My Silence for a Space by Cherry Smyth
I was drawn to Bartolomeo Nazari’s portrait of Samuel Egerton, currently hung in the drawing room at Tatton Park, painted in Venice in 1732. ‘My Silence for a Space’, based loosely on the letters of Samuel Egerton (1711-1780) and other material in the Egerton Archive, including the draper’s bills, explores the enduring allure of Venice through Samuel Egerton’s time there as an art dealer’s apprentice, 1729-1734 and its influence on contemporary Tatton Park.
Unlike many of his wealthier contemporaries who would have undertaken the Grand Tour of two to three years with a tutor, known as ‘a bearleader’, Egerton spent five years learning the business, culture and society of Venetian aristocracy. He lived and worked under the supervision of an English merchant called Joseph Smith who ‘discovered’ Canaletto and established a business selling his views of Venice, ‘vedutes’ to visiting Englishmen. The height of Samuel Egerton’s Venetian sojourn is marked by Nazari’s splendid portrait and his environment is portrayed by Canaletto’s pendant paintings of 1730, commissioned by Egerton’s uncle and guardian, Samuel Hill, and also hung in Tatton Park today.
But Egerton left Venice and his job without his uncles’ permission and this piece imagines the reasons for this through fragments of letters and an invented diary. The title ‘My silence for a space’ is a direct quote from one of Egerton’s apologetic letters to his uncle on his return. Although Egerton inherited Tatton Park in 1738 on the death of his brother John, he was unable to afford to live there until his uncle died in 1758, when a substantial part of Samuel Hill’s fortune, including his sumptuous collection of art and books, became Egerton’s and he finally could begin to enact his twenty-year-old dream of bringing Venice to Tatton. The legacy of his major redesign of the house and garden is still evident at the estate.
‘fancy, the power of framing ideal pictures’, Samuel Johnson, 1755
‘My silence for a space, honour’d sir, space for a silence, between us, my regret, your fortune for a space, your silence, because nothing warranted being imparted, this space beyond seas, between brothers, my brother John’s illness, your displeasure, I regret...I beg leave to subscribe myself in the humblest manner, Your dutiful nephew and most obedient and humble servant, Samuel Egerton’
1738. My elder brother John was dead. I was Samuel Egerton of Tatton. My Tatton. Tata’s Tun. The estate and all about it: mine. And yet I was outside it. The country seat I could least afford to sit upon. John had spoiled the counting books. Tatton was leased to Mister George Leigh. The standing lost. The dreaming won. Two decades of a dream, a fancy. If only for the funds:
A grand Rococo drawing room, with white oak leaves and seashells tracing a slim border of land and sea.
A long beech avenue to lead from Knutsford.
A large windowed library facing south to Bosley Cloud.
An Italianate Garden, with Neptune’s fountain at its core.
A moat, the circling canal, an arching bridge, a gondola.
Was it 1745? Exiled still, one night I dreamed a hot rain of ash and stone upon Heraculaneum, the buried city, and vowed to raise its ancient columned mark in Tatton. I dreamt I had commissioned Canaletto himself to come to Tatton to deliver a fresco of the works of Hercules upon a new, grand staircase, lit by an oval skylight at its head. I’ve heard news that he is in London, has painted a magnificent picture through the unfinished arch of Westminster Bridge, that makes London float as if upon the Adriatic. I believe the Duke of Richmond and Duke of Bedford have engaged his services. I am furnished with the tight hardship of money’s truth. There are rumours that this Canaletto is an imposter. I could assure you at one glance if his stroke was true.
8th August, 1750
‘Honoured Sir, Yesterday I entered into the happy state of matrimony. My wife desires her duty to you....’
Blessed Beatrice. I trust my solace in her will not burden her. I know they whispered that I had become too Italian when I failed to marry on my return.
Great celebrations in Cheshire. I am elected Member of Parliament in 1755. My fervent wish is that this will justify my worth and restore me to value in my uncle’s eyes.
