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Writers in the Gallery: William Fiennes

Listen to writer William Fiennes discuss the secret life of Jan Gossaert's 'Elderly Couple'.

Jan Gossaert, 'An Elderly Couple'
William Fiennes: Jan Gossaert's 'An Elderly Couple'
Jan Gossaert, 'An Elderly Couple' – 29 mins 55 secs


William Fiennes: Thank you very much for having me and for coming.

So, ’choose any painting in the National Gallery and talk about it for half an hour’. It was only after I’d said yes that I realised what a completely overwhelming proposition that is, and immediately several pictures slid across the slideshow of my mind's eye – Holbein's Christina of Denmark, Rembrandt's portrait of Margaretha de Geer, that small painting by a follower of Rembrandt (that actually you can see straight down the corridor) of a man reading in a room with the light shining through the windows, Degas’s orange red coiffeur, the woman combing the other woman’s hair, I thought about those – but then I resolved to ignore all of the pictures that I thought I knew.

I thought that this should be a chance for me to discover something new, as I hoped it would be a chance for all of you to discover something new. So I thought that I should trust to chance; that I should walk through the Gallery along a random path until something caught my attention and made me pause. So I wandered, trying to have an open mind, and this was the painting that called out to me, ‘An Elderly Couple’ by Jan Gossaert. I don't remember ever noticing it before. I'd certainly never lingered in front of it, and I'd never heard of this artist Jan Gossaert; I didn't know anything about him.

Perhaps it had to do with the uncluttered simplicity of the image, its directness and lack of fuss – a lack of fuss which stands out especially because on either side are paintings so lavish with things going on. It’s the same scene, in fact, on both sides: the Adoration of the Magi, or the Kings – Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar bringing gifts to the infant Christ – a scene of immense religious and cultural density and mythological grandeur. The formal arrangement of both pictures almost identical, this small one on the left by a painter in Gossaert's circle, and this one on the right by Gossaert himself, teeming with detail. The flowering nettle and other weeds growing out of the broken stones; the cavalier spaniel (that’s apparently stolen from an engraving by Dürer) chewing on a bone; the donkey chewing the cud in the shadow of the arch. The elaborate vessels for frankincense and myrhh that the two kings are holding up, looking like handheld versions of the towers of the celestial city in the background, that lead the eye through the middle of the arch to where the shepherds are having their annunciation moment with the sheep in the field. And all these people crowding in, a sense of a whole society converging on this moment of transformation – wanting to be part of this arrival, this beginning, desperate not to be left outside the frame of it.

And then in between these two detailed, grand pictures of the Adoration of the Magi, here's this apparently modest painting of an elderly couple – anonymous, not particularly grand, with a kind of protestant austerity to it. A plain, direct statement; no frills or embellishments, no fuss. And something in it made me stop. It struck a chord.

So I wanted chance to play a part, I wanted to set myself adrift in the Gallery until I snagged on something. I had one other thought in advance, which was that I wouldn't try and pass myself off as any kind of art historian. I wouldn’t try and pass myself off as someone who actually knew anything about painting, because I really don't know anything about painting. And anyone who’s come here expecting a lecture that places Gossaert in the wider context of early-sixteenth-century Flemish painting – what technical innovations he might have brought, say, to the artistic inheritance of Roger van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Hugo Van der Goes – or how this picture stands in relation to something like Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930, another painting of an elderly couple in which the man is holding a wooden staff – well, if you’ve come for that, you’ve come to the wrong place, and if you want to leave I won't be offended, that’s totally fine.

When I say ‘Gossaert’ I don't even know if I'm pronouncing it correctly. But I like finding out about things, and I'm very happy to be able to tell you that Jan Gossaert was born in the 1470s in a place called Maubeuge, which is now in northern France, on the brink of Belgium. In fact, Gossaert's often known by another name, Mabuse – i.e. the one who came from Maubeuge. Early in his career he had a patron, Philip of Burgundy, who was sent by the Emperor Maximilian on a mission to see Pope Julius II and in 1508 Gossaert travelled with Philip to Verona, Florence and Rome. So when he came back to Antwerp the following year his eyes were full of Italian art: Guicciardini said that Gossaert was ‘the first to bring the true method of representing nude figures and mythologies from Italy to the Netherlands’.

