The Saltonstall Family
The strangest family portrait I ever saw.
Six members: two children, a baby
a man and two women compose it.
Two children on the left
link hands to a troubled father
whose free hand, in a white glove
hooks back a rich chrysanthemum red
stage curtain; in fact a bed curtain.
Behind these folds and his golden
doublet and their red brocaded
dresses lies the mother, slack mouthed
and shroud faced as the ghost
she was by the year the artist came.
And to the right hand front –
decorously she holds her own infant,
the stepmother, the second wife.
The stepmother of the children
sits in a castle of satin, fold
building on fold. Her young
ringletted face guards sincere
duty done, pride and unease.
Her boy is bound like a dahlia
but in red and gold. She’s
model for a stepdaughter, bride white.
The mother dying looks with eyes
dark, bright, detached – delirious?
back at her little pair. She stares
round her husband, too far gone
to be sincere; just stares. Out of
her time, dazed. Once more
she empties her cumbrous fingers
to bless, to give him those lives.
So I’m circled back to see how
his own linked hand ushers these
children across to the second wife.
He looks at her across the inset
phantom – How to interpret this
look? Sensual, or proud or grateful?
Or, his eyebrows delicate under
the crowned hat and the massed hair,
a withdrawn relief at sincere duty
done? In any event his gaze
travels out past the woman,
I see now. And I am angry at how
this man, in his domestic love,
grew master of sad histories
manager of life, and death and births
his players growing devout or dead.
And also happy. See the child
the older one. Leaning, swaying
she gazes straight (the only one)
at our naïve and honest painter
Master Des Granges, who’s weaving a
pretty idyll to keep her still.
She’s bursting with giggles and ‘Sir
I shan’t believe you!’ There, dancing
she stands, pursemouthed and brilliant
eyes, holding her father’s hand.
* * *
Except, I’ve made a mistake.
This vivid ‘girl’ is a boy really
in petticoats still but, look,
no apron. Unlike the small sister
stout, stoic and white bibbed,
held quiet at this brother’s hand.
So now this boy, swaying
and brilliant-eyed: he requires
another story altogether.
Des Granges leaves the dance of Flora
to thunder of bat-eyed monsters
and wars. ‘I’ll slay you dragons!’
the boy calls out his shining
promise, holding his father’s hand.
As for the girl with no apron,
who was my own ghost in a family
portrait spooky with right habit,
she tries to exist after all.
Her form shining under the boy’s.
A possibility interred.
And she is the saddest ghost truth of
her mother, unpainted, unheard of.
Judith Kazantzis’ poetry collection are Minefield and The Wicked Queen (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1977, 1980), Touch Papers (with two others, Allison and Busby, 1982). Lets Pretend (Virago 1984), Fame Tree (Methuen 1988) and The Rabbit Magician Plate (Sinclair Stevenson 1992). Her short stories have appeared in The London Magazine,
Ambit, Critical Quarterly, two Serpents Tail Anthologies, and Aquarius.
note: Originally known as ‘The Bedside Farewell’, the Saltonstall family portrait turns out to be more unusual than the death in childbed of one 17th-century wife. Expert dating now suggests two wives present, not one… the first Mrs Saltonstall died in 1630 shortly after and quite likely as a result of her third childbirth. (Her two elder and surviving children are pictures as they were at that date.)