Words By Mark Wagstaff, Art By Art by cocoparisienne
He shook hands a very loose way, folding himself in a chair to leave me standing, awkward in my own office, my hand raised as if in blessing. At the time, I took that merely for busy rudeness.
“I’ve seen your brochure.” He split open his plasticy document wallet. He meant the museum guide—the easy-read glossy in over-bright colors. Not the full catalogue, which nobody knows exists.
I moved my chair. He wasn’t a large man, but the fact of him took space. “May I ask, Mr…?” I asked.
Shuffling pages, he looked up, very directly, pushing his name ahead of him. “David Grace.”
“May I ask, Mr. Grace, what this is about?”
He folded the guidebook double, compressing its spine. “This.”
The Emperor: a solitary magnificence. Even today, our statue of Emperor Hadrian radiates majesty and awe. At least, so I think. “One of our proudest treasures,” I replied. I meant it in a wholly factual way. “Excavated near the site of the Roman fort at Reculver in Kent, by Roger Carstairs in 1931.”
“Roger Carstairs?” The young man sliced open a cheap-looking notepad with a pen that might have been picked up from a bank counter.
“The statue is unique,” I tried again, “Remarkably well-preserved, its head and torso intact. It is also, remarkably, a personal likeness.”
“Wouldn’t a statue be a likeness?”
“Not at all.” I stretched back, seeking expansion. Lately, I’d found my office— indeed, all space around me—increasingly cramped. “It was usual among Roman emperors for a template portrait bust to be distributed to the provinces, to be copied by local craftsmen for further distribution. That enabled a consistent likeness of the emperor’s image to be transmitted throughout the empire. We have a selection of these pattern pieces in the collection. But the statue is a study of Hadrian himself. The man, not the managerial image. You’ll notice, he’s posed in Greek-style dress…”
“Roger Carstairs.” His voice overrode me—harsh, almost metallic. “I don’t know the name. Was he someone?”
I’d grown too tired, too cramped for space, to bother with PR. “Roger Carstairs was treated appallingly. I don’t mind saying it. He’d been shell-shocked in the Great War—traumatized, or post-traumatized, whatever it is now. London in the 20s was increasingly frenetic, and Carstairs found noise and bustle very hard. He was really only at peace on excavations. One of the old school, a Victorian, when excavation was a business for gentlemen—”
“What happened to him?”
Not only did the young man not wait for me to stop speaking, he didn’t even look up from his notes when he interrupted. That fuelled my nagging annoyance of not knowing, really, who he was. “As I’m sure you know, there are plentiful Germanic clues to the decline of Roman power. After he found the statue, Carstairs became something of a celebrity—attention he hated. The Trustees posed him as their favored son, and as anyone who’s held that unfortunate position knows, it creates intense pressure.” I could sense him stir to interject, so I pitched up to a lecture-hall bellow. “At that time the museum was getting cozy with several German institutions, to agree acquisitions and broker exchanges. Museums trade pieces to bolster their prestige. With crass venality, the Trustees sent this poor, shell-shocked man to Germany. To do deals. Carstairs had no skill for that kind of thing, but was too fatigued and well-mannered to say so.”
“The trip wasn’t a success?” If any irony lay in his voice, only a spectrograph could find it.
“You don’t need me to tell you about Germany in the 1930s. Carstairs found that all the dull, donnish Meisters of the institutes had been supplanted by lively young men in uniform. It was their braying about Teutonic triumph that provoked his rebellion, though—like all rebellions—it did its instigator no good. Carstairs was educated, a historian—he could see through these odious people. He told them the museum would not transform itself into a temple of Wotan, simply for a sniff of Caesar’s cast-offs. Years later, the younger fellows used to joke that the Luftwaffe bombed the place every night because of Carstairs.” I paused, allowing him in.
He reviewed his pages a moment, flicking forward and back. When he looked up, his irritation was plain. “Yes. So, what happened to him?”
Mr. Grace wore suit and tie. Grey suit. Plain tie. I struggled for a second. When had students stopped wearing ties? The mid-60s? The late-50s? How hard in the present to spot the enduring changes. “Carstairs’ entirely correct and principled stand fell like lead with the Trustees. He retired—was retired—to the Sussex Downs, to potter in the chalk. Wrote a couple of small monographs, just local interest. Never married, of course. Left no memoirs. But we have the statue.”