He seemed to acquire patrons readily, including King Christian II of Denmark, and he moved around a lot: Bruges, Brussels, Malines, Utrecht, Middelburg. He painted close-up head portraits; mythological figures like Neptune and Amphitrite, Venus and Cupid; and biblical scenes like The Adoration of the Kings, the Agony in the Garden, the Madonna and Child, Adam and Eve. He kept coming back to Adam and Eve, painting them at least four times. So he was drawn to this fundamental encounter or opposition: a man and a woman, alone in the world, the essential he and she. This picture, incidentally, was painted around 1520, when Gossaert was in his mid-forties, and he died in 1532.

So here's this strange, rather stiff, almost severe image, and for some reason it makes me stop. Of course it couldn’t have been, at first, the details you see when you step up close to it. I mean, the surprising fineness of the lines, the grey bristles on the man's chin, the individual filaments in the fur trim, a few loose hairs – you won’t be able to see from there  but a few loose hairs – coming off the side of his head over here, and the intricate decoration on the silver tip of his staff or in the white lace collar of his shirt, and the amazing clean line the leading edge of her white wimple makes in the air, like a wire of light.

And it couldn't be, at first, the badge on his hat, which shows a young naked couple and a cornucopia (a horn of plenty, an ancient symbol of abundance) so that we're reminded, while looking at this elderly couple, of youth, sex, fertility – that air they breathed when they were first a couple. You really need to peer close to see this naked couple on the badge, and after you've seen them – I think you’re just going to have to imagine you’ve seen them –  you might just turn to the right, and look over there, where you'll see one of Gossaert's paintings of Adam and Eve. And if you look from that little badge, the naked couple on the badge, over to the picture on the wall there, it's as if that miniature design is suddenly being projected and realised, writ large. So this badge on the man’s hat is not just a reminder of this elderly couple in their youth, at their beginning; it’s a reminder of the beginning of man and woman as an idea, and the beginning of the couple as an idea. Because Adam and Eve were, among other things, the world's first experiment in being a couple.

Yes, I think it had to do with this directness of statement: a man and a woman, and the bold contrast of tone with which they are presented. Not just his black hat versus her white wimple, but his tanned, weatherbeaten complexion compared to her nunly pallor, the colour of his skin suggesting a life outdoors, in the world, in the elements – while for her the sun might be just a rumour, something marvellous other people keep talking about. Her whiteness makes her the ambassador of indoors, of enclosed spaces, of the home; while his sun-touched skin suggests the freedom to move, to be out in the world, his staff a symbol of worldly power like a sceptre or a sword.

So there's not just the obvious distinction of gender but also this stark difference of tones: black, white; dark, pale. But at the same time there are all sorts of visual rhymes that suggest a single quantity, even a single organism. His black hat and sleeve rhyming with her black dress; the fur trim on his coat sleeve here, rhyming with the fur trim on her robe; and the two figures overlapping in their browns and blacks, to the extent that his left hand, the one grasping the staff, might actually be part of her body, because the black sleeve confuses the issue. So these two people are at the same time emphatically separate, distinct beings, and also a singularity: merged, overlapping, unified, coupled. So here, in this mysterious picture, are two contradictory ideas. Are we looking at two of something (people) or one of something (a couple)?

But pretty much the first thing I noticed about this picture (and I'm sure, now, what drew me to it) was the angling of their gazes. Isn't this unusual? He's looking up to the right, up there, up into the claret vacancy in that corner of the room, with that sign ’Way out – Orange Street’ in the corner of his eye – a weird sort of premonition on his part, because orange implies an independent Netherlands after William of Orange, something quite new in the Low Countries from which these people come from, 150 years in their future. And she's looking down to our left – at the parquet floor, at the green rope, at the black horsehair chair the charcoal-suited gallery warden sits on, a silver crown badge on her lapel.

