I CAME UPON THE ARTIST quite suddenly as I was crossing Kensington Gardens one sunny morning. I cleared a belt of leafy bushes, and there he was, setting up his easel before a view of the Serpentine's northern reach. I took very little notice of him at this first encounter. I had things to do on the other side of Bayswater Road. All Londoners who care about their appearance know the Osborne Outfits chain by our distinctive emerald and gold livery. I have the good fortune to own a sizeable chunk of the firm. My official title on the notepaper is ‘style consultant'.
In practice, my work involves keeping an eye on the eight shops to make sure that they look inviting to our potential customers, and ensuring that their sales staff make a positive effort to move the goods off racks and shelves, but in a constructive rather than a pushy fashion. Establishing the right sort of rapport with just anyone when they walk in off the street is a difficult art to master. Part of my job is to train the sales staff not to spoil the good efforts of our designers, manufacturers and buyers with a slack attitude. I'm not a complete perfectionist, but I am known for setting very high standards.
The rest of my work involves keeping an eye on the competition with a view to stealing variations of ideas, which they stole from us in the first place; plus meeting, lunches and receptions; the usual hard grind of the social side of business. I also wear an appropriate Osborne Outfit at all times as a living mannequin.
My accountant had a rare old tussle with the taxman before he made the point that showing confidence in the firm's products amounts to wearing a uniform, and therefore qualifies for an allowance. I am accustomed to getting my own way on points of principle.
The artist was still there when I passed through the park in the opposite direction during the afternoon. The weedy figure with limp, mousey hair was either on holiday or engaged in what he did for a living; if he had a living. I was wearing a rather stylish suit from our summer businesswear range. A truly dreadful old anorak – dark green with grease patches and paint stains, and his shapeless jeans – suggested that he was just passing time between girocheques.
There were no obscuring bushes as I approached him from the north. I was able to inspect his efforts at length on my way to the Knightsbridge branch of Osborne Outfits. This painter's technique belonged to what I can best describe as the Chimpanzee School: smears of colour, a terribly pretentious title like Gardens Composition Twenty-Six and a price tag in the region of twenty-six thousand pounds, had he been fashionable.
I saw green and blue areas during my transit, and some jagged, dark streaks, which I assumed were unclothed trees. Then I was past him, mercifully. Like many people, I tend to evaluate art in terms of what I could do myself, given the materials and time on my hands. I admire the old masters like Rembrandt and Constable because their skills lie beyond my reach. I am suspicious of "artists" who smear paint on canvas at random and then trot out a long tale about how meaningful the daub is.
I am not totally opposed to all Abstract art, of course. I can appreciate a good idea well executed. But I have sufficient good taste to ask whether it was necessary for the Tate Gallery to waste public money on one hundred and twenty fire bricks to illustrate an idea as trivial as Minimalism. I also questioned the rash purchase by the Scottish National Gallery of the remains of two crushed cars, one mounted on top of the other, presumably as an example of Junk Art.
No doubt the perpetrator of the latter outrage laughed all the way to the bank with his twenty-three thousand pounds. If that was a fair price for the idea of stacking two sets of crushed remains, then forty million dollars for a painting by van Gogh sounds almost a bargain.
There is a distressing tendency for the Arts Establishment to insult the taxpayer by throwing public money at rubbish. Such arrogant élitists feel driven to wave symbolic V-signs at those obliged to finance them, who do not share their twisted values. The painter in Kensington Gardens was clearly a candidate for their largesse. I knew that I should ignore him, but his sheer effrontery irritated me. If I ever felt inclined to waste paint, I would be properly ashamed and do it in secret at home. This person had the cheek to flaunt his ineptitude in a public place. I have never liked show-offs of any kind.
I was wearing wet-weather gear when I crossed the park the following morning. Osborne Outfits keep the wearer warm and dry in rain, hail and blizzards; according to our marketing department. The "artist" had either finished his daub or he had not braved the rain. I assumed that his tatty old anorak had long since lost its water-proof quality. I assumed that considerations of personal comfort were keeping him away. A drop of rain would have no effect on his dreadful painting; except as a significant improvement.
He had not finished. He was back in more or less the exact same place on Wednesday morning. I had to admit, in the afternoon, that the small touches of colour that he applied so carefully were adding up to something more than the uneducated daub of Monday, but I felt that John Constable had nothing to fear from a comparison.
Thursday morning was too windy for painting. I noticed a yellow object in the grass as I cleared the bushes. Three yards from the path, where the artist had set up his easel, was a triangle of golf tees. My irritation returned. What sort of pretentious exhibitionist, I asked myself, needed to mark the exact position of his easel so that he could daub paint on his canvas from the same viewpoint?
It was the work of a moment to shift the triangle of golf tees about five yards to the left. I walked on across the windswept park with a feeling of genuine accomplishment. I had struck a blow against a purveyor of Junk Art.
Two of the three golf tees had gone when I crossed Kensington Gardens in the opposite direction during the afternoon. I assumed that they had been confiscated by fellow art lovers. The "artist", in his dreadful, greasy anorak and a pair of balding, brown corduroy trousers, was back on Friday morning. I missed the fellow on Saturday, which was overcast but dry and calm. I had five meetings to fit around a business lunch and a reception in the evening. I had no time for a tour of our shops.
