“I always wonder if anyone actually draws a picture on the blank page,” I mused out loud to my class last week during the final lecture on Tristram Shandy.
If you haven’t read the novel, I’ll wait.
(Sorry, that was actually just a joke for people who have read the novel.)
But really, if you haven’t read the novel, the situation is this: Tristram has just told us that his Uncle Toby fell in love with the Widow Wadman. Tristram then adds, “And possibly, gentle reader, with such a temptation—so wouldst thou: For never did thy eyes behold, or thy concupiscence covet any thing in this world, more concupiscible than widow Wadman.”
The next chapter begins thus:
“To conceive this right,—call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand.—Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—’tis all one to me—please but your own fancy in it.”
And then, famously, there follows a blank page ready to receive whatever you wish to draw there.
But does anyone ever draw anything there?
Today I can definitely answer that question: some people do; or, more precisely, at least one person has done so, and that person is me.
It was on a whim that I decided to draw in the book; it was just there and I felt like drawing and I thought “Why not?” But I wanted to draw in a way that would be relaxing; for that reason, I didn’t want to draw a face—which is always, I realized, what I imagined one would draw there, although Tristram’s characterization of the Widow Wadman as superlatively “concupiscible” might certainly inspire an artist to head in a different, more southerly direction.
Drawing faces never feels relaxing to me because it’s so difficult to get a good likeness. But then I remembered how I often draw when I’m sitting in panels at conferences; and what I draw there is often the backs of people’s heads, because … that’s generally what’s in view when you’re sitting in a panel. But also, I find drawing hair, like drawing folds of cloth, hypnotically relaxing.
It also occurred to me that it would feel somehow apropos to draw the back of a head on the blank page; it would be a way of filling in the blank in a way that wouldn’t close off but rather provide further fodder for the imagination.
“I should choose an eighteenth-century looking head,” I thought, and scrolled though portraits on Google images that showed vaguely eighteenth-century-ish backs of heads.
But then I got a different idea—inspired both by the whole project of Tristram Shandy as a work of self-portraiture as well as Sterne’s sometimes cheekily gendered references to the reader; I would draw the back of my OWN head.
I liked the idea that it would be an act of self-portraiture in the Sternian mode but that also, in drawing myself looking away from the reader’s gaze, I would kind of up-end what Tristram has in mind when he enjoins the reader, “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind,” with the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of “as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you.”
I didn’t really want to overthink it, though (you are probably thinking: oh, you are way past overthinking this), so I just asked the elder to snap a picture of the back of my head in the kitchen. I didn’t really think about the composition of the photograph and after I started drawing from the photograph he’d taken I started to wish I’d worn something different or that my hair hadn’t been thrown up so messily, or that I’d moved the box of tissues and the paper bag off the dining room table in the background.
But then something started to happen as I was drawing. It was a version of the phenomenon the art critic Richard Wollheim describes happening after he “evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time consuming and deeply rewarding. For I came to recognise that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was” (Painting as an Art).
I’m not sure if it’s exactly that by trying to render the photograph as a drawing that it disclosed itself as it was; but the photograph certainly changed over the hours I spent with it. The most prominent part of the figure—the hair—gradually dissolved into abstract form—an interplay of light and dark, curls and waves. It started to look not messy but beautiful and intricate. The background objects changed in a different way; they began to seem freighted with allegorical significance, as if they each played a role in telling a story about who I am.
The chair on the left is one that used to belong to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved’s parents. He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved kindly let me take the chair with me when I moved out. The briefcase on the chair is one that La Bonavita gave me. I regard it as my first proper, grown-up work bag. The laptop that’s open on the dining room table—well, that’s because—have you noticed?—I’m always writing. And the paper bag—that, I’m pretty sure, is what our takeout that night came in, because takeout is sometimes the working mother’s savior. The box of tissues isn’t even visible in the drawing but that has significance too because it’s always important to have that kind of paper ready to hand too—both because the elder has allergies and because, as is well established, I’m a weeper. Oh, and the electric kettle: because you can take the girl out of England but …
The longer I looked at the photograph, the more I appreciated the composition: the way that the door frame framed my head like a picture frame. What you can’t actually see in the picture—because they are hidden by my massive head of hair—is that on the wall of the dining room are two framed paintings by my grandmother, Elfrida Tindal, who was an artist.
When I was a child I always thought that I would write and illustrate my own books when I was grown-up. And I guess now I have, sort of.