By the time I had lived at Hamilton House for five years, every wall of the salon in my sixth-floor apartment was covered with drawings and paintings of my own naked body. The larger ones were framed, and in the spaces between them I’d pinned smaller sketches and studies. Only glimpses of the claret-coloured wallpaper showed through, and the paleness of the portraits’ paper turned what would have been a dingy room into a brighter space.
In seeing myself wherever I looked – wrought in charcoal or pastel, pencil or gouache – I developed a singular awareness. I knew every subtle ridge of my spine from the ink-sketch hanging by the piano. From a close-up vignette of my face I became intimately versed in each feature: the stubborn set of my mouth in repose, the shading of a blush across my brow from the warmth of the studio on that particular day.
The pictures were gifts from the students I posed for at the Shanghai Academy of Art. Some of them were signed (to Corentine, to my muse) but our interactions rarely strayed from this – from the anodyne scrutiny of their eyes above their easels; the shy apology in their stance for the fact of my nakedness.
Yet it was for them that I kept myself so carefully, staying indoors on the days I wasn’t needed. Walking there and back for sittings, I wore a hat or held a parasol so the weather wouldn’t alter the tone of my skin. I ate in a way that would preserve the oddity of nature that had rendered me lithe and fleshy, and therefore ideal for my job. I insisted on gentleness from my lovers, lest their teeth or fingers mark me.
It wasn’t often that I had reason to talk with anybody at the academy. My timetable was fixed at the start of every term; I collected my wages each Friday from the accounting office in the atrium. However, one day after a sitting I was making my way to the cloakroom and saw a familiar face in the hallway. He saw me as well.
‘That isn’t Corry, is it?’ he said, a strain of wistful amusement in his eyes.
It was an old friend of mine, Dick – Professor Richard Cunningham, director of the academy’s sister school in Hangchow. There was a younger man with him, who was eyeing my white cotton robe where it crossed at my bosom.
‘It’s been a while,’ Dick said to me.
‘Yes, hasn’t it?’ I said. ‘How are you keeping?’
‘Rather well. Yourself? Still working, I see.’
‘No rest for the wicked.’
‘You haven’t married?’
He chuckled. ‘That’s a shame.’
I felt the chill of the marble floor more keenly under my bare soles.
‘How is Eileen?’ I asked.
‘Pass on my regards, won’t you?’
‘And your colleague?’
‘Of course. How rude of me. This is Dr Marcus Bligh, Master of Arts. My new second-in-command. I’ve brought him here to meet the Shanghai faculty.’
I looked at the younger man, who nodded, clearly wary of offering his hand for fear of impropriety. My robe reached the floor and covered my elbows, but somehow this only served to make my nakedness more palpable.
‘Dr Bligh,’ Dick said to him grandly, ‘you are in the presence of Shanghai’s most eminent life drawing model, Corry Lecavassier. Or, as we like to call her—’ He paused for effect. ‘Lack of brassiere.’
The younger man dropped his eyes to the ground in embarrassment.
I smiled thinly at Dick.
‘You haven’t lost your charm, Professor.’
Stop it, I wanted to add. Stop covering the truth with tired jokes. Stop trying to convince yourself I didn’t mean anything to you. It’s there on canvas, in paint you can’t wash off.
I was keen for the exchange to be over but something struck me – an opportunity to settle a matter that had been on my mind, and possibly to pique him in the process.
‘Tell me,’ I said, ‘do you hear much from Fern Willard?’
‘Fern? Yes, we see her from time to time.’
‘How nice,’ I said. ‘She hasn’t been in touch since she left Shanghai. How is she?’
‘Very well, by all accounts.’
‘Did she marry Warren?’
Dick frowned. ‘This is hardly the place for idle gossip.’
‘Oh, stop it. We’re old friends. Besides, there’s nobody around to overhear. Did she?’
‘Yes, she did, if you must know.’
‘Well, that’s wonderful news. And is she still sketching?’
‘Not that I know of. I wasn’t aware she could.’
‘She had an artistic touch, if not the keenest eye.’
‘Well, anyhow.’ Dick gathered himself. ‘We ought to be on our way.’
‘And I on mine. Give my best wishes to Fern, if you see her.’
Almost a year ago to the day, Eileen had called me on the telephone from Hangchow.
