The other day I spent the afternoon and evening in the company of Mr Goya and Mr Foote – and a good time was had by all: Mr Goya as irrepressible as ever, his tone a little less acerbic than in his ‘Disasters of War’; his sitters treated with sympathy for their intellect and made approachable. Here he shows his other side, that of the court painter, analyst, friend and colleague – there is no sense of status quo, only of Goya’s striving to grasp the essence of his subject.
He proceeds to fling and slap and dash loosely at his subject; he glares up at us briefly from his easel, eyebrows inquiring as to what, exactly, we are doing there – can’t we see he is busy?
Occasionally his stare is more abstract; concentrating on some study he hasn’t quite resolved – and later, his expression is the stark, tragic one of the deaf-smitten. Only recently appointed as Director of Painting at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, he was forced to resign owing to this disability, brought on by a mysterious illness in 1792-3.
The portraits follow his development in style, and to a degree, his life, among friends, patrons and (legitimate) family until finally we are allowed to sit at his bedside, while he is administered to by his brilliant friend, Doctor Arrieta. Behind the two men shadowy figures hover, in distant conversation – are they alive or imaginary?
I made my excuses and hurried on, anxious to visit Dona Isobel de Porcel, who had been given a whole wing to herself some distance away. She had been the main draw of the show for me, yet was not included in the main exhibition. The simplicity of her portrait is misleading. The verve and zest of the artist is in very lightness of touch – her black lace veil, wound carelessly about one arm, barely covering her bronze hair, is but a few hasty brush strokes, yet convince utterly in their loose deftness. All the portraits, drawn together from collections across the globe, demonstrate his in-depth study of character, his mastery of technique; all share a play on light and shade, and a radiance of the skin. Eyes bright, their skin luminous, they glow from within the shadowy framework of the canvass he places them in.
I left Mr Goya and company reluctantly, and wandered down from the National to Regent Street; on turning a corner I bumped into Mr Foote, showing off his other leg at the Haymarket, like the brazen hussy he was. On an impulse, I allowed him to usher me in to witness the story of his life, though swift scene shifts and quick, lively banter enriched by occasional visits from Mr Franklin expounding the theory of electricity, and Prince George himself. Mr Garrick was there too, along with Miss Woffingham, and of course Mr Foote’s servant Francis Barber (on loan from Dr Johnson). All of the company gathered there were bustled through backstage, upstage, dressing rooms and wings of the theatre as Mr Foote trod the high and low.
The action is fast and merry, the whole piece is a vigorous theatrical tour-de-force, with scenes reminiscent of a Gilray or Rowlandson brought to life (the sorry incident of his leg being removed by Doctor Hunter is a prime example) – visually, the colours, lighting and period detail are atmospheric and well-studied; candle light and shadows play against walls, ceilings and floors, (for we rarely leave the theatre, save in the dark) adding drama, terror and warmth to this most engaging of plays.
Both Mr Goya and Mr Foote share a ferocious vitality, a splendid disregard for convention and status, as well as surviving life-threatening situations : Goya’s illness resulting in the loss of his hearing, Mr Foote’s ill-timed wager resulting in the loss of a leg. Both satirize, challenge and explore; both lived through turbulent times and both made enormous contributions in very different ways to our ideas on perception and cultural development.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg runs until 23rd January at the Haymarket.
Goya The Portraits runs until 10th January at the National Gallery.