When my secretary, bless her, brought Mr. Grace’s email to my attention, I thought he must be an amateur enthusiast, some crumbling history master with butter stains on his trousers. But not so. Young-middle-aged, his nylon suit and—I guessed—washable tie, put me in mind of a bankruptcy accountant. He took constant, rapid notes, the random flicks and jags of his pen suggestive of shorthand, the method of the efficient and secretive. He talked when it suited, and let silence drift, reviewing his papers with dyslexic intensity.
“Reculver?” he said suddenly. “The object was found at Reculver?”
“Regulbium. Important, in Hadrian’s day. Now mostly in the sea. The fleets would land at Rutupiae—Richborough, near Sandwich. Reculver was a look-out point and light, to guide them in.” Only afterwards, I noted the airy way he said the object, as though a half-ton of marble could be smoke.
“In what context did he find it, if this place was merely a lighthouse?”
A perceptive question that Carstairs never had leisure to answer. I gave the standard line. “It’s believed the statue was in transit, possibly to London. The fact that it’s not a pattern-piece which suggests it may have been a gift to some influential, some native notable, maybe, who fell from favor before it was delivered. Local politics was very fluid. Emperors shrug off alliances like old robes.”
He glanced from his scribbling—more industrious scribbling than one sees in lectures. “So why wasn’t it given to someone else?”
One dreads the simple questions. Indeed, if I’d commissioned an exquisite likeness of myself in solid rock, I’d want someone to be grateful of it. “Our best guess is that it was stored and forgotten.” I sounded unconvinced. “Remember, the Roman Empire was a huge operation—logistically, administratively; and the Romans had significant public order problems in Britain. One reason Hadrian himself paid a visit. In the context of armies and stores on the move all the time, it’s possible that a statue might be left off the inventory.”
“Possible,” he repeated, on his feet before I finished. “Of course, I must see the object.”
“The museum is open…”
“Yes. The website is comprehensive. But it’s important to achieve clarity. I’ll make an appointment for pictures.”
It wasn’t my business. The museum’s commercial arm employs a squad of unfriendly young women whose task is Brand Protection, which I understand as licensing our treasures for tea towels. “Can I ask your interest in the statue Mr…?” I floundered, forgetting his name.
“Necessary. My interest is necessary.”
There’s a bureaucracy to studying the collection. Online questionnaires, declarations of intent. In the nineteenth, a gentleman could walk in and borrow a piece if he wanted. Now we have forms, disclaimers and charges, to discourage focused study and penalize those who persist. Intrigued how the nylon-suited man would get his appointment for pictures, I was soon to find out.
Interrupting another attempt to write my valediction, my secretary told me she’d committed Friday afternoon to Copyright, most emphatic of Brand Protection’s many teams. I told her to find what Copyright wanted, and she returned with the news that I’d booked the meeting. As I avoid initiating anything these days, that seemed unlikely. Instructed to dig further, she discovered that someone had emailed Copyright, claiming my say-so. David Grace.
He was unapologetic; indeed, seemed to find it strange I should care for my time or privacy. Not argumentative, he simply elided discussion. He was accompanied by a morose young woman with a sketchpad and a box of pencils. Despite his expensive-looking camera, he asserted that drawings had inestimable value, enabling one to see as others saw. Copyright types hung about, perplexed at the exhibits, not impressed as, dutifully, I still am by the Emperor. Some of us get a blurry snap in a journal, a portrait on the odd, fading flyleaf. But it’s a challenge to imagine oneself life-size in marble, sent hundreds of miles on dubious seas as a gift, proudly cherished by the recipient as indicative of their own status. A politician as monumental as Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus himself. A strong, solid man; powerfully-built, purposeful: in many ways the pattern of an emperor. Unlike his contemporaries, the statue depicted him with a beard, a Hellenism that would be the required mark of strength for generations of kings to come. Indeed, in portrait busts, his soldierly appearance often seems more modern, for want of a better word, than his aquiline successors. He looks precisely what he was: an almighty man of action. In a space emptied of visitors, I felt ritually trivial at the Emperor’s feet. I hoped Mr. Grace did too.
