Reflections on the portrait of Sarah Malcolm

Dilys Rose is a novelist, short story writer, poet and librettist and the recipient of various awards and fellowships for her work. Her twelfth book, Unspeakable, a novel based on the life and times of Thomas Aikenhead, is published in March, 2017 (Freight Books).  She also enjoys collaborating with visual artists and composers. Her most recent collaboration, Watching Over You, a song cycle on the theme of motherhood, was written for Karen Cargill, with music composed by Rory Boyle and performed by Red Note Ensemble in 2015.  She lives in Edinburgh and is currently programme director of the online MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.
Author photo by Adrian Searle.

First thing he does is ask for a table, then sits me at it.

Fold your arms, he says. Look into the distance.

Distance? say I. Ain’t no distance I can see.

Manner of speaking, says he, leaning in, adjusting my bonnet – fresh-laundered for the occasion – setting a string of rosary beads within my reach, artful-casual. His breath reeks of jugged hare.

A stocky cove he is, plump-cheeked, tricked out in britches and Montero cap, as if he’s on a hunting trip and I’m his quarry – which, in effect, I am. He fiddles with his easel and sundry other appurtenances, squints at the window, adjusts his position, and again, to get the best of the light. It’s bright out, but no hint of heat accompanies the March sun.

Will people sneer at me for dabbing on a drop of rouge to improve upon my prison pallor? No matter. They sneer already. And all, after all, is vanity.

Turn your head to the side, says he. Fix your gaze on some particular detail.

I see no detail, sir, say I, and stare into the cell’s deep gloom.

I can tell he thinks I did for them, throttled the two beldams and slit the young char’s throat, to stop them blabbing. I can tell by how he drags the chalk against the page he thinks I’m vile, and will depict me, awaiting the noose, as a brazen hellcat. But if I be innocent, as I have insisted, repeatedly, I am, of what should I repent?

Despite the dire abasement it entailed, I told the court the blood found on my shift was from my monthly flow. I told the court that blood let by slitting another woman’s throat could not have found its way onto my undergarments without it also marking my sleeves. I told it all to the court and ain’t for telling it again. To the learned gentlemen of the law, blood was blood, and proof of guilt.

I would that I might take the evidence to my grave but am more like to end up on the slab. Perhaps, thereafter, as bones in an anatomy room. Mr H. will sell his prints of me for sixpence apiece and, forthwith, sketch the mob that comes to watch me hang. All told, from my demise, he’ll make a pretty penny.


Note: This is a response to William Hogarth’s portrait of Sarah Malcolm, convicted of triple murder, as she awaits execution. The painting hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland.


Feature image: Sarah Malcolm, after William Hogarth, mezzotint, (1733), Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London, used under CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0 license.