‘Corry, dear, are you still in Shanghai?’
‘Might I impose upon you for a small favour?’
‘Do you remember Martha Ferguson? From the club?’
‘Well, her cousin’s in something of a bind. She needs a place to lodge for a while. You have a second bedroom, don’t you? Are you still at the Hamilton House?’
‘Yes, but I’m—’
‘Good. It’ll only be for a week or two. She’s in a quandary of sorts, this girl, but she won’t trouble you. You’ll hardly know she’s there. Her name’s Miss Willard. Fern.’
‘All right,’ I said. It was seldom worth the effort of protesting when it came to Eileen. She found a way of taking what she wanted anyway.
When Fern arrived she was just as flimsy as her name. She had black hair, cropped to the chin, and a prissy way of talking that she clearly put on to heighten her appeal. Her features were plain and pinched. She was the sort of girl you wouldn’t notice in a gathering, and the fact of it obviously troubled her.
I led her into the salon. She slowed to a stop as she saw the portraits.
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘It’s almost like a gallery.’
Then, as her gaze passed among the frames, her expression changed.
‘Are they…’ She looked at me, eyes wide. ‘You?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I work as an artists’ model.’
She stepped closer to one of the pictures – a sparse sketch done in strong, deliberate lines, of my ribcage and breasts. For the sitting I had lain draped over a velvet-covered dune of cushions, arms thrown to each side so the tutor could school the students on the proportions of the female torso.
‘How naughty.’ Fern masked a giggle with the back of her hand.
For politeness’ sake I held back my irritation.
‘Don’t you mind it?’ she said. ‘Letting so many men…see you?’
‘I’m used to it,’ I said. ‘And it isn’t just men.’
She turned to me. ‘Women, too?’
I returned her wide-eyed stare with a tight smile.
After she had unpacked her suitcase she joined me in the salon for tea. She tried to hold her curiosity off with a series of desperately worldly statements about art and Chinese culture, but it didn’t last long.
‘Do you live here alone?’
‘Wouldn’t you prefer to be married?’
‘I’m happier by myself.’
‘When did you come to Shanghai?’
‘I was born here. My mother and father were missionaries.’
She took a sip of tea, and then blotted her lips with the corner of her napkin.
‘Do they approve of your…work?’
‘They don’t know of it,’ I said. ‘They went back to France when I was eighteen.’
‘Why didn’t you go with them?’
‘I didn’t want to.’
‘I was in love.’
She took another sip of tea.
‘And when did you begin working as a model?’
‘Five years ago,’ I said. I hadn’t planned to elaborate, but I caught upon the sudden, hopeful possibility that Dick had sent her here as some sort of emissary.
‘I knew the former director of the Shanghai Art Academy,’ I said. ‘He told me I had just the right sort of figure for it. The perfect balance of muscle and bone…’ I slid my blouse from my shoulder to show my collarbone and the swell of my upper arm.
Fern swallowed the mouthful of cake she’d been chewing.
‘The former director of the Shanghai Art Academy…’ she said. ‘Wasn’t it Dick Cunningham?’
‘Before he met Eileen?’
‘Around the same time.’
The following evening I took her for supper at a bistro in Frenchtown. She drank too much wine and confessed that her new fiancé disgusted her. He’s a brute. I can’t stand him. Their wedding was set for the end of the month. I was happy enough when he proposed. But as the date approached, the idea of it began to terrify her. There’s something the matter with me, I’m sure of it.
She rested her head on my arm in the leather-clad booth we were sitting in.
‘Will I ever grow used to it?’
‘Perhaps,’ I said.
‘I wish there were another way. I wish I were like you and could be happier on my own.’
She came to the public life drawing class on Sunday morning. I hadn’t told her of it; she must have looked at the roster I kept pinned above my nightstand.
Early on in my working life I had made it a habit never to catch the eye of any student as they sketched. I had trained myself to find a point above their heads to focus on. The scratching of their pencils was soporific. Sometimes, if supine, I fell to dozing.
That Sunday the class was filled with the usual array of neatly dressed women – spinsters, or frustrated wives who might once have painted for a living but had given it up when they married.
