The Blue publishes in original paperback and ebook in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries on December 3, 2018.
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Read Chapter One of THE BLUE:
Amiability has never been counted more important in a woman’s character than it is today. Which is why I’m twenty-four and unmarried and without friends or employer, only a grandfather for company. It doesn’t matter. Ambition consumes me, an impossible one. It’s what delivers me into the back of a hackney carriage on this December night, holding a party invitation that doesn’t bear my name as I make my way from Spitalfields to Leicester Fields.
My grandfather and I live on Fournier Street, one of the most respectable in Spitalfields, a street where, never mind the longing and greed and fear that nibble at the souls of a good many neighbors, all say their prayers after supper and snuff the candles. Not so along the route through London to Leicester Fields. From my swaying carriage, I see lights leaping in many windows and hear the shouts and the laughter. London is alive, and so am I.
After more than an hour, the carriage jerks to a stop as it is has many times. But on this occasion, it’s not in order to allow another to rumble forward. Thump, thump, thump. The driver pounds his stick. I’ve arrived.
The carriage door swings open to number thirty, Leicester Fields, the home of England’s greatest living painter, William Hogarth.
As I step down, I catch sight of handsome houses rising along each side of the square, illuminated by coal-lit street lamps that stand to attention like tireless soldiers. The largest by far is Leicester House, tucked behind a courtyard, containing whichever Prince of Wales is presently draining the country of gold with his peevish schemes. I know from the newspapers the names of some of the other residents, wealthy doctors and striving merchants and low-rung nobles. But now is not the time to gawk.
I’m not sure what I expected from Hogarth’s London home. The solid terraced building, third from the left on the southeast corner, gives no outward evidence of artistic genius. Yet I know I’ve come to the right place, by the lights bursting from the windows and the roar of many voices. This is the man’s Christmas party.
I fully expect the servant at the door to give me trouble. Raising my chin, I try to look as if I belong in the rarefied world of Leicester Fields. Unfortunately, a bitter cold wind envelops me, making my earrings, the only ones I possess, sputter against my neck. I shiver in my dress. I did not bring my winter cloak — how could I? It is too plain, the garment of a modest, God-fearing Huguenot woman of Spitalfields, not the West End. Sober manner and somber dress, such is our creed.
Without a word, I thrust the invitation into the gloved hand of the silver-wigged servant. He does not look down at the card.
“Have you no escort, Madame?”
“None is required.”
He peers at the writing and frowns. “This was sent to Pierre Billiou.”
“My name is Genevieve Planché and I am his family — his granddaughter,” I reply. My mother died of smallpox when I was eight. My father being dead of typhus three years before that, Pierre has long been my only family.
I say, as casually as I can manage, “Grandfather is ill, but he wished me to convey to Mr. William Hogarth in person his wishes for a merry Christmas.”
The servant purses his lips.
I take a step closer. “I’m sure Mr. Hogarth would be most angry to know that a member of the Billiou family was made to feel unwelcome.”
A smile crinkles the servant’s face. With a mocking flourish, he beckons for me to enter. I straighten my shoulders and follow him, determined to maintain the appearance of being accustomed to such occasions, when the truth is I’ve only attended two artists’ gatherings hosted by my grandfather and they consisted of three or four old friends grumbling about their commissions over goblets of cognac. I’ve never attended a party among London society in my life.
I cannot help but catch my breath and blink, rapidly, as I walk from the entranceway to a large room, high-ceilinged and brightly lit, yet hazy. Greasy oil lamps sputter on the walls, candelabras and candlesticks flicker everywhere else. The din is ferocious, as if all crammed inside the walls speak at once. After a minute or so, I perceive that every single person in the room is a man. Young and old, fat and thin. They wear frockcoats and wigs, goblets in hand. Wrinkle-faced men cling to long-stemmed clay pipes. A quartet of young men laugh in the corner
A fire crackles in the tall fireplace. Yet a damp-cloud smell of human sweat hovers over this crowd, mingling with the musk oil many men use to conceal their odor — unsuccessfully — and the tobacco smoke and the holly branches heaped around the pink punchbowl, in sole deference to Christmas a fortnight away.
