As suspected, there wasn't anything particularly revealing in the story my mother told. It turned out to be a wild and impossible farrago of persons, places and dates. Paring away the inessentials and non sequiturs, it seems likely that she bought it in Hampshire in the spring or summer of 1948 from a temporary bric-à-brac emporium, more a hut than a shop, somewhere between Fareham and Titchfield. When she passed the same way some time later, the place had disappeared, like The Moving Toyshop in Edmund Crispin's direly self-indulgent thriller. She said she'd paid £50 for it, which was a substantial sum in 1948. I think it's more likely that she paid £5. This was all she could remember about it.
But there's another mystery. If you blow up the image of the restored painting above, you may be able to see that although the new frame is perfectly straight, the edges of the canvas aren't. In fact the portrait has been cut a little irregularly from what must once have been a larger canvas, probably with a knife. It has then been glued on to a slightly larger stretcher, one of no great age, with another canvas already in place. So beneath The Dark Lady there may be another painting, which I expect only X-ray photography will reveal. Could The Dark Lady have been stolen from the portrait gallery of some great house? Was The Moving Bric-à-brac Emporium a receiver's outlet?
As we gathered last weekend, family opinion about the identity of The Dark Lady polarised neatly. The men thought it highly likely that she'd been debauched by some Restoration rake like the poet James Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who'd done up his breeches, leapt on to his horse and galloped off whistling; hence her peevish expression. The women thought no, come off it, The Dark Lady is advertising her entirely respectable, indeed desirable, availability; if she looks constipated it's because her sell-by date is approaching far too fast.
We won't ever know, will we?
MAKING A COMEBACK
1 week ago