs. Willoughby optimistically.

Joyce opened her pocketbook. “I made a picture,” she said. “I was going to give it to you for your birthday, but here it is.”

The crayon drawing on white paper had the awkward authenticity of all art by the very young.

Mrs. Willoughby looked at it. “Why! It’s a picture of me! ” she said. There were clouds around the head, like the one in the Garden of Eden picture, and from one of the clouds emerged a trumpet, which said, “I love you.”

It was obvious that, in the mind of the artist, the subject was very beautiful.