Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 48: Sister Maria-Fiore confides

Clutching a glass of National Gallery of Scotland white wine, Angus surveyed the crowd gathered outside the lecture theatre. The lecturer was surrounded by acolytes congratulating him on the content of his talk. He accepted their plaudits with a grave nod of the head, shaking hands with one or two, blowing a kiss to more favoured others. Angus turned away. Perhaps he’s right, he thought. Perhaps I am exactly what he was talking about – I’m a stale man. My time has passed. Nobody wants to hear from me because I paint the sort of things that have been done to death. I am a portrait painter, and who is going to get excited about anything a portrait painter does – particularly a portrait painter who happens to be a man? Ramsey and Raeburn were all very well in their time, but now people want a whole new approach, and that approach does not include portraits, particularly portraits of other men.

44 Scotland Street

He was thinking these somewhat destabilising thoughts when he became aware that Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna was at his side, accompanied by Antonia Collie. Angus greeted them warmly. He did not want to talk to anybody new, he had decided, and the familiar presence of these two was just what he needed. Both had glasses of wine considerably larger than his – reserved for trustees and their guests, Angus decided.

“You’ve heard about our friend, Bruce?” asked Sister Maria-Fiore.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Struck by lightning,” said Antonia. “In our very midst. In his prime, so to speak.”

Angus said that he had read about the incident. “A narrow escape,” he said.

“Of course, in one sense he’s fortunate,” observed Antonia. “They say, do they not, that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. That means that statistically Bruce can discount any possibility that he will ever again be struck. It’s rather like having measles – you are unlikely to get it again.”

“But the odds against being struck by lightning are infinitesimally small,” said Angus. “About the same as you I being the victims of a shark attack.”

Sister Maria-Fiore thought about this. “Of course that depends on where you live,” she said. “If you live in a landlocked country – let’s say Switzerland – then surely the odds of being attacked by a shark are non-existent. Whereas you or I, being residents of an island, at least face some such odds, small though they may be.”

Antonia took a sip of her wine. “I think this is Italian,” she said. “Goodness knows where from.” She paused. “Perhaps you might be able to identify it, Floral One.”

It was the first time Angus had heard Sister Maria-Fiore addressed by this soubriquet. It was, he thought, rather touching.

Sister Maria-Fiore sniffed at her wine before tasting it. “Veneto,” she said, after a moment or two of thought. “I have an uncle who produces wine exactly like this. Not on a big scale, of course – no more than four hundred bottles a year. But his wine is much appreciated. We bought some for the convent a few years ago. The sisters enjoyed it greatly. It was a change from the red wine that we produce ourselves.”

Angus looked at her with fascination. She really was a most refreshing nun. And her social ambitions, although plain for all to see, were harmless enough. Sometimes those with social aspirations simply wanted to be loved – that was all there was to it.

Angus sought their views on the lecture.

Antonia shrugged. “I was thinking of other things,” she said. “There’s a limit to what one can take in.”

Sister Maria-Fiore smiled. “Dear Antonia has so much on her mind,” she said. “What with her book on the lives of the Scottish saints and one thing and another. As you know, Angus, we were thinking of moving over to the Grange, but that will no longer happen.”

“The house fell down,” said Antonia, in a melancholy tone.

“Not altogether,” Sister Maria-Fiore corrected her. “It was declared structurally unsound after somebody interfered with a supporting wall. One should never do that. Supporting walls are called supporting because of the support they give. And without support, they are unsupported.”

“No,” said Antonia. “That is not quite correct, dear Floral One. Supporting walls are not themselves supported – they give support. It is the overall structure that is not supported.”

“You are quite right, Toni,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “I sometimes speak in general terms and lose sight of the particular.”

Angus now asked Sister Maria-Fiore what she thought of the lecture.

“He has a point,” said the nun. “Art can become stale. We all know that. When I contemplate the endless Holy Families painted by Neapolitan Baroque artists, for instance, I am overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu.” She paused. “St Joseph usually looks so uninspiring in those paintings. He looks rather like the chairman of a branch of Rotary International.”

Angus was inclined to agree. There could be a sameness to certain stock images. But then so many of our cultural images were afflicted by that sameness: there was a limit to the human imagination, after all, and we revisited and revisited certain popular themes. What was the current word for those? Tropes? Memes?

Sister Maria-Fiore had more to say. “But at the end of the lecture, I found myself thinking: who is the stale one here? And do you know what? The answer that came to me was: they are. Yes, the conceptual artists who are so busy attacking conventional painters for being stale have themselves become stale. They are the ones who are saying the same thing over and over again. Whereas anybody now who paints in a conventional style is the radical, the outsider.”

Antonia was nodding her agreement. “Maria-Fiore is absolutely right, you know,” she said.

Angus smiled. “Am I then in the avant-garde?”

“Of course you are,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “Anybody who has painterly skills is the progressive now, ploughing a lonely furrow. You are definitely in that category, Angus.”

He was pleased. It was rather like being rehabilitated after a long exile.

Sister Maria-Fiore looked about her. She had the look of a conspirator, and now she leaned forward and whispered to Angus. “Antonia knows about this, so she can hear. But I wouldn’t want some of those people to hear just yet.” She glanced over at the lecturer and his knot of supporters. “I learned only a few days ago that I have been chosen to be on a rather significant committee.”

Angus waited. It seemed to him that there was barely a committee left in Scotland on which Sister Maria-Fiore had not been invited to serve. “Tell me all about it,” he pressed. “I’m the soul of discretion.”

“I have been appointed to the panel of judges of the Turner Prize,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “The Board of the National Gallery of Scotland was invited to nominate a member, and I proposed myself. It was at the end of a trustees’ meeting and people were keen to get away. Nobody objected, and I was on.”

Angus struggled to regain his composure. “You?” he stuttered. “A Turner Prize judge?”

“Yes,” said Sister-Maria Fiore. “And I can tell you this, Angus, the prize will not be going to people like tonight’s lecturer who belittle the tastes of ordinary people. These people are incorrigible elitists. They are the epitome of intellectual arrogance. No, I’m going to do everything within my power to make sure it can go to somebody who can actually paint. Perhaps even to a landscape artist. Who knows?” She paused. “And I shall use such skills as I have to ensure that I am elected to chair the panel.”

Angus clapped his hands together, forgetting he was holding a glass of wine. The wine went everywhere, but it was worth it.

“This is very welcome news,” he enthused. “And I suspect you might just be able to pull it off.”

Antonia Collie beamed. “Of course she will. She’s a Daniella come to judgment.”

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna lowered her head demurely. “I merely do my duty – to art and to beauty,” she said. “That’s all.”

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.