He used every second of the two hours allowed him. When not scrutinizing pictures on his laptop, he fiddled with the kind of electronic measuring device estate agents use, pinging beams of laser light at the Emperor’s vast frame, entering myriad values in a spreadsheet. His companion never spoke, but with laborious diligence sketched the Emperor, again and again. Sometimes, Mr. Grace took an interest in her work. They shared what appeared to be a gross telepathy which—disgusted—enthralled me. It seemed natural, and not unexpected, when he said, “I will need to sample the object.”
We gawped, unsure of what he was saying.
His face betrayed a jaundiced annoyance that, on reflection, was never that hidden. “The object.” He pointed, as though we’d blocked it, elephantine, from sight. “I must undertake physical tests.”
I couldn’t expect the others to grasp this extraordinary violence. Samples had been taken, for the blunt, destructive chemical testing of Carstairs’ era. The few slivers left in the materials store were probably useless. I offered them anyway, suspecting he would know that.
“I need something clean. In situ.” No one had authority to give what he asked. But an imperium sat on Mr. Grace’s shoulder: for all his clerkish looks, his unconcern for consequence was Roman. I watched in bedazzled horror. The Emperor stood, passive, as the clerk snipped holes in his robe. Mr. Grace gave me a colonial look. “I shall make my report.”
David Grace is not an exotic name. The search found too many. I scrolled results with the vague, miasmic anger that’s a function of online research, till I happened on a post, on an art history forum, asking if anyone knew a David Grace interested in Renaissance paint components. The post was two years old and had no replies. A couple of days later, an email from a professor of conservatorship in Padua—sweetly apologetic for her English—told how a David Grace came to see her unannounced, very keen to examine paintings her institution had loaned from the Vatican. This Grace was especially diligent on the chemical composition of paint, given the presence of materials not used today. She agreed to let him view the works and—fretful of their delicate state—became alarmed at the “proximity of his attentions.” She wasn’t sure, but thought he might have loosened specks of pigment. “I could not,” she added plaintively, “be always watchful of him.” Further emails to the Paduan professor brought silence. As did messages to Mr. Grace.
Traces and their absence much in mind, I stayed late, my secretary thinking I had exam questions to work on. A self-conscious walk through the halls, carting her potted cactus, but there was no closer nor more defensible source of dirt. The galleries after hours aren’t a place to linger: lit just enough for the cameras, the clatter of visitors gone, the halls have an enmity of stillness insinuating, through the porous present, the hatreds of the past. Most things we collect have tragedy inherent: the grave goods of pharaohs from pyramids built on slaves; vast Assyrian lions tearing glory from desert tribes; delicate Chinese armor cleansed of tortured barbarian blood; African totems of bone magic, crated back by loud-voiced men in khaki. Without conquest and despoliation there’d be almost nothing at all and—in long retirement. The objects brood on unresolved history.
I switched off the Emperor’s trip wire; found the whited scalpel scar no one noticed in the folds of Hadrian’s robes, but it shouted through my fingers, stark as a quarried hill. Once known—and it would be known—the conservators would have no trouble to date the damage. I scraped dusty earth from the potted cactus, smeared it on the cut, trying to blend alien soil with millennial ageing. I worked along old, cold ridges and folds, until Mr. Grace’s excavation resembled more the carelessness of antiquity.
I worked an hour and more, till my hands, like the Emperor’s, were dulled, anonymous. Perhaps in his world of intrigue he might have seen the joke. Back in my office, exhausted, I remembered the cameras. Long past when I should’ve been home, I chanced the lock of the security room like a car thief. Through the glass, the bank of monitors glowed dark with bubbled views of walls and car parks; with split-screen bird’s-eye quadrants showing friezes, sarcophagi, cabinets of sterile things; a panopticon of days. A sign taped to the door gave the duty officer’s mobile number. He’d be patrolling the labyrinth: an intriguing job, if you’d shoulders for silence, a mind to endure the menace of history. I hadn’t the will to call him, to lie my way into the office; distract him, find and take the discs. Even to think how I might do all that was too much. Defeated, weary, I slumped to my room, telling myself they didn’t always check the discs before erasure. That if there’d been no visitor incidents I was safe.
The phone rang loud, echoing too late at night. I stumbled to my desk, fatigue conjuring thoughts of detectives, pointedly calling me “Sir.”