Not one of them speaks to me. I feel gazes drift my way but none move a muscle to include me in their repartee. The man closest to me turns to offer me the expanse of his broad back.
Two men who cannot be older than twenty-five share snuff from a crimson box. One pinches his nose afterward to keep from sneezing while the other shakes his head. They glance sideways at me and put their heads together, laughing at some nasty little joke.
I refuse to be embarrassed. They should be embarrassed. From the tempo of this room, no one would know that England is presently at war with France and that young men are dying, horribly, in places like Quebec and Saxony. These gallants don’t care about the fact we might not win, that the British banks are strained to breaking point and taxes keep rising along with the cost of food.
But I have a more immediate problem. I don’t see anyone that matches the description of William Hogarth — and I perceive by the roar of laughter elsewhere that this is but one of several rooms packed with party guests. How am I to maneuver my way through a house of haughty men?
It is at that moment I see it — one of Hogarth’s own prints hanging on the wall.
The party guests no longer exist as I make my way toward it. My grandfather owns a book of reproductions of Hogarth’s art, and I’ve seen his paintings mounted at the Foundling Hospital, which he generously finances. But now, with a shiver of awe, I look upon one of the artist’s most famous prints: a pretty, innocent young woman from the country, holding the pincushion of a seamstress, inspected by a crone in front of a crumbling London building. Two leering men hover in the background.
“A fine Harlot’s Progress, wouldn’t you say?” rasps a voice.
I whirl to face a man lower to the floor than myself, a hunchback in fact, and not a day under seventy. His bloodshot eyes gleam with amusement under a wig perched precariously on his narrow skull. No doubt he wishes to embarrass me with his question.
“Yes, that is the title of this series of prints,” I say calmly. “This country girl arrives in London, seeking honest work, and is taken up by procurers and pimps, determined to ruin her. Which they do, of course. She’ll die of the pox in a few years.”
A sound emits from the man, half laugh, half sputtering cough. “A prim and proper young lady who tells a tale of a prostitute without a blush?” he says. “I must know your name.” He crouches a few more inches in an attempt at a bow. “I am Joshua Holcroft.”
“I am Genevieve Planché,” I answer, “and I am here to represent my grandfather, Pierre Billiou, who was invited but sadly could not attend.”
Mr. Holcroft thinks for a moment. “I am acquainted with Pierre Billiou, a fine painter, yes, but I haven’t set eyes on him in five years, at least.”
“Grandfather was invited to this party, be assured, Sir.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that he was invited. Hogarth casts a large net, as you can see with your own eyes. But Billiou is a Huguenot, living among his people, the silk weavers in Spitalfields, if memory serves. I can’t believe a French Protestant would send his own granddaughter here alone, disastrously dressed.”
Taken aback, I look down at my best wool dress of darkest green, trimmed with white lace. “Disastrously?”
“My dear, it’s not a dress for society.”
“I suppose that is why no one has acknowledged my existence here,” I say, chagrined. I must make a proper impression on Hogarth himself. Nothing should detract from the seriousness of my request.
“Hasn’t your grandfather taught you anything? Even if your frock were acceptable, it’s not possible for a man to approach a woman standing alone at a party such as this. Your lack of escort creates an insurmountable problem.”
“You surmounted it.”
“I am old and ugly and —” he holds up his goblet — “more than a little drunk. Perhaps if there were another female present, she could take you in hand and smooth matters over.”
“And there are no ladies here, anywhere?”
“Of course, of course, some wives of wealthy art patrons are upstairs, sitting comfortably with Mistress Hogarth or gossiping together. And that is all. There’s no place for a young woman in the world of art besides the sort we see here —” His eyes, twinkling with malice, swivel to the wall where A Harlot’s Progress hangs.
