I smell turpentine and I am four years old. Leaning against the door of the shed, thumb in mouth, watching my father. He had a big slab of plywood which he used as a palette and a vast collection of brushes, crammed into jam jars, sitting on dad-made shelves along the walls. He sat on a stick-backed kitchen chair at a make-shift easel, wearing a battered old coat, leather gloves with the fingers cut out and a flat cap on his head. He painted in winter and in summer in that shed, priming hardboard to paint on, rarely using a proper canvas. He painted from books, from photographs and from his memory. I never knew him to take his paints out into the landscape, though he did carry a sketchbook. And he kept his paints in his home-made box, which I still treasure.
It doesn’t look like much. Plywood again (I think plywood and hardboard were my father’s favourite materials), unpainted, except for blobs inside the lid, where he seems to have tried it out as a palette. I have very little that belonged to my father, so this box is precious.
Though my father was an artist, it was not his full time job. By day, he was an accountant, which sounds as far away from art as it is possible to be. But his soul was that of an artist and it is as an artist I remember him.
He liked to paint landscapes, but that did not inhibit him from tackling portraiture and seascape. I asked him once when I was quite young if he could copy a Monet for me, but I wanted it tall and thin, portrait, where the original was wide and fat, landscape.
‘You want me to copy a Money, but make it different.’
‘I think it would be better that way,’ I said. ‘And that shape would fit where I want to put it in my bedroom.’ He sighed and shook his head, but went away and did as I asked. I have the picture still.
He was a huge fan of the impressionists. Dad was good with colour, a talent which I envy. I inherited his love of art and can draw, probably as well as he did, but I cannot paint like him. I still sketch and am often heard to say that I’m about to ruin a perfectly good picture by adding colour. Dad could paint without much sketching, so good was his ability with colour. I learned from an aunt after his death that he had won a scholarship for the Slade, but never took it up. He came from a large family and felt the responsibility of contributing his share. He rarely sold his work, preferring to give it away to anyone who wanted it. If he did take money, it was very little, just enough to keep painting.
I’m not much given to possessions. I have little jewellery and few mementoes. Most things I keep, I keep not because they have any particular intrinsic value, but because of the memories and meanings they impart. This box, this battered nothing of a box, which probably meant little to my father, is one of my few links to him.
That and the smell of turpentine.