Christmas Card 2017

This year, I wanted to offer you a story about haunted technology.  I’ve been researching the subject for an article and I became intrigued by the potential for a seasonal story.

More of the story is based in fact than you might at first imagine. Certainly, the back-story of Dadd’s exploitation, breakdown & illness: but also (I hope) the curious, airless atmosphere of conservation services in the 80s and 90s.  When I first drafted this story, I imagined the ‘DIE’ technology.  It’s since become a standard tool in the conservator’s box of tricks.

If you research nothing else as a consequence, at least look at Dadd’s incredible painting, The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke. It’s an extraordinary work that I return to over and over again for inspiration.

Dadd’s Father

Dale St. John was sitting back in his chair with his eyes closed, listening to the reminiscences of a Heckmondwike lamplighter, when the telephone rang.

He swore under his breath and switched off the tape recorder.  As he had forgotten to divert his phone before starting to record, the interruption was nobody’s fault but his own.  Nevertheless he made no attempt to conceal his irritation to the person at the other end of the line.

“AV,” he snapped.

“Sorry Dale, is this not a good moment?”

Dale winced as he recognised the mellifluous tones of the Director.

“My fault, Alan.  I’ve just buggered up a recording.”

“Oh dear.  Would it be awkward for you to give me a few minutes?”

“Not at all,” Dale replied, anxious to atone for his abruptness, “in your office?”

“No, we’re in the paper room.  Join us as soon as you can.”

Dale replaced the receiver, turned to the old Graphaphone on the table and lifted the stylus from the rotating wax cylinder.  It was one of hundreds of recordings made by one Colonel R B Stokes Bart., a far-sighted philologist who had travelled the country in the years before the Great War, collecting regional accents.  Dale was in the process of transferring the lot to audio tape; an invaluable job, Alan had been at pains to assure him, but no less tedious for that.  He stood up and stretched.    The Audio Visual and Information Technology Workshop was a small attic room built in the crotch of two converging gables on the third floor of the large Victorian town house occupied by the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Museums Service.

Grey metal shelving covered three walls.  The top two shelves were stacked with box after box of electronic trickery, their identical aluminium fascias concealing very different functions.  The lower shelf was packed with tatty cardboard boxes, which spilled out their contents of wires and leads, like so much fluorescent spaghetti.

A couple of filing cabinets, a politically incorrect calendar and Dale’s desk accounted for the fourth wall.  His desk was so arranged that whenever he needed to rest his eyes from the harsh glare of the computer screen he could look out of his one tiny window at the grounds, and to the hills beyond.

The workshop’s isolation suited him, for he considered himself and his department different to the other staff and sections; not inferior, exactly, but distinct, and slightly distanced from them.  He was happiest when he was alone in his empire, surrounded by the gleaming technology which only he understood.

He left the workshop, locked up and tried the switch beside the door.  The corridor light had blown three days ago and the porter had not yet summoned up the enthusiasm to replace the bulb.  Dale was getting used to negotiating his way through its twists and turns in the dark.

The paper conservation studio was situated on the ground floor, in what had once been the drawing room.  He knocked at the door and let himself in.

Although the fabric of the room was largely intact, little remained of its former grandeur.  Fluorescent strip lights hung from the ceiling on chains, obscuring the cornice and plaster rose.  The windows were boarded up, blocking out the destructive ultraviolet rays of daylight.  The rest of the room was dominated by a large square table which was cluttered with gauze-covered screens and pots full of brushes and scalpels.  Three figures stood around the table: Alan, bearded and dapper in his shiny suit, an elderly man whom Dale didn’t recognise and Marjorie Marsh, the paper conservator.  Dale had more time for Marjorie than he had for the rest of the curatorial staff put together.  He nodded a greeting to her.

“Ah, Dale.  Thanks for breaking off for us.  Won’t keep you too long.  Can I introduce Mr. Stewart Taverner?”  Alan gestured towards the old man, who stretched out a trembling hand.  Dale took it gently, as if it was some fragile object brought in for conservation.

“Mr. Taverner has brought in some documents to show us,” Alan indicated two polythene bags on the bench.

