Reading and Remembering ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’: University of Glasgow Seminar

February 24, 2024 | No Comments

On Thursday 22 February, 2024, I was thrilled to participate in a seminar led by Dr. Hilary Macartney at the University of Glasgow. Co-hosted by the Stirling Maxwell Research Project , this was the first of a series exploring academic and cultural responses to the painting ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap.’ At this event I read an abridged version of ‘Smithereens’, an essay that was first published in the United States in the journal Agni. At that time I shared some thoughts on the craft of nonfiction with its editors, and the original unabridged essay, with some slight modifications, (from Issue 82, 2015) appears below:

(Image courtesy of Glasgow Museum Collection)


Weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they (have) much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy…pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.” –WG Sebald.

And after the charges the freckled eggs jostle in the bowl on top of the fridge, veining the shells, and inside the pantry the jars of bramble jelly topple into the soft bulk of two-pound bags of sugar. A teaspoon clatters from a saucer onto the kitchen table. In the living room green balls of wool tumble from the crochet basket on the sofa’s armrest, the cushions and antimacassars stoic despite the china balloon seller and the clock having dashed together and leapt off the mantelpiece. Chestnuts roll along the windowsill. Beige corsets and support stockings dance on the balcony’s laundry line while the ceiling light pendulums in the hall. Dentures chatter inside a Pyrex glass on a bathroom stool. The tarnished mirror on the bedroom’s dressing-table seesaws, creaking, between its posts, next to a mahogany wardrobe with quartersawn side panels resembling meat carcasses hanging to cure, and on an inside shelf a sweetie tin rattles next to a mink fashioned into a stole; it lifts its nose, quivering. A framed postcard of a painting of a lady swings on a nail above the left-hand bedside table where the leather fringes of a bookmark protrude from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Good News Bible flaps off the right-hand table and lands agape on the faded Axminster. Silk tassels trimming the shade of an ugly majolica lamp spin like dervishes, slow to a swing, slow to a pause. Everything pauses. For a second everything is still. Then the walls begin to undulate like water and pour down after the floors, which have, by now, dropped away; everything plummets to black, then up floats a soft gray bloom of smoke, like an afterthought. The sky rushes in.


On the sixth of May 1853, when Christie’s of London auctioned an art collection formally housed in Louis Philippe’s Galerie Espagnol of the Louvre, among the bidders was William Stirling, flush with cash from the recent inheritance of his Scottish family’s estates at Keir and Cawder. “Neither size nor subject suit our creed, our climate, or our castles,” sniffed a contemporary critic of the Christie’s offering; historically the British had preferred the French and Italian Masters, and mistrusted the Spanish—illogically—because of their Catholicism. Such indifference, however, was on the wane, due in no small measure to Stirling, whose pioneering three volume study Annals of the Artists of Spain had appeared in 1848, the same year King Louis Philippe abdicated when revolution came again to France. Using the pseudonyms “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, Louis-Philippe and his Queen sneaked out of Paris and took refuge at Claremont House in Surrey, discretely supplied by Queen Victoria. Under the guise of the nondescript Count and Countess of Neuilly they kept their heads down for a further two years until Louis-Philippe’s death in 1850; by then, Stirling, a canny collector as well as a historian, was amassing the most comprehensive portfolio of Spanish art outside of Spain, including drawings, printed books, and works by Murillo, Goya, Zurbaran, and Velàsquez, and at least eight El Grecos (grouped with the Spanish in those days), two of which he purchased from the auction of Louis-Philippe’s collection. Portrait of a Man probably cost him little more than £10 (the going rate for the as-yet-to-be-feted Greek), though the Portrait of El Greco’s Daughter was a much pricier £133, her popularity having preceded her. As a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) and a trustee for major English public art institutions, Stirling spent most of his life in London or overseas, not in Scotland, despite inheriting a third estate in Pollok in 1863 on the southern outskirts of the rapidly industrializing Glasgow, an inheritance which upgraded his title to Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. After his death, his lands and his art collection were divided between his two sons; the youngest, Archibald, received Keir and Cawder, and over the years Archibald’s painting were sold and scattered, while John, the elder son, eventually became the tenth Baronet and took a progressive role in politics, architecture, agriculture, archaeology, education and philanthropy through his appointments as a Conservative MP, the chairman of the Forestry Commission, and co-founder of the National Trust for Scotland. He settled into the more valuable neo-Georgian Pollok House in Pollok Estate, building a new entrance hall, east and west wings, garden pavilions, ornamental parterres, and a library of three interlinked compartments and two fireplaces above which he hung the spoils of Louis-Philippe’s downfall: Portrait of a Man and Portrait of El Greco’s Daughter. Over the years art scholarship confirmed that a son had been born to El Greco but failed to uncover proof of any daughters, therefore the Portrait of El Greco’s Daughter became known as Lady in a Fur Wrap, a postcard of which my grandmother once framed and hung above her bedside table.