The lady's gaze, in fact, leads us down into a stratum of these rooms where all sorts of wonderful things go on, beneath notice, under our feet and around our ankles and knees. A layer about a metre and a half deep, like the understory in a forest, the layer you’re all sitting in now, full of overlooked life, while everyone bangs on about the great trees above it. It's in the Gallery's low country that art students sit on folding green camping stools with big Daler-Rowney sketch pads on their knees like TV-dinner trays; and where groups of children in Year 5 or 6 or 7 sit cross-legged on the varnished parquet, staring up into the framed worlds on the walls while one of the Gallery's education staff – men and women with ID badges round their necks on ribbons like Olympic medals – guide them into a painting, as if the children could stand up and walk into the room of it, and meet the people in it. It's a kind of antidepressant to see these groups of schoolchildren sitting cross-legged on the floor, gazing up into paintings, and I'd encourage doctors to prescribe visits to the National Gallery on weekday mornings – not to look at the pictures, but simply to witness this miracle of eyes and imaginations expanding.

‘All the pictures we’re going to look at tell stories,’ one member of the Gallery's education team tells a class of girls in blue jumpers, grey skirts and red tights, red ribbons in their hair, sitting cross-legged on the floor. ‘Who here likes stories?’ And then all these hands shoot up. ‘What does paint feel like when you touch it?’ ‘It's cold.’ ‘It's ticklish.’ ‘It's soft.’ ‘It's like sticky water.’ And usually a few adults gravitate towards these sessions, standing behind the seated children, lingering, excited to find themselves looking again as if through their own seven- or eight-year-old eyes, restored to childlike curiosity and receptiveness.

Fifteen children, let's say, cross-legged on the parquet beneath ‘An Autumn Landscape’ by Rubens, noticing how touches of red and blue on a bird on the far right of the canvas echo the red and the blue in the clothes of the woman on the cart on the far left side. Or sitting on the floor beneath Constable's ‘Salisbury Cathedral’, working out where the sunlight's coming from. Or here's a group of boys in red-trimmed navy jackets staring up into Claude's ‘Landscape with Narcissus and Echo’.

Here are boys and girls from Chesterfield School, Year 6, with the school motto ‘Care and Succeed Together’ printed in white on their black sweatshirts, staring up into Canaletto's ‘The Stonemason's Yard’, hearing about this man grinding up beetles and precious stones to make his pigments, and mixing the powders with walnut and linseed oils – and all of them going ‘Eeeeuuurrrrghhhh!’ when they hear that you'd boil up rabbit skins to make glue for priming the canvas.

Here's a mixed group of eight- or nine-year-olds in pale-blue sweatshirts with gold shield crests on the front, gazing up into Titian's ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ while the Gallery instructor helps them work out what's going on. They pick out a tambourine, a pair of cymbals, an animal's severed head on the ground – and then one boy's hand shoots up and he says, ‘That weird boy's got a different kind of foot!’ And it's true: there's this boy in the foreground with legs and feet like a goat's or deer's. ‘Yeah,’ a girl said, ‘he's like Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!’

So the teacher tells them about this creature called a faun. She says, ‘it looks like things have got very, very out of hand’. The children murmur their agreement. ‘Now I want you to put your hands up if your big brother or sister has had a party and trashed the house.’ Nine arms shoot up. ‘Well, this is a bit like that.’

‘Who's the leader of this group?’ she asks. ‘That man in pinky-red,’ a boy replies. ‘Yes, and he's called Bacchus. He's the god of partying. He's the wild guy.’ She helps the children see that Bacchus is staring at this girl called Ariadne, who's been dumped on an island, Naxos, by a man called Theseus – the man she was in love with. There, look: in the distance you can see his ship, the sails – he's just left her. And now she draws the children’s gazes back to Bacchus in the middle of the painting, the man in the pinky-red, and they can all see the intensity with which he's looking at this beautiful girl on the cliff-edge. ‘What's he thinking?’ she asks. ‘What's he feeling?’ The children know the answer, but they're nervous about saying it, so with a big, conductor's movement of her arms the guide says, ‘All together!’ and the children shout out, ‘Love!’