“Perhaps, you could tell Marjorie and Dale how you came by them?”

The old man cleared his throat.  His voice, though tremulous, was warm and friendly.  It made Dale think of the very best schools.

“I recently disposed of several items of old furniture.  Among them was a desk which had originally belonged to my grandfather.  Whilst emptying it, I came across a number of papers which had slipped down the back of the drawers over the years.  Most of it was rubbish – old receipts, bills, and so on.  But there were also these.”

The old man opened the smaller bag and took out a slim card-bound note book.

“As you can see, they are in very poor condition.”

“May I?” asked Marjorie, holding out gloved hands. Taverner handed her the book.  She placed it carefully on a gauze screen, and turned the screen so that Dale and Alan could study it too.  Printed upon the damp and crumbling brown covers Dale could just make out a faded crest and below it, the words `BETHLEM HOSPITAL’.  A date – 22nd August, 1844 – had been entered by hand in the top right-hand corner.

“It’s my suspicion that they were hidden away deliberately, a long time ago,” said Taverner, opening the second bag and removed a single sheet of vellum, which he passed over to Marjorie.  It was in even worse condition than the notebook; mottled and stained, with several tears along heavy creases.  Dale leant over and turned the gauze support, trying to make sense of the rusty smudges on the paper.  It could have been a drawing, but if so it had been so affected by damp that the ink had bled out into an unrecognisable blur.  The best preserved corner of the sheet had been folded over.  Marjorie took off a glove and gently eased it open with a fingernail.

“My great-grandfather, Edward Monro, like four successive generations of my ancestors before him, was a doctor,” the old man continued.

“Although a man of tremendous culture and achievement, he chose to dedicate his career to easing the suffering of the wretched inmates of Bethlem Hospital. Bedlam, as it was better known – ”

“There’s a signature,” interrupted Marjorie.  She pulled a magnifying glass from her lab coat pocket and bent over the paper, squinting to make sense of the spidery scrawl, then looked up suddenly.

“Dadd!” she exclaimed.  She passed the glass to Alan.

“That was what you had suspected, Mr. Taverner, wasn’t it?” he said, peering at the signature.

“Dadd was one of my great-grandfather’s patients, you see,” said Monro, “and the date on the notebook is the date of his admission.  I know that Edward took a keen interest in his case.”

“Forgive my ignorance,” said Dale, who at times like these became acutely sensitive of his lack of art historical background, “but who was Dadd?”

“Richard Dadd.  He was a Victorian painter,” said Marjorie, “strange stuff, but generally well-regarded.  The Tate has some.”

Richard Dadd in Bethlem Hospital

“And he went mad?” Asked Dale.

“He spent the greater part of his life in Bedlam.  Am I not right in thinking that Dadd was committed for murder, Mr. Taverner?” asked Alan.

“That’s correct,” said Taverner.  “My great-grandfather seems to have had a particular interest in murderers, to judge from the number he had on his books.  Dadd’s was a particularly notorious case in its time.”

Alan shuddered delicately, and tapped the screen upon which the note book lay.  “Perhaps this will furnish us with the gory details,” he said.  “If, that is, it turns out to have anything whatsoever to do with the drawing.”

“And if you fare better than I have done in attempting to open the wretched thing,” added Taverner.

“Now, there we have the advantage over you”, said Alan, “this sort of problem is our daily business.  Isn’t that so, Marjorie?”

Marjorie picked up the note book and riffled the corner gently, then inspected it end-on.  She frowned.

“Don’t hold me to this, Alan, but on first inspection I’d say that the pages have been deliberately glued together.”

Alan raised an eyebrow.

“Curious,” he murmured, “will you be able to separate them?”

“I should think so,” she replied, “but it’s going to take time.”

“My dear, you’re welcome to keep both items for as long as you wish,” said Taverner, “I’m pleased that they are of some interest to you.”

Dale was beginning to wonder why he had been summoned when the Director turned to him.

“What do you think about running a DIE on the drawing, Dale?” he asked.

Dale whistled softly between his teeth.  DIE was an acronym for Digital Image Enhancement, a computer programme designed to sharpen up badly focused or poorly exposed photographs.