“On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation,” wrote W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, and in 1966, the year I was born, the first of the eight Red Road tower blocks opened in Balornock in northeast Glasgow. Part of an urban renewal scheme that would eventually re-house 4,700 people from inner-city slums slated for demolition, the Red Road high rises became a dominant presence on the city’s skyline and exhibited some of the hallmarks of Brutalist architecture then common to British housing design: vertical slabs of exposed concrete, rectangular profiles of relentless density offering little visual relief. Two years before, my grandparents had also moved into a high-rise—or what they and everyone of their generation called a multistorey—part of another redevelopment project in Pollokshaws on the south side of Glasgow, a few streets over from their old tenement room-and-kitchen. I spent much of the first twelve years of my life in this thirteenth-floor flat because it was closer to my primary school, and my grandparents often took care of me while my mother worked. My entire world could be mapped from its windows: directly beneath the living room sat a row of shops including a Co-op and a post office, a baker’s, a butcher’s, and a hairdresser where I had my first perm. Another high-rise—another multistorey—sat at a right-angle to ours, blocking the view heading left from the shops, but in my mind’s eye I could follow Shawbridge Street over the swift waters of the White Cart burn to the oxblood-stone grandeur of Sir John Stirling-Maxwell Primary School, known to its pupils as Sir Jake’s, which was enclosed by a stone wall staked with black iron railings twisted like liquorices. Every summer a traveling carnival nicknamed “the shows” camped on Sir Jakes’ scrubby playing field, run by folk my Gran called gypsies, who manned the dodgems and the rollercoaster with a mesmerizing sullenness. Past the school was the public library where Gran and I would pick up fresh supplies of large print romances and Enid Blytons and next to that was the laundry—the steamie—where my mother took our weekly wash, secured on top of the old Silver Cross pram with rope, pushing it ahead of her the mile or so from home, regardless of the weather, to spend the day with her sister-housewives, boiling, scrubbing, steeping, mangling, and pressing, exchanging gossip and moans about husbands and weans. The steamie bordered the old town-house square, with its stunted granite memorial to the Marxist John Maclean, and a newsagent where, if I hadn’t already spent my ten pence on fritters from the chippie, I rooted out sherbet saucers from open trays of sweeties with fingers clatty from the rusty metal of the swing park. Back down Shawbridge Street, in a high-rise opposite Sir Jake’s, lived Janice and Wendy, and on wet days we played in their stairwell, creeping behind one another whispering Bible John, Bible John, Bible John’s coming to get ye, which sent us screeching in delicious terror either up or down, fleeing Glasgow’s bogey-man, an elusive serial killer. Every July the Orange Order—those more tangible bogeymen—reveled in marching season but I, unlike most of my (Protestant) pals, was prohibited from going to see them, though Gran let me watch from her window as they snaked their way through the streets below, the strutting young men tossing and twirling the big flags in the air, showing off their gallus walking, the volume of the snare drum notching up toward offensive as the parade passed St. Mary Immaculate Chapel and the Catholic primary school. If I looked right instead of left out Gran’s window, I would see the police station, with its door propped open, and the beginning of Thornliebank Road, leading to my family’s own council flat in Mansewood from where my mother would walk daily, and I’d watch for her entering into the base of the high-rise, then run to Gran’s front door and wait, listening, for the clang of the lift. When I was twelve, I left Sir Jake’s for Hillpark Secondary School, which curtailed my sleepovers with Gran until my mother finally abandoned her marriage five years later, carting our belongings to the sanctuary of the high-rise, rescuing me once again from my father’s indifference. So much of my world was framed by this living room window, but my favorite place lay directly behind the flat and was visible only from the bedroom, where I would shimmy around the old-fashioned dressing-table with its suspended mirror—like Alice slipping through glass—to reach a tantalizing glimpse of the 361 acres of Pollok Estate. Once or twice a week I visited the estate with Gran, Grandpa, my mother, or older siblings, entering under the railway bridge, my whoops of glee and the city traffic echoing behind me as Glasgow and its multistories fell away, my legs kicking from a walk to a skip between the cathedral of trees on the main avenue. Possessive of the estate, I was huffily intolerant of other locals or tourists: this was my wonderland but unlike Alice I never wanted to go home. In winter we traipsed through snowfalls to see the White Cart burn frozen at the weir, and in early spring tiptoed into wooded caves of bluebells, coming back when the daffodils fringed the limes to climb the Beggar’s Tree where once the laird distributed alms. After passing through the ornate gates into the cobbled courtyard of the big house, I would vault over the strange low ironwork beetles on either side of its front door, then flit away up the sneaky staircase around the house’s periphery to reach the French windows of the library where the lady lived, pausing for a moment with my hands cupped around my face to peer through the glass in an attempt to see her—impossible because she hangs facing the other way—then heel-spin into the parterre to reenact the chess moves of the Red and White Queens between clipped hedges before darting through the pavilion and down another staircase to pat the two stone lions (no unicorn) facing the burn. In summer I galloped along the Rhododendron Walk to the walled rose garden, and in August collected brambles for Gran’s jelly-making, returning along the main avenue with buckets of berries, fingers pricked and stung, pausing at the side of the cattle field in case the rabbits popped out of the undergrowth at dusk. In autumn, I scuffed through mulching woodlands of sycamore, hawthorn, beech, holly, and ash, of English oak, rowan, yew, and silver birch, my heart set on finding horse chestnuts—conkers we called them—seeking out those spiny green balls, the color of the flesh of an avocado, though I’d not yet heard of nor seen an avocado, on which I stomped to crack the shell. Once split I imagined it resembled the eye of the Jabberwock, its spiky lids revealing the mahogany nut inside, and after flinging the shell away I bent down to look for more. Back in my grandparents’ flat, my anorak steaming in the heat of the electric fire, I would empty my pockets and line up the conkers on the windowsill.


Lady in a Fur Wrap is 62.5 centimeters tall by 58.9 centimeters wide, making her the width of, but shorter than, a standard cork bulletin board. Sometime in the past, narrow strips were added to the left and right sides of the canvas along its old stretcher marks, maybe to make the portrait less rectangular or fit a wider frame. A painted molding surfaced at the top right-hand side after an over-zealous cleaning in 1952, which the artist must have decided to hide, possibly because it would have made the finished work too busy. Experts agree the Lady was produced sometime between 1577 and 1580 when El Greco lived and worked in Toledo. It is an intimate portrait; she sits or stands—we don’t know which—against a dense brownish-black ground that throws her into stunning relief. She fills the canvas, composed from the waist up, and appears dressed for outdoors in a heavy brocade gown under a luxurious fur wrap held close across her breast by her right hand, her torso turned slightly to her right so that her head tilts left to meet the viewer. A chiffon scarf covers her up-styled hair, which is a brunette so deep it nearly matches the painting’s background, then wraps taut under her chin in the manner of a wimple, as was the fashion at the time, framing a face that tapers like a teardrop to a narrow (weak?) chin; the lips and cheeks, as was also the fashion, are a rosy coral. A necklace is visible under the chiffon and she wears two rings, one of which, researchers suggest, may be initialed. Her skin is as translucent as a young girl’s but her expression and clothing imply sophistication and worldliness, making it more probable she is in twenties. The fur, possibly lynx, is deliciously tactile—its dark flashes complement her hair and eyes, and those eyes are her most bewitching feature, large and rich as chestnuts, framed by full, elongated brows. When you see the portrait from across a crowded room she gazes directly at you and your heart stops. Someone has said something to her, a comment or enquiry that she refuses to countenance with a reply but that has, nevertheless, caused her to blush and pull her wrap closer, and so you battle your way toward her, dunting drinks and elbows, only to find that the nearer you get the more she seems to glance over your shoulder, and you pause, despondent: it wasn’t you she had been looking at after all.