“Oh, I’m glad I caught you.” Mr. Grace made it sound as if it were ten o’clock on a Monday morning. “I thought you’d appreciate a heads-up.”
There were men in Rome like Mr. Grace: of driven, viral existence, their interest not the harmony of the polis, nor expansion of trade, nor glory in art or war. Not even in their own worth, or not directly. Men who would have made profound servants of the state, but with energy antithetic to servitude. Somewhere, in the texts of form and heresy, was the like of Mr. Grace. Caesars would order deserts to be made paradise, to occupy such men.
“I’ve had some interesting preliminaries from the lab.” He skated smoothly across my silence, expecting no better reaction. “You’ll want to know my emerging thinking.” His tone recognizable as the attrition of research, the wearing-away of cherished ideas with each glassy grain of discovery. “The object has much to commend it,” he said, generous to whatever lost master distilled an emperor from raw stone. “The workmanship is especially fine; the materials top class.” The insurance assessors—their insoluble brief: to value the collection—use much the same slang.
“It is the premier focus of that branch of our legacy,” I replied, my stuttering translation of the website’s shouty vulgate.
“Precisely. Of course. Which is why we should consider how it was mislaid in the first place. It has,” he eclipsed my silence again, “always been regarded as a remarkable survival. Tell me: have you visited Reculver?”
When I didn’t reply, he went on:
“Interesting place. Very little there: the sea has seen to that. Local sources confirm a light was kept through to the 1700s, if not later. But the cliffs have long collapsed, taking the settlement with them. And the archaeology, of course.”
My neck twitched.
“People I spoke to confirmed Richborough as far more strategically important. Fleets from the German coast would touch base there before proceeding to Southampton. What I was struggling with…”
My arm tingled.
“…is why so…material an object was off-loaded to Reculver. Rather than simply taken on from docking to destination.”
“Perhaps there was…” I tried.
“Some disturbance? Possibly. I agree conditions were volatile. But what were they doing, shifting the thing around? That’s the key to the matter.”
“And these matters will be addressed in your report?”
I met him in a hotel lounge, in the stucco side streets symptomatic of Russell Square. I thought that heavy-coated doormen, piled carpet, and a room of buttoned armchairs, with fondant fancies and iced sombreros on silver service, would present an environment so doomily stolid as to inhibit his ardor. But men like Mr. Grace generate their own oxygen.
He accepted tea, which he didn’t drink, and refused all confections. Foolishly, I’d chosen glace fruit tart, which his bewilderingly puritan stare prevented me from eating. It hardened on its doily, a congealed decadence.
He handed me some neatly-bound papers. Flicking through it brought bleary suggestions of diagrams, maps, what looked like spectrographic analysis.
“You can study the detail later. You’ll want my recommendations.”
“Is there a summary…?”
“You can study the detail. I don’t intend to talk through the report.”
People might ask why training, why critical rigor, allowed it to happen. I’d say we act absent of certainty; the more we uncover, the less we know. All anyone needs of antiquity is four or five large ideas. But, approach the present and nothing is clear.
I listened, and he talked. “The object has much to commend it. Characteristics that, in context, are remarkable. The treatment of the subject combines gravity and fluidity, which—if one supposes aesthetics for a motive—is impressive. It has the benefit of proportion. What it does not have is the benefit of integrity.”
That twitch to my neck erupted in icy shivers of sweat. The discreetly attentive waiters; the clipped, county ladies taking tea with old girlfriends in Town; the tweedy gents with diaries blank till the sherry hour; the finery, fondants and faux-colonial niceties hung frozen, in the quiet terror Mr. Grace unleashed.
His gaze never wavered. “I do not mean to say that the statue isn’t genuine. It is. A genuine…something. But it is not the Emperor Hadrian. Or rather, it does not quite manage to be.”
“Are you saying it’s a forgery?” The word spread between us, obscene. “I’m sure our conservators…”
“Indeed. Quite. Your institution’s conservators would not miss anything so blatant. I have to say”—he gestured airily: a rare glimpse of affectation—“I’ve heard that said before. Many times. It’s often the case, people like the story they like. I have considered whether the object might be inauthentic: the test results do suggest discrepancies. But we are not dealing with one of those Victorian fabrications put around for someone’s amusement. Your statue is far more interesting.”