1758. My uncle has died. His misfortune, his fortune mine. I am thirsting to speak to Pritchard of my plans. I have hung at last the Canaletto pair at Tatton. Looking east, looking west. He split the Molo, St Mark’s winged lion and St Theodore, my bearings, right and left, for five whole years. He teased their height, measured the buildings false and angled the perspective to make a better view. My Vedutista: Antonio Canal. His atelier looked out on the Rialto Bridge. Rivus Altus – the highest bank on an ancient riverbed. More work than he could manage. He would not be rushed, was quick to take offence, his lower lip pouting, his eyes owl-like, as though he was not used to daylight. His father would prepare the canvas, taught him how to make distance through darkness at the foreground of the picture, the tricks of theatre scenes. I was sent to urge his speed to finish, would listen for hours to tales of the Venetian stage, the hollering cries and insults from the passing oarsmen and post-boys, the women hanging out their tattered laundry, shouting and laughing over courtyards and the bells, the bells, until I barely knew what was real and what one glorious never-ending play.
To look upon Canaletto’s pictures now is to travel, to see again the golden late afternoons; the sunny day facades; the pale honey of Piave wine; the red-turbaned gondoliers; the blonde-haired women with eyes as green as cats’ holding their oval black moretti between their teeth; the coffee-houses with their lantern stands fashioned from Blackamoors; the Doge’s Palace, its pink and white marble front, edible, shining; the Doge flowing and fluttering his red peony cloak in procession down to the galley to meet his salty bride; the Senate behind, scurrying as beetles; the fleet of gondolas, concert music swimming above the tide, the voices of two eunuchs flying higher than the banners streaming from the Campanile.
Such a feast of colour on Ascension Day – a buoyant circus – the Bucintoro – red-tented like something dreamt by the Nile. I followed the strangest wedding party, small and green- witted, my senses payed out on stalks, my curving, bending soul atremble for itself, its Protestant plain lines, my mother’s warning of the Irish Romish priests, my uncle’s quiet word in my ear after church about octopus, pulpo, pink and white. I knew from his eyes, not his words, his meaning. No counting steeples trip for me, no bearleader to guide this cub, but work’s apprentice to art dealer, Joseph Smith where I was to learn framing, packing, shipping, customs, management and finance. I soon preferred the lessons of his Vermeer, his Rubens and his Rembrandt, my daily bread in his Palazzo Balbi on the Grand Canal. And the tutoring display of summer paintings hung for sale outside the School of St Rocco. I have not thought of it for many years, and suddenly I can smell the embossed and gilded leather of ‘Guiseppe’ Smith’s opulent grand hall as if it were at my very touch and see the Murano glass flowers that his wife, Katherine placed so gently along the long white table when guests arrived.
To Samuel Hill, 26 November, 1729:
‘2 large pieces of Alvize dal Frise
2 cartoons Cignani
2 pieces from Magnoni of Bolgna
1 Rosalba Carriera
1 Holy Family by Tizian or Polidore
I piece of old Roman Painting a fresco
6 marble tables
2 pieces Marco Ricci
All is now packed up... with nicest care... the captain hath a particular charge... a-stow in the Ramsgate... hope all will be landed in England, landed in good order. The pendant paintings by Canal, neither packed up, nor a-stow, are almost complete...must be left a while to dry... are nigh finished but...I have great room to hope....(how do I fish out the words for it?)...have every faith that they will be completed by the end of the year. They say that you can see the sun shining in them. We are close to settling a price. (In shining sun. His bladder of paints. And an easel his father built for him to carry out of doors.) As I suspected, the engravings of Venice won’t sell for less than two chequeens... (but would you listen, dear uncle?) I would submit to you two bone caskets of the fifteenth century, if it pleases you. I wish you, esteemed uncle, every other solid comfort of life.... Your dutiful nephew and most obedient and humble servant, Samuel Egerton’
They say flower of women, but I was but a flower. Nineteen years of age. My first wages slipped away to dice, the touchless dip of thieving fingers, the English thunder of Joseph’s face. He packed me off to Mogliano, his country villa, to master the tongue and learn to walk on water. I leaned on Owen McSwiney, a man with loud and loutish charm, a bankrupt impresario from Drury Lane, who was dodging creditors. He took me to each of the seven opera houses and penned an opera, which we played out for him in the vast gardens until dawn. A most sensible pleasure in striking moonlight. Among the olive and cypress trees, we were as living statues trying to sing.
Nazari aged my countenance, I tell you. Half a score. Made my eyes know what they couldn’t yet at twenty-one, although my seeing had multiplied a thousand fold upon the sights afloat there. How was the brain of youth engulfed and opened! The brocade of that waistcoat was wishful, richful, manly. An anemone touched by too much sun. Look at my hand pointing to the custom house from the terrace as if it were a hazel twitch divining future wealth. I could command it to appear. He suggested I placed one hand upon my hip to lend a stronger stance than I quite matched. The books set to my right – would that I possessed the leisure to study them at Cà Smith. Those nightly howls of his poor, sweet, troubled Katherine.
