In the well-lit conservatory at Monty’s Saxon Lodge, the artist Tournell unpacked his box of carefully protected canvasses, already primed. Tournell replaced in the false bottom of the carrying case the five little examples of his breast paintings, the ones that brought him so much business, but were becoming something of a nuisance. In certain circles, these little portraits had come to be known as le peche,
or the peaches.
Several years ago, when Major Twydall had wanted a miniature of Adora, his then-mistress, he whispered that her face and bad teeth should be turned away, prompting Tournell to jokingly paint only her breasts, which even he thought were exceedingly lovely. The little picture of Adora’s breasts became a great attraction to all the members of the Naxians, Monty’s group of hedonistic friends. Before he knew it, Tournell had received a dozen commissions to paint more of the little ivory miniatures, small paintings easily tucked into a pocket, all of breasts. He’d worked feverishly, being greatly in need of the money and hoping to finish before more appropriate commissions came his way.
Gradually, the commissions for more conventional portraits began to arrive, several from men whose mistress’s mammary glands had been his subject matter. Like Lord Bloxley, a man who had seen and admired Tournell's formal portrait of Mrs. Green, but who also owned a small leather case containing a tiny depiction of the breasts of Sarah, a lightskirt he no longer even visited and who had moved on to another patron. That had been a shock, Tournell thought, when he had painted Sarah for the second time; it had taken him until a half hour into the session before her laughter reminded him of her former pose.
In fact she had suggested to him the names of a few women who’d like to have themselves portrayed only between their shoulders and their waists, women who loved to display themselves but who did not care to draw attention to their flaws.
Sometimes Tournell felt he was a prisoner of his own, secretive success. He had plenty of money and a growing reputation, yet most of his best paintings could not be exhibited in public. There were members of the Royal Academy who did life size renditions of nearly nude nymphs in mythological scenes -- but they’d be scandalized if they saw the breast miniatures. Or so they would pretend. And if ladies like the Baroness Bloxley or the Dowager saw them…well, his goose would be cooked. To a crisp.
Breasts or respectable portraiture? An empty belly or steady commissions? Respect for his craft or artistic obscurity? His le peche
paintings had brought him this lucrative commission from Lord Bloxley. The painting of his daughters could make his name. But it was enevitable that should he come to the attention of the London art world through this and future portraits, it would not be long before he was exposed as the "painter of breasts." Did he want fame and fortune to finally open their arms to him when it would also mean his exposure as the painter of peches
, Tournell was tortured by these questions daily. Always these questions and never any satisfactory answers.
When he arrived home, Monty was pleased to find Tournell setting up his studio in the former conservatory of Saxon Lodge, a room Monty found superfluous. Having the artist working at the Lodge could be lucrative for both of them. The whole thing had been Monty’s idea at first. Pierre Tournell had embraced the idea eagerly enough. Of course he had; the paintings had kept him in money. What Monty needed at present was a set of good sales to the Naxians of those breast miniatures.
Monty approached Tournell. "I see you're hard at it. Good man. Listen, Tournell, can you paint a few more le pesche for me?”
Tournell sighed. “I have no models. Bloxley Bottom is not a hot bed of courtesans willing to display their wares.”
“Surely there are some young women with pretty cherries ripe for the picking”
“Alors! You would have me accost them in the road?”
“How about the girls at the inn?”
“Mrs. Winston, ah, tres jolie – but she keeps a Bible at her desk. I think if her serving wench told her I wanted her to . . . “
“Come now, man, you can’t be as direct as all that. Gracious, where’s your French flair, your savoir faire?”
“Twydall, you do the seducing, I’ll paint the pictures.”
Monty chuckled. “We’ll take dinner at the Crowing Cock, Tournell, and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Tournell agreed, giving a silent sniff at his host’s presumption. Show him, show Tournell who had convinced some of the Naxian’s highest flyers to bare their breasts to a roomful of strangers while he painted them? Ha! But of course Monty had no idea he’d charged admission to his painting sessions from time to time.
With a quick wave, Monty left. “See you at the inn at five.”
“Oui. Au revoir.” Tournell stared up a the slant of the sun and re-positioned his easel.
He wanted, on the one hand, to have his portraits admired, his work to be sought after. But portraits were not only difficult, they took a great deal of tact and subtlety. The sitter needed to be flattered yet the portrayal must be realistic…and he found painting clothing tricky. All the frothy lace women wore today, and poufs of silk and satin. Tournell studied Van Dyke and Gainsborough, had even been acquainted with Tom Lawrence. Now there was someone who gave life to fabrics. Though Lawrence had a studio full of assistants …while he, Tournell worked alone. It took money to set oneself up in an atelier. Maybe he could do paintings of historical subjects, or old myths and legends – these might sell. A gathering of nymphs at Diana’s bathing pool. Attendants at Aphrodite’s toilette…ah yes, he could do such huge canvases and this studio space at Monty’s was just the place.
So Monty was right. He needed models. And not just women. He’d require a few males as well, lithe and strong with well defined musculature. They might be easier to convince to pose. What man didn’t want to show off his body?
An hour after his arrival in the library at Bloxley Hall, the Duke looked at the clock on Lionel’s bookshelf. It was time he headed back to Walmer. As he recalled, there would be guests at dinner tonight. “I think we have the essential agreement here,” he said.
Lionel nodded. “Starting with the committee to widen the main road, I am sure we will build support for more improvements. Much as I would like to start all of them at once, your advice about moving at a judicious pace is right on point, Duke.”
The Duke raised one eyebrow. “You’ll bring along the doubters soon enough.”
“I hope so.” Lionel leaned back in his chair, the business of the day concluded. “I have decided to have my daughters’ portraits painted.”
“So I have been told.”
Lionel gave a bark of laughter. “My mother, I suppose, was full of the news.”
“Ah, yes. Lady Louisa is one of my oldest friends, you know. She is a one-woman fount of intelligence. She has a better network of informants than I devised at any time during the wars. Indeed a formidable woman.”
“And I suppose she told you she does not particularly approve of this painter, a Frenchman?”
It was the Duke’s turn to nod in agreement.
Lionel went on. “He is a truly talented fellow, and he needs a bit of help getting his work into the right hands.”
“Hoping to have your daughters’ portraits in the Academy’s summer exhibition next year?”
“It has crossed my mind. No names, however. Having the girls identified, I am sure, would offend my mother’s sense of propriety.”
“Have you seen Tournell’s work, Duke?”
“Not that I'm aware of.”
“No one has shown you one of their le pesches?” A smile was beginning to build on the baron’s lips.
Lionel went to the bookcase and thumbed through a volume, removing a small picture, no more than two inches square. He gazed at it fondly. “It was Major Twydall who started it. Le pesche, the peaches in Italian, you know. They are pictures of breasts, sort of like those lover’s eyes that crop up from time to time.”
He handed the picture to the Duke whose jaw actually dropped in surprise.
Lionel continued to explain. “It’s that group of men Monty has assembled, the Naxians they call themselves. Rather juvenile, I think, but all in good fun. It’s become quite the fashion among them to have their mistresses painted.”
“Like this?” The Duke’s voice was rather strained as he gazed at the view of two perfect breasts and nothing else.
“Sometimes on ivory. The painter has a deft touch.”
“And this is the man you want to paint your daughters?”
“Oh, le pesche are just a sideline. He is skilled at portraiture.”
“Apparently so,” said the Duke as he eyed the miniature.