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads (as Thoreau said) and I'm glad this lady's significantly lowered gaze brought my attention down here to the low countries, to those school groups and even to the floors themselves: the marble chessboards in octagonal hallways, the mosaic halfway up the main stairs, so that on the way into this room you might have trodden on Bacchus, Apollo, Calliope, Urania and sundry other muses. And then the parquet in many species and subspecies, pocked with stiletto marks, boards laid in straight lines, single and double herringbones, and chevrons. In box patterns in Room 41, these floors not of-a-piece but varnished to varying degrees and reading like a swatch of woodtones – pale in here compared to the deep mahogany burnish of Room 30, over there, which is strangely congruent with the browns and blacks of the Velázquezes and de Zuberáns hanging on the walls. Or the varnish on the floor of Room 18 which is so thick and near-black you can hardly pick out the lines between planks: a smooth, glossy surface that’s a bit like the crude oil they've got in the Saatchi Gallery, a lacquer-like decorative-arts finish that fits nicely with the fact the Room 18 is the Yves St Laurent Room. Not to mention the fingerprint uniqueness of each parquet board with its pattern of knots, the grain in swirls like contour lines on Ordnance Survey maps. And how sometimes you find yourself walking across rectangular vents covered with intricate iron grilles and feel the warm breath of the heating system coming up at you, a diffident sort of exhalation – a reserved, English version of the blast that threw Marilyn's skirt such a party. And these rectangular grilles are like the memorial stones in church floors, a nuance of texture in the soles.

This is only by way of saying that if you were to draw this man and woman's gazes as lines in the plane of the painting, they would be parallel, and proceeding away from each other in opposite directions. This man and woman are a couple, but they're looking at completely different things. They look out on different worlds, they each have a consciousness – an inner life that's private, that’s their own, that the other can never penetrate, no matter how ‘elderly’ they may be or how long they've lived together. Rilke talked about love consisting of two solitudes that meet and protect each other. The divergent gazes show us two solitudes. And perhaps that's why I find something bracing, unsentimental and modern about this image: it challenges any cosy ideas people might have about being a couple, that two people somehow merge or blur into a singularity, a possibility that's entertained by the black and brown confusion of their clothes.

I'm thinking of a story from Ovid, from Book VIII of the ‘Metamorphoses’. Disguised as mortals, Jupiter and Mercury have come to the world on a kind of mini-break. They need somewhere to stay the night, but nobody offers them shelter.

A thousand homes they came to, seeking rest;
a thousand doors were bolted fast against them;
one home received them, humble, just a hut,
and thatched with reeds and stubble from the swamp,
but most devout; Baucis and Philemon,
 a couple equally advanced in years,
were wed there in their youth, and there grew old
together, making light of poverty
by cheerfully admitting it and bearing
its deprivations with composure; seek
no servants in that house, nor masters neither,
for there were only two there, and the one
commanding was the same one who obeyed.

Philemon, the husband, welcomes the two gods in. Baucis covers a bench with a blanket for them to sit on, gets the fire going, cooks some cabbage with a piece of bacon, and lays the table – fixing its wobble by slipping a potsherd under the shortest leg, and wiping the top with mint sprigs – while Philemon fills a bowl with warm water and washes the travellers' tired limbs. They sit down to a banquet. Not just the cabbage with its Jamie-Oliverish pancetta, but also lettuces, radishes, cheese, boiled eggs, a bowl of wine; then figs, dates, plums and honeycomb. And Baucis and Philemon notice that each time the wine bowl empties, it fills up again, magically, ‘of its own accord, as if from underneath’ – and they understand that their two visitors are gods.

