Self-portrait painted by Edward King. Scroll down for Matt Wingett’s story, We Are Ochre, inspired by this painting.
Self-Portrait by Edward King. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©
We Are Ochre
by Matt Wingett
When I was fourteen, something extraordinary happened. Papa sent mama a letter.
Mama lived in the same house.
That, I suppose, was the end of my childhood.
Long before he wrote that letter, my father gave me my first lesson in painting. He was the creator who gave me the gift of creation. He had left his materials on the study floor. I picked up the tubes and began to work with them even though I was just able to walk. He saw something in me – his own creative fire, perhaps, that had been dimmed by his roles as father, husband, bank manager.
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
On summer holidays away from the bank he became another man. I would go with the family, Papa, Mama, sister Agnes and brother Gunning to stay a few weeks in a cramped cottage in Eastbourne. Papa, Gunning and I smoothed our sketch pads beneath our eager palms and discussed form and texture and shade and colour. In those moments I was close to Papa. Glory be to the father. He was glorious. Then, back home in Kensington we worked up the sketches.
Each morning, Papa left for the bank with a downhearted expression, but came back eager to paint by gaslight in the evenings or at weekends. He showed me how to control paint and form. Once, when I became despondent at a mistake, he patted me on the shoulder.
“Look,” he said. “When you make a mistake, you paint it over. You start again. See?”
I felt, when he told me this, that he was happy.
The letter he sent to Mama was very simple.
“I want you out. I want you all out and gone by tomorrow.”
That was it. He’d decided to restart his life, to go back and undo the mistakes he’d made. He’d amassed so many: a wife, a daughter, two sons, a family home, and a job he hated to support all his other mistakes.
So, he painted us out.
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and gave her the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
It takes just a moment to wipe out what was there before.
Life is rubble, really. It’s imperfection. It’s the bombsite left after our parents collide and explode and fall apart.
There was a truth in what Papa did, I see it now:
After God made this world He walked out on it. All he left behind is imperfection, and mankind must make what it can with the materials he left us. Excreted out of his backside, we are streaks of paint from a tube.
At Milton Locks the families are smiling at me indulgently: the sweet crazy old man, out from the nuthouse with his paints.
How can they feel that sense of superiority to me?
Look at the water, the way the surface shifts. The Lock used to lead to a canal that went into the centre of town. It was a connection that could take you all the way to London.
Now it’s cut off.
How did I get here?
The nurses in the asylum are sure I’m mad when I tell them about the violin. They can’t imagine it, and yet it’s true. At 15, a fishmonger saw that both I and Gunning had an artistic sensibility and an ear for music. He was a man in a bowler hat with a bulbous nose, like a Belgian.
“Ma’am,” he said, lifting his hat and smiling to my mother above his green-and-black-checked tweed jacket and his waistcoat stretched over his broad jutting stomach. “I believe your boys have talent. They should study with the best, and I am here to help them do it.”
Mama looked at him askance. She was pale and sickly after Papa threw her out. We were down at the river bank near Richmond Park. I remember that time as if I had painted every detail in my mind.
“What exactly does that mean,” she asked. “Studying with the best?”
“The very best!” He answered. “The very best.”
With her agreement, we packed up our trunks and went on our ways to study under Schradiek in Leipzig. Can you believe it? A benefactor from nowhere. And a fishmonger.
I will make you a fisher of men.
It was fishy of course. It was all very fishy. Men, imperfect as the rest of humanity, have their needs, after all. But though I am artistic, I know where my preferences lie, and they are not with fishers of men.
I love haystacks. They are golden and red. I’m not the only one. Sickert, Singer Sergeant, Augustus John, Paul Nash – they all admired Monet and his haystacks. They were members of The New English Art Club. And so was I.
The haystacks are in the fields at the back of the hospital (I call it a hospital, but it is my prison). I look at them in the light. When I see them I am reminded of the soft unreality of all things. It’s the opposite of the super-reality of photography or the Pre-Raphaelites. It is the opposite of the hard walls I have been kept behind for decades – though now am I allowed to wander because I have nowhere to go.
