Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Great Grandpa's painting

Bloggy friends may remember that last month (16 November) I wrote about the indenture binding my great-grandfather, James Smith, as an apprentice painter and decorator for 7 years. I reflected that all we have of him is his signature on this document and, inwardly, I marvelled how little of us remains when we die.

And then, in the middle of last night, I remembered this oil painting. Painted by him. And sent by us to auction when my mother moved in with us.

I've known the painting for most of my life. I assume that it was in my grandfather's house (the painter's son) but he died in 1950 and a few years later my grandmother moved to England with my aunt. She must have taken the picture with her. It ended up back in Edinburgh with my parents when my grandmother, who had dementia, went to live in Pakistan with my other aunt, who was a doctor there.

It's a competent amateur painting, but not terribly exciting. I always knew that it was painted by my grandfather's father but hadn't quite put him together in my head with the person in the indenture. I'd always vaguely imagined the painter outside with his easel on the hillside, maybe in his retirement. But actually, having studied the family tree, I now know that he died at 40 in 1893, the father of seven children. So where and how did he come to paint this, and how did he find the time? There was another painting by him (yes, also sent to auction) - a copy of The Laughing Cavalier. It wasn't wonderful - a bit more sinister-looking than the original. But on the other hand, Great-Grandpa couldn't exactly have copied it from Google Images. How on earth did he, a painter and decorator in Kirkcaldy, see this painting in the Wallace Collection in London? I don't think he can have done so. But did he have a book with illustrations? Did he also copy the landscape? Could they have been on biscuit tins or something?

At the time of the auction we were terribly busy. My mother had a large flat full of belongings to do something with and she was not a minimalist. I felt bad at the time not taking the paintings, but was aware that if I did, in a few decades or less our children would have them to deal with along with all of our possessions (and I am not a minimalist either). I was already taking quite a few family things: a chess table, a grandfather clock, a bureau, china and so on. So I hardened my heart and left the paintings to be taken away by the auction house. I imagine that someone bought them for the frames.

And then there's my other grandparents' brass coal box, also in Mum's flat. I nearly took that too, not because I liked it but because it reminded me so much of them. At the time I decided that it would be just more stuff to cause problems to the children when they need to clear our house. But I think of it in the middle of the night too, and wish I'd kept it; and then am glad I didn't.

Stuff. We have so much of it. How sentimental should we be about it? Do I regret not taking at least one of the paintings? Yes. And no.

Ah well. Too late now.


  1. I understand that dilemma all too well. Some of the things I kept from my mother things, simply because they reminded me of her, I'm now ready to part with. Some will stay.
    It is nice to have the photo of the painting at least.

  2. Stuff indeed. Memories are not tangible and don't need to clog up our homes..but being a non-minimalist myself I have an awful lot of clutter..I must start to shed some of it.

  3. I feel the same about some very old photos of family groups that I got rid of because I didn't know who any of them were. With the advent of Ancestry I realise I might have been able to solve the mystery, but never mind.

  4. You can't keep everything, can you? I have started giving away some of my 'stuff' to people I know will love it, such as a marcasite and pearl brooch my parents gave me for my 18th birthday back in the Dark Ages. The young woman to whom I gave it loves marcasite and has quite a collection, and she was overwhelmed by the gift - but she loves the brooch much more than I did, so I am glad she has it.

  5. Ah, you've hit a nerve over here Isabelle. This is the hardest thing for me -- I just can't bear to part with family treasures. But, I know that the boys won't care and any DILs won't either. I'm patiently waiting for grandchildren, in hopes that they'll be interested. The theory being that a whole stack of stuff could be parsed out and would only be one or two bits of clutter to each grandchild. I know I'm delusional though -- there isn't even one grandchild yet. And they probably won't care either. Too bad we can't just take it with us - I think the pharaohs had the right idea.

  6. I still have far too many of my mother, grandmother's and Aunt's things, though I've been busily "blessing other people with your stuff" as my younger daughter says. At first, I had such a deep emotional attachment to my mother's things that it seemed impossible to let go. But I can now and feel all the better for it......I can keep some things as photographs but my daughters don't want many of these things, nor does my son. And having too many things is a burden, physically and emotionally.