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The picture of Elizabeth Moody

A young man is captivated by a painting of a young woman and her two children

By Raymond G. TaylorPublished 8 months ago Updated 8 months ago 5 min read
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Gainsborough: Mrs Elizabeth Moody with her sons, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Beautiful isn’t it?

I barely heard the voice, as I stood in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, my gaze lifted to the canvas, enthralled by the image of a young woman in a landscape with two small children, all three adorned with lavish flowing fabrics. It wasn’t the sumptuous costumes that captivated my attention, so much as the expression on the lady’s face, which wore an enigmatic smile as the wearer gazed into the distance. The complexion of the subject had been applied with a liberal use of China white, giving the face an almost ghostly appearance.”

“Gainsborough.”

I looked over my shoulder, noticing for the first time that it was me the voice was addressing.

“Gainsborough,” the voice repeated. I must have looked a little surprised. “The artist.”

“Yes, of course,” I replied. “Sorry, I didn’t realize…”

“It’s okay,” she said. “You were evidently lost in the moment.”

“Well, yes, I guess I was.”

She had a smile that was almost as enigmatic as that of the painting and I tried to return it, although I think what I managed was more of a grimace. “And yes, quite beautiful….” I hesitated, mid-sentence, suddenly taken by a strange feeling that I had seen her before.

“Oh thank you,” she said, not noticing my hesitation. “I have always liked it. But of course the children were added later. After their dear Mama had died.” Then it was her turn to be lost in the moment as she stared up at the imposing canvass. This gave me an opportunity to see for the first time a profile that was quite extraordinary. Statuesque is the only word I can think of to describe it. She had a stately nose that bore a proud, almost noble arch, like a Roman goddess. Her skin, like that of the subject of the painting, can't have spent any time in the sunshine, for it was as pale as pure marble.

Suddenly she turned toward me, breaking my reverie.

“Elizabeth, by the way.”

“Tom,” I replied, again returning the smile, or at least trying to without scaring her.

“Thomas?”

“Well… yes, but everyone calls me Tom.”

Detail from painting

“Thomas…” she repeated, looking away from me. “Such a beautiful name… My son’s name.”

I felt a twinge of disappointment at that, but couldn’t think why.

“Oh really?"

“Yes,” she said whimsically, “I have two boys. Such a long time...”

She didn’t complete the sentence, didn’t explain, but it was clearly something that distressed her. Had they died? Had she left her husband and family? I couldn’t think of a polite way to ask, so let it go. Not wishing to intrude on the lady’s thoughts, I was about to excuse myself and continue my walk around the gallery when, suddenly, she asked: “would you like to take a turn around the grounds?”

I said I would, perhaps too eagerly, as I was keen to continue the acquaintance, and gave no thought to why she would be so familiar with a complete stranger. A strange man at that, though I suppose I didn’t seem that strange. In any case we ended up walking around the gardens, admiring the winter planting, and commenting on the imposing lines of the gallery building, which was designed by Sir John Soan.

We decided to continue our pleasant walk in the nearby Dulwich Park. We must have walked for nearly two hours as the mild December afternoon started to turn into a chill winter evening. I don’t know how we ended up in my apartment, sipping red wine as we sat in the mismatched armchairs. There we stayed until, standing, she took my hand and led me through to the bedroom, guessing it was the only other room.

When I awoke the next morning, she was gone. Vanished, as if into thin air. Not a word goodbye. Perhaps, as a married woman, she was ashamed, perhaps she didn’t know how to say goodbye.

Later that morning I returned to the gallery, hoping she would be there. Looking up at the canvass, I couldn’t help seeing her face in the painting. Mrs Elizabeth Moody, with her two sons who were added to the picture after her death 200 years ago, in 1782.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of the voice behind me. Turning, I saw that it was one of the gallery assistants.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Don’t worry,” I smiled, quickly recovering my senses. “I guess I was a little lost in the moment.”

“Well, you certainly seem to like the painting. You must have stood looking at it for over an hour yesterday.”

“Yes, I find it fascinating,” I replied. “By the way, do you know the lady who was looking at the painting with me yesterday?”

“Lady? What lady?” she said, with a somewhat quizzical expression.

“The lady I was talking to, here by the Gainsborough.”

“If there was a lady looking at the painting with you I didn’t see her. You stood here alone, completely transfixed. Like a statue. My friend remarked on it.”

“But we were stood here together, discussing the painting and then we went for a walk outside in the garden.”

“Sorry,” she said, walking away with a concerned look on her face. "I didn't see anyone with you yesterday."

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About the Creator

Raymond G. Taylor

Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.

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  • Scott Christenson8 months ago

    An enjoyable read. A short and sweet mini-story with a twist. I noticed your picture as I was just researching Gianni Agnelli for my own story, and his wife looked remarkedly similar to the painting of Elizabeth Moody I thought, maybe that's just me.

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