The last two weeks in July are known in Glasgow as “the Fair.” Traditionally, factories would close so that the city’s workers could decamp either west to Ayrshire at the mouth of the Clyde—to Troon, Saltcoats, or Girvan—or south to the northern English seaside towns of Whitley Bay, Scarborough, and Blackpool, places where you could be guaranteed to see the same sour faces and hear the same harsh vowels and, as likely as not, endure the same damp weather as the other fifty weeks of the year, giving the impression that neither you nor your neighbors had budged an inch but that the globe had somehow spun overnight beneath your feet while the clouds had stayed exactly where they were. My father always fancied himself a cut above, so even though we couldn’t afford flashier destinations he was damned if we would go “doon the watter” at the same time as anyone else. And so it was in early August of 1970 and not at the end of July when our family—my father, mother, two sisters, brother, and I—returned to Pollokshaws from our holiday in Whitley Bay to discover that my grandfather had died. Neither the owner of the boarding house nor my grandmother had a telephone. In fact, no one I knew owned a telephone. Gran had simply waited until we came home. The sticky summer evening honeyed everything in her living room, including the peeling necks and grubby socks of my older siblings plunked down, disgruntled, on the sofa, while my four-year-old self watched through the kitchen doorway as my mother bubbled into a handkerchief and my father leaned against the sink with her arms folded and Gran perched on a stool talking quietly. I imagine I turned away, succumbed to the irresistible, comforting pull of the living-room window, and looked down on what I considered my territory, having no idea that Grandpa had once considered it his. I had no idea then or even now what precisely I had lost. Eventually, and no doubt reprimanded by an older sister for pinging the cord of the blind against the glass, I would have glanced back to see my siblings still slouched on the sofa looking grim, and I remember taking up my position again in the kitchen doorway; my father still silent about the death of his father-in-law whom, I would grow to learn, he had never liked, while Gran made tea, telling my parents they should just cremate her at the same time as her Bill. She knew she was not long for this world and if necessary she would build her own pyre. She was Senta, Isolde, Brunhilde: he was dead therefore she would die. Dry-eyed, determined, she poured hot water into the teapot, holding Grandpa’s glasses in her other hand, adamant she couldn’t go on but, like Beckett’s unnamable, she did go on, she went on for another twenty-three years, and then left behind a Co-Op insurance policy covering to the last penny her basic funeral expenses, some chunky old-fashioned furniture, a fur coat and stole, some china ornaments including a Doulton balloon seller, and—a legacy that over time amassed almost mythical significance—a journal and clippings stuffed in a poly bag labeled ‘Grandpa’s book,’ which my mother stored in her wardrobe for a further eighteen years before it was passed on to one of my sisters who then handed it to me.


By the early 2000s I was living in the United States, and occasionally I travelled by train from our home in Baltimore to New York for the day, sometimes with a definite purpose related to work or shopping or theatre, but more often than not driven by a recurring restlessness. And so it came to pass that a couple of weeks before Christmas in 2003 I headed to New York once more, stalled halfway through a novel I would eventually fail to write. Sleet blurred the line between buildings and sky—the city felt shut inside a leaky steel box—and I went first, as always, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The reception hall steamed with damp visitors, some seeking shelter, others there for the permanent collection or making the pilgrimage to see El Greco, its blockbuster retrospective. I felt bad about swithering over an opportunity my husband would have leapt at—Arthur had always admired El Greco more than I—so I dutifully, if not enthusiastically, bought a ticket and was soon dispatched on my way with headphones and leaflet amidst a clump of young, attractive Italians, their skin tanned from skiing or beaches, who shivered in piss-thin trendy nylon jackets no doubt from Benetton or Zara. We shuffled forward in fits and starts through galleries stoked with apostles, Christs, and Marys, portrayed stretched as though racked, their eyes rolling upwards like cows smelling slaughter, the men malnourished yet muscular, proportionally wonky with small heads, over-pumped thighs, tapering hands, and large ears, as though El Greco’s pool of available models in Crete, Venice, Rome, Madrid, and Toledo had been populated entirely by professional cyclists. It was disorienting to be reminded that he was pre-Velasquez when faced with his unsettling modern portraits that seemed to reflect Cezanne, Picasso, Bacon through a fun-house mirror whereas the opposite had occurred, they had reflected him, and so on we trudged, my Italian companions and I, past paintings of tarnished reds, yellows, blues, and greens, as though he had primed each canvas with fish scales before applying his colors, past saints and penitents so desperate for resurrection that their mother-of-pearled skin made them appear preemptively embalmed—or perhaps they had already entered the afterlife, which may explain why they undulated skyward like blooms of smoke. I stopped. There, in the centre of the main wall of the largest gallery was my lady from the library. Her glance across the crowded room caused me to swerve from my cluster. I should not have been surprised to find her here, given her importance and the scale of the retrospective, yet I had never seen her outside of Pollock House, nor in the company of her sibling canvases, with the exception of Portrait of a Man, which hangs above the library’s twin fireplace and with which, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never taken the effort to pass the time of day. Not only was she the smallest painting in the room and the most beautiful painting in the room, she was also the most alive being in the room, more so than myself, more so than the other visitors who had been drifting along, casting wintery glances here and there before bunching to a halt in front of her—exactly, I imagine, as the curator intended. My heart palpitated over this chance encounter, convinced that one of us was not supposed to be here, and I checked the note under her frame to reassure myself she hadn’t been purchased by some new collector but would return to Pollok House where she damn well belonged. Sir William Stirling-Maxwell once wrote that El Greco “alternated between reason and delirium,” and here amongst his other canvases awash with his somewhat whacky religiosity, amongst his other subjects caught, in what the art critic Peter Schjeldahl called, hilariously and accurately, their “divine updrafts,” she looked as earthly as Elizabeth Taylor in the courtyard of a monastery inhabited by stoned monks. I was certainly not the first person and nor would I be the last to question whether Lady in a Fur Wrap was really an El Greco at all.


