Laing Art Gallery Writing


The Bard ran. He had an idea that he might hide among the soldiers. At first he tried to carry his harp with him, but it was too heavy, and he threw it over the cliff where it made tortured squeals as it bounced off the rocks, as though it were a living thing in the throes of death. Never before would The Bard have dreamed of abandoning his instrument — it was what made him The Bard. But now the world had changed, and all names were dangerous.

“No Phillip! What did we talk about? The exercise was to write how the painting made you feel, not just what the painting is of!”

“I don’t understand what you mean Miss. This is a painting called Recess on a London Bridge. It is a little boy who looks sad. What should I feel?”

            “There is no should, Phillip. Whatever you feel is as valid a response as any other.”            “Then I feel angry.”

            “Why angry? Because the boy has been left alone and not looked after?”

            “Because he doesn’t have a name. Why should I feel for him if I don’t know his name?”                                               

The Penitent would not run, though she was perhaps the most vulnerable of the Unnamed. He had been to see her many times already — the Man with the Notebook — and sometimes he even touched her. Yesterday she had watched him turn Solitude, her opposite, into John Martin in an Upland Scene. Now Solitude could roam freely no more in his orange fields, but was trapped by a name that did not belong to him.

The Unknown believed that she and her monkeys were safe. She had defied men like Him before, and she sneered at his Notebook as she had sneered at a hundred others. She was born in imagination, not in history or myth, and there were no names for her and her pets save those that each individual gave her, and they were gifts for her to accept or to refuse. But the Man with the Notebook smiled at her, and wrote some words which The Unknown could not read, and then she was afraid.

“Mr Black, this is quite incredible. How did you manage it?”

            “I went to Italy, sir. The notebooks were just sitting in a box in the old woman’s attic. I don’t think she really even knew who her great-grandfather was.”

            “You did tell her didn’t you? Those notebooks are worth a fortune.”

            “Oh yes sir. I made my own copies of course.”

            “With these lists we can probably identify dozens of models.”

            “Yes, sir. And give the paintings their real names.”

            “Not this again, Mr Black. Your work for the university is of great scholarly interest, but we aren’t going to go around changing the names of paintings. There is something to be said for the power of mystery.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “You are a great art historian, Mr Black, but I do sometimes wonder if you even like art?”

            “Is that necessary, sir?”

The Peasant Ploughing with Two Horses was unafraid. His life was endless labour, and he would be glad of its ending. The other Unnamed feared the death of identity, and The Peasant well understood the trap of names that caged and squashed the living mystery of art. But he was The Peasant, and although his true name was unknown, his given name trapped him almost as surely. The Man with the Notebook came to him once, but he wrote nothing down, and glared angrily at The Peasant and his Horses, and did not come back again.

“Dr Black, we would be very interested in employing you, but don’t you feel someone of your profile might be rather limited by what is a relatively small gallery? You might very quickly outgrow us.”

            “I have learned that I work best when I am limited. It empowers one with a greater understanding, and with that comes a degree of control. That is what I wish to do to your gallery — to your art.”

            “You want to control the artwork?”


            “How do you propose to do this?”

            “I want to teach them their names.”

The Penitent was confused. Already the Man with the Notebook had changed The Unknown into Portrait of a Model, Yvette Hanson, with Monkeys. She had been the strongest of the Unnamed, and he had broken her like she was nothing. And he had laughed and smiled when they put the new plaque up. Like it was funny. Like it was easy. But it would be much easier to name The Penitent…

“Ah, Dr. Black, I see you’ve made a friend.”

            “Madam Curator. I didn’t hear you come in. I was just picking off a speck of grit.”

            “I see. It looked for a moment like you were stroking her.”

            “Don’t be foolish. She is…interesting though.”

            “It’s a very fine piece isn’t it? I see you haven’t named her yet. I like to think of her as Mary.”


            “Yes, you know, Mary Magdalene. The original penitent woman.”

            “Do lots of people call her this?”

            “Well, yes. It’s widely assumed that Mary Magdalene is the subject. There are many other paintings like this one that name her specifically.”

            “And yet in this instance she is left unnamed?”

            “Yes. I’ll have the new plaque installed tomorrow if you like — Mary Magdalene: The Penitent Woman?”

            “But that isn’t right. Why would the artist paint Mary Magdalene and not name her?”

            “I don’t know. Maybe he thought people would know who it was without him naming her. Maybe he wanted to leave her with a bit of mystery. Maybe he didn’t think it mattered. But you think it matters. Don’t you, Mr Black?”  

            “Yes. Yes of course.”

            “Then should I order the plaque?”

            “No. Not yet. I need to do more research. Yes. More research.”

            “Please don’t touch the artwork, Dr Black.” 


Callum Fraser is a Creative Writing PhD student at Newcastle University. His short stories have been published in numerous magazines both online and in print, and he is currently working on his debut novel. Callum also has a special research interest in Romantic and Gothic literature, and works as an undergraduate seminar tutor teaching eighteenth and nineteenth century literature at Newcastle University. He also works for a distance learning company called UK Distance Learning and Publishing — who have commissioned him to author a Creative Writing course.