Jupiter and Mercury come clean, and ask Baucis and Philemon to walk up a hill with them. The old couple need walking sticks, and struggle to find their footing on the slope. They look down as the two gods, in a conspicuous failure of magnanimity, punish the ‘irreligious’ region by submerging the whole lot in a swamp. Everything except for Baucis and Philemon's house, which turns into a temple: columns, a golden roof, doors inlaid with bronze, a marble courtyard. The gods ask the elderly couple what else they can do for them. Philemon confers with Baucis, then answers:

‘We ask to be allowed to guard your temple
as its priests, and, since we have lived together
so many years in harmony, we ask
that the same hour take us both together,
and that I should not live to see her tomb
nor she survive to bury me in mine.’

So this elderly couple look after the temple until one day – standing outside the columns, exhausted by old age – Baucis sees Philemon coming into leaf, and Philemon sees that Baucis, too, is putting out leaves.

Then, as their faces both were covered over
by the growing treetop, while it was allowed them,
they spoke and answered one another's speech:
‘Farewell, dear spouse!’ they both cried out together,
just as their lips were sealed in leafiness.

So there they are: two trees standing side by side, sprung from a single trunk. This idea of couplehood as a kind of fusing or symbiosis, of two-becoming-one, has a strong claim on us. Philip Larkin registers it equivocally when he sees the stone couple on the Arundel tomb, locked in their possibly tiresome eternity of holding hands. I think of my own father's parents, whom I never met, dying within ten days of each other after nearly sixty years together.

Perhaps we all know stories like that. And I think that the mingling and merging of the clothes and bodies in this painting by Gossaert concedes that there is a singularity in being a couple, even as the striking non-alignment of the man and woman's gazes adds another dimension and even a challenge – unsentimental, realistic, modern – to the Baucis and Philemon dream of fusion. I see in those gazes a stern recognition that a person's inner life remains unknowable and fundamentally private, no matter how long you've lived alongside them and no matter how much you love them. Consciousness is a room nobody else can step into. This man and woman are looking out into different worlds. Each contains and lives in his or her own private realm of dreams, fantasies, memories, sensations, longings, regrets, grievances – things thought but not spoken, delights and despairs. They are a pair of solitudes.

So as well as depicting a couple, I wonder if this apparently simple painting doesn't also address itself to the idea of a couple, and draw attention to the contradictions inherent in something that is at the same time a one and a two. In fact, the word itself – the noun ‘a couple’ – has two meanings, and they're at odds with each other in the same way that these different elements of the picture – the merging and the separateness – are at odds with each other. So we talk about ‘a couple’: this couple, for example, or that couple over there [Adam and Eve], or a couple of chairs; a group of two persons or things, a pair, a duo, a union of two.

But for physicists, ‘a couple’ means something different. In mechanics, ‘a couple’ refers to a pair of equal and opposite forces acting along parallel lines, tending to cause rotation. This is known as a pure moment: two equal and opposite forces whose lines of action do not coincide. Well, that takes me back to the picture. I can't think of a better description of the parallel lines of the gazes in Gossaert's picture: two equal and opposite forces whose lines of action do not coincide.

And those parallel lines make me think of another story about love, a story called ‘The Form of Space’, which is one of the exhilarating cosmological fantasies in Italo Calvino's ‘Cosmicomics’ – a book I'd urge everyone to experience, if you haven't already. There's nothing quite like it. ‘The Form of Space’ begins like this:

‘To fall into the void as I fell: none of you knows what that means. For you, to fall means to plunge perhaps from the twenty-sixth floor of a skyscraper, or from an airplane which breaks down in flight: to fall headlong, grope in the air a moment, and then the Earth is immediately there, and you get a big bump. But I'm talking about the time when there wasn't any Earth underneath or anything else solid, not even a celestial body in the distance, capable of attracting you into its orbit. You simply fell, indefinitely, for an indefinite length of time.’