I can feel my cheeks flush at his disdain. This is what I’ve faced since my teacher chastised me for filling my copy-book pages with drawings of people instead of lessons from Scripture. “Females cannot be artists,” the teacher shouted. Tonight, here, I will set matters right. I just need to speak to William Hogarth himself. The man who captures with brilliance the lives of human beings, their sufferings under injustice, will understand.
“Where is Mr. Hogarth now?” I ask.
“Promenading from room to room. He was here an hour ago and should return. His path is not quick. He’s weighed down by those who seek to worship at the altar of art — or at least, those who wish to give that appearance. Tonight Hogarth has two lords who perch on either side of the poor man like guardians at the gate. Of course, it’s not just him they surround, but also his guest of honor, Joshua Reynolds, the rising sun to Hogarth’s waning talents.”
“Waning?” I repeat, incredulous, when a commotion at the far end of the room captures everyone’s attention.
It is him. William Hogarth, smaller than I’d imagined and older too, but the same round face and short, thick nose I’ve seen in likenesses published in the newspapers. Next to him is a much younger man, dark countenanced, moving with assurance. This must be Joshua Reynolds. Just as Holcroft described them, two wigged and splendidly dressed men stand close to Hogarth and Reynolds, the lords pressing on either side, as if not to yield advantage to anyone else. One is perhaps twenty, wearing a pale yellow frockcoat and breeches, his delicate face powdered, a beauty spot painted over his lip; the other aristocrat is a little older and taller, sans powder, with grave, dark eyes.
But as the group advances, I catch sight of another face, one that makes my stomach clench.
My grandfather’s good friend, fellow artist Robert Drummond, is among the entourage.
I should have thought of this possibility when I filched the invitation, that one of his artist companions would also be invited. Grandfather stopped going to events such as these a few years ago, when his health began to trouble him. He would never countenance my coming to Leicester Fields, for he has tried to dissuade me from my plan of asking a leading painter to sponsor me since the day I first told him of it. Grandfather thinks I’m upstairs in my room in Spitalfields at this moment; thanks to Robert Drummond, he’ll know by tomorrow that I lied my way into Hogarth’s home.
Why am I such a fool? But it is too late to do anything but go forward.
Mr. Holcroft sidles away, not wishing to be at my side when the host sees me. I have another idea. I dig my fingers into his arm.
“If need be, you will present me as if I am your companion,” I hiss in his ear.
“I will not — it’s an absurd idea.”
“Then I will find a moment to inform our host that you described his talents as ‘waning.’ The choice is yours.”
Mr. Holcroft’s mouth drops open in shock and his arm falls limp in my grasp. Which makes it easier for me to pull my “escort” toward the artists themselves.
It is Joshua Reynolds who sees me first. “Holcroft — who have you gang-pressed to our Christmas party?” he asks, laughing. “This poor young woman must be bored senseless, listening to the talk of artists.”
“On the contrary,” I declare. “Art is my life, and there is no other place I would rather be than here.”
The moment arrives. He sees me. William Hogarth looks straight at me, assessing me as if I were a subject to be captured on his easel.
Releasing the sleeve of my relieved companion, I move quickly to stand before him. Other women swoon over the actor David Garrick. For me, there is only this man.
“Mr. Hogarth, I wish nothing else but to learn from you, to be your student in any capacity you would have me,” I say, my voice quivering with feeling. “I go about the city, with my sketchpad, as you have, seeking to capture it.”
Behind me a man snickers. Another says, “Oh hush, you rascal.”
Determined to push on, I say, “My grandfather, Pierre Billiou, has taught me all that he knows—”
“Genevieve, what are you doing?”
My grandfather’s friend interrupts. Robert Drummond pushes his way toward me, dismayed.
“Do you know this young lady, Robert?” Hogarth speaks for the first time, a mild voice.
Drummond responds: “Her name is Genevieve Planché. She is the granddaughter of Pierre Billiou, the Huguenot artist, whom many of us in this room have made acquaintance with.”
Hogarth nods, as do a few of the others.
“And yes, she has some skill.” As if I am not even here, he continues. “She was an apprentice to Anna Maria Garthwaite, painting flowers for design on silk dresses, in Spitalfields. Now her family has made arrangements for her to take a position as a decorator at the Derby Porcelain Works.”