Fern came in a couple of minutes late. From the corner of my eye I saw a whispered clamour at the door as she explained herself to the custodian who always stood there to stop gawping intruders. With the matter settled, she occupied the vacant easel closest to the lounge chair I was lying on, and set out her sketchpad. She must have bought it at one of the art shops on the Foochow Road, along with the tin of pencils she took from her handbag.
I broke my protocol and looked at her. She gave me a wily little smile that said: Aren’t I bold? Isn’t this fun? How daring I am to come here.
It wasn’t the fact of her seeing my body that riled me. Over the years I’d sat for hundreds – maybe thousands – of sessions. I couldn’t count how many times I’d taken off my robe and arranged myself in front of strangers, drawing from all those pairs of eyes the justification for being alive and still part of the world. But I had never – not once – taken any of them into my home. None of them had seen me in my daily life, sifting tea leaves into the pot, playing the piano in the evenings, combing the damp from my hair at the fireplace after a bath. Now Fern had, and for that I hated her.
‘Will you show me what you drew?’ I said as we walked back to Hamilton House down the Kiangse Road.
‘No,’ she said, and giggled. ‘I’m far too shy.’
The next morning when I went into the salon she had her sketchbook out on the table. She shut it quickly when she saw me.
‘Let me see,’ I said.
‘It isn’t finished yet. I haven’t captured you.’
‘I’m used to works in progress.’
‘All right. Don’t laugh…’
She opened the book and immediately frowned at her work, as if to pre-empt a blistering critique.
‘It isn’t so bad,’ I said.
‘It isn’t nearly as good as the others.’ She cast a mournful glance at the portraits on the wall beside her.
‘They’re artists,’ I said. ‘They’re trained, and they practise.’
‘I can draw other things rather well. Dogs and cats and flowers.’
‘Then perhaps you’re simply not familiar enough with the female form,’ I said.
I had meant it purely academically but a look passed across her face that set the startings of a flurry inside me. Straight away I pushed it down. It wasn’t fair; she was my captive – my charge. But then I remembered the smug little smile she’d given me when I caught her eye, and the glee she took in laying her new pencils out on the easel.
I unfastened the ties that held my red silk dressing robe closed at my waist.
‘Look again,’ I said.
I shrugged the robe off. It fell down my arms, down my back, down my calves, to the floor.
‘Look,’ I said.
She lowered her eyes to her sketchpad.
‘I think…’ Her voice was unsteady. ‘I oughtn’t carry on. It was a foolish idea. I can’t draw at all.’
‘You can. You only need to practise.’
She stood up.
‘Here.’ I took her hand and held it to my breast. She flinched with surprise but didn’t move when I released her.
‘You’ll see better like this,’ I said.
Mostly I wanted to punish her for her curiosity, to force her to acknowledge the position she had put me in, even if the true extent was lost on her. But there was something else: a chance to use her for a craven purpose, to answer a question I had never dared to ask. Not once in my five years as a model had I been to bed with anyone who had drawn me. Fern wasn’t an artist, and her sketches were crude, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to know how it would be.
As it happened I found it no different from any other encounter. I was relieved as much as disappointed. The test was flawed in any case; Fern wouldn’t look me in the eye. I asked her to, but she refused. I only stopped short of forcing her because it felt too much like theft.
For her it was a test as well. It brought the truth out, the way the wine had. Her affectations slipped away.
It’s different with you. Different from Warren. I can’t explain it.
It seemed to sadden her, to have found a different path and to know she couldn’t follow it.
But I have to marry him. I’ve no choice.
I didn’t try to convince her otherwise, because I didn’t care enough, and didn’t want her for myself. In any case, I agreed with her. A choice exists only if you can see it.
While she was packing her suitcase to leave the next day, she paused and tilted her head to study the wide, gilt-framed oil above my bed. In it, I was looking over my shoulder, posed on cushions by a turquoise curtain, like Ingres’ Grande Odalisque.
‘This is the only portrait you have in here,’ she said.
‘It’s my favourite.’
‘It is beautiful,’ she said. ‘Perhaps the best of them all.’
She took her own sketch with her when she left. I was glad. The likeness was tenuous – barely distinguishable.
After she had gone I opened my nightstand and took out the Academy Bulletin from April 1923. I hadn’t looked at it in a long while. The front cover was taken up almost completely by a photograph of my gilt-framed odalisque. Below it the caption read Director’s protégée makes debut at annual show.
