So here we are, lying low to the wall, as John O’Donohue wrote in the poem that was read on Radio 4 last week: behind our windows, stirring slow pots of comforting things, eating more beans than usual, baking or planning to bake, holding our pets or our kids or our pillows close and watching, waiting. Whilst friends who are doctors and nurses tell us it is as though they have been sent to fight in a war, we lucky ones have barely been outside in nearly four weeks and are investing our energies inwards, learning to love the intimacy of home to ward off claustrophobia.
Around working and mothering I have been singling out my favourite stones and precious things for display, re-organising the bowls in the cupboard, even watering my indoor plants for once. And all the while long-looking out of the window: at the bare oak trees that stand at the foot of my garden, and at the unembarrassed riches of the magnolia tree I see outside my other window every time I FaceTime my partner in our house in Brooklyn.
For those of us stationed at home — falling back on our own resources while the world is in chaos — this might be a good opportunity for creativity, if only we can focus. I have been telling writers that the rest of us are relying on them and all artists to help us: we need their assistance to parse the changes in our lives and to tell us or show us – how does it feel, to be trapped indoors, to miss our families, to graze close to death or grief. What does this mean for us?
Not yet able to write or paint myself, instead I made a work-space: a pleasing small desk that fits under the gabled ceiling of my loft by a window. My partner sent me a terracotta relief of two birds in a tree and I hung it in the bathroom where I could admire them from my bed. Everything lovely framed now by window or by door, from my low-lying indoors position, I remembered the sheer joy of last year’s Bonnard exhibition at the Tate with its bodies half-seen through doorways and gardens bursting in through kitchen windows.
And I thought too of the perfectly calm and controlled colour explosion that is this painting by Ethel Sands that we saw in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in December: of its blue-and-white washing jug and bowl, its jewel-like potions in bottles on the window-sill and most of all of the view from the window: the grim crucifixes that stand in the churchyard leaning like shockingly rotten teeth in the mouth of a beautiful young woman.
Sands was a wealthy and talented American who resided most of her life in France and England, a painter much influenced by Vuillard and Sickert and associated with the Bloomsbury set amongst others: those incredible home-daubers, hosts, garden-obsessives and gorgeous interior-decorating intellectuals. When I looked through Sands’ very pretty and domestic oeuvre of still lives and interior scenes I first saw her wealth, the comfort of her homes, the loveliness of her tables and chaises. But then I recognised another like us, a person trapped inside: not just an artist but a female artist, in other words one who sought her meaning in empty chairs and in the cold glass of large mirrors rather than the public spaces of a park or even the artist’s studio.
But those graves! This painting is dated 1920-1923. So, painted just after the end of WW1. Sands spent the war first nursing injured soldiers at the hospital she founded in Dieppe and then at a factory making overalls. How many men did she watch over while they sweated and shook their way to health or to death in the years before she painted this scene? By 1920 she may have been back inside, washing herself down with a beautiful pitcher, daubing her neck with perfume, but the sight and grief of the dead are just outside her window.
Here is our challenge, in one painting: to somehow internalise the horror and not to flinch from it but without at the same time destroying the beauty of what we know of as home. To sit inside typing, while outside or even in the next room all is terrifying and awful. This is our ‘new normal’, then, to accept the disjunct between home and unsafety and to try to fathom a way to be its mediator.
Virginia Woolf wrote an exquisite short story apparently inspired by her friend Sands and her work, in which a large looking-glass reflects:
the hall table, the sun-flowers, the garden path so accurately and so fixedly that they seemed held there in their reality unescapably. It was a strange contrast — all changing here, all stillness there… since all the doors and windows were open in the heat, there was a perpetual sighing and ceasing sound, the voice of the transient and the perishing, it seemed, coming and going like human breath, while in the looking-glass things had ceased to breathe and lay still in the trance of immortality.
It is a story about art, and the challenge of making a painting or a story more than a frozen reflection of a reality that is sighing with secrets and truths. Woolf goes on to consider the owner of the looking-glass, Isabella:
Isabella did not wish to be known – but she should no longer escape…If she concealed so much and knew so much one must prize her open with the first tool that came to hand – the imagination. One must fix one’s mind upon her at that very moment.
Woolf calls on the artist and the writer to use their imaginations to crack open the most domestic of scenes and of days and of sensibilities and not to submit to the pretence that everything is alright, or that there is any such thing as ordinary:
But one was tired of the things that [Isabella] talked about at dinner. It was her profounder state of being that one wanted to catch and turn to words, the state that is to the mind what breathing is to the body, what one calls happiness or unhappiness.
In the story, eventually it is the looking-glass that captures the truth of Isabella as she stands very still, caught in a shaft of light.
It was an enthralling spectacle. Everything dropped from her — clouds, dress, basket, diamond… Here was the woman herself.
And so it will be always for the best of stories and of music and of art: only in their interpretations and frozen versions of the sighing and the sweating and the grieving of today will we finally understand “the transient and the perishing…coming and going like human breath.” As far as we know, Ethel Sands did not paint the men she nursed or the ground on which they fell. But from the safety of her home, she described a world that would always grieve its fallen and which would never enjoy an unscarred beauty in the eyes of anyone who had lived through the war.
I hope writers find the space to create, looking out the window: we need your views now. How we long to remember what we called “happiness or unhappiness” before this began – how it is won, qualified, known, relied upon, true. Whilst we fight and watch and wait: please write.
Quotes from The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection by Virginia Woolf, 1929
Painting: Still Life with a View over a Cemetery by Ethel Sands 1920-1923 © the artist’s estate