When I see the haystacks, they please me with their softness. We live in a world burdened with too much reality.
The haystacks mean something special to me.
When I returned from Vienna, the fishmonger wanted me to join an orchestra. I was in fact a virtuoso violinist in the making. But I’d had enough of gut and bow and fingerboard. I was 16 years old, and whatever designs he had for me, I wasn’t going to be his pet. He was right about one thing, though: I was an artist. I announced at the age of 16 that I would be exhibited at the Royal Academy. The next year at Crystal Palace I was exhibited in the International Exhibition.
Two mistresses fought over me. I played first violin in Henry Woods’s orchestra. I played piano in cinemas, accompanying the dramas of heroes and heroines. I loved the way a musical cadence can mirror the actions of a person, capture their tragedy, encapsulate it.
In painting, I have a skill with painting people – or had one, back then. Once, I believed people were interesting in themselves. That’s when I was the demi-urge – the imperfect creator putting together the raw materials from the tubes, daubed on the canvas of reality.
So, I studied in France under Bourguereau and Robert Fleury at the Julian Academy. In Paris, I exhibited in the Salon des Artistes Francais.
Back then I cared about people. I was obsessed with the physical world and the grubby, sensual, dirty reality of the human body. I loved all of humanity in all its gay, joyous shit and filth. The children who play in the Locks remind me of that. Their bodies shining in the water, covered in dirt, their hair all matted. This is human nature. We are made from the earth, constructed of clay.
I lived in London and I knew Sickert and Singer Sargent and we did wild things. I read somewhere that Van Gogh said my drawing was powerful and virile. I was both of those things.
And.. I was Bohemian.
That’s the word. A wild-haired Romantic.
“Mrs Hudson, a pleasure to meet you.”
My life changed when I was twenty-four. A barrister called on me to say I should make a portrait of his wife.
We were on the South Downs in a room full of light, and she was glowing in an orange dress. Like sunshine herself, or Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June. I stood close by her and could not turn my eyes away.
At first, the sittings were formal. I asked her to stand; we discussed the pose. What did she want to say with herself in the picture? She was quiet and uncertain. She seemed not to have thought about what she might want to express of herself, nor had it struck her that someone might ask.
I asked her to move an arm, or shift her body. The next day, she couldn’t find the pose I was thinking of, and I took hold of her arm. Yellow ochre, her hair. And red ochre – I saw the colour rise in her skin and I realised her stiff barrister husband had never asked her how she wanted to express herself. She liked to be asked. To be appreciated. I held her in my gaze. Hour after hour.
Her name was Amelia Emily.
Amelia is from amal, meaning work or labour. Emily is from aemulus, meaning rival. And though she started as my work, I became a rival for her love.
How do things escalate? A touch here, a glance there, a subtle word.
One day, Amelia decided that she would wear a light dress, and she dropped the shawl from her neck. Her hair was lit up in the sunlight, shining, bright.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
The children in the water by Milton Locks run around naked as savages sometimes. It makes me laugh to see them. God’s little creatures – imperfect, all. This is how I love them: covered in mud from the lake here – the black mud bubbles up and the stench comes up too. Reminds me of the chaos we are all made from. Little pieces of mud and shit that we have to shape into a life, and that we think we control. The children make little mud figures – a face in the mud. Mud, mud. It sinks, collapsing on itself, or the tide swallows it and it is washed away.
They run over and bring me pieces of hard, paintable surface they’ve found washed up. An old part of a Heinkel 1-11, a piece of ammo box.
“Can you paint on that?” That’s little Jimmy Barlow asking, with a piece of card in his hands. Sweet little boy with blond curls, all smiles but with a sadness. One night his brother got blown up the chimney. It sounds like something from a children’s story, but it’s not. An air raid and the blast of the bomb blew everyone flat on the ground in the living room. Everyone except his brother. The force of the rushing air broke all the windows and the blast rushed up the chimney – took his brother, too, and smothered him. They thought at first he had run away but found his hand-me-down shoes poking from the fireplace after the dust settled, then saw his ankles hanging above them, his feet inside. He was all charcoal black and red ochre lacerations.
