The People's Friend
Willie took to watercolour painting like a duck to water!
CAN’T you take up a hobby or something, dear?” Edith’s question caught Willie Dawkins on the hop. He wondered briefly what he had done wrong this time. What on earth was his wife talking about?
“What do you mean, dear?” he asked her, playing for time.
“These summer evenings. You shouldn’t be just sitting round the house watching telly, you know. You should be out in the fresh air doing something useful.”
It was Edith’s first suggestion that Willie should take up some sort of hobby since his lessthan-distinguished foray into pottery a year or two earlier.
She then added a sentence he considered one of the most menacing he had ever heard.
“Other men have allotments,” she commented.
“I’ll think of something,” he said hastily.
Which was why he became a member of Mrs Barlow’s outdoor watercolour sketching group. They met on Wednesday evenings at seven p.m, from June to late August.
He chose – or, rather, Edith chose – this group because he already had a set of watercolour paints and a pad of paper bought by his grandma for his eighteenth birthday all those years ago.
She had believed, with no supporting evidence, he was going to turn out artistic.
The paints had never been used.
Edith retrieved them from the attic.
For his first group meeting, he turned up in a smart sports jacket and grey flannel trousers to find everyone else in paintsplattered jeans and shabby sweaters – an informality of costume not currently available in his own wardrobe.
He had always felt jeans both too young for him, and – if he were honest – a bit working-class for someone involved in management.
He was, therefore, amazed to discover that his bank manager was the scruffiest member of the entire group. Mr Pollard even had improbable blobs of paint on his floppy hat.
In his incongruous formal attire, Willie produced at his first meeting a carefully drawn and equally neatly and conservatively coloured depiction of a small stretch of a 17th-century Dutch canal left on the table and offered as one of “a few possible options to get you going”.
He did not yet feel quite up to the challenge of a Van Gogh cornfield or “The Hay Wain”.
Mrs Barlow viewed his masterpiece and chose the words of her assessment with care.
“You are showing some distinct promise there, Mr Dawkins,” she said. “Perhaps next week we could try to be a little more liberated in our approach.”
When he took his picture home, Edith’s appraisal was a bit more positive.
“At least you can see what it’s supposed to be,” she said.
The very next morning, Willie went into town and bought himself the most expensive pair of jeans that he could find. They were so stiff he could hardly walk in them.
He also fished his old navy-blue gardening cardigan out of the shed – the one with a darn in the right elbow – and, with that and his dog-walking boots on, he felt appropriately bohemian.
He also tied a redspotted handkerchief loosely knotted round his neck, but a check in the mirror told him the image was more agricultural than aesthetic.
It would, however, have to do.
The following week, he turned up resplendent in his new, cautiously informal clothes, only for the heavens to open into a thunderstorm the moment the group assembled.
They were all forced to flee from their views down the valley and take shelter in the nearby Victoria Inn some 50 yards from the church.
After a convivial evening, Willie ambled cheerfully home, only to be told coldly by Edith, “You stink of beer,” as she
climbed the stairs to bed.
There was no hint of any suggestion that Willie should be in a hurry to follow her.
Whatever Willie’s artistic shortcomings, no-one could accuse him of lacking in determination.
The very next morning – immediately after he had opened the office mail – he hurried along to Dwellett library and borrowed a book called “Watercolours From Scratch”, which, he felt, should be ideal for someone approaching his level of expertise.
He was not quite so sure when he got the book home.
The very first sentence talked about the “splendour and sensuality of watercolour brushstrokes”, which made him feel a little uneasy in some way he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Despite that, he read on. After all, the book had been published, so the author must have known what he was talking about.
“Watercolour paintings can be made,” he read, “on any appropriately prepared surface.”
He took mild exception to this. It seemed to imply there was something wrong with the pad he already owned, which said nothing about preparation on it.
All it said was “Watercolour Paper – Medium Body”.
He wasn’t certain what “Medium Body” meant, but the designation “Watercolour Paper” surely meant it was fit to paint on?
His pad certainly said nothing about extra preparation on it.
He decided, therefore, to ignore the first sentence.
Then the book started talking about “stretching your paper”.
