Attending to Beauty, by Sally Barnes

In this house, I have a red jumper and a green chair to sit on.  I’m sitting now, because my feet hurt and I want a cup of tea.  I’m in the Small Drawing Room, where there visitors still, their shoes squeaking across the wooden floor, their voices low and respectful.  They don’t notice me, sitting and wanting my tea.  There’s so many treasures to look at, so much beauty, though there are no cups and saucers in this room. Last week, I was in The Study, keeping an eye on the Sevres in the cabinets.  There’s gold cups and bleu lapis saucers, jugs for cream and bleu celeste vases with gilded lids that are no use for anything other than admiration.

At home, I don’t go for the ornamental. Everything in my flat is simple, like my favourite mug that I can see now, waiting beside my white kettle that has a strip of clear blue plastic so that you can check the water level.  Function over form, that’s for me.

Not that I don’t appreciate a form, like the female in the painting closest to me.

Yes, the toilets are in the basement,madam.

This girl, in the painting, she’s sitting in a kitchen with her back to a dresser with a lot of nice earthenware jugs and plates on the shelves. Next to her feet, in their daft little slippers, are some really big pots that look the biz, but nothing like a plug-in kettle or a packet of PG Tips.  My mouth’s like the bottom of a budgie’s cage.  She’s a pretty girl though. She’s inspecting her tits for fleas.  Lucky old fleas.  Apparently, she was added, by Monsieur Lancret, to an old Dutch painting.  Don’t know what old Willem in his clogs would have thought about that. I don’t think he would have been a Laughing Cavalier, myself.

The girl is not as pretty as the little blonde I fancied last week.  She’s a shepherdess on a vase, looking dozy while her boy whispers ‘Make me a cuppa, there’s a love’ in her shell-like.  Poor bugger who painted her, he would’ve been sent to an early grave.  All that skill and if the paint didn’t poison you, the lead glaze did, or breathing in the fine dust that must have lain on his shoulders and his hair like dandruff.

You’ll find Armoury on the ground floor, at the back.

And at home, there would’ve have been kids, spilt milk.

No, the stairs are that way.  To the left.

Perhaps one of them would’ve grown up to be Renoir’s dad.  I got to know one or two of his paintings in my last job, at the other gallery. Young Auguste painted plates and such before he took a gamble on canvas.  He painted some pretty girls, he did.  He left out the fleas. Sweetened the pill of social history and ended up on chocolate boxes and biscuit tins.  And tea caddies.  Here I am, surrounded by urns and pots and vases and pitchers and not a sodding drop to drink.



My eyes swim in the beauty

Of deep blue, crested white, gilded.

An empty vessel, an urn,

useless, except to by admired

by visitors.


My hands support an apple

of red clay, unfinished, heavy.

A hollow pot, but, inside

where a child’s small thumb pressed,

a memory.


My eyes swim in the beauty

of all objects, keeping wonder,

in the moment, alive.

No thing, except to be admired,

or useable.

About claire collison

Writer, photographer, creative facilitator, and breast cancer survivor, I am currently Artist in Residence at the Women's Art Library (WAL) My first novel was a finalist in the Dundee Book Prize, and my short stories and poetry have appeared in print and online. In 2015 I was awarded second place in the inaugural Resurgence Prize, the world's first eco poetry competition, judged by Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. This blog began as a space for words generated on my walking/writing workshops at the Mary Ward centre in Bloomsbury - Writing the City (WTC). WTC has since grown to include many other venues, including the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Barbican, the River Rom, Southwark Woods, Aylesbury Estate, and most recently, as part of Walking Women festival, An Intimate Tour of Breasts. I have worked with Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, as the recipient of the first Max Reinhardt Literacy Award, designing teaching resources; and for The Photographers' Gallery, helping school children develop visual literacy as part of 'Seeing More Things'. If you would like me to design a workshop or walk for you, please be in touch!
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