“What you need to remember…” I began with my preferred way in, said a little too loudly, “…is the statue has been subject to numerous tests; most recently, being x-rayed in the late 1990s.” Suddenly self-conscious, I dropped from lecture mode. “It isn’t feasible.”
Nothing in his tone suggested vindication. He had no need. “I understand,” he assured me, “that others have given opinions. Although, of course, techniques refine all the time. As to what is feasible, the key question for my method is what is tested for. Works considered integral for many hundreds of years—works which have been subject to scrutiny every bit as rigorous as that applied to your statue—reveal discrepancies through disaggregated testing of their critical factors. I am not talking about forgeries. These items are genuine, but to a different measure.”
“I said your object lacked integrity. Would you like to explore the meaning of that term? The test is the point at which you locate proof. A virgin female who loses her virginity loses integrity, on one measure. But on the measure of being female is still echt.”
My critical faculties bristled to take his unreason apart. But there were more pressing concerns. “In terms of provenance…”
“It may assist if I set out my conclusions in relation to Professor Carstairs.”
We were talking over each other, heedless of audience. “The Trustees will want…”
“I shall meet the Trustees if necessary.”
That ghastliness stopped me cold. The Trustees were placemen, sponsors, useless ex-professors. He’d terrify them. I reached for my cold tea but couldn’t lift the cup. “What about Carstairs?”
“You provided some interesting insights. His unsuitedness to public life, his privileging of narrow expertise above wider achievement. You mentioned his wartime trauma. That is a factor, plainly. I would also add his father’s indifference and eventual disappearance. He seems to have lived his life in pursuit of his father.”
“You’ve done your research.”
“Of course. How do you reach your conclusions?”
I closed my eyes, his voice the only sound.
“I would call Carstairs a nervous man, reaching for mastery. His choice of career, for instance: consider the extraordinary influence archaeologists deploy. The right find, at the right time, can change perceptions utterly. If I dug a bone, or found a coin, or unearthed a pattern of post holes, that instigated a chain of events, that led one day to general acceptance that Britain was colonized by Phoenicians not Romans, I’d not only rewrite the history books, I would change the past. There are many drivers to seeking to do this. Truth-and-knowledge-and-the-greater-good is possible, but unlikely. Professional and personal aggrandizement ranks very high. There are other drivers between these extremes, some venal, some with pathos. Perhaps as pathetic as a sickly boy’s wish for a father’s love.”
I rubbed my face, the skin waxy and inelastic. “What’s wrong with the Emperor?”
“Nothing.” His boyish look taunted me. “He sleeps where he was taken from the Gardens of Domitia. You should rid yourself of these thoughts that there’s anything wrong with Hadrian Augustus. It is your object that’s discrepant.”
“What is it? Tell me what’s wrong with the statue?”
Ladies chancing a second apricot parfait glanced across gold-rimmed Wedgwood, whispering, tilting their heads towards two men by the fire: one, young and poised; the other, old, collapsed, seemingly engaged in business not unlike blackmail.
“Based on evidence from other cases, I thought at first your difficulty was a cultural fraud—a lie told inadvertently, not for pecuniary gain. But the more I discovered of Carstairs, the firmer I felt that, for instance, to commission a simple forgery was more than he could stomach. Reculver’s a singular place, I can tell you. Any purpose it might once have had is long submerged in grey sea. So I considered: perhaps it was forgery. Not of artifact, but of place.”
“Talk sense for heaven’s sake.”
“Please: you’ll alarm these people. Who would go to Reculver? You said you’ve never been there. I’d stake my fee in this matter your Trustees never have. It’s nowhere near the railway. It’s nowhere near anywhere. You’ll see from my taxi receipts. And the locals seem not much moved on from your Emperor’s day. Carstairs found objects all right. Of course he did. But at Richborough. The only place he would find them. You were less than truthful when first we spoke.”
“Please: there’s no need. I mean by omission: the curse of academics. You quote a line you approve of, but omit the author’s sub-clause that negates the meaning you choose. Have you never done that?”
“Well, of course one is selective…”
“Selection: exactly. My notes show the clear impression, I could only have gained from you, that Carstairs was packed off direct from wearying Kent to the excitements of the Reich. But he wasn’t, was he? Itineraries for excavations are in your institution’s own archive. As are requests for leave of absence. Carstairs may be long dead, but his landlady’s daughter—though cruelly deprived of most of her functions—has a remarkably sprightly long-term memory. He was often at Reculver, after his finds. Finds. In the plural. At Richborough.”