Porcelain. Is the whole kingdom obsessed with it? Just the word makes everyone smile — to “ooh” and “ahhh” — as much as it makes me want to scream. The last thing I want is for Hogarth to learn of the position my grandfather pressures me to accept.
Joshua Reynolds claps his hands. “Ah, porcelain, what fantastic creations. ‘White gold,’ they call it, do they not? People lose their heads over collecting it.”
“More than their heads,” someone says. “Some poor sods land in debtors’ prison.”
Reynolds waves his hand, dismissing the image of porcelain-mad bankrupts as unworthy of discussion. “How exquisite the sculpted figures, even the vases and plates can be divine,” he says. “And to be commissioned to paint the designs on them, I should think it a great privilege. It seems that this should be more than enough…”
My heart pounding, I look only at Hogarth. I know he must understand. His own training in art was unconventional, limited, yet he persevered to become the best. And he has not devoted his talent to celebrating the wealthy; he paints servants, soldiers, the people of the London streets.
“Would it be enough for you, Mr. Hogarth?” I say. “To be shut up in the same room, day after day, painting flowers for silk dresses or for tea cups and plates, and not telling the story of the world with your brush?”
He does not answer me.
“But what else could you aspire to?” asks Joshua Reynolds, once again jumping in. “To paint the stories of the world, you must apprentice to a history painter — and no woman could do that. We learn to paint the human figure through the use of models. No lady of good family could take lessons as an art student, for you’d have to look upon a model barely dressed.”
Snickers surround me. My grandfather’s friend, Robert Drummond, appears stricken, whether on my behalf or his own, who can say.
“It’s not just in England, after all,” someone says. “In France they bar women from instruction at the Royal Academy.”
“C’est dommage,” cries another man. “Les femmes françaises sont belles.”
The snickers explode into loud laughter.
While I watch, the faint interest in Hogarth’s eyes dims to nothing. He murmurs, “There is nothing I can do for you, Mistress, I’m sorry,” and he moves past me.
I cannot believe it. For so long I’ve imagined myself by Hogarth’s side, learning from him, winning his trust — and when the Christmas party invitation arrived, the fantasy promised to crystallize into reality. Yet now that Hogarth has finally met me, heard my voice, and listened to my dreams, it means nothing to him.
I open my mouth, but no sound comes out. The men surrounding Hogarth look at me with pity or with contempt before they, too, move to another part of the room, another conversation. Soon all will be laughing again over some new joke.
“Genevieve, I feel I must —” begins Robert Drummond.
“Leave me alone,” I say. My head spins.
“As you wish,” he says, and stomps off.
“May I be of service?” says another voice.
I open my eyes.
It is one of the lords who’d been affixed to the side of William Hogarth, the man with the dark eyes. I shake my head, but his hand cups my elbow.
“Allow me,” he says, and before I know it, I am maneuvered out of this room, away from Drummond and everyone else and up some stairs. Most everyone we pass nods to the man escorting me or murmurs a greeting, while curious eyes scroll up and down my unfashionable form.
He guides me into a small room, its walls brightened by the roaring fireplace. We’re not alone — two ancient and bejeweled ladies huddle on a settee, their faces crumbling with thick powder. I recognize their dresses, made of Huguenot silk in the latest style. With some bitterness, I identify which of the Spitalfields workshops these dresses have passed through. As for their rows of spiraling flowers, pink peonies and yellow roses, adorning the voluminous skirts, they are the handiwork of my onetime employer, Anna Maria Garthwaite. They might even have sprung from my own tiny brush, as I labored in her second-floor workshop on Princes Street, sitting where the light is best. The irony is crushing.
“My friend is not feeling well, and I’m wondering if we may join you,” says the man, steering me to a chair by the fireplace. The matrons smile vaguely and return to their iced Christmas cake and sherry.
The old pug resting by the fire toddles over to the man and lays its inelegant nose on his knee. He smiles at the animal, stroking its back, and then smiles at me.
