There were plenty little chores associated with moving from Scotland to California four years ago - wash all the garden tools with Lysol to sterilise them, pare down the book collection to a sensible size for packing, find good homes for electrical appliances with UK voltage . . . and "see about Grandad's picture".
Sgt. Maj. James "Mac" MacDonald
I wasn't worried about taking any other paintings to a hot dry climate, but Granddad's picture was different. It was painted on a piece of sacking while he was a prisoner of war in Stalag 383 in Germany during WWII and brought home rolled up in his bag. He nailed it to a frame and then it hung first in my granny's house, then in my parents' house, then in mine.
I had always loved it, being a great fan of both portraits in general (my favourite picture in the world is Rembrandt as an old man) and the mid-century (anything from the beginning of the forties to the end of the sixties). Also, I was tiny when my Granddad died and I think that made it more possible to appreciate this extremely sombre portrait as a work of art rather than seeing it as a record of a time in the life of a loved one. Certainly my mother always found it troublesome.
So it came to me and I didn't want to take it across the world and have it crumble away to dust. Now, luckily, we lived in Kirkcudbrightshire, which is home to many artists (as Dorothy L Sayers turned to account in The Five Red Herrings) and therefore also home to some good picture restorers. I put Granddad's' picture into one of them and hoped for the best.
When I got home the phone was ringing. It was the restorer, saying: "This painting, you did know it was by Terry Frost, didn't you?"
Colour me stunned. I'm not massively knowledgeable about art but thanks to my mid-century enthusiams, one summer spent working in a Fine Art library, and many holidays in Cornwall, I had heard of Sir Terry Frost, member of the Cornish School of colourists, friend of Barbara Hepworth, knighted for services to art, and Royal Acamedician.
'Wha . . . ?" I said.
The restorer told me he'd taken the canvass off the frame and found a signature. It had been covered up for seventy years, but there it was: "Terry Frost, Dec 1940".
Using Frost's published biographies, we could now fill in a lot of detail. The sacking "canvass" was actually a pillowcase. The deal Frost had with his fellow prisoners was that if he painted a portrait of a man on one side of the pillowcase, he got the other side to use in any way he chose. The pigments were supplied by the Red Cross and mixed with sardine oil. When I learned that it became even more amazing that the picture was in such great shape and seemed even less likely that taking it to California was a good idea.
We also learned that a book had been written about life in Stalag 383. Barbed Wire is a heartbreakingly cheerful account of a winter spent on starvation rations after the prisoners decided en masse not to help the Nazis' cause by working for them. "Non-compliance rations" was the official phrase, but starvation is more accurate. It certainly made sense of the way Granddad could eat absolutely anything - raw, burnt, dried up (Granny wasn't a born cook) - without a murmur.
We registered the painting with the gallery that curates Sir Terry's body of work, agreed with my mother that if it ever left the family's hands it would go, not to an art museum, but to the archives of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, cheered when the restorer said that a light, stabilising varnish would make it perfectly safe to take to California (but get in touch if we moved to the tropics), and then brought it home and wondered where to hang it now that we knew what we knew.
It took about a minute to decide to hang it where it had always been - in the bedroom, above the bookcase. It's still there now (different bedroom, same bookcase (we never did manange to reduce the collection by much)) because even now we know it's An Important Painting, to me and my family it's still Granddad's picture.