Over the page was a picture of me and Dick, taken at the exhibition. His hand was on my shoulder. I could still remember the soft weight of his palm and the reassuring pressure of his fingers.
At the opening gala for this year’s exhibition, academy director Professor Richard Cunningham presented a striking new work in oil on canvas.
I could still remember the pride in Dick’s voice as he spoke of me, introducing me to gallery owners and dealers and critics.
This startlingly prodigious self-portrait is doubtless the start of a long and fêted career for eighteen-year-old painter, Corentine Lecavassier.
He had helped me paint it.
I came to his attention in a still life class during my first term. A tangle of old musical instruments had been set up on a table, and he instructed us to pull up our chairs around it. I found myself face to face with the vast, dark barrel of a French horn. While my classmates frowned and fretted over detailed studies of clarinet keys and violin pegs, I shaded the whole of my paper black.
Professor Cunningham walked around behind us, thumbing his beard as he assessed our work. He caught my eye several times. He knew what I was doing. I was sure he would scold me – misinterpret what I had done, and hold me up as an example of artistic impudence. I was wrong. At the end of the session he propped my sketchbook up on the easel at his desk. He told the rest of the class to look and learn from it.
‘Miss Lecavassier sees,’ he said to them. ‘She sees.’
Life drawing wasn’t normally taught until the end of the second year, so he offered to tutor me privately in advance. He arranged for one of the academy’s models to pose for me in his studio each Friday after classes had finished.
The model never spoke. She came in and out silently, responding patiently to Professor Cunningham’s distracted commands. Place your elbow on the back of the chair. Cross your legs at the knees.
She was stout and almost slovenly – with a sweet but knowing face that put me in mind of Goya’s Maja.
At the start of the summer term Professor Cunningham decided to teach me self-portraiture. In his studio he set up standing mirrors behind me and in front. This way I would see myself from every angle as I made my preliminary sketches, clothed at first.
‘You are in the rather dangerous position here, my dear, of being both observer and observed,’ he said. ‘This is unique to self-portraiture. You must be very careful with it.’
He leaped over to his desk, seized a chair, and came back into the centre of the room. He parked it about six feet away from me and sat down purposefully.
‘I will tell you,’ he said. ‘Look at me. I am your subject.’
I watched him at close range, enchanted. There was something undeniably theatrical about him. He was entirely unself-conscious, doing things that would have been humiliating for most men of his standing (pulling his own shirt off in a theory class to show us the widening of the male back when the arms are lifted, putting on the voices of the Great Masters to illustrate their treatises more colourfully) but his confidence in his own mettle ran too deeply for any of it to lessen him. For his students’ benefit he shouldered the risk of being mistaken for a buffoon.
He came and stood with me behind my easel, crouching a little so his face was level with mine over my shoulder. In the mirror I saw us in proximity for the first time, and beyond it the backs of our heads in the reflection from the other mirror behind us.
‘And now, you are your subject,’ he said. I felt his words on my cheek. ‘This view is one that the artist is seldom afforded. Nor the subject, for that matter.’
He walked around so he was standing between me and the mirror. Air rushed in to fill the space he left.
‘The artist…’ he said in the slow, expansive register he used for teaching, ‘has complete control of how the subject is perceived by the observer.’
He jumped into a martial stance, knees bent, hands raised as if to see off an attacker. ‘Or so we think!’
He released the pose and put his fingers thoughtfully to his chin.
‘What if the subject were to influence the artist?’ He raised his hand as if to silence an objection, even though I’d made none. ‘What if the subject did, in fact, have a sort of power over the artist? What if…What if it were not the unfair relationship we have always believed it to be?’
He began to pace back and forth.
‘Corentine…if I may call you that—’
‘Call me Corry.’
‘Yes, yes. And you must call me Dick, when we’re alone like this. You see, self-portraiture is a tricky beast. It demands of us something that many find impossible. You’ll recall my lesson last term, with the rest of them – the rank and file.’
I smiled at his terminology, and at the heady fact of being seen as different from them.
‘I told you all one thing – one critical thing that must inform your work. What did I say?’
‘That we must love and hate our subjects in equal measure, but only for the duration of the work.’
