Schalcken the Painter
Review by: Derek Johnston
"Turn from the light. Your breast bare. Look into the dark."
Ah! the golden age of cultural television programming! The time
when you could turn on a programme about the arts and be treated
to luminous camerawork, a script that helped you to your own conclusions
and repaid consideration, strong performances, a good dose of fear
and, of course, a hefty sampling of female nudity!
Schalcken the Painter is an edition of the BBC arts programme
Omnibus from 1979 that successfully uses a J Sheridan LeFanu
short story (A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter)
to illuminate the work of the real artist Godfried Schalcken.
Which is rather clever of them.
Schalcken, played by Jeremy Clyde, is a student of the painter Gerrit
Dou, as played by Maurice Denham (Night
of the Demon, Countess Dracula,
Torture Garden). He is also an
admirer of Dou's niece, Rose Velderkaust (Cheryl Kennedy), but too
poor to stand any chance of marrying her.
Schalcken is working late one night when there is an ominous creak,
which heralds the arrival of a grey-skinned figure with an oddly
uninflected, metallic voice. No, this isn't a precursor to The
X-Files; this figure at least appears human. The figure announces
that he will return the following night to talk to Dou about a matter
of import. His name is Vanderhausen (John Justin).
The following night, Dou and Schalcken await Vanderhausen's arrival,
which is again heralded by an ominous creak. Schalcken is sent to
a goldsmith with a chest presented by Vanderhausen, where it proves
to be full of high-quality gold. Meanwhile, Vanderhausen has revealed
his purpose: he saw Rose in the Church of St.Lawrence in Rotterdam
and desires to marry her.
On hearing of the value of the gold from the returned Schalcken,
Dou agrees to Vanderhausen's proposal and signs the contract assigning
Rose to him after all, she is his property.
On the third night, Dou has a dinner prepared and tells Rose to
trick herself out prettily for the important visitor. They wait;
there is the ominous creak and Vanderhausen is there. As the candles
are lit at the table, we see Rose's subdued horror before we see
its cause: Vanderhausen's waxy grey face and black eyes, which turn
upon her unblinkingly. Only the shortsighted Dou, placed at the
other end of the table from his guest, with all of the table accoutrements
between them, seems to have much appetite for chatter or food. Dish
after luscious dish goes untouched.
Then Vanderhausen is gone, and Rose speaks for the first time in
the film. She finds Vanderhausen hideous and will not look upon
him again. He is the very image of a horrible figure that they saw
at the Church of St Lawrence in Rotterdam. But Dou has signed the
contract and, as the Narrator tells us, this is a story of heartlessness,
Rose tries to get Schalcken to run away with her, but he says that
he has nothing to keep them. He will work and, in the future, he
will buy back the contract - buy it back double.
The wedding goes ahead, and then nothing is heard from the couple.
Dou even sends Schalcken on a trip to Rotterdam to find them, but
there is only the story of the coachman who delivered them to St.Lawrence's
Church for the wedding, where he says that they disappeared.
Time passes. Dou and Schalcken are working on their accounts. The
ominous creak. But this time it is followed by a pounding on the
door. It is Rose, distraught and crying for wine and food and a
minister of God. She is still in her wedding dress. Schalcken takes
her to rest, then ignores her call never to leave her in order to
fetch a light. The door to the chamber slams shut behind him and
there is a horrifying scream. When Schalcken opens the door, the
room is empty, the window is open, and there are bubbles rising
from the canal outside.
Years pass, and now Schalcken is clearly the master of the house,
a successful painter. He marries a woman from a rich merchant family.
His attempt to sketch her is interrupted by the arrival of a grey-faced
man bearing a casket. But it is only a customer, asking for a commission.
Schalcken explains that he does not perform private commissions
any more, but agrees readily when he sees the contents of the box.
Like Dou before him, he is happy to make a profitable deal.
Dou dies and is buried in the Church of St Lawrence. Schalcken returns
late from the funeral, and immediately goes to his studio and paints
the picture that was the jumping-off point for this narrative.
He had entered the vault of the church, drawn there. A light came
out of the darkness, a candle carried by a smiling Rose, who led
him deeper into the vault, to what appeared to be a four-poster
bed. She squeezed her breast lasciviously and reached out a hand
to him; he offered her money sex had become a transaction
to him, and now he could show that he was wealthy enough to have
her. She took the money, and tipped it on the floor. She drew back
the bed canopy and the horrible, naked, grey figure of Vanderhausen
sat upright in the bed. Rose climbed on top of Vanderhausen and
removed her shift, riding the horrible figure with apparent delight
in the background of the shot while Schalcken overacted in despair
in the foreground.
Schalcken awoke in the vault, his full purse beside him. There was
a tomb where the bed had been, inscribed "United with his beloved
As Omnibus had previously done in 1968 with Jonathon Miller's
Whistle and I'll Come to You, this programme took a source
horror tale to provide some reflection on art. Where Miller looked
reflexively at M R James through his story, and essentially argued
through his script and direction that supernatural horror is a product
of mental breakdown, the LeFanu adaptation uses its source narrative
as a way of presenting and encouraging consideration of Schalcken's
art in particular, and of how an artist's life and mental state
can influence their work.
While writer / director Leslie Megahey's (Hour of the Pig)
script focuses on the main character's loss of conscience and the
tragic victory of commerce over love (and, possibly, the finding
of love in strange places), she also constantly directs the viewer
back to Schalcken's paintings and to the idea and techniques of
art. This is accomplished both through the narration, purred exquisitely
by Charles Gray (World's Greatest Mycroft Holmes, The
Devil Rides Out, Diamonds Are Forever), and through the
visual presentation of work, in progress and completed, and by the
use of cinematic composition and depth of field to emulate the formal
look of painting.
One of the interesting things to watch in this production is how
the viewers' attention is drawn to how aspects of the (real) paintings
may reflect changes in Schalcken due to the (fictional) events of
This also encourages the viewer to look for further connections
and interpretations. So when a model is posed as Lesbia weighing
her jewellery against her pet sparrow and she asks what it means,
and Schalcken responds, "Nothing! It's only a story!",
the viewer has already grasped the metaphor of money and commerce
being unequal to love and life that is present in the actual Schalcken
painting. And so the needs of both story and arts documentary are
Sadly, Schalcken the Painter is not currently available on
DVD or video. It does still exist and a print has been shown publicly,
so we can only hope that a release will be forthcoming. And maybe
we can also hope that some documentary makers will see and remember
this production, and take it as an example of how to educate and
entertain effectively at the same time!
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