‘Two Buildings, Probably in Southsea,’ (c.1945, unfinished) painted by Edward King. Scroll down for William Sutton’s songs, The Old Painter of Portsea and On Admission to the Lunatic Asylum (The Victorian Diagnoses Song) inspired by this painting.

Two Buildings by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)

‘Two Buildings’, by Edward King. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©

The Old Painter of Portsea

by William Sutton


Bombs are pounding on our city pocked with poverty,
Carving teeth from walls where rubble fills the cavities.
To depict it on the canvas seems obscenity.
If it’s insanity,
You may label me insane.

Seven times tonight we’ve trudged through the asylum
To the shelter, seven times the air raid sirens.
Wave my friends off to the farm.
I say a prayer they’ll not be harmed,
As into town down Locksway Road I head.

We rise early here in St James’ Infirmary.
Go out on the farm, the outbuildings, the laundry.

Every morning I walk down through old Portsea,
Carry easel, paints and canvas, as the ships sail off to sea,
And the people here they know me –
Every latest bomb they show me –
And I take the brush to paint the city’s woes.

Mallow purple, saffron yellow, Saturn red.
Sketch the outlines of the buildings where the people mourn their dead.
Chinese coral and flax blue.
Lavender reminds me of you,
And I paint a face with memories tinged blood red.

We rise early here in St James’ Infirmary,
Head out on the farm, the outbuildings, the laundry.
Work to feed and clothe the nation’s but a token
Souls unspoken
may yet be re-awoken.
Taboos can still be broken.

Dutch vermillion, dahlia purple and French rose
To depict walls blown apart by Gerry’s blows.
Break out the flask and share a drink,
Then empire purple, philox pink,
To shape presences where only absence grows.

Have you seen the grey old fellow, used to paint red-golds and yellows?
Haven’t seen him lately: give St James a ring.
Every day the image fainter
Of the Lord Mayor’s wartime painter
Known to everyone: there goes old Edward King.

Now the bombs have gone
But still the paintings sing.

On Admission to the Lunatic Asylum
(The Victorian Diagnoses Song)

by William Sutton

 (Audio coming soon)

It’s the disease & diagnoses song
It’s my Victorian diagnoses song

Consecutive dementia,
Atrophy, dyspepsia,
Apoplexy, Scarlatina,
Chronic mania.

Hereditary predisposition,
Domestic affliction,
Overstudy of religion,
Epileptic fits, dissolute opium habits

Intemperance, sluggish blood
business trouble, desertion by husband


Quackery and Exposure
Incontinence, liver failure,
Nymphomania, novel reading,
Two years’ snuff eating

Political excitement,
Brain fever, vicious vices,
Seduction and disappointment,
Overuse of lubricious ointment,
Nervous dissipation,
Deranged masturbation.



Egotism, gunshot, dropsy,
Uterine hypertrophy,
Familial estangement,
Uterine derangement,
Masturbation by the dozen,
Parents were cousins.

Before you dare to laugh at these
Victorian diagnoses,
they’ll laugh with glee hysterically
one day about today’s diseases:
Electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
Attention deficit disorder,
Gulf War syndrome, border-
line personality,
Wilson’s thyroid syndrome,
gluten sensitivity,
Wind turbine syndrome,
Fan death,
heavy legs.


That’s a modern diagnoses song. You could say an Elizabethan diseases song. But will they remain diagnoses for long?
Bear in mind how often we’ve been wrong.
No better than Victorian diagnoses song.


© William Sutton (2017) 

William Sutton

William Sutton

William Sutton is a novelist, musician and Latin teacher. He has written for The Times, for radio and stage, appeared at festivals from Edinburgh to Eton College, acted in the longest play in the world, and played cricket for Brazil. He writes articles about language, music and futurology, and plays accordion with chansonnier Philip Jeays. Historical mystery LAWLESS AND THE DEVIL OF EUSTON SQUARE unearths the stink beneath the cobblestones (Titan Books, Nov 2015). LAWLESS AND THE FLOWERS OF SIN delves into the dirtier side of Victorian London (July 2016).

I picked the painting ‘Two Buildings’ because it’s at the end of my road (possibly). It’s unfinished. It’s from the series of bombed buildings, yet nothing damaged. It was hard to judge how closely to use the painting, the act of painting, the painter’s viewpoint and history. It was productive to have colours and shapes and the act of creation suggested by the unfinished canvas. Working from a visual prompt is challenging and satisfying.

William Sutton


  1. Annie

    Absolutely love The Old Painter of Portsea – have listened to it multiple times today and now have the song in my head 🙂


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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.