Just out of curiosity, I walked across the park through Sunday afternoon's rain. Two yellow golf tees were still in place. I moved them a further five yards diagonally away from the path. They were still where I had put them on Monday morning, but there was no sign of the "artist" on a sunny day.
When I walked back during the afternoon, the fellow was painting from the position that I had assigned to him on Sunday. I felt a small thrill of quiet achievement. I had taken control of his worthless life.
Now, the painting was starting to look more like the scene that it purported to represent. The "artist" was building on the smears of colour applied on the first day. At the same time, it was clear to me that his technique was unequal to the task. The painting would always have a crude, unfinished quality.
Tuesday was dull and dismal. I moved the "artist's" golf tees again during the morning as a matter of routine. All three were still there in the afternoon, but he had not put in an appearance. I realized why on Wednesday afternoon. He was painting the scene as it appeared on sunny, summer afternoons. He was busy working on the shadows now. He wanted to capture the highlights as sunlight flowed over his head to sparkle on the wind-ruffled Serpentine.
He almost caught me out on Thursday morning, when I was about to bend him to my will once more. Just one of his tees remained to mark the position of his easel – for some strange reason, all three never disappeared. Thursday's survivor was a good twenty yards from the "artist's" starting position. I took as a sign of his general incompetence the fact that he had failed to notice that his position had shifted relative to the bushes.
I was wearing a new line in city shoes. As I stepped onto the grass, I noticed that one of the laces was about to come untied. The neat bow as disintegrating. As I crouched to retie it, I had one of my brilliant ideas.
The lace was much too smooth. It was bound to come untied if the wearer of the shoe did much walking, like myself. I find the looseness of an insecure shoe profoundly irritating, and I am sure that most people feel the same. And yet, the lace looked very smart. I realized that I could suggest creating two lines at the next design meeting.
The type that I was wearing could be described as Dress Laces. We could also market a less slippery version as a work-horse, Walking Lace.
I was still enjoying the thought of our fashion-conscious customers changing their laces according to whether they were walking or showing themselves off, when I became aware of a whining voice. The "artist" was asking me to excuse him. I frowned incomprehension, forcing him to make a lame explanation of why he had to occupy the exact position that I had chosen for tying my lace.
I spoke to his sharply, telling him with well-modulated authority that he could afford to wait until I had finished with his piece of grass, seeing that all I planned to do on it was tie a shoelace. He stuttered an apology while I completed that task.
I moved away a few yards and took out a notebook to record the Dress and Walking laces idea while it was still fresh in my mind. The "artist" cast nervous glances at me, as if he suspected that I was taking details before having him arrested. I noticed, with some satisfaction, that he set up the right leg of his easel on the point marked by the golf tee that I had moved the morning before.
I walked on across the grass, deviating from my usual route because I felt obliged to show that I had left the path by design, not out of pure devilment. If he suspected that someone had been moving his tees, even though he accepted the new positions, the "artist" had no reason to connect me with his harassment.
I turned left at the lake side to leave the gardens by Marlboro Gate. The "artist" seemed to be doing rather a lot of staring and very little painting when I passed him again during the afternoon, heading back to the Kensington side of the park. He dabbed on just two blobs of paint while I covered about fifty yards.
He called a ‘good-morning' to me on Friday. His eventual position, so far from the screening bushes, gave him time to look at people's faces as they headed north on the path. I felt obliged to return the greeting and ask, politely, about his progress. He told me that he had almost finished his painting.
I considered asking how he could tell as I made my polite noises. I almost gave him one of my business cards in case he felt like smartening himself up. I was sure that Osborne Outfits could supply something practical and elegant for his outdoor painting. But I decided that his type would not be interested in style. It was obvious from his painting that he had no eye for detail and balance.
The "artist" had almost packed up when I recrossed the park in the late afternoon. He had put away his brushes and palette in an uncharacteristically neat case, which housed his paints. His picture remained on the travelling easel, however. I noticed, as I approached across the grass, that he had added something new but I could not quite make it out.
I returned his shouted greeting from a conversational range. He told me that he had finished, more or less, as I inspected the daub in its final form. Being polite to despicable people is good training for coping with the obnoxious types in the business world – those whom one would prefer not to upset.
There was a figure on the grass in the foreground of the picture. His clothes were a brownish cream, his hair a lick of scarlet. The man seemed to be lying on his face in a careless sprawl, either asleep or drunk. It was hardly paranoid of me to see an obvious parallel between the shape and my summer suit, in a shade that the designer called old parchment, and my auburn hair.
The "artist" had a look of eager pride in his washed-out, blue eyes. Making the insult clear, he told me that he always included a relevant human element in his works – someone who had played an essential part in the creation of the picture.
Maintaining my pleasant smile with difficulty, I asked him the title. I was on the point of asking him to repeat himself when he took the revolver from the side pocket of that dreadful anorak.
I turned to flee, blindly, hopelessly, as he pulled back the hammer to cock the revolver. I realized, too late, that I was running toward the Serpentine. I stopped, telling myself that I should have chosen any other direction but toward the position of the figure in the painting.
Too late, I realized that I had reached that exact same spot. In an infinite instant between the report of the gun and the impact of the bullet, I knew that there had been a fundamental shift of power. My transient control of his life had become ultimate control of mine. I knew now why the talentless "artist" had called his painting Landscape With Corpse....... ■