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Word from Wormingford

23 January 2008

As a rural subject, Ronald Blythe sits for his portrait

TOBY the artist has arrived from Swanage to paint my portrait. He looks round the old house for the “best sitting place” and chooses the study window. Rainy panes flash with intermittent sunshine.

Toby is working on a series of portraits of rural people, mostly from Wessex, whose way of life is being destroyed by those who most admire it — the incomers. “Each man kills the thing he loves.” Or, as a Dorset hurdle-maker told Toby, referring to the new race of village-dwellers, “they love what they see and then they change it to what they left behind.”

He draws and paints for three days, and I hope is impressed by my professionalism as an artist’s model, as I manage to chat and provide meal-breaks without moving, so to speak. And, of course, it is a treat to be in Dorset once more. It was Paul Nash’s favourite place, and I myself made wonderful trips to it when I was helping to edit the New Wessex edition of Thomas Hardy, or writing about T. F. Powys. Or climbing Maiden Castle.

We talk about the way in which, not all that long ago, local people could get trapped in landscape: how it could destroy them, as it did in The Return of the Native.

Tall and serious, Toby paints away while the white cat, new to the smell of turpentine, considers this change of environment. My face, along with the hurdle-maker’s and those of all the other country men and women who will sit for him, will hang in the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

This is an extraordinary institution, possessing, as it does, Thomas Hardy’s study in a room-sized glass case. He used a different pen, I remember, for each novel, writing on its holder Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, etc. But how strange that this most furtive of authors should have his very soul on display! Not that I wasn’t glued to the glass when I entered the museum at “seeing” not only the worn nibs, but the inky fingers pressing on, line after line, and the blotter working overtime.

Toby says that he has bought a boat named Selina and would like to change this, but it is unlucky. Ships are never rechristened. Which brings us to Tobias and the angel, and myself to sorting out Jacob and his angel, and the completely forgotten tale of Tobit, Tobias, and Raphael. This is well worth anyone’s glimpse of the Apocrypha.

Briefly, Tobit, a Jewish exile in Nineveh and blind, allows his son to travel with a guide named Azarius, who is in fact the angel Raphael.

Off they go, to Tobias’s mother’s grief, to find fish, which will provide the means for her son’s happy marriage and her husband’s sight. And, of course, Tobias has a dog, dog Toby.

It is a great tale. I take the artist Tobias to see a portrait by John Constable at Nayland, just up the road, the model for which was his brother Golding, a young land agent. He stares upwards as the Christ, a natural-enough gesture for him, as he was usually walking through the Suffolk woods with his gun. Then back to the sitting.

It is etiquette not to remark on a work in progress or even to look at it. But when Tobias at last turns the canvas round, I am disconcerted by how far he has seen into me, and how correctly. And how truthful even my chair is! Off he goes in the wild, wild weather, the easel folded up in the car like a sleeping insect.

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