I was pleased that he didn’t praise me for having remembered. It meant that he expected it of me.
‘Then it stands, doesn’t it, that in self-portraiture, when the self is both the artist and the subject, one must hate and love oneself in equal measure?’
He came to a stop directly in front of me.
‘Can you do that?’
‘I think so,’ I said.
‘You can,’ he said. ‘You can.’
In our second session I took off my clothes and stood naked in front of him. He wanted to sketch me so I would grasp how it felt to be the subject alone.
‘My models tell me,’ he said. ‘That they feel naked, thus self-conscious, only when they catch the eye of the artist. Does that make sense to you?’
He flicked his gaze from the easel to my belly and then to my hip as he drew.
‘Not quite,’ I said. ‘I feel naked now.’
‘No, you’re missing my point. You are naked. That is fact. Think about it again, and tell me whether you actually feel naked.’
I saw it dawn on him – the dilemma he had forced upon himself: the necessity of his own participation in the testing of the theory. He didn’t blink for a long moment, clearly struggling to think of a way out.
I expected a jolt or a flinch of some sort – either from him or from me – when his eyes finally reached mine. What happened instead, on my part, was a dull spread of burning awareness (part shame, part boldness) of the structure of bones and flesh that held my soul up, and the skin that held it in.
I kept the sketch he made of me that day. I pinned it to the claret-coloured wall of my salon, unaware that it would be the first of hundreds, after I had broken myself in two and cast the artist’s half away.
In the five weeks it took to complete the self-portrait, Dick never touched me. I didn’t understand why. It maddened me.
I joked to him one day as he watched me paint: ‘Isn’t it compulsory though? For an artist and a model to be lovers?’
‘Corry, I am not the artist here. The pairing is not you and me. It is you as artist and you as subject. That is all. You. As both.’
I went cold with humiliation. Tears rose in my eyes. Oddly, they pulled my vision into clearer focus. I saw more vividly the turquoise sash I had painted behind my pale body on the canvas. I stared at it, waiting for my disappointment to dissolve.
That evening when we left the studio, the model from our early sessions was standing in the marble hallway.
‘Eileen, my dear,’ Dick said, smiling. ‘You needn’t have waited. Corry, do excuse me for not having introduced you formally the last time. I feared it might be awkward. This is Eileen, my fiancée.’
I took her job when they married. In my heartbroken stupidity I became their friend as well, eating supper at their house, going with them to the ballet. I did it to be close to him, as if my presence would convince him to love me instead.
I gave up self-portraiture after the exhibition in 1923. Dick didn’t try to dissuade me. When I told him I planned to stop painting altogether, he raised his eyebrows but didn’t object. After he and Eileen moved to Hangchow in 1925 I barely saw them. Before they left he brought me the portrait in its gilt frame.
‘In case you tire of modelling and need something to live on,’ he said. ‘I’d say it’s worth something. At least it will be, in years to come.’
‘I won’t tire of modelling,’ I said.
Already I had begun to hang students’ sketches in my salon. The wall above the piano was filled with them.
‘It suits me better.’
‘How so?’ he asked.
‘To be both the artist and subject confuses me.’
My answer satisfied him but it wasn’t true. In fact, what suited me was the countless situations I had learned to hold within my nakedness – the chance of being loved and hated in equal measure, a hundred times in a single hour, for the duration of the work.
As the artist I’d had no choice. I was always naked, always open for judgement, reliant on the observer for my work to come alive, dependent on the subject for my sustenance. But now, I was naked – felt naked – only if I chose to catch their eye.
Susie Gordon is a British-born author, journalist, and poet. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have been published in journals and anthologies such as Junoesq Literary Journal (2015), United Verses (2014), Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw, 2013), Middle Kingdom Underground (HAL, 2011), Unshod Quills (2011), and The May Anthology: Tenth Anniversary Edition (2003). Her first poetry collection, Peckham Blue, was published in London by Penned in the Margins in 2006, and her second collection, Harbouring, came out in November 2015 through Math Paper Press in Singapore. In 2012 she wrote a series of China travel books for Moon Handbooks, and she is a founding member of Literary Shanghai. After living in Asia for 10 years, Susie has recently relocated to England, where she is pursuing postgraduate research in Chinese Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Liverpool.