Nine years after my chance encounter with the Lady in New York, we were living in Ireland, and it was here that I opened the poly bag for the first time. My mother had talked often and proudly about her father’s (unpublished) manuscript, though she danced around the question of having read it. The book had been written entirely in capital letters in an accounting journal with an unraveling spine secured with strips of Christmas sticky-tape patterned with snowmen, fir trees, and robins. Grandpa’s sloping hand covered each graph-paper page in inks that changed color from blue to black and back to blue, with notes in red snaking down the margins to coil under the main text. The pages crunched to the touch, embossed by the force behind the words. Near the beginning was a dedication to my siblings and me, and while reading it I learned the following: that shaw is the Anglo-Saxon word for “wood,” and pollok comes from the Gaelic word poll meaning “pool” or “succession of pools”; that the Maxwell family descended from a Saxon nobleman called Maccus; that a Sir John Maxwell fought alongside Mary Queen of Scots in 1568 at the Battle of Langside; that a Sir John Maxwell became the first Baronet in 1630 and that his tenants were knows as “feuers” and paid their rents partly in silver and partly in service; that before the Scottish reformation every village reserved an uncultivated ground called “the Good Man’s Croft” for use of the Devil and his minions to hold revels; that the lands around Pollokshaws were much haunted by bogles, a “bogle” being a bogey or goblin; that a trial took place in 1677 when several persons from Pollokshaws were found guilty of bewitching a Sir George Maxwell, and that during this bewitching the death rate rose and the weather turned dreich and dire; that weaving replaced agriculture as the most important industry in the eighteenth century; that famines swept through Pollokshaws in 1709, 1740, and 1760; that in 1802 there were only two Catholic families in the village but by 1803 there were fifteen, and more arrived after the Irish Potato Famine, and when they marched to Mass at St. Andrew’s Chapel in Glasgow they had to avoid stones thrown by local Protestants; that Pollokshaws was notorious for drunkenness, debauchery, and profanity, and had over fifty-six drinking establishments; that an Industrial School founded in 1854 became Sir John Stirling-Maxwell Primary School and it had been noted that some children were spending their pennies “in the purchase of unwholesome confections”; that only those (men) who could afford to pay a burgess fee could vote in village elections in late 1800s, leaving the majority of (male) taxpayers disenfranchised—the Town Council was reluctant to abolish the fee, fearing it would result in the Irish having too much say in municipal affairs, but eventually the fee was abolished and the Irish population made up the greatest number at the polls; that in 1912 Pollokshaws was annexed to the City of Glasgow; that of 1,000 local men who fought in the First World War, 350 died; that the weaving factories switched to munitions in both World Wars; that Pollokshaws was rife with clubs and societies, including seven lodges of the Loyal Orange Institution of Scotland, the Pollokshaws Coffee Room, the Cowglen Coal Hewers, the Vine Lodge of Free Chartered Gardeners, the Burgh-Manchester Unity of Oddfellows, the Ancient Order of Shepherds, the Weavers’ Society, and the Jacobite Club, formed not through sympathy for the Stuart cause, but in “admiration for the songs to which the Royal house had given rise.” I discover these and many other facts of little interest except to the local historian, but the most remarkable thing about Grandpa’s book, despite the reverence with which it had been discussed for decades by family, friends, and neighbors alike, despite the reverence with which it had been handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter to sibling—notwithstanding the poly bag or the fact that none of us had bothered our backsides to read it—is that he didn’t write it.


Lady in a Fur Wrap has divided fine art historians between those convinced it is by El Greco and those who believe it to be the work of one of his contemporaries. Some suggest it is from the circle of Alonso Sànchez Coello (1531-1588), or was painted by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594), or by Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)—this last possible attribution sets hearts racing, given that known Renaissance works by women are so rare. The most persuasive evidence for the El Greco attribution, as Peter Schjeldahl explained while reviewing the 2003 New York retrospective in The New Yorker, is how poorly the Lady’s right hand is rendered: painting human appendages tended to give El Greco the wobbles, though I’m convinced by my (admittedly superficial) knowledge of fine art that rendering in oils the likenesses of hands, feet, ears, babies, horses, or livestock in oils has always been a fool’s errand. In February 2004, when the El Greco exhibition transferred from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to the National Gallery in London, the British press reported that the Lady would undergo an X-ray examination to settle, once and for all, the issue of its attribution. Dr. Xavier Bray, a co-curator of the retrospective and now chief curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, said at the time, “The more I look at her, the more I move to the view that she is by El Greco,” though he conceded his opinion was romantic and that the public “should work it out by themselves,” whereas Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, another co-curator of the retrospective and now director of the National Gallery, disagreed. The Lady was “becoming an increasingly problematic picture,” he argued. “Even those who defend [El Grego’s] authorship seem less and less convinced.” Dr. Finaldi is one of many critics who believe the Lady has no right to be included in future El Greco retrospectives, and results from the X-ray study were never subsequently reported in the press. Then, in 2014, over ten years after the purported X-ray occurred, Antonio Garcia, the former culture editor of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, produced a sixty page report arguing that the Lady is not an El Greco, going so far as to suggest that, as he has been unable to access details about the 2004 tests, the X-ray was either never carried out or the results have been deliberately suppressed. I’ve failed to convince either Dr. Bray or Dr. Finaldi, or indeed any art expert, to talk to me about it—the whole profession seems cagey by nature—and while such confusion might be inconvenient for all involved, perhaps it is less so for the city of Glasgow, which estimates the value of its second most popular painting (after Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross), at around £20 million, and therefore for reasons economic and cultural must prefer this continuing ambiguity.*