I asked what Carstairs was doing at Reculver, as Mr. Grace wanted me to.
“Creating, then erasing, an ersatz excavation. Close enough to the cliff edge to succumb in a single winter.”
“But Carstairs found it, surely? Just got the site wrong.”
“Got the site wrong? He was a fucking archaeologist.”
A teaspoon clattered into the silence.
“I said, a moment ago: finds, objects. You really should pay attention. And sit straight. The torso is probably Greek. That your keepers think it Roman work says more about them than I ever might. I can only guess they have never properly interrogated the residual tool marks, nor sequenced the laterals in the robes, in relation to the grain of the marble. Of course your x-rays wouldn’t show this: x-rays understand less of the questions to ask than your keepers. And those sheep-dip tests for provenance you tried palming on me were plain wrong. Does your institution believe everything told to it in the 1930s?”
“That wasn’t a question. Really, you’re too silly. When he returned from the wilds with this thing, everyone wanted to believe it. Look around the museums of Italy, Spain, Greece: full of the most uplifting reminders of golden ages past. We’d won the war and what did we have? Assorted luggage stolen from round the world, and from our own country: some sticks and stones and woad-stained bones. We’d won the war but we were eroding, collapsing into the sea. We had to assert our supremacy over history, just as Carstairs had to assert his expertise over bureaucracy, and his adult self over his pitiful childhood.”
He sat back, tapping his fingers lightly on the leather.
I looked up, some local downpour interfering with my eyes. “You said… the torso…?”
“The head might be Hadrian. I really don’t know. Emperors are gods. The Emperor says: ‘This is my face’, so that is his face. To think otherwise is both treason and blasphemy. Your object has a bearded head, of solid proportions reassuringly imperial, and with slight indentations to the earlobes. We believe that Hadrian had these lobal creases and your object has them. To me, that hardly seems basis to say the two are the same.”
“So the statue is a forgery?”
He slapped the arm of the chair. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not the issue. The head—which has been reworked, as a child of ten could tell your curators—is most likely Roman. It is a genuine something. The torso, from a different age and quarry, is likewise a genuine something. Together, they make an illusion of something else. A mirage that you want to make king. Then make the illusion your king. It doesn’t matter. But for goodness sake, give the man some credit: Carstairs took extraordinary care with his masterpiece. Cunningly managed crazing around the neck and jawline beautifully hides the restorer’s art. My associate’s drawings revealed that to me. X-rays would merely show an expected pattern of fracture. But drawings make the pattern of linkage clear. That dreary old man hasn’t made you all monkeys. You’ve done that yourselves.”
An extraordinary violence took hold in my body. I wanted to smash the tea plates; pull curtains from their rails; kick over the towering silver stands and trample pink and lemon icing in the spongy rug. I wanted to smack the waiters’ mouths and break the old women’s pearls. Most of all, I wanted to destroy this man who smiled through regicide. My legs twitched; my arms jerked on angry strings. But what could I do?
His look read me as inauthentic. “Now, now. Trepidation is not a medical condition these days. Your institution has a fine object. A fine portmanteau object. Savor it. Give it a polish.”
He’d calculated the price of our Emperor being a fiction. Income attributable to the statue was a factor, but more significant—he impressed on me—was the cost of doubt. What else in our galleries might be discrepant; what advice had we sold to others that might now look less than expert? “People don’t like doubt.” I still hear his voice. “Doubt is expensive. Far cheaper to make up a king to run your life for you. The Emperor’s price is fact.”
He wanted only his fee in the matter. I emptied my accounts, took a loan against my pension, sold books and other pieces, scraped the money together. What could I do? This man that I’m stuck believing is Hadrian Augustus knew that what matters is the appearance of Rome. From Turkic steppes to Atlantic shore, from burning desert to frozen hill, he travelled continually, sent his likeness everywhere; even to a drab little island in the North Sea.
I’ve seen a cottage in the Downs. I might manage the cost, if I sell up, if I work more years, if I’m careful. I’m tired, I need to rest from imperial surveillance. Find local interests, erode among the small things. Listen for storms blowing up from the Channel. Leave no memoirs.