“DIE was never intended for use on works of art,” he said warily, “a damaged drawing would present a completely different set of problems to a blurred photograph.”

As soon as he heard Dale mention problems, the Director knew that the technician was hooked.  He went for the kill mercilessly.

“I didn’t think it was likely that you would be able to do anything,” he said with calculated understanding, “but in the light of the potential importance of the document, you can appreciate that I had to ask.”

“Now hold on a moment,” said Dale with a trace of irritation,   “I’m not ruling it out completely.  It’s just going to take a bit of thinking about.”

Dale thought about little else for the next three days.  Although he had not used the DIE package often, he was familiar with the principles behind it.  The original image was scanned into the computer, which analysed the image on the screen and used the information to tidy up the pixels in the blurred areas, yielding an approximation of the original, unblurred image.  That was the theory, anyway.  In practice, the process went wrong as often as not.

He read the user’s manual from cover to cover, which only served to confirm his suspicion that the existing software was not up to the job.  Undaunted, he embarked upon a series of complicated (and, strictly speaking, illegal) amendments to the programme code.  By the time Marjorie rang him to say that the drawing was ready for scanning, he, too, had finished his preliminary work.  Grateful for any opportunity to escape the stuffiness of the paper room, Marjorie offered to bring the drawing upstairs herself.

Dale was still at the keyboard when she walked in.  A cold draught blew through the room, making him shiver.  Marjorie shut the door behind her.

“Put the kettle on,” she said, “it’s chilly out there.”

Dale examined the drawing.  Marjorie had managed to remove most of the surface dirt, and had mounted the battered vellum on an acid-free support.  The original blurred brown lines were now more distinct, and oddly suggestive.  Dale shivered again.

“You’ve worked wonders,” he said.

Marjorie perched on the edge of the bench, unselfconsciously admiring her own handiwork while Dale made the tea.

“So is the enhancement going to work? She asked.  Dale took a sip of tea.

“I’ve reprogrammed the DIE programme to analyse the drawing for gradients of shade, and to use that information to reverse as exactly as possible the process by which the ink originally bled. But it’s going to be painfully slow.”

“How long is it going to take?”

Dale pulled a face.

“Two, three days,” he said vaguely, “I’m not sure.  Can I hang on to the drawing for a while?”

“You’re welcome to it,” said Marjorie, “there’s something about it which gives me the creeps.”

* * *

Next morning, Dale scanned the drawing.  In spite of Marjorie’s salvage job, there were still many marks and damages which he had to delete from the scan by hand before he could begin the enhancement.  With the drawing on the bench beside him for reference, he began to work his way slowly across the screen, pinpointing each unwanted pixel with the cursor, and popping it with a click of the mouse button.

Although Dale was never happier than when working on the computer, he found himself becoming increasingly uneasy as the morning wore on.  For the first time ever he felt the loneliness of his little department; hidden away from the rest of his colleagues in a building which even at the best of times could seem deserted.  He turned on the radio for company, but found it too distracting, and switched it off again.

He worked on in silence.  After a few minutes, the feeling began to creep over him that he was not alone.  He glanced over his shoulder.  Shortly after, he stood up, crossed the room and opened the door.  The light from the workshop penetrated the gloom of the empty corridor for a few yards.

Lunch was usually a sandwich in the solitude of the workshop, but today he left his post and went downstairs to seek out the company of Marjorie in the staff room.  She had already separated the first few pages of the note book.  It did, after all, contain Dadd’s case notes, written by Dr. Monro.

“There was a history of madness in the family,” she said as they sat down, “three of his brothers and one sister died in asylums.  Dadd himself had a promising career ahead of him.  He was a student at the Royal Academy School, and had begun to establish his reputation when he was commissioned by a Sir Thomas Phillips to accompany him on the Grand Tour and record the sights.”

“A Kodak would have been cheaper,” said Dale through a mouthful of sandwich.

“Perhaps not in 1842,” replied Marjorie.  “Besides, I don’t get the impression that money was any object to Sir Thomas.  Anyway, by the time they reached Egypt, poor Dadd was already suffering from delusions.  His experiences there became bound up with his sickness: he began to believe that he was descended from Osiris -”

” – Egyptian god Osiris?”