He read on with some alarm about the techniques involved in soaking your paper, laying it out on a board and sticking it in place with gummed paper until it dried.
This was to avoid buckling, he learned, when he wet it again.
Blocks, however, he was told – he assumed his pad qualified as a block – are only mildly pre-stretched and resist buckling so long as washes are not too lavishly applied.
That was it, then. All that was needed was for him to be a bit stingy with his washes. Problem solved!
It would be fair to say that, as a watercolourist, Willie did not at first succeed, but, as mentioned before, he had an occasionally useful stubborn streak, and he would try, try and try again, much like Robert Bruce’s spider.
Whether or not he eventually succeeded would be very much a matter of opinion, but there could be no doubt that he acquired a great deal more fluency, if not elegance, in his brushwork.
Since Willie had had almost his entire output framed, Edith was soon driven almost frantic with the problem of what to do with it all.
Even a spacious, fourbedroomed detached house in the exclusive Sugar Hill district had limited wall space.
Edith began to feel that her husband’s burgeoning collection would place unbearable stress even on the Louvre.
She doubted that, even there, they would have five virtually identical pictures of Dwellett Parish Church hanging in the spare bedroom.
There were several more local landscapes piled up in the bottom of Willie’s wardrobe, where, as Edith put it, they were “at least out of harm’s way.”
Eventually, the Barlow School, as they had decided to call themselves, decided to hold an exhibition, and hired Dwellett Parochial Hall for a week early that November.
Each member of the group was to be allowed to exhibit up to six paintings, and was given a dozen rather ornate cards inviting his or her “special guests” to a preview.
Mrs Barlow herself, who claimed to know the Mayor of Honsborough personally, would take care of invitations to local big-wigs and the press. Wine was to be served.
Amongst the artists, excitement was palpable.
Mrs Barlow held a special meeting to discuss prices, and Willie was flattered and astonished when she suggested that he should ask about a hundred and fifty pounds for each of his pictures.
Any sales made on this basis would ensure that he not only recovered the costs of framing and equipment, but that he also finished at least fifty pounds in pocket.
It made him feel strangely important. He toyed with the idea of adding Landscape Artist to his business cards, but Edith said she thought it looked odd alongside his title as Managing Director with the address Groanside Dyeworks.
He then thought of having an additional set of personal cards printed, but Edith persuaded him that that particular exercise was a little premature.
“It might be as well, dear,” she suggested, “to wait until you have sold a picture.”
Willie reluctantly saw the logic in this and somewhat grumpily postponed his promotion to the painterly pantheon.
As the day of the Great Exhibition approached, excitement mounted as the artists made their choices of the works they would put on show.
Since all the pictures were of local views, and many of them, indeed, of practically the same view, it was difficult to think of imaginative titles.
Weather and the time of year sometimes helped. Very similar views would, for instance, carry rather different titles.
Where one artist baldly entitled his picture “Broomedge Moor”, another might call his effort “Autumn Sunshine Over Broomedge”, and a third offer the same view as “Evening Light Across The Moor”. A little ingenuity could go a long way.
Finally, the hanging committee (Mrs Barlow and the vicar) had everything in place. Not to everyone’s satisfaction, of course.
Once the preview was about to open, however, there was no turning back. The nervous artists anxiously awaited the mass influx of their patrons.
The doors were flung open, and about a dozen people trickled in, to be offered a glass each of Chilean merlot.
Willie stood expectantly alongside his section, but, after half an hour or so of people merely walking past with hardly a glance, he grew a bit bored and went off to get himself a cup of coffee.
You can imagine his surprise and elation when he came back to find a small red sticker on one of his pictures, even if, in his own opinion, “St Matthew’s Church – Summer Twilight” was not one of his best.
To be truthful, it was as much accident as design.
He had done a subdued sunset he was quite proud of, but for the life of him he could not get the perspective right on his drawing of the church.
Mrs Barlow had suggested that he might get away with it if he settled for the church shown in a washed silhouette.
And so, if the red sticker was anything to go by, it had proved.
His first sale!
Just wait till he told Edith! n
No-one could accuse Willie of lacking in determination