During a pivotal moment in Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel Trainspotting, Renton, a young, urban, working-class man, articulates his disillusionment not with the English but with his fellow Scots, calling us “the most, wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation.” When Danny Boyle adapted Welsh’s novel for the screen, he filmed this scene at the remote Corrour railway Station on Rannoch Moor, which was built by the West Highland Line in 1894 after being commissioned by Sir John Stirling-Maxwell in order to transport guests and supplies to his 34,000-acre hunting estate, and this small nugget of information keeps snagging in my mind, as though it forms some part of a pattern yet to emerge. Perhaps it was more romantic to imagine my grandfather writing an original work of art rather than copying a historical tract, though in all honesty I suspect (as my mind snags again on those 34,000 acres) it might be the knotty issue of class, not creativity, that lies at the bottom of the confusion—or wishful delusion—over the authorship of my grandfather’s book; that I, together with my mother, had got hold of the wrong thread. Grandpa was not to blame; the heading of his manuscript clearly states that he was transcribing extracts from Pollokshaws: Village & Burgh 1600-1912, With Some Account of the Maxwells of Pollok, written by Andrew McCallum and printed in 1925 by Alexander Gardner of Paisley, “Publisher by Appointment to the late Queen Victoria,” and most likely from a copy held in the library at Pollok House. I found another copy for sale in Cooper Hay, an antiquarian bookstore in Glasgow, and when it arrived at our home in Ireland it was so carefully wrapped it took me ten minutes, jittery with unaccountable nerves, to slice through the brown paper wadding with a kitchen knife. Dedicated to Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, its frontispiece has a photograph of the author, who looks so uncannily like my brother I wondered if we were related. I contacted a historian of Pollokshaws to see if he could tell me more about McCallum; he couldn’t, but he did remember my grandfather. We exchanged chatty emails until he revealed that he also remembered my father, whom “everyone” considered an aloof oddball, and that it was “common knowledge” my parents’ marriage was stormy and rumor had it—he blathered on—“there had been another woman involved,” and that my mother had “often been the topic of discussion in the steamie.” I didn’t reply and I never contacted him again. I was afraid of any further revelatory dregs he might inflict with his blithe disregard, and I felt my world swaying, the way I had felt the high rise sway in very strong winds, suddenly, uncomfortably reminded of a conversation that took place when I was around eighteen years old and working part-time in an up-market home furnishings store in Glasgow. The store had held a raffle, offering its customers the chance to win free interior design and redecoration of a home. Two of my colleagues had just returned from meeting the prizewinner and had discovered that she lived not in an elegant Georgian town house or Victorian terrace in the city’s west end, but in a multistory in Pollokshaws, and they sat down beside me while I ate my lunch at the canteen table and talked in derisive tones of the woman’s current décor, of her nylon carpets, her furry toilet seat cover, her African violets, and her pride in her Doulton knickknacks, and, as they expressed horror at having to stoop to decorating a shabby flat with low ceilings, tiny rooms, and chipboard doors, I waited, mute with terror, fearing they would find out that this was the kind of place where I lived. Among my middle-class colleagues I was ashamed of being working-class, ashamed of not only living in a council house, but in a high-rise, and I now realize that in my imagination I’d relocated my childhood to the estate, a fantasy that seems confirmed by the only photograph I have of Grandpa and me, because there we stand on the front steps of Pollok House, where he began working as a docent when it opened to the public in 1966, the year that I was born. I must be around three-and-a-half years old, my chunky legs sausage-d into white knee socks and leather Mary Janes, and my body toggled into a duffle-coat hand-knitted by my mother—surely a Pollyannaish undertaking, given the climate—its hood up over a hat or an Alice band. I’m holding Grandpa’s hand; he’s small and square-shouldered, with a full head of white hair and a prominently dimpled chin, wearing a buttoned raincoat over smart trousers, polished shoes, and dark-winged glasses. He looks like a tidy greengrocer. To either side of us are the cast-iron boot-scrapers, which I thought resembled beetles and whose use, apart from being fun to jump over, remained a mystery to me for a shamefully long time. I don’t know who took this photograph, but I’m convinced that while it was being taken the great-grand-children of Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, who were around my age, hovered somewhere nearby, and that as soon as my hand was released I ran after them, and whatever else Grandpa and I did that day, he would have taken me to the library to see Lady in a Fur Wrap because he always did, and told me that she, and the estate, belonged to me, and these warped threads I spun into my own identity, because no family anecdote held more allure during my childhood than the friendship between my salt-of-the-earth, socialist grandparents and posh Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, baronet, philanthropist, and Tory MP—detailed proof of which I assumed I’d find in Grandpa’s book, but instead that musty manuscript was serving as a bruising reminder of the trenchant and insidious blight of class consciousness that I’d carried into my first job as a shop girl in Glasgow, into my career in London, and into the graduate classrooms of America—a fear that I would be found out. Sometimes it caused me to act, perversely, more coarsely Glaswegian, in an attempt to neutralize any feelings of inferiority, however I suspect it was also symptomatic of cultural baggage; I’ve seen it in some other Scots, that unconvincing swagger, as though we’re so proud of having endured some collectively deprived childhood—which in my case is bullshit, my childhood was not deprived—and maybe this is why so many of us identify with that Trainspotting speech, even though Renton, too, had got hold of the wrong thread; he was mistakenly heaping his ire on his nationality, when the actual culprit is class—though, granted, class and ethnicity are interwoven concepts in nations that have been, or perceive themselves to have been, colonized. “Servile,” the most telling adjective in Renton’s rant, reminds us that feudalism, along with the ancient system of thirlage, by which a Laird’s tenants were required to bring their grain to his mill, was not abolished in Scotland until the year 2000. In 1912, the 12,000 inhabitants of Pollokshaws lived on an acreage equivalent to that owned and occupied by the single family headed by Sir John Stirling-Maxwell; today, 432 people—some of whom may not be residents of Scotland or even British citizens—own fifty percent of Scotland’s private land, and only ten percent of Scotland’s land is publicly owned. