I was lying in bed this morning thinking about the painting that I was working on and the history of paintings – their provenance, the history being a very important part of them.
The story about one of my own, I thought, qualified for the re-telling.
I had come out of the war as a pilot with TB, started medicine study, TB took hold once more (there was no cure in those days), then gone to art school (The Central under artist Bernard Meninsky) and after that The Old Vic School to learn about theatre design. In the meantime I had settled in two very small Council rooms above the railway lines at Victoria Station (steam trains, then).
Cramped, and polluted by smoke, steam and smuts from the railway engines below, coupled with the dense fogs that they engendered, I gathered together bits of money and bought a wartime bombed-out house next to The Chelsea Football Ground on the Fulham Road. A developer was repairing it with the aid of a grant. He had got as far as putting a roof over the first floor.
I made the place habitable. The RAF Benevolent Association kindly paid for the carpet for stairs and landing.
Between designing jobs in the theatre and painting scenery at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, I taught myself a little more about art by painting landscapes, using a large, home-made easel and paints that I ground myself.
Being right next to the football ground offered landscape possibilities.
So, in 1954, I set up my kit on a gravel mound (where the Christie’s box now stands – or stood), and painted two 2’ x 4’ (61 cm x 122 cm) paintings of a match between Chelsea and Wolves.
One of these paintings was of Peter Sillet scoring a penalty for Chelsea at the western end of the ground. The other included what was known as “The Shed”. It portrayed a bit of the pitch, the crowd, the Shed and buildings in the background outside the ground.
The “penalty” painting I sold right away for £5 (when I had added the “ref”, who I had forgotten to include) to the electrician, then helping me repair the house.
The other painting, entitled “Neighbours on Saturdays” (football was then played only on Saturdays) I exhibited with “The Daily Express Exhibition of Young Artists”, and later in a one-man exhibition at The Gallerie de Seine in West Halkin Street, Belgravia, London. It did not sell.
Over the years that painting either travelled with me to homes around England or was put into store when I was abroad.
When moving from the country to London in 1989 it was hung on the wall of the spare bedroom/studio at the top of my Hammersmith house.
Learning that Mr Abramovich, who owned Chelsea Football Club, was keen on paintings, I sent an image of mine with a letter to his secretary, offering it at £1,000. There was no reply.
My wife Margreet’s niece was about to be married and, although her husband- to-be be was an Arsenal fan, we thought that they might like the painting as a wedding present. The wedding did not take place. So the painting remained on the wall until, in 2006, a Christie’s man saw it and asked if we might like to sell it at his auction house. Yes, we would. Off it went with a reserve of £1,000 - £1,500.
A man soon contacted me to say that he was prepared to go to (I think) £3,000 at auction so would be sure to obtain it. He would then have coloured reproductions made and would pay me for my signature on them – or some such deal.
This was good news. Now I knew that it would sell.
I then heard from Christie’s that the painting might even reach £5,000. This was even better news.
So along I go to the auction.
“Lot number 122,” said the auctioneer. “There is interest in this painting by James Page-Roberts. I can start the bidding at £2,000.”
From £2,000 it rose quickly to £5,000, when some bidders opted out. At £10,000 most had given up, except for two bidders. One was a lady, who we learned later had a Chelsea fan as a husband and wanted to give it to him as a Christmas present. The other bidder was probably Mr Abramovich’s agent.
The bidding went on, with the lady keeping her hand up until it was hers – for £28,000. Christie’s quote the price, with commission added, as £33,600. It was what is known in gallery jargon as “the top lot”.
So what happened to the painting’s pair?
I still had the electrician’s home address. So I decided to track him down.
And if I did locate the man and painting, what was I going to do? Should I tell him all? Should I offer a small or large amount for it so that I could hang it on my wall, with its fun provenance? Should I buy and then sell it, giving him ….? I didn’t really know what I would or should do. I would simply have to play it by ear if I did find it.
So off I go to his address south of the river to a substantial house in Battersea somewhere. I rang the doorbell.
Two gay men appeared, who had lived there for more than 20 years. They had never heard of my man. Perhaps he had been bombed out of the East End of London in the war and had been given temporary accommodation in this house and moved on.
That was the start and end of my quest for the second painting, except that I put a piece in the Chelsea Club’s Fanzine, hoping for a response. There was none.
Those are two paintings with provenance.