The cat gets its tongue
By Sean Ashton
It was a grey, rain-flecked August, that time in the art world when everyone’s on holiday and there is nothing much to look at in the galleries except the group shows of emerging practitioners, the speculative juxtapositions of students, janitors and uncles. Historically, the Countess Arlington’s Summer Salon was a cut above such seasonal fare, but the truth was, her annual entertainments had started to flag. Entertainment was the thing that was lacking. The early Salons had been good, rumbustious word-of-mouth gatherings with no program as such – you just rolled up and did a turn. The Countess would sit there and point at people, and either you stood up and did something or you stayed in your chair. No offence was taken if you stayed in your chair, and no shame felt if your card trick misfired or your joke underwhelmed, applause being diplomatically conferred on everyone, irrespective of talent.
At what point the Salons had changed, at what point they had become less fun, was difficult to say, but the days when you just rolled up and did a turn had long passed. Now you had to submit a proposal in advance, a detailed plan of what you were going to do, which was vetted by a team of curators. It was more serious recreation for a more serious world, the Countess might have said, if you’d asked her to account for the change – but she didn’t believe it herself.
This year’s line-up suggested a reversal of that trend. Earlier in the week, a theatrical invitation had been issued to writers and editors. The text was laid out like bill-matter on a music hall poster, artists’ names in bold capitals, with a brief description of their “acts” underneath. In addition to paintings and drawings, many other events were promised: recitals, mind-readings, word games, a séance, all under the theme of “Communication.”
The style of the invite seemed to harken back to the old Salons. Clive Stapleton, Associate Editor of Art in Focus, was thinking of covering it for the September issue. His colleague wasn’t so sure. Cunningham was suspicious of the vaudevillian tone, which he felt smacked of desperation.
“What about this, though?” he said, pointing to the top of the bill. “You don’t think that’s worth a look?” The star attraction was a talking cat, its voice coach a man named Cornelius Applebaum.
“Never heard of him,” said Cunningham. “Amateur ventriloquist, by the looks of it. As I say, desperate. But it’s your call, Stapleton. Cover it if you must.”
* * *
The following Saturday, Stapleton arrived at the Countess’s gallery, a pair of townhouses knocked into a single viewing space on the ground floor, with a number of smaller rooms above. He thought he was early, but when he went into the garden he saw that everyone was already there. In addition to his counterparts at the other magazines, and one or two journalists from the broadsheet press, some of the old faces from the Salon’s early days had showed up, keen to support the Countess as she tried to recover its magic, and intrigued, no doubt, by the prospect of the talking cat.
The Countess herself seemed tense, not moving among her guests with the usual charm. Initially, Stapleton attributed this anxiety to his own entrance. Then he realized its true source: behind him, just emerging from the gallery, was Wilfred Camp. Camp had been damning in his critique of last year’s Summer Salon. He had been fully corrosive, devoting ten thousand words of sulphurous prose to a thoroughgoing assassination of the Countess’ personal character. Chief Editor of Paraquat, an angry young journal with high ambitions and a low print-run, and the brains behind various other short-lived publications, Wilfred always sought Stapleton out at private views, mistaking him for a fellow skeptic, sidling up to his supposed ally and leveling insults at the host, insults that Stapleton was expected to corroborate.
“Look at her,” he said, sneering balefully at the Countess as he drew alongside. “Bloody pantomime dame.”
Admittedly, she was not so much wearing a dress as gathering up her parachute after a heavy landing. It was the largest piece of fabric Stapleton had seen anyone go about in, an iridescent tarpaulin of silver and gold inspired by Gustav Klimt. A tasseled hat and a pair of oriental slippers completed the outfit.
“Of all the places,” Wilfred was saying, “of all the places Applebaum could have chosen to unveil his discovery, why here?”
“I’d have thought it the perfect place,” said Stapleton. “After all, it’s where he lives.”
Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today