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Scotland—like Ireland, unlike England—had a proportionally smaller middle class and therefore larger gaps between those on either end of this vertical economic hierarchy. My grandparents were near but not at the bottom, working class but not poor; they earned just enough to get by but no more, and relied at different times on compassionate policies such as free healthcare, free schooling, and social security. Gran wore hats to church on Sundays, and Grandpa never went anywhere without a shirt and tie. She took turns whitewashing the steps of their tenement before moving to the high-rise where she took turns scrubbing the thirteenth floor landing, and carted her curtains to the steamie spring and winter. A vigilant collector of Co-op stamps—coupons that could be used to buy food, furniture, or funerals—she kept their pantry stocked with no more than could be consumed in the next few days with the exception of sugar, which she hoarded during the oil crisis of the early seventies for her jelly. Both Gran and Grandpa left school at age fourteen. Weavers by trade, they worked in local mills, and married in 1932 when Gran was thirty-two—skirting the stigma of the old maid—and Grandpa was twenty-six; my mother was born six months later; a necessary marriage then, but by most accounts a happy one, despite Gran often claiming that her own father had married down after drinking away his (and her) family’s inheritance, having been seduced by wine while training in chenille weaving management in France. My grandparents’ courtship took place at socialist meetings about trade unionism or women’s suffrage. Although Grandpa had been too young to take an active role in the Red Clydeside movement of the First World War, he was likely one of the five thousand mourners who attended the funeral of the Marxist and pacifist John Maclean, and he participated in the Hunger March from Glasgow to London. Grandpa taught me to read using National Geographic magazines, and—despite giving his wife a Good News Bible inscribed with the hope that she would find comfort there—put his own atheist spin on biblical tales, interpreting Christ not as the Son of God, but as a mortal socialist and educator, preaching that heaven was here on earth, in music, books, art, and nature, blasphemous notions which I embraced wholeheartedly, and which tugged me from the Methodist Church at age twelve and helped dig the unbridgeable rift between me and my conformist father. I was a solitary child—I realize that now—prone to talking to myself, square-eyed, peely-wally, and fanciful from too many books and too much TV, prone to talking to myself from too much time alone with connect-the-dots, paper dolls, and jotters filled with laboriously copied lines of Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poetry and glued-in die-cuts of cherubs and butterflies or photographs torn from those National Geographics—of tea pickers in Ceylon, junks adrift in Hong Kong’s harbor, the Lincoln Memorial—and between Gran and Grandpa and Lewis Carroll, my fledgling imagination became entangled in such a confused tapestry of colonial oppression, borogroves, and sealing wax that my mother was once called down to Sir Jake’s by the headmistress, who requested that her daughter cease writing ill-spelled and inflammatory poetry. Grandpa’s heart disease that would eventually kill him also prevented his conscription during the Second World War, and so while Gran shoved profanity-ridden notes addressed to Hitler into munitions on the weaving factory’s assembly line, he became a victory gardener on the Pollok Estate, one of the places, apart from political events, where he might have struck up his friendship with Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, whom both he and Gran called “Sir John,” and with Sir John’s daughter and grandson. Gran’s reminiscences returned again and again to this relationship with Sir John, her tone indicating pride at having been on first name terms (if you ignore the ‘Sir’) with gentry, though when Sir John offered her and Grandpa one of his estate cottages, Gran had refused, a decision that stymied my impractical young mind—to live on the other side of the glass seemed a sublime notion—because she hadn’t wanted to be stranded among bogle-ridden woods in some drafty, peat-stenched but’n’ben away from the companionships of their tenement, and years later nothing could compare in her eyes to the modern conveniences of her high-rise, with its hot and cold running water and indoor toilet, where in the mornings before school she made me boiled eggs and soldiers and I would try not to gawk as she strapped herself into complicated layers of pre-war corsetry. And it was true, nothing could compare to the multistory’s panoramic views, air-suspended fairy-tale tower, where many nights after my teeth were brushed and hers were in a Pyrex glass (yes, after), I clambered into the huge—to me—flannelette-sheeted double-bed with, wonder of wonders, an electric blanket, and Gran took a tin of sweeties from inside her wardrobe, and climbed in beside me, placing the tin between us and we would choose one or two each, no more, before simultaneously opening our books; I was allowed to read as long as I liked but I don’t remember a single time when my eyes didn’t droop before hers, blurring and transforming the creepy wood grain on her wardrobe into the underside of a leaping hare, and, lulled by the lifts belling in the central shaft and the skirling and buffeting of the wind, my dreams would fill with flying. Ironically, all those other dreams I had about the estate proved to be true: due to trusts gifted by Sir John and his family in which they conserved the house and its contents, including the collection of Spanish art, together with 361 acres of Pollok Estate, “for the benefit of the citizens of Glasgow,” these did—do—belong to me; they belong to all of us. No doubt Grandpa deeply approved of these egalitarian gestures—indeed this might have been the bedrock of his friendship with Sir John (though what he thought of Stirling-Maxwell’s 34,000 acres and ancestral links to slavery, I can only guess), but as a child I had wanted it all to belong to me. Grandpa must have chided my covetousness, and I wonder, too, if he’d ever been niggled by his wife’s conviction that her father (and by inference, therefore, she too) had married down—if her father had indeed been one of the genteel poor, or if she’d willed it so through daydreaming. Later I discovered that her mother, my great-grandmother, had been illiterate—the wedding certificate is signed with an X—and Gran’s sisters, my great-aunts, worked as washer-women in a laundry, where their father—that tipsy former manager-in-training—had been in charge of the boiling house. Gran always sounded both cocky and wistful whenever she talked of her father which made me suspect that, while appearing happy about her own decision to marry a proudly working-class man (assuming it was a decision and not a sexual mishap) and accepting of circumstances that had taken her—if not in reality, then in her own imagination—away from the probability of home ownership and into a tenement and then a multistory, she couldn’t help but believe that, like my father, she was a cut above—after all, you can’t talk of some folk having married down if you don’t think some folk belong up. An aftereffect of this snobbery had resurfaced in my mother, and if I was not vigilant would resurface in myself, as a kind of reverse disdain and ridicule of anyone who, so to speak, lived on or had climbed to the higher floors, which is as insidious a form of bigotry as its opposite, knotted as it is in a tight weft of self-righteousness, shame, and defensiveness. Grandpa’s manuscript may represent nothing more than a mutual admiration between two decent people from diverse economic backgrounds who shared a love of nature and a belief in universal suffrage and universal education, one of whom had allowed the other access to his private library. Grandpa had obviously felt McCallum’s book was of such importance that he painstakingly copied it out, adding asides about our own ancestry in red pen in the margins, to weave a hybrid history, determined that nothing be forgotten. It doesn’t matter, he would have said, who wrote the book; what mattered was that it had been written—but I suspect that this book and his access to Stirling-Maxwell’s private library became talismans, proof, that we were different from—no, better than, higher than—our neighbors, proof that we palled around with toffs and that therefore I was not what I was—an ordinary wee lassie living in an ordinary multistory in an ordinary neighborhood of a hardscrabble city. My shameful silence at that shop canteen table was a betrayal of everything my grandfather believed in, and now, almost four decades later, I can’t help feeling I’ve committed a second betrayal by, not having married up, but having moved up, risen together with my husband into the middle class and further away from the high rise. “Who am I, then?” says Alice. “Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here until I am somebody else.”


