Friday, April 06, 2007


Small boys generally like military matters. So, as a youngster travelling in Germany before the Second World War, I was most interested in Nazi German fortifications and the way in which they were camouflaged. I had no idea whatsoever that I was witnessing part of a frightful military build-up with the aim of European if not world conquest. Soldiers and guns were for fun.
Then came the war. I joined the RAF. My introduction to British ideas of camouflage was in the form of painted aircraft and airfield hangars.
As a trainee and then pilot, my more intimate contact with this form of art was simply camouflage-decorated aircraft, with bombers, such as the Lancaster, being adorned in flowing patterns of brown and green. Being so large, these aircraft could hardly be hidden, but were well dispersed around the airfields. I flew. The war ended.
After an abandoned medical training due to TB, which was then incurable, I made my life in the arts.
When I did make money, I would buy some work with the proceeds from several exhibitions of paintings and sculpture. In fact, after making a profit, these purchases, of a work by an admired artist, were enjoyed not only for what they were, but also as a reminder of past success.
With cash in hand after such a show, I saw that a wood block print of a dazzle-camouflaged 1918 ship scene in Liverpool docks, by Edward Wadsworth, was about to be sold in a well-known West End gallery.
I rushed along to try and buy it, only to find that the exhibition would not be open to the public for another three days. I was told that if I wanted the print it would be a matter of first come first served.
So I arrived at the gallery door an hour before the exhibition opened. I was first in, and the print was mine.
It was a magical work of art for me, being a Vorticist work, the kind that helped English artists to encompass the new ideas of abstraction and cubism from the continent.
This little print, one that gave me much pleasure for some 30 years, was clearly rising in value. But that was of no note.
Then along came a Christie’s specialist in 20th century art who stopped in his tracks when he saw the Wadsworth hanging on my wall among the odds and ends that I valued just as highly. Might he please take it back to the saleroom for assessment by their print specialist?
I suppose that I was curious about its value, its provenance being without dispute. But I should not have agreed. The last time that I did much the same thing I had to part with a favourite painting or pay a fortune in insurance and fortify my house against thieves.
The new situation was to be exactly the same. My print turned out to be of such great value that I would have been foolish to keep it and possibly see the house go up in smoke and my print with it. In such a case, neither I, nor anyone else, would ever see it again. Moreover, my modest collection of paintings, both large and small, was only insured as house contents, and for a minimum amount. I was not going to change that. So away went my Wadsworth.
But I still had many other treasures, probably valueless, but enjoyed just as much.
And I was able at the time to visit the Imperial War Museum where another Wadsworth print of the same subject, and done at the same time, was on display for all to see.
So, in parting with my little masterpiece, was I being just practical about my insurance position and thieves? Was I being altruistic in possibly allowing many others to enjoy the print? Or was it monetary motivation? Probably a bit of each.