It’s more complicated than that. He did paint her portrait. Over the course of many sittings, Thomas and Ellen fell in love. She accepted his proposal and that should have been that. Naturally, her family objected. Portrait painting didn’t seem a reliable career to Ellen’s parents, and artist types were known to be flighty.
In an attempt to convince her parents, Thomas bought a rather grand Victorian house in a decaying, but still genteel, neighbourhood. The house was heavily mortgaged but he was confident in his ability to earn enough money with his portraits.
A wedding date was set. Almost at the very last minute, however, Ellen’s parents convinced her to marry a fellow of their choosing. Some three-piece-suited fellow with the expectation of an inheritance who knew how to say “yes, sir” to his father-in-law.
The artist was devastated. You’d never seen a man so altered.
He kept painting, but he never accepted another portrait commission. Instead he began painting landscapes and architectural scenes. His architectural paintings, in particular, were very sought-after. It became a sign of prestige to have a painting bearing the signature of Thomas Lancaster on one’s wall.
Despite his popularity, Thomas lived a reclusive life after Ellen married the other man. He kept and renovated the Victorian house—as if to show Ellen’s family how reliable he turned out to be—but permitted few visitors.
Almost the first person to enter the house, over fifty years later, was Thomas’s lawyer. Thomas had died, a wealthy but lonely man. He had no family and allowed no friendships.
The lawyer, Bert Waller, let himself into the house to make an inventory of Thomas’s estate. He didn’t expect to find many paintings at the house, as Thomas had maintained a separate studio and gallery space uptown.
When Waller entered the house and opened the window blinds, he thought he was seeing things. He turned on all the lights to get a better look.
Every surface in the house—every wall, every cupboard, every step of the staircase—had been painted with a portrait. Ellen. Ellen laughing. Ellen pouting. Ellen with her hair flying. Ellen naked. Hundreds of Ellens gazed out from every angle. The house was less a home than a shrine to Thomas’s lost love.
In due course, Waller liquidated the estate’s assets. Much of Thomas Lancaster’s money went into an endowment fund for young artists. The mayor wouldn’t hear of the house being sold off to just anyone, and city council agreed to buy the house to ensure its preservation.
The House of Lancaster remains to this day, the city’s primary tourist attraction. An annex was constructed to display some of Thomas’s architectural paintings, a token collection of landscapes, and the few early portraits they could locate.
But the real attraction is the house, and its paintings of Ellen. Ellen herself visited the house shortly after it opened to the public. The event was a media sensation. Ellen, of course, was much older and only had a passing resemblance to the portraits borne of Thomas’s memories.
Ellen died soon after. There wasn’t much money left after her husband’s debts had been satisfied when he himself died the previous year. The one asset remaining was the portrait Thomas had painted of her all those years ago.
She bequeathed it to the House of Lancaster.