Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Les­lie Ged­des-brown

Les­lie Ged­des-brown puz­zles over fam­ily portraits

CON­TROLLED ju­bi­la­tion here. We have just man­aged to have one of the fam­ily portraits at­trib­uted. The charm­ing small oil shows a tod­dler in a dress. ‘Cam’ Steven­son be­came a dis­tin­guished doc­tor.

All we knew was the in­dis­tinct mono­gram of the artist in a cor­ner. Now, thanks to a friend, Stephen Cal­loway, the art his­to­rian, we know that the artist was Sir Ge­orge Reid, later pres­i­dent of the Royal Scot­tish Acad­emy. Not only is the mono­gram iden­ti­cal, but he painted Cam (short for Camp­bell) be­side a gar­den bench with an ap­ple tree in the back­ground.

The same bench—and tree— make the back­ground for a por­trait of Mrs Duguid and her son, painted by Reid in 1869, now owned by Aberdeen Art Gallery. Proof pos­i­tive.

We have 41 fam­ily portraits on our walls, plus two bronze busts. Of these, two are from my fam­ily: a small sil­hou­ette of me done by my fa­ther when I was 10 and a rather nice but naïve Vic­to­rian oil of Ellen Mcpher­son, a dis­tant rel­a­tive. The rest are Hew’s fam­ily.

The sit­ters are all known, from the full-size former MP for South Shields to his un­cle, a Glas­gow cot­ton mer­chant and cam­paigner against slav­ery, who has the ac­cus­ing eyes of a Scotch dis­senter. He re­minds me of the P. G. Wode­house quote: ‘It has never been hard to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Scots­man with a griev­ance and a ray of sun­shine.’

Of course, you get used to all these pu­ri­tan Scots­men just as, I as­sume, grander house own­ers get used to Judith cut­ting off the head of Holofernes in their paint­ings. There’s even an old lady in our guest bed­room dressed in greys and, yes, you guessed it, she’s a Pres­by­te­rian, too. Hew’s brother asked if she had to hang op­po­site the bed, cast­ing a blight on what­ever pro­ceed­ings were go­ing on there.

The nicest portraits are the chil­dren. As well as Cam, we have Arthur (seven) by Mc­tag­gart in 1870. He wears knee-breeches and strokes his pet rab­bit. Later, he was the land agent for the LNER. Then there is my favourite, eight-year-old Ethel by Colin Hunter. Wear­ing red, she lounges el­e­gantly against warm brown draperies in the Art Nou­veau style. She went on to be­come a gym mis­tress.

The paint­ing is small and charm­ing and will eas­ily find a home among the next gen­er­a­tions of Hew’s fam­ily. But what of the Pres­by­te­rian con­gre­ga­tion? Does any­one want a huge paint­ing of a dour man whose height of fame was as an MP?

We both think that it’s a tragedy when por­trait and fam­ily be­come di­vorced. All those hand­some young of­fi­cers of the 18th and 19th cen­tury, their names lost with­out trace; the charm­ing ba­bies whose moth­ers took so much trou­ble to have painted for pos­ter­ity; the young girls who have just got en­gaged, but are now with­out even a name.

It’s still go­ing on. I saw in an an­tiques pa­per the auc­tion of a por­trait by Terry Frost of Wil­liam Grant, 1st Bat­tal­ion the Gor­don High­landers, painted at the Ger­man prison camp of Sta­lag 383. It’s not a par­tic­u­larly good por­trait, but Frost, also a pris­oner there, hav­ing been cap­tured as a com­mando in Crete, went on to be­come a fa­mous ab­stract painter. He had been taught to paint in the camp by a fel­low artist, Adrian Heath, then a Lan­caster’s tail gun­ner. The lot, es­ti­mated at £4,000–£6,000 didn’t reach its re­serve and is now back with Grant’s Scot­tish fam­ily.

Frost painted busily in the prison camp and his portraits, of­ten on old sack­ing and card­board, are quite com­mon at auc­tion. Per­haps the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum might show an in­ter­est?

Cam’s fu­ture is as­sured now that we know how dis­tin­guished the artist was. Now we have to deal with the Pres­by­te­ri­ans. Any sug­ges­tions?

We think it’s a tragedy when por­trait and fam­ily be­come di­vorced’

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