Now Jimmy laughs, but he too knows what it took me years to learn.
All life is betrayal.
I have decked my bed with coverings of tapestry, with carved works, with fine linen of Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves. For the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey: He hath taken a bag of money with him, and will come home at the day appointed.
I had to leave Britain after the scandal.
The barrister, Mr Hudson, walked in on us lying together among the paints and dust sheets, the canvas neglected.
He’d been asking why the portrait was taking so long, and perhaps he’d seen his wife growing distant. Amelia never loved him. It had been one of those matches – the making of a suitable alliance and the securing of a place of safety.
He had first heard of me because of my illustrations for the Illustrated London News and the idea of an exhibitor at the Royal Academy painting his wife appealed to his vanity.
So, I painted her.
I left my fingerprints all over her body. Perhaps she didn’t wash them off. He would come home late and get into bed and find red ochre on the sheets where she had lain. He was a barrister. He knew evidence.
I fled the country and went to America. America saves us. It did in the last shooting match, anyway. And now they’ve come in on this one, they’ll save us again.
I got work for Harpers Magazine. I worked. I worked all right. And all the while I wrote to her. My love.
With reproofs You chasten a man for iniquity; You consume as a moth what is precious to him; Surely every man is a mere breath. Selah.
When I came back from the USA, I married her.
It was hard for her. He, a barrister, insisted she was not a fit mother for her three children. That wrench was deeply painful for her. But love will not be gainsaid, and we loved each other so very much.
It was the happiest time in my life, though I know it was bitter sweet for her. Amelia was everything. My Bohemian days were over. I had been Icarus burning up in the sky, now I was Lucifer who had fallen to Earth and I was happy for it. I was buried cock-deep in my earth, my wife, my woman. She was the matrix, she was the one who stole my fire. My wings melted and I was with her. And we breathed life into someone new. A child. A girl. The one. Una.
I don’t know what happened with Una. If ever there were evidence about the corrupt nature of matter, she is the embodiment of it. She had a manner about her – a kind of calculation. She didn’t love me, though I had breathed life into her. I suppose this is how God must feel with us, his children, mixed from a pallet of his sweat and shit and piss.
But I didn’t betray anyone – not like my father did to me and my mother. I stayed with my distant daughter and my darling wife. We lived on the South Downs, looking out over the rolling hills, seeing the horse pull the plough day after day, letting the natural cycles and seasons of the years roll by till the year turned from gold and green to red ochre and the leaves fell from the trees. And one leaf more fell – my wife, my love. One day she was there, and then she was gone. Fallen forever.
When Delilah saw that he had told her all that was in his heart, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, “Come up once more, for he has told me all that is in his heart.”
Amelia Emily died in 1924. I remember that night. I sat by her body in the hospital and I promised her I would never leave her. I prayed to the God I thought was there and I petitioned him and asked him and threatened him. I swore at him and I cursed him. And nothing was the reply. No, no, no. Nothing. He had long ago left this world behind.
No more red ochre. No more reds and yellows. No more form and texture. No more life bustling in the streets. There was only charcoal black. No other people were real if this one person was not alive. She was gone. She was all my reality and she was gone.
…they withereth as the grass…
My daughter, Una, asked that I be kept at the hospital for my own safety. I needed to be looked after, she said. She encouraged me to stay. And I told her that there was no God, and I told her how our lives had been shat out of the back end of the demi-urge.
Her eyes narrowed, I remember. They narrowed in recognition.
So that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see.
One time I saw a plane fly overhead. It was dropping explosives on the town carelessly – as if it were lost, and having found civilization had decided to offload destruction on it. Did I dream that? Or was it real? I can’t remember. There is a picture in my mind which I think is my memory. This, I think, is the same as saying it was real.
