We haven’t been buying pictures again. No, really. The cover story this time is that it’s possibly a midwinter or birthday present for the Payrologist if he likes it. He writes, incidentally, (he is one of the few people left who write multi-page letters on good paper in a firm hand, a hand habituated to writing at length) from the Cataracts Hotel at Aswan where it is 32 degrees in the shade. I could wish myself with him, and not just for the climate.
Anyhow, fortified by the notion that we weren’t really buying another picture, but only a present for a dear friend in potentia which is quite different — indeed an action inhabiting another moral universe — we went yesterday to Fochabers to collect a large high-Victorian depiction of The Infant Moses Nursed by his true Mother, while a really very-plainly dressed Daughter of Pharoh looks on. The style is sub-Edward Calvert. The mother of Moses would in life weigh at least twenty stone. The valley of the Nile is bright viridian green. There are some triangular shadows on the horizon indicating pyramids, also a cautious palm tree for local colour. The whole is proudly signed W.J. Urquhart, 1876.
We examined the thing more carefully when we got it home and concluded that Miss Urquhart’s papa had bought the frame (a very swagger gilt and gesso frame) in a sale and that The Infant Moses had been done to fill it. Automatically we moved into the usual routine of the Lady Novelist repairing two tears in the surface and touching them over with a little flat colour, and my cleaning up the frame. (In other circumstances we could have been quite happy picture-dealers.)
We thought it would do no harm, since the Papyrologist is in Egypt for another few weeks, to hang the thing up to see what it looked like. Which we did, but doing so had to take down a (probably valuable, I don’t know) Modern Picture inherited from my parents. My father had a positively priestly lack of visual sense for everything except men’s clothes, where his sense of right and wrong was clear and absolute. My mother had a curious taste, essentially an overlay of “oh what a scream” 1930s art-school Victoriana on a ground-bass of Mediterranean Villa of the Ancien Regime, producing an effect which was on the whole tenebrous but not unpleasant. Except that she felt obliged, from time to time, to buy modern art. She cultivated the arts to a limited extent, and to a greater extent the company of artists. She had no sense of modern pictures whatsoever. (As instance of which she once refused to lend me £90.00 to buy a Joan Eardley which I could have cashed in for a small house in the North of Scotland these days.) But she did buy them, really quite persistently. And one of her modern pictures was the red and olive-green object some way after the late Sir Robin Philipson* which we relegated to the back kitchen last night, to make way for Miss Urquhart’s masterpiece. At which point I made a very informative discovery. I looked at the label on the back. It had been hanging upside down for the last forty years. Once we turned it the right way up we saw that it was –to a limited extent– representational, which, as the Lady Novelist said, obscurely made her dislike it the more.
*Every household concerned with the arts in Lowland Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s had the same Robin Philipson print of a bowl and some grapes with some boldly dashed in bits of colour. I don’t know where they came from, perhaps they were all wedding presents. Symbolically, the one which I looked at every breakfast time of my schooldays vanished as soon as my mother died. This footnote is Cultural History.