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Gilver had been precociously talented. When he was a very young child, everyone admired his skill, his ability to draw straight lines without a ruler. A painting he did (in powder paint) of a red horse when he was four aroused considerable admiration. At ten, a drawing of a cast of the Venus de Milo, the spoils from a school coach trip to a London museum, led to the opportunity to lift up Kate Seddon’s pleated skirt and have a good feel.
This early connection between possession of artistic skill and the granting of sexual favours was not lost on him. With a thick mop of golden hair and a physique that soon added muscles to gangling height, his manhood was swift.
By the time he went to the Ruskin, where he spent a great deal of time drinking and f***ing interspersed with briefer periods painting and drawing, he easily consolidated the reputation of genius. The mantle was waiting. In the absence of other takers, Gilver slipped it on as if it had been put ready.
At Oxford he took up rowing to build the muscles in his legs and arms, creating a leonine body and staying power to get through exams easily without limiting his social life.
When, later, he arrived in London, after a few months’ travelling on his own version of the Grand Tour, he was smugly ensconced in his talent. Everyone thought him talented and it was true, after all. He knew everybody who mattered, as far as he could tell, and everyone wanted to introduce him to everyone else.
Gilver shared a flat with his friends Harry and Max in Cornwall Gardens. They had been at Oxford together, having made friends at the Wine and Cheese Society, an excellent place to get outrageously drunk and debate cricket and girls. Gilver was the most handsome, standing a few inches over Max’s clean, rich looks and a clear head over Harry, who didn’t seem to mind being laughingly excused as an intellectual misfit. When there were girls around they headed straight for Gilver, who over the years benignly passed a couple on to Max. He got away with it every time. Easiness; the impression that his skin fitted so well it had been tailor-made, along with a grinning generosity and devil-may-care attitude were alluring to young women and forgivable to young men. When Max called him a lucky bastard, which he frequently did, Gilver only grinned wider, showing good teeth with a slight space at the front. He called it his Solzhenitsyn smile, although he was not absolutely sure how to spell it. No one knew how true Max’s words were but they all – particularly Gilver – seemed delighted. It was logical to move in together when they headed for London. They were used to each other and there were no arguments – in Waitrose, at least.
Gilver had the best room, which was big enough to paint in. Even though the flat was at the top of the stuccoed building it didn’t stop him painting large canvases that had to be manhandled down the stairs with difficulty. His first one-man show took place when he was only a year out of Oxford and it was a tremendous success. There was a piece in Harpers and photos in Tatler. A girl he had a fling with wrote him up as a bright young thing. The Evening Standard called him a young Turk. The show sold out. He was invited everywhere.
He had always valued his paintings very high on the inverted principle that no one believed you could be any good unless the price said so. In consequence, by the time he was twenty-five he was extremely wealthy with a wardrobe to demonstrate it, and moved out of Cornwall Gardens to a place of his own.
Gilver rather favoured Savile Row tailoring with a supervised twist: he had thirty suits, all skilfully hand-piqued, set off by the occasional gleam of nacre or gold in the lining, an eccentric number of buttons on the sleeve or a viciously narrow cuff to the trouser. His touches were usually but not always subtle. For the boudoir, as well as gentlemanly cashmeres in soft browns and restrained Paisleys, there was a particularly handsome dressing-gown of Thai silk brocade in imperial purple and crimson, cut from an ancient Ottoman pattern book he found in the Victoria and Albert library.
Then there were fifteen pairs of handmade shoes on custom-built trees, several pairs of kid boots, two of patent pumps, two of embroidered Kurdish slippers. Four hand-stitched cashmere evening suits each with a different rever and tone suited various kinds of parties; there were more than fifty day shirts in every weight, weave and colour, and eight evening ones, all identical. He had myriad ties in the most magnificent silks, some of them specially made for him in a pleasing jacquard called the Memmer Ripple by a small Lyon company, woven in minute thread-dyed batches. Link and stud boxes had their own compartments in his wardrobe as did a peculiar long sharkskin box containing ten pairs of evening gloves he never wore, as well as yellow suede, pigskin, and a spectacular black pair with sealskin turnbacks that always looked dashing. Covert coats; sweeping black, charcoal and loden overcoats; breeches; Tattersall shirts, and a curious range of waistcoats (because he did not approve of them) by no means completed the town wardrobe.
Three French armoires housed this booty in a rented mews house between South Kensington and Knightsbridge. He took over the lease of the garage beneath for a considerable amount of money and turned it into a studio, connected internally by a spiral stair. Its double doors were handy for the massive works he produced.