Doctor Beaton saw me a few days after I spoke with Una. He told me he was there to help me, and asked what was on my mind. I told him. I told him all about death and the Angel of the Lord gathering souls to him, and the seven horns of the Beast, and the blackness of the night, and how the heavens and the earth were made of a void and that everything was in the end nothing, and there was no love, no life, nothing. And then, I saw the look in his eyes that was the same as the one I saw in Una’s, my daughter. That Rahab, that Salome!
She cut off my head.
That is how it happened. I wanted to leave and they said I could not. The doctor signed an order. It said I was mad. That is what the order said.
That made me shout.
He told me the more I shouted, the more sure he was that I was mad.
In a while, Una took my house. She took the paintings and the money. She moved me to the nuthouse in Portsmouth under Doctor Beaton’s recommendation. I never saw her again.
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
I stayed in those depths for 15 years.
When the Guildhall in Portsmouth burned down, it was like a cleansing.
A fire from on high that burned out the insides and destroyed personalities and memories and pain.
Portraits of former Lord Mayors lined the Great Hall, staring down in their robes and their chains. People, personalities, history, all fell into the fire.
For me, it was a symbol of liberation.
The self is the cross that we carry through our lives. Who we are, what we are, that is our great pain, our great burden. We are nailed to ourselves and cannot escape. When the Guildhall burned out, it was the end of self. I saw it then. There was only light, in which the embers rose to the sky. There was transcendence.
The Lord Mayor was the one who asked me to do this work for him. Capturing bomb sites in pigment. The smell of the ashes and the broken sewers shattered by high explosive. It fills the air. It makes it so that everything smells dark – the stench of the swamp and the sharpness of the fire. But in my pictures, everything is cleansed, so there is only light and the play of light on the surface of things, and very few people. No people. Not any more.
I step into the light from a war-weary world.
Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.
Red ochre makes the picture come to life and puts a tone, underneath, of blood. That’s what you see when the brick is exposed after a raid. Under the scorch mark – London clay, the raw red brick like a wound.
My daughter, Una, she is blood.
My wife Amelia was blood.
My brother Gunning was blood.
My sister Agnes was blood.
My mother was blood.
My father, he was blood.
So, step by step, drop of blood after drop of blood, that is how I came to be here, at St James’s, and here by Milton Locks, and Commercial Road and the High Street. I am allowed to go out. When I do, the sorrow and pain, it disappears.
The light that falls on the green life in the fields, and that I trap on the canvases, also falls on the red raw brick and destruction. After a raid, the pallet is made afresh – a new city will be made – the rubble strewn about me – these pieces are only the raw materials of the world to come.
Everything is transfigured.
Those haystacks in the grounds of St James’s, I said they meant something special to me. They are me and my wife. Cut down. Left in the field. Dried husks. The edges undefined. The clarity disappearing into feathered edges.
We, too, are the boats on the water at the lock. We are the bombed shells of houses. The upright yearning of poplars.
The light plays upon us. It fills us with colour, so we are pure again. And when that happens we are, and the world is, beautiful.
We are blood. We are ochre.
© Matt Wingett (2017)
Matt Wingett is an author, screenwriter and publisher, with a strong interest in Portsmouth local history. His books include Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light, 1887-1920, an account of the spiritualist beliefs of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and he has contributed to numerous anthologies on Portsmouth subjects. His publications include reprints of Portsmouth histories and works by Portsmouth authors. He has a deep fascination with the city and its long history.
I have a passion for all things Portsmouth, and found the life of Edward King, a forgotten great of painting, and his story of finding expression again through painting after long mental illness inspiring.
I really wanted to imagine myself as King.This is something I do quite often – respond to something in the art world, or an advertising piece, or photograph. For me, it is just part of research, to look at pictures and use them to inspire writing.
I learned a lot about Edward King, and came to a greater appreciation of his life and his sad story.Matt Wingett
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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.