Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Was I the picture of evil incarnate?

When the vicar saw the portrait of me, she urged me to take it off the wall and destroy it

Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

Not long after Catriona and I first met, her husband painted my head and shoulders portrait in oils as I sat next to an open window in Provence with my shirt off. The result was an astonishing and rather brilliant study of spiritual depravity. But I was too amazed and humbled to have my portrait painted in oils by a professional artist of international repute to much care about the result. Nor had I expected a photographic likeness. And at the same time I was genuinely delighted that at least I didn’t look like a bourgeois.

Later the painting arrived in Devon in the post, beautifully and expensively framed, and I hung it in pride of place above the mantelpiece. But the image of a man so obviously rejoicing in evil had a universally disquieting effect on those who saw it. Forty years as a medical missionary in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, for example, were insufficient to brace the vicar against such an exquisite depiction of an evil spirit. She took one look at it and seriously advised me to take it down and destroy it. I did take it down, but scoffed at the idea of a supernatural influence and preserved it.

Think Aleister Crowley doing an impression of the explorer Sir Richard Burton doing an impression of Iago

Last week a van driver delivered the final load of my worldly possessions. These had been stored in a Wiltshire cottage since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Twelve boxes of secondhand books, three bookcases, framed photographs of sentimental value, the majority of which I’d forgotten about; two stuffed birds, a great loon and a buzzard, both Edwardian, the loon’s glass broken; a collection of Great War trench maps; a bundle of old winter coats; half a dozen oil lamps with the chimneys incredibly intact; old shirts; a box of stationery; another of toiletries; a pair of garden shears; a carrier bag of cutlery, plates and table mats inherited from my dear old mum, most of it familiar since childhood; a barometer unfortunately smashed during the unloading; and finally that extravagantly framed portrait of my depraved face surmounted on a bull neck, the sinews taut and prominent, perhaps at the point of orgasm, or anyway alight with a sort of ecstatic malevolence.

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