The identity of the sitter in Lady in a Fur Wrap has been the subject of nearly as much debate as that of the artist who painted her. Some suggest she is the Infanta Catalina de Micaela de Austria, Duchess of Savoy, a Spanish princess with whom she bears a striking resemblance, based on other portraits such as one by Alonso Sanchez Coello in the Prado (though there is some debate whether this painting, too, might be by Sofonisba Anguissola). However, this Coello—or Anguissola—painting is more propaganda than portrait, as was standard practice when depicting a royal, and the Infanta would have been no more than ten-to-thirteen years old at the time the Lady was painted. Dona Juana de Mendoza is another possibility, suggested by the portrait Juana de Mendoza, La Duquesa de Bejar with Her Dwarf, attributed to Sofonisba Anguissola (though attributed by some, naturally, to Coelho), but it would have been unthinkable for a royal to be portrayed in such an informal style. It is more likely that the Lady was a private commission for a private home, and most historians conclude that she is Jeronima de las Cuevas, El Greco’s mistress, who bore his son in 1578 while they lived in Toledo, and I (with my complete lack of credentials) agreed with them, because I suspect she was pregnant during the sitting. By clutching her wrap, she draws our eye down toward her womb, and this feels, to me, like a secret gesture between subject and artist. My theory is schmaltzy, it’s true, and I’ve failed to find it anywhere in El Greco scholarship, and in the end such speculation, though entertaining, is immaterial. It doesn’t matter to me who she was; what matters is that she is. The Lady has become a portal into my own past; she allows me to be, simultaneously, in the here-and-now and in the then-and-there with my grandfather. As for those startling differences in style and content between the Lady and El Greco’s other canvases, I can only ascribe them to his yearning for transcendence. Maybe he believed that temporal love was different from, even inferior to, a love of God—as though forms of love can be parsed and then stacked into a hierarchy—not realizing that to love one meant to love the other. All that time poor El Greco spent forcing colour heavenwards in long, desperate ropes of paint, attempting to depict man sloughing off mortality and ascending weightless, no doubt aggravated by his failure, unaware that he had already produced his most spiritual picture when he took his head out of the clouds and painted the woman in front of him. He captured the sublime because she was not a metaphysical abstraction. She was real and he loved her. Heaven was here on Earth.