In his twenty-eighth year a New York gallery offered him the biggest exhibition so far, a one-man show on the scale of a retrospective. Gilver rose to the challenge, unruffled by his youth, marshalling twenty canvases of enormous proportion. These were rolled and flown to New York where new stretchers were being made to his specifications.
The SoHo exhibition marked a turning point. Success was guaranteed. The paintings, moody and authoritative sweeps of the most expensive pigments, were deemed superb. His vigour in painting was relentless. Unfortunately Shira, the young assistant who primed the canvases in between rushing up and down the spiral staircase for frenzied sex, misheard his recipe instructions. As the paintings were restretched in New York they cracked one after the other. Only the feeblest survived unscathed. The rest reticulated like the backs of leaves. One or two inexplicably oozed.
The exhibition was cancelled but not before the American critics got hold of it, gleefully ripping the golden boy of British painting limb from limb. He was excoriated as a lazy charlatan, an example of the failure of Old World art. For no apparent reason the New Yorker was especially virulent. Despite the fact that his American backer demanded the repayment of huge sums of money, and a contract with the Museum of Modern Art to buy one of his works was cancelled, Gilver’s reputation at home was undented.
If anything, being spurned by American Philistines for what was probably – he decided – their own fault, only lent an extra burnish to his halo. He was fêted now not only for being handsome and extraordinarily talented but for being misunderstood. Before, the mere fact of his brilliance meant he could have anyone he wanted, anywhere and at any time (although he understood, albeit dimly, that there might be one or two exceptions); now, the apparent setback made women hurl themselves at him to cosset and nurture his wounded pride.
Gilver had a magnificent time. He threw parties attended by twenty or so of the loveliest models, actresses and television presenters intermixed with young male writers and musicians conspicuously less good-looking than him – so many girls, he couldn’t remember their names. He painted the front of the house a colour that would make a useful backdrop tone for newspaper photographs and adjusted the porch lighting to minimise glare.
A year went by in which he did not paint a single thing. The New York disaster shook him, although he never mentioned this to anybody. Whether he painted or not, it made no difference. He was invited to the same glamorous and influential dinner parties and dances. His name was on the list of gallery openings, magazine launches, literary events, fashion shows. He was invited to country-house weekends and summers and winters abroad.
If anything, having more time on his hands made him even more of a success: he was insatiably sociable. He understood the responsibilities of polite behaviour, diligently dispatching charming thank-you notes and courteous acceptances on a pleasingly small and masculine paper from Smythsons. The handsome face and body set off by rigorously updated clothes made him that rare thing: a gorgeous, lone, enigmatic male.
Gilver further enhanced his standing over the next decade with a string of judiciously chosen liaisons. Before he was thirty the knowledge that he could have any woman he pleased made him enthusiastically – if circumspectly – promiscuous, but he had grown wiser. Choice made him discriminating. Moreover, as his peers began to settle down, he confined his attentions to unmarried women, thus gaining the liking and respect – only pleasantly tinged with envy – of influential husbands. ‘Memmer’s a good man’ and ‘Memmer’s sound’, exclusively masculine phrases, served as his passport to clubs and committees, judging panels and men-only drinking jaunts where important decisions got made, some reaching as far as Westminster.
GIN: 0in 0in 0pt; tab-stops: 24.0pt" He spent a delirious two years with a recently widowed Austrian countess, three with the scion of a publishing house, six months with a very boring but world-famous model who went by a one-syllable name, two years with the heiress to a vast fortune in olive oil and one with an unwilling art student, whom he introduced to techniques that availed her nothing outside his bedroom.
During all this time he painted little of any significance but was always ready, if asked, to toss off a sketch on a napkin, an envelope or a piece of paper that happened to be lying around. On the Croisette, at a shooting party in Argyll, fishing on the Laerdal, at a modernist house-party in Lewes, curled up by a fire in Gstaad or even at the Crush Bar, he was always delighted to oblige. His handsome demeanour, the strong brown hand carelessly, faultlessly using whatever pencil or pen was given him to its best advantage, his total absorption interrupted by a sudden, penetrating glance . . . Gilver won hearts with no effort at all.
These paltry sketches on their stained, crumpled or lipstick-smudged ground were immediately slapped behind bevelled glass and costly frames and prominently placed in the best drawing rooms and the loveliest bedrooms the length and breadth of the country.
Copyright © Philippa Stockley 2002
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