“Yup.”

Dale whistled through his teeth.

“Proper disturbed then.”

“It gets worse.  As they travelled back through Europe he became convinced that his fellow travellers were demons in disguise.  Eventually he fled and made his own way back to England.

“That’s all I’ve got so far,” she said, neatly folding her sandwich wrapper and returning it to the lunch box, “I’ll let you know when I’ve any more to tell.  How have you got on?”

“Not badly, I suppose,” Dale replied, “I know what you mean about the drawing being creepy, though.”

“You felt it too?” asked Marjorie, “I was beginning to think that it was just me.

“Oh, before I forget,” she continued, digging about in her bag, “I’ve got something for you.”

She pulled out a large, slim book and handed it to Dale.

“It’s Allderidge’s book on Dadd.  I thought it might be useful.”

The cover illustration was a detail of a painting by Dadd.  It depicted a strange, sub-human creature, drinking from a goblet embossed with winged skulls.  Dale flicked through the pages until Marjorie rose and announced that she had to get back to work.  Dale followed her into the hall and reluctantly made his way upstairs.

By the end of the day he had finished tidying up the scan.  He tapped in the last few instructions, then stood up and got ready to leave.  At the door he switched off the lights and looked back at the computer.  An almost imperceptible movement on the screen, like light twinkling upon a frosty windowpane, was the only indication that the enhancement was under way.  By the following morning it should be evident whether or not it was going to work.  Locking the door behind him, he hurried through the pitch-black corridor and down the stairs.

* * *

He arrived early the next day and found Marjorie in the entrance hall shaking the rain off her umbrella.  When Dale explained that he had left the DIE running overnight, she accompanied him upstairs to see whether it had made any difference to the image.  As they climbed the stairs she brought him up to date with her work on the notebook.  Since they last spoke, she had managed to separate a few more pages.

“There’s something very disturbing about reading an account so close to the events,” she was saying as they reached the first landing, “It brings the reality of the poor man’s misery to life in a way that no biography could.

“When he got back to England it didn’t take long for his friends to realise that he was out of control.  Despite all their advice Robert, his father, chose not to admit Richard to hospital, but decided to look after him at home.  It’s tragic, really.  He was obviously completely devoted to his son.”

They climbed the last few stairs in silence before Dale realised that Marjorie had finished.

“And then?” he prompted.

“Tune in at the same time tomorrow for the concluding episode; or at lunchtime, with a bit of luck.  I’ve only a couple of pages to go.”

All the apprehension which Dale had felt the previous day flooded back as he groped his way along the corridor.  Having Marjorie by his side helped a little, but all the same, the feeling that they were not alone was almost more than he could bear.  He held his breath, listening for any clue that someone might be standing in the dark ahead of him, or waiting silently in the workshop.  By the time he reached the door his palms were damp and his hands were trembling.  He fumbled clumsily with the key before he finally managed to insert it into the lock.

As the door swung inwards a wave of cold air came out to greet them, brushing against Dale’s face and prickling up the hairs on the nape of his neck.  It was always the same, first thing on winter mornings.  It took several hours for heat from the antiquated boiler in the cellar to reach the attic.  He switched on the light.

“You want to get that corridor light replaced,” said Marjorie, “it’s ever so creepy out there.”

While he struggled out of his wet waterproofs and hung then over the radiator to dry, she walked over to the computer console.

“Look, Dale,” she said quietly.  He crossed the room and stood beside her.

“It’s a figure, isn’t it?” she asked.

Overnight, the brown marks on the screen had undergone a remarkable transformation, creeping back upon themselves to concentrate into dark lines.  Marjorie was right: although still blurred and indistinct, the drawing was quite recognisably a study of a male figure, crouching, with its face hidden behind its hands.

“Pleased?” asked Marjorie over her shoulder.

“It’s working better than I could ever have hoped,” said Dale; then paused, staring at the screen in silence.

“- But with the best will in the world I don’t think I could say that I was pleased.  There’s something about it, Marjorie, something about this picture, about the whole business, that’s getting to me.  I just want to get rid of the bloody thing and get back to the Stokes bequest.

