The beautiful transformation

The seed will not become a flower overnight, no matter how hard you will it do so. The beautiful transformation will only happen with time, with patience.

Central London, almost a decade ago. The hot early evening of a late summer Thursday. All was discomfort, bustle and noise. On my way to meet friends for a tweet-up (as we called them back then) at the Old Bank of England pub on Fleet Street. The streets a crush of people. Impatience all around. I felt hurried and uncomfortably warm as I walked down Charing Cross Road, my heart rate up as I made my way through similarly impatient multitudes all on their way to wherever they so desperately needed to be.

It dawned on me as I approached Trafalgar Square that in my haste and impatience, I had got my timing wrong. Having rushed through the West End with unnecessary speed, I now had an hour to kill before my friends would even start to arrive.

On this harvest moon


I decided to pop in to the National Portrait Gallery to while away the additional moments that had been gifted to me. The pace seemed to change the moment I stepped through the doors. Away from the noise of rush hour London, the world around me felt instantly more relaxed, more patient. Bright young personages milled about chatting in the foyer, glasses of wine in hand as a DJ played Neil Young’s delightful and gentle song of enduring love, Harvest Moon.*

I took the escalator up from the foyer, to the main part of the gallery. Away from the subdued music and mild hubbub of the foyer, the gallery proper was largely empty, silent. My mind entered a different, calm and meditative space, away from whatever then-urgent, now-forgotten stresses had been weighing on me that particular day.

Life can change on a dime. A new feeling. A feeling of escape from the everyday that might have seemed impossible even moments earlier. The previous urgency melting with each passing minute. The noise and immediacy of central London at its busiest muted, forgotten.

I love the feeling that you can occasionally get in deserted galleries or museums. A feeling that you are stepping out of time. You are the only person in the world getting to commune with these timeless works in this moment. They are there just for you.

In this meditative, timeless mode, there is nothing better than to spend some time with just one work of art you’ve never previously appreciated, or never seen before. When you have the privilege of spending a moment or two alone with a work of art, a beautiful transformation can happen before your eyes.

Infinite calm, infinite patience


That particular evening, one particular portrait caught my attention in the quietest and most subtle manner, allowing me to enter its hushed and peaceful world. This was John Singer Sargent’s 1913 portrait of American novelist Henry James. I am no expert on either Sargent or James,** but I was transfixed by this picture.

I would imagine that this painting is by no means the best known of Sargent’s works. But in that moment, it became all that there was in the world for me. A beautiful transformation happened before my eyes. On rare occasions, the longer I gaze at an original work of art, the more that work of art seems to reveal its true life to me.***

What I was looking at was nothing more than Sargent’s beautifully judged brushstrokes upon canvas. But to my mind – at least at that moment – it felt as though Sargent had captured a tiny, living and breathing piece of life itself, preserving it for all eternity.

Henry James is long gone from this world. But at that moment, it felt as if I was in his presence. I could almost hear his gentle, quiet breathing. An infinite patience radiated from this picture.

Time seemed to stand still in the infinity of that moment. Alone in the gallery, it felt like hours passed (when in reality it must have been mere moments). As the time that I was to meet my friends at last approached, I had to bid a fond adieu to Mr James. I felt overwhelmed with emotion at this lovely moment of communion with something different and new, something with timeless, depthless patience.

As I greeted my good friend Kate Griffiths-Lambeth at the Old Bank of England and told her what had just happened, I remember feeling like I almost needed to blink back a tear of joyful and humble emotion.

I have yet to return to visit Mr James at the National Portrait Gallery. But one day I will. I know that he will remain at the same repose, away from the relentless forward motion of our frantic world. He sits there still in infinite calm, infinite patience.

Always within my reach

That moment felt beautifully transformative to me. Patience does not come naturally to me. It is something I must always work at. But it is always within my reach.

At the start of this year, I wrote in Savour the sweet air about the feeling that my impatience caught up with me as I tried to relax into my 2020 Xmas break. Only gradually would my mind allow me to relax:

Small mistakes that I have have made and inadequacies in how I decided to face the year eat away at me. Making rest impossible. The year’s final, cruel trick. I am impatient to unwind.

So much of what is tearing me apart is so risibly stupid. So inconsequential. I know what I am doing wrong. I must accept all these wrongs. I must forgive myself. I must let go of it all. I must not be blinded to things that I might have done right. I must not be blinded to all the good and the love in this world and in my life.

The word “patience” keeps coming back to me. So much of what I am unhappy about in how I have dealt with this year comes down to my being impatient. Racing into problems that I could easily have avoided (or that might have seemed or even proven to be much less serious) by holding back, or even by doing nothing. Wanting often to do all the things immediately.

I need to learn true patience. A small part of what passes for wisdom in this world is actually just patience.

I must learn to exhale. I must learn to breathe in and to savour the sweet air. I must learn true patience.

The infinite calm that I felt radiate from that painting on that day all those years ago is always there, always available to us. Patience can be the key that helps us unlock that calm, even within what might feel like the most testing of times.

When you can truly demonstrate patience, a beautiful transformation can occur.

The seed will not become a flower overnight, no matter how hard you will it do so. The beautiful transformation will only happen with time, with patience.

Gentle reader, may today be nothing but kind to you and yours.



* Here is the song itself, from Neil Young’s 1992 album Harvest Moon. It is oddly apt to be writing of things harvest moon-related right now, as the northern hemisphere enjoys the autumnal equinox this coming week, on Wednesday 22 September 2021.

** I have always loved Sargent’s work whenever I have seen it. As for Mr James, I somehow made it all the the way through his 1886 novel The Bostonians as a set text at university. That may well be it for me and the writings of Mr James in this lifetime. But if any admirers of Mr James’s words should happen to read this, are there other books of his that I should try? Recommendations most welcome!

*** For example, I had this happen in the Rothko room at Tate Modern. As I gazed into the minimal deep, dark crimson and black of one particular painting, I felt as if I could see something altogether different emerging from the painting, a beautiful and profoundly peaceful vision of a cornfield on a hot summer’s day with a gentle breeze. I doubt that this is a common reaction to Rothko’s work. But this is an honest account of my emotional reaction to it.


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