Excerpt of Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
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Tuesday, 11 April 1933
It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie. Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? Indeed, one might say, who else is left to tell the tale? Ned Gillespie: artist, innovator, and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate. I first became acquainted with Gillespie in the spring of 1888 and during the course of several years thereafter we were connected through the most intimate of friendships. During this time, I learned to understand Ned - not simply through what he said - but also through his merest glance. So profound was our rapport that I was, on occasion, the first to behold his completed paintings, sometimes before his wife Annie had cast her gaze upon them. Ned and I had even agreed to co-author a volume on his life and work; but, unfortunately, that book was never written, due to his tragic and premature death at the age of thirty-six, just as (in my humble opinion) he was about to reach the very zenith of his creative powers.
Reader, if you wonder - as I suspect you may - why you have never heard of Gillespie, this supposed genius, then be aware of one thing: that, before he died, Ned burned almost all of his work, save for a handful of paintings which were in private ownership and thus inaccessible to him. I believe that he attempted to recover some of these canvases, and to my certain knowledge, one moonlit night, would have stolen back a portrait of Mrs Euphemia Urquart of Woodside Terrace, Glasgow, had not he been interrupted in the act of forcing a water-closet window by the Urquarts' butler, who (apparently cut short in solitary labours of his own) had been sitting in the dark; and who - despite the handicap of having his trousers at his ankles - grasped the intruder's shoulders as they emerged beneath the sash. A momentary struggle ensued, but soon thereafter Ned wriggled free and bounded away across the back green, chuckling (perhaps in relief at his escape?), and the butler was left holding only a tweed jacket, aromatic with pipe tobacco. A few bills in the pockets revealed Ned's identity but, happily, the police were not minded to pursue any investigation.
The Urquart portrait therefore survives, along with a few others, but most of the paintings were reduced to ashes. It is to my everlasting regret that amongst those ruined canvases were Gillespie's most recent and finest - if bleakest - works. I have no doubt that those precious masterpieces marked a new departure for him and would have given us a glimpse - yes! of the future!- and also of Ned's struggles, both within himself and with his ill-fated wife and family, a group of persons who, sadly, were a burdensome factor in his life as much as they were a source of inspiration to him.
You may also wonder why I have been silent for so long, and why it has taken me all these years to put pen to paper. Perhaps I needed to gain some distance from a sequence of profoundly affecting events, not least of which was that Ned, in addition to wiping out his artistic legacy, also took his own life. By that time, I was thousands of miles away, and powerless to help him. Confident of an eventual reconciliation, I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unravelling, not only of our relationship (what with all that silly white-slavery business and the trial) but also of his entire fate. However, let us not get ahead of ourselves. I will come to all that in due course.
Do you know: there are times when the past is so vivid in my mind that it seems more tangible to me even than my real life? Perhaps the act of committing this narrative to paper will free me of certain recurring dreams and (God willing!) diminish my eternal aching sadness about Ned Gillespie.
In the spring of 1888, it so happened that I moved from London to Glasgow, following the decease, at Christmas, of my aunt, whom I had nursed all through the autumn and early winter. During those cold, dark months of sickbed vigil, London had become oppressive to me and I grew to associate the place with death and dying. After several months of mourning had elapsed, I began to yearn for a change of scene, and so I decided to undertake a trip of some description, using a portion of the funds conferred upon me by my maternal grandfather, who had died several years previously, leaving me a lump sum and a small annuity.
Excerpted from Gillespie and I
by Jane Harris. Copyright © 2012 by Jane Harris.
Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.