“My God!” he exclaimed with a hollow laugh, “I never imagined that I would hear myself say that!”

Marjorie laughed too.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I know just what you mean.  It affected me the same way.  Never mind; it should be finished by lunchtime, by the look of it.  Do you want me to take the original back down with me?”

“I’d like nothing better, but I ought to hang on to it, just in case I need to refer to it.”

“See you later then.”

As the last echoes of Marjorie’s footsteps died away Dale had to consciously battle against the desire to run after her.  Only a fear of losing face and a stubborn need not to betray his own rationality prevented him from doing so.  Deliberately avoiding the temptation to look over his shoulder, he sat down at the computer console.

There was actually very little to do, other than to watch the gradual evolution of the picture on the screen.  Before very long, he began to avoid even that.  He found himself staring out at the drizzle which drifted endlessly past the tiny dormer window.

 

He picked up the book which Marjorie had lent him and began to browse through the plates.  There were early portraits of Dadd’s Academy friends, and watercolour sketches from Greece and Constantinople.  Then the work change dramatically to violent compositions full of weird figures, illustrating mythical and symbolic subjects.  The final paintings were the most beautiful, and the most mad; small, obsessively detailed oils, crammed with distorted and deformed figures.  Titles like `Fantasie Egyptienne’ and `The Fairy Feller’s Master-stroke’ suggested that Dadd had finally escaped from his imprisonment into a world of make-believe.

Dale turned another page and stopped dead.  One of the last works illustrated was a portrait of Dadd’s father, Robert.  It showed a mild-looking man, balding but with distinctive whiskers, posed casually in a chair.  Dale looked up at the screen and back to the book.

The enhancement seemed to be more or less complete, and the drawing had been recaptured in breathtaking detail.  Every wispy line of the original was there, down to the last hair.  There could be no mistaking that the image on the screen also depicted Robert Dadd.

Although his hands were raised in a vain attempt to protect himself from the relentless attack of a long-bladed knife, the eyes which peered out from between his open fingers in indescribable horror, were undoubtedly those of the portrait in the book.  The artist had not spared a single detail of the bloody lacerations which criss-crossed his father’s face and hands.

As Dale sat open-mouthed, unable to take his eyes from the horrifying picture in front of him, something at the top of the screen caught his attention.  Amongst the clouds, which had been drawn with the lightest touch of all, a line had just vanished.  That should not have happened.  As he watched another line went, and then another, increasing in number until, all across the screen, fragments of the drawing were winking out of existence.

Dale’s mind raced, trying to work out what was happening.  All he could think was that he must have failed to put a stop on the programme, and that the computer was continuing to concentrate the lines back to a point source.  Frantically, he typed commands into the machine; but nothing he did made any difference.  In the end there was nothing left for him to do but sit back and watch.

A sudden noise sent him leaping from his seat.  He snatched up the receiver.

“Dale?  It’s Marjorie.  There’s something really strange going on, something I don’t understand.  I’ve just finished reading the last couple of pages of Monro’s case notes.

“It says that Dadd persuaded his father to visit Cobham park with him, and that while they were there – ”

” – Dadd stabbed him to death,” Dale said flatly.

” That’s right!  But how did you know?”

“The drawing,” Dale explained, “it depicts the murder.  A murderer’s eye view.  It’s on the screen right now – ”

“But that’s just it!  Listen to this – ” Dale could hear Marjorie fumbling with her notes.

“`When the patient’ – Dadd, that is – `was apprehended, he was clutching a sheet of paper brackets enclosed brackets.  The arresting officers made to confiscate it, but Dadd became agitated and violent, claiming that they were trying to steal his masterpiece.  Eventually he had to be restrained.  When at last they managed to prise it from his grasp, it turned out to be a plain sheet of paper soaked in blood – his father’s blood, one must suppose.  Dadd had signed it, as if it were a work of art.'”

“Dale, if it’s not a drawing, then where the hell has the picture on the computer come from?  Dale?”

But Dale was not listening.  He stood with the phone in his hand, staring across the room at the computer, watching the last patch of shadow on the screen shrink into itself and disappear.