In November of 2012, a few weeks after I read my grandfather’s book, I drove my daughters around the horse country of County Kildare—through Mullacash and Bannockstown, Kilcullen and Ballymore Eustace—in the hope that they would nap. One girl fell asleep straight away, but the expression of the other in my mirror hinted that she was aware these drives were not for them but for me, because the avenues of trees and lichen-flecked walls bordering the stud farms reminded me of Pollok Estate. Autumn in Ireland is like autumn in Scotland, a season very different from those I loved on the East Coast of the United States where everything is gloriously ablaze, a fall masquerading as a resurrection. Scotland’s autumns are no less beautiful but misty, mud-steeped, and fading, and no one clears away the leaves: there is no mistaking that everything is dying, and I realized I’d been taking my daughters on aimless drives through a substitute landscape because, since reading my grandfather’s book, I’d been stricken by an illogical but visceral need for home, wherever that was, and to see both the estate and the painting again. I cobbled together an excuse to visit my sister in Scotland and hastily organized childcare. “Why are you here, really?” my brother-in-law asked, after I arrived at the beginning of December. I’d missed them, I told him, and had some research to do, but I could tell he didn’t quite believe me though it was true, if not the whole truth. I felt as transparent as glass, and as invisible. I asked if he and my sister could take me to Pollok Estate, and the following morning we drove into Glasgow, arriving just as the big house opened. Through its main door we went, past the iron boot scrapers, across its black-and-white tiled hallway and down into the basement corridor of the servants’ quarters, past the cook’s room, the scullery, the gunroom, the dairy, the storage rooms for fish, wet meat, and game, and into the old kitchen, where we had a cooked breakfast served by a chirpy waiter who refused to let us fetch anything by ourselves, remarking, “why bark when you have a dog?” While settling the bill, he told me tourist numbers had up-ticked nicely due to the Downton Abbey craze—he said folks couldn’t get enough of that upstairs-downstairs nonsense—and asked me where I was from. I said I lived in the United States, momentarily losing my grip not only on Ireland but Scotland too. After I clarified that I was born locally, he seemed peeved. “You live in America?” he said. “What the heck are ye back here for?” I’d reversed the natural order of exile. I shrugged and said nothing. I wanted to tell him I suffered from vertigo and felt unsteady. My sister and her husband said they’d meet me later and left me to my ‘research.’ I watched them go, then went upstairs where a crowd of small children queued to visit Mrs. Claus. I paused a moment at the library door before heading inside to see my lady. She wasn’t there. She was on tour in Japan, about as far around the world as you can travel from Scotland without circling back. I’d called from Ireland to check with the docent after—not before—I’d booked my flight, nevertheless I’d convinced myself that if I made the effort to turn up, then she would too. I was wrong. The wall was blank above the right-hand fireplace and a large Christmas tree stood before the grate. My eyes filled and I bit my lip, gagging on a string of expletives, and turned to go, ignoring yet again the Portrait of Man. In the courtyard I reached the parterre beyond the library window, then crossed the pavilion and went past the lions onto the bridge spanning the frothy slate waters of the burn. I looked at the house, from this, the most scenic point. It sat impassive under a dirty white sky. Beyond the stables, the rose garden slept; all the gardens were dormant, the shrubs shrouded in burlap, the pergola frames stark and un-wreathed, the greenhouses locked. I felt as though I were running as hard as I could to stay in the same place but I’d quarreled with time and he was angry with me. I skirted the house and walked up the main avenue, clicking my tongue at the prize-winning Highland cattle, who lifted their heads and chewed thoughtfully behind matted russet dreadlocks before turning their rumps and sauntering away. I didn’t see any rabbits, with or without pocket watches—I rarely had as child and often I’d been dragged from the fence complaining, whereas our garden in Ireland was riddled with them; I’d point them out to my girls, their little faces surprised by the jolt of excitement in my voice. Look! Look! A rabbit! A rabbit! I headed toward the exit under the railway bridge but paused before I got there; I didn’t want to pass back through the glass. I retraced my steps, seeing nobody—“I only wish I had such eyes,” the Red King had said to Alice, “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too…”—and I considered stepping into the woodland, but it looked spooky, boggled, and I was wearing the wrong footwear and it was too late in the season for conkers. Dreadful winds, nicknamed Hurricane Bawbag by the locals, had ripped through the park the previous year and many trees had been damaged or brought down altogether. Compounded by December’s bareness the avenue had lost its magical density, its rafters torn apart like a war-damaged cathedral, letting in too much sky, and the benches that once lined the path were gone so I couldn’t find the one I was looking for, the one where my grandparents had paused to rest on that August evening back in 1970 during their habitual after-dinner stroll. “I’m so tired, Margaret,” Grandpa had said. He took off his glasses and handed them to her, leaned back against the seat, closed his eyes, and died. I imagined that the late-summer twilight mimicked the northern simmer dim, and the lowering sun had turned the avenue into a cloister, its wood-green walls supporting an opaque dome tipped with coral and vaulted with silver, like the belly of a fish. Gran pulled Grandpa over onto his side and waited for almost an hour for someone to come by, his head in her lap, his glasses in her hand. Nobody else was there, yet this is how I remember it, and I was feeling as did Sebald’s Austerlitz, as though the interstices between the living and dead were no longer in place, as if I were no longer there at all—so I smartened my pace and went to meet my sister and brother-in-law, unable to stop myself from asking them if they would drive me through Pollokshaws before we headed back. We avoided our mother’s high-rise; our mother is now dead but where she (and I) lived after she divorced my father still stands, and I think of him, alive in Grangemouth, how he’d always feared so many things, to which he must now add the fear of an afterlife because she has gone before him. Most of the locals who lived in Pollokshaws had been relocated because the other high-rises are either slated for demolition or demolished already, and I presume Wendy and Janice have moved away (though some say that Bible John is still at large), and the few remaining blocks shelter asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia or West Africa. Over the decades crime and suicide rates have soared. Murders occur in the stairwells, people fall from the sky; and the high-rise has come to represent the most clichéd stereotype of urban poverty and ignorance, of addiction and despair, of spongers and dropouts lacking hope and manners; especially to those who have never lived in them, and therefore can’t imagine them as anything other than concrete vertical ghettos controlled by gangsters or drug lords, can’t imagine them having ever housed learning, history, and love, and who assume that because the architecture was flawed, then the people were too—a misunderstanding that received a very public correction when the organizers of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow hastily withdrew their proposal to demolish the remaining notorious Red Road tower blocks on live television as part of the opening ceremony. We crossed the old town-house square and found the steamie torn down but the library surviving, its sixties architecture ugly but functional. Sir Jake’s had shut its doors two years before, and already weeds writhed up the playground wall toward the liquorice railings. We passed the shops boarded over and gardened with trash, the barred police station emitted the same hostile defiance I’d seen in police stations in Baltimore, and finally slowed down in front of the former site of my grandparents’ multistory. It was gone, no longer obstructing the view of the entrance to the estate beyond. Concrete debris and ash had been swept into small hillocks, like slopping housekeeping in the aftermath of an atrocity, and it struck me that I’d been counting down to this physical confirmation that I could never come back. Earlier in the summer I’d trolled obsessively through shaky YouTube clips and numerous conversation threads on sites devoted to urban demolition and had found myself returning—reliving—again and again the footage of the detonation of the first of the Red Road flats the previous July—ill-conceived design and asbestos having sown the seeds of their own annihilation. I’d been trying to find footage of my grandparents’ high-rise but I discovered that—because it had been surrounded by smaller buildings and a busy road—it had been taken apart using a picker crane, piece-meal. One man, who described his location as “on ma arse, in my hoose,” had posted two photographs dated the ninth of August showing precisely the moment when the outer facing wall of their thirteenth-floor flat was sheared off and it lay exposed to a blazing summer day, the inside walls gone but the outlines of the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, and living room still visible on the partially intact ceiling like artist’s tape on canvas. Yet despite such proof of its ladylike dismantling, I couldn’t rid myself of images of devastation as we drove away—of sway, tilt, smoke, shards—and when I imagined the moment of detonation, I didn’t see the high-rise as it would have been: empty, desolate, defaced by graffiti, windows cracked and door frames splintered and hanging, the corridors and stairwells littered with cigarette butts and needles, crushed cans and condoms, corners pooled with beer and pee. No, I saw it as it always was—furnished, clean, tidy, a childhood haven, an eyrie above a map—and then I felt the charges blow and the past implode into smithereens.

* In 2019, ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’ was reattributed to Alonso Sanchez Coello.