The golden day was passing. The waters rose with noxious life. Trade decayed and crumbled like the twisting web of spidery calli. I was beset by merchants, with all the malevolence and malice of those pet monkeys forced into human clothes. I took unholy benediction from a nun for less than a chequeen. To think my mother once fretted that I would lose time and innocence at Sturbridge Fair.
Uncertainty took hold of me in the height of summer. The dazzle of the shadeless streets. The incessant hammering from the stonemason’s yard, the thud of barrels on the quay, the flagellants flogging themselves in the streets and the hideous rasping from the knife-grinder’s stall burrowed vole-like in my head. I crushed mint and basil in a knot of muslin to my face to mask the stench of waste in water alleys. The stink seemed to wear me like a bautta, its black lace hooding how to proceed, the volto telling eye’s truth behind the cheek’s disguise. I was gentry playing a lord. I was no Duke of Dorset, posing in pink-tinged face for Carriera, the soft-tinted lips of a doll, the theatre dressing him, his stage every languid stroll. I went a little way, then turned back, lost. I passed the Jews hurrying home to behind their confining gates as twilight began to fall.
I would return to England. I would not tell my uncle. He would banish me from his sight unless I proved myself more prudent. Homesickness is a sickness no apothecary can remedy. I feared I would fold beneath its flood. Their hot treacle made me retch. Oh for the lashing rain on sun-lost green. The blue-skyed Turn Mere gleaming cleanly below the house. The simple, faultless fare from Salter’s Dale. The trees, the trees, the trees and birds of trees. I needed oak. Skylark. Sweet chestnut. Snipe. Ash. Polecat. I spoke a building delirium of Cheshire contours, the accent of our steward colouring my words. I was ‘tried and tutored in the world’ and tired.
My boyhood closed upon those heavy-lidded trunks. The scent of Turkish spices escaped and clothed me. The last sight, the city’s glancing light, its beauty calling for one more chance to please. The palaces were illuminated in the winning dusk, all dilapidation kind, comely. I looked away, looked out to sea as if I heard the Sirens of the Straits of Messina. The Burchiello came to the quay. I remembered how my mother made me promise to tell no one I could swim in case of shipwreck when strangers would cleave to me for safety and I would perish with them. I looked back. That vanishing mirage I had long chased seemed to hover so serene in leaving, I vacillated, rocked on the parting vessel. I thought of the unstrained loveliness of a lover’s face when goodbye is spoken and cannot be revoked, the tears, the cries spent and all forgiven, all repented. She gave her best to falling light and fading, until I who was abandoning became abandoned. The palaces whispered, the campanile struck its shadow like a sword beyond the Piazza San Marco and some emotion for the place I always sought hooked me like a fish baited in the deepest pond.
I came well to home on Sunday morning. On Monday I made purchase of a gray cloth suit:
Buckle and garters
I yard of Cambrick
1770 Milly Croft leased a Tatton meadow. Milly Croft’s plot was neat. Milly Croft’s hedges tidy. Milly Croft’s intimate field. Until the squire had a notion, or some say, a vision. Wanted his land wider, a smooth horizon. The lease was ended, labour ceased. Men came, not an easy task for local men, to dismantle Milly’s hedge, nested for hundreds of years past. A park, Master Egerton saw, a parkland. Rolling acres, not 300 hedged fields, tiny livelihoods too tiny for him to notice. A sheep grazer, cattle fodder. Food for the family. A long furrow of earth eye. Some interior soil. Her crop. She thought her name to it would make it stick, made her special. Doctor Holland was fetched from Knutsford. Ways and by-ways are all changing. Mister Wyatt, they say, visited last week. Drafted plans for an entire new house, he did. In the style of ancient Greece. A mansion.
Cherry Smyth is a poet, critic and curator, born in Ireland, based in London. Recent publications two poetry collections: Test, Orange and One Wanted Thing. Cherry writes regularly for Art Monthly, Modern Painters, Circa and Art Review. She was a curatorial adviser for the Axis online showcase, ‘Open Frequency’ in 2006. She is currently the guest editor of Magma poetry magazine and was the poetry editor of Brand Literary Magazine, 2006-2011. Cherry has been teaching writing poetry in the Creative Writing Department of the University of Greenwich since 2004.