“I don’t know your name,” I protest, still faint of voice.
“My name is Sir Gabriel Courtenay. I am already apprised of yours.”
He continues to smile, but there’s no mockery in it. Sir Gabriel is a man of fine features, about thirty years of age. Doubtless other women would be taken with this knight errant, but I want only to nurse my pain in private.
“I must leave this party as soon as possible,” I tell him, my voice growing stronger.
His reaction to this is a question. “Mistress, I wonder when was the last occasion you had something to eat or drink?”
“I must insist you have punch. Then I shall make arrangements for you to be taken home.”
“I don’t care for spirits,” I say, clinging to the custom of a Huguenot woman of Spitalfields, though I’ve behaved as anything but that on Leicester Fields. “I appreciate your efforts on my behalf, Sir, but they’re not necessary. I’ve a hackney carriage nearby.”
He raises a single finger. A servant materializes out of nowhere; in seconds, I hold a goblet of punch in my hand. Its strong, sweet taste tumbles down my throat. Perhaps after all it would be best to gather myself in this room, for a few moments, before seeking the door.
“I wonder, how did you obtain a coveted spot at the Derby manufactory if you’ve no interest in the work?” he asks. His fragrance reaches me. He’s not like the other men, drenched in musk oils, but wears something dry and subtle, exotic but somehow familiar.
“You have heard of the workshop in Derby?” I ask, surprised.
“Porcelain is all the rage, and everyone has high hopes for the British factories that have opened in the last ten years,” he says and folds his hands, expectantly. He’s curious about how I came to be offered a position at one.
With some reluctance, I say, “It’s my family’s doing. My father’s cousin was one of the men who founded the Derby business, with his clay designs.”
“Ah. Well, in Britain we all recognize the superior skills of the Huguenots.” He pauses. “Perhaps a gathering of the beau monde was not the ideal time to make your case to Mr. Hogarth.”
“Is that what this is?” I ask bleakly. Of course I do not belong among the beau monde, the pampered pleasure-seekers of London. But neither does Hogarth. This is a group that he once satirized — no, he skewered — in his work. I thought I knew so much about him. How could the man who mocked the heartlessness of the aristocracy in A Rake’s Progress now cater to them?
Sir Gabriel says, “You must be a talented artist in your own right.”
His politeness only pains me. “Not artist. Decorator.” The word sours my tongue. “To adorn the lives of my betters, that is the limit of my talent, it seems. I’d thought, quite comically I realize to all present, that Master Hogarth would understand me, he would see why I cannot…” To my horror, my voice breaks. Tears burn in the corner of my eyes.
He says, “What you require now is food. I’ll organize it.” He eases out of the room.
As I sit there, in an upstairs room of an artist who didn’t respond to my heartfelt plea, weeping before a stranger, I’ve never felt so pathetic. I’ve bared my soul to a bored gentleman distributing charity. Doubtless, he is planning to escape from this tedium now. I will save him the effort.
I rush out of the room and down the stairs, and push my way through the crowd. The December cold slaps my cheeks, and I am glad of it. The lights in the street lamps burn a smoky red in front of the prosperous square townhouses, as if I’m trapped in a frozen, elegant hell.
I find my coachman, reeking of gin, and in moments I’m swaying in the back of the dark carriage, back to Spitalfields. As the horses clop their way from west to east, I realize two things. The first is that I’ve lost one of my earrings, fallen somewhere in the house, perhaps in my jostling haste to leave.
The second is, I know now what scent Sir Gabriel Courtenay wears, the man who unaccountably tried to help me. Three months ago, when his gout had receded, my grandfather suggested we visit a conservatory, an experiment in growing faraway plants in a heated, enclosed British garden.
We saw lemons that day, and oranges, and a wondrous variety of flowers. There was one delicate white flower I found particularly lovely and I leaned down to breathe its fragrance. Dry and sweet and subtle.
Before I moved on, I read the neatly written script on the card in front of the flower.
© Nancy Bilyeau.