So here's this narrator, plunging through the void. And alongside him there's a woman called Ursula H'x, falling at the same speed and the same rate of acceleration, so that they're always more or less at the same level. ‘I didn't take my eyes off Ursula H'x: she was very beautiful to see, and in falling she had an easy, relaxed attitude. I hoped I would be able sometimes to catch her eye, but as she fell, Ursula H'x was always intent on filing and polishing her nails or running her comb through her long, smooth hair, and she never glanced toward me.’ So our narrator, this falling man, is in love with Ursula. ‘I, naturally, dreamed only of meeting Ursula H'x, but since, in my fall, I was following a straight line absolutely parallel to the one she followed, it seemed inappropriate to reveal such an unattainable desire.’

So now I'm thinking of the painting again (or seeing the painting through the palimpsest of the ‘The Form of Space’) and remembering the way those two gazes, rendered in two dimensions, would make parallel lines – as if this man and woman were the man and woman in Calvino's story, plunging alongside each other on their parallel trajectories through space. Calvino's narrator has a moment of hope. He alludes to the idea in projective geometry that parallel lines meet at infinity: if they carried on falling for ever, the moment would come when he and Ursula would touch, would be together.

‘This eventuality gave me some hope; indeed, it kept me in a state of constant excitement. I don't mind telling you I had dreamed so much of a meeting of our parallels, in great detail, that it was now a part of my experience, as if I had actually lived it. Everything would happen suddenly, with simplicity and naturalness: after the long separate journey, unable to move an inch closer to each other, after having felt her as an alien being for so long, a prisoner of her parallel route, then the consistency of space, instead of being impalpable as it had always been, would become more and more taut and, at the same time, looser, a condensing of the void which would seem to come not from outside but from within us, and would press me and Ursula H'x together (I had only to shut my eyes to see her come forward, in an attitude I recognized as hers even if it was different from all her habitual attitudes: her arms stretched down, along her sides, twisting her wrists as if she were stretching and at the same time writhing and leaning forward), and then the invisible line I was following would become a single line, occupied by a mingling of her and me where her soft and secret nature would be penetrated or rather would enfold and, I would say, almost absorb the part of myself that till then had been suffering at being alone and separate and barren.’

The only problem with this parallel-lines-meeting-at-infinity idea is that the narrator has a rival – Lieutenant Fenimore – who is falling on the far side of Ursula, also in parallel. So if the narrator does achieve his Baucis-and-Philemon moment of merging with Ursula, because parallel lines meet at infinity, he'll be merging with Lieutenant Fenimore as well, which wasn't quite what he had in mind. ‘At the very moment when Ursula H'x would cease to be alien to me, another alien with his thin black moustache would share our intimacies in an inextricable way: this thought was enough to plunge me into the most tormented jealous hallucinations.’

But there's no Lieutenant Fenimore in this picture. There's just the couple, and the paradox of being a couple, a one and a two at the same time. The merging and blending of garments and limbs hints at a fusion like that described in Ovid's story of Baucis and Philemon. The contrary gazes speak of two distinct solitudes: Calvino's narrator and his beloved Ursula in ‘the interminable present of our parallel fall’. And then, of course, there's the badge, which I'd almost forgotten. Sometimes you see couples who seem bored with each other – frustrated, bickering, trapped in passive-aggressive silences, harassed by children or infirmity – and it takes some effort of will to imagine that they too, at some time, had their threshold moment: the minutes and then seconds before their first kiss, with all its novelty, fear, mystery, awkwardness, surrender and possibility. They don't look especially delighted with one another, these two just now, but they had their threshold moment as well. They approached each other as young people in some variety of awe. They found themselves on the brink of something. They became a couple.

Thank you very much.

William Fiennes was invited to the Gallery in January 2010 as part of the 'Writers in the Gallery' series of talks for Friday Lates. He was asked to discuss any picture in the collection, and found himself drawn to a painting he had never noticed before: An Elderly Couple by Jan Gossaert.

In this talk, held in front of the painting, he discusses what Gossaert’s picture means to him, drawing connections with Ovid’s classical poetry and the short stories of Italian writer Italo Calvino.

About William Fiennes

William Fiennes’s first book, 'The Snow Geese' (2002), won the Hawthornden Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award. His latest book is 'The Music Room' (2009), a powerful and tender evocation of his childhood.

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