Summers Blush, p.1LibO'Neill
by Libby O’Neill
copyright 2012 Libby O’Neill
Anna sat in a large wicker chair watching her elderly aunt make the ritual round of the ancient verandah. The old floorboards creaked and groaned as Aunt Elspeth roamed up and down, absentmindedly picking off dead flower heads from the thick hydrangea bushes flanking both sides of the front steps.
‘How’s it coming along?’ asked Elspeth, trying to sound casual. ‘Anything I can help with?’
Elspeth’s niece could be flighty at times, especially under pressure, and from personal experience Elspeth knew the value of constant encouragement.
‘It’s not going at all,’ groaned Anna. ‘I’ve come to a complete stop. It doesn’t matter what I try – it’s just not working. I’ve told Jasmine it might not be ready in time, in fact, I told her it might not get finished at all.’
‘Dear, dear…that would be a shame.’
Elspeth shoved a wilted flower deep inside the generous pocket of her calico apron, followed by a few dead leaves. This elderly woman fulfilled two roles in Anna’s life, that of great-great aunt, the last of her generation, and also artistic mentor. There was a special bond between Elspeth the matriarch and Anna, the youngest female member of her family.
Anna sighed heavily and rearranged herself in the wicker armchair. Elspeth paused at the far end of the verandah and called over her shoulder, ‘Come inside. We’ll make some tea and bring it back out here, there’s still plenty of light and it’s not too hot.’
Anna loved the cluttered and somewhat pokey house, but she especially loved the old woman who was its mistress.
Anna reminded Elspeth very much of herself when she was young - restless and somewhat awkwardly self-conscious. She openly encouraged Anna’s artistic ability, showed enthusiasm in her work and gave critical appraisal where she thought necessary.
Anna had been asked to produce a portrait for a friend – a picture of two children playing in a garden. At the time it seemed like a fun project, and the deadline seemed a long way off. But time had ticked by and Anna now found the piece challenging, and most disappointing of all, nowhere near finished.
Inside, Elspeth ran her hand along a shelf above the kitchen counter, tapping brightly coloured tea canisters made of tin.
‘Orange Pekoe today, I think…’ said Elspeth, more to herself than to Anna.
‘These biscuits?’ asked Anna, holding open a huge tin containing small shortbread biscuits sandwiched together with vanilla creamed icing and strawberry jam. Elspeth nodded in approval.
Anna tried to match up odd cups with saucers, found a chipped but delicate plate and piled some biscuits onto it, then placed it on the old serving tray. The base of the large tray was solid timber and its surface held the remnants of a scratched and faded image of a fruit bowl overflowing with ripe summer produce.
Elspeth poured boiling water over the tea leaves in the bottom of the big brown teapot. Wisps of steam curled and wafted upwards and Anna breathed in the soothing smell of the brew.
‘What are you having trouble with?’ asked Elspeth. ‘Is it the faces? Portraits can be so challenging.’
‘It’s everything…I’m sorry I said I’d do it. I’m having trouble getting the expressions right. They look so cute in the photos but my work doesn’t look anything like them.’
‘Working in black and white…or colour?’ asked Elspeth, hiding a grin.
The question was a tease. Anna worked in black and white, using ink and charcoal or pencil and pen. Anna had been reluctant to dabble very much with paint. Elspeth painted in oils and acrylics, hardly ever working in black and white.
‘Come on aunt…what do you think? It’s black and white - of course! I’ve started it six times now. I’ll have to finish it soon. If she doesn’t like it – I don’t expect her to pay for it.’
‘Come around tomorrow,’ coaxed Elspeth. ‘Use the studio if you like. Bring the photos with you and you can have a bash with the oils. The light is wonderful out there.’
‘You never give up, do you?’
‘Absolutely not!’ retorted Elspeth.
They took their tea on the verandah, and after several cups and far too many biscuits, Anna said she must go home. While chatting, Anna had taken in the colours of the wild cottage garden. The western sky was streaked in shades of coral pink and orange and the changing hues gave her an idea. An appealing thought had blossomed in Anna’s mind.
‘I think I’ll take you up on the offer,’ blurted Anna, ‘if it’s still on. I’ll be round tomorrow…to paint. Saturday is my day off. Do you mind?’
Anna had taken Elspeth completely by surprise and she beamed with excitement.
‘Of course darling, that will be fine!’
‘I’ll give it a go…the paints I mean. I really must be desperate!’ said Anna, but Elspeth clapped her hands in delight.
‘How wonderful! The studio! It’s been ages since you’ve been in there. I’m so pleased. Come about ten and I’ll help set you up. Lovely! I can’t wait.’
Elspeth saw Anna off and locked up for the night. The house was quiet and she wandered down the hallway and found herself standing and reminiscing in the little studio at the rear of the house.
Elspeth’s late husband, Harry, her lovely Harry, had lovingly indulged Elspeth’s passion for painting. He’d converted the third bedroom into an area for her to be creative. The lovely light-filled room was always meant to be a nursery or a child’s bedroom, but that never came to be, so they created another use for it.
Elspeth lingered for a while, touching easels, moving a stool, re-arranging tubes, pots and bottles and dusting off brushes here and there. She found a pile of old sheeting and re-folded the haphazard bundle, tossing them on a dusty chair in the corner. There were old frames - still waiting to be mended. A mirror with a tattered gilt frame stood to one side. She had picked it up a few years ago and had intended to touch it up with some gold leaf. Perhaps Anna might get around to it one day, thought Elspeth. One thing she felt sure of, Anna would find plenty to warm her heart in this room.
After setting Anna up in the studio the next day, Elspeth studied the photograph of the children, caught in a magical moment of childhood delight in a rambling garden. Anna had blown it up in black and white in several sizes and had divided the page up into squares. She was happy to leave Anna to her work, knowing only too well, that it was important to be undisturbed.
Anna said she would come each day to work on the picture. She had a fortnight of afternoon and evening shifts at the hospital. On the Tuesday at lunchtime, Elspeth couldn’t contain herself any longer, and asked how the painting was coming along.
‘Well…perhaps you better come and have a look’ said Anna in a flat voice.
‘Mmmm…’ said Elspeth, as she took in the progress.
She tried not to sound too harsh. The outline was all there, but that was about it. In the photograph, the enchanting childhood game of hide-and-seek had been expertly caught on film. The children were very cute and Elspeth now knew why Anna felt daunted.
‘What can you suggest?’ asked Anna.
‘All I can say to you is…try to give yourself over to it darling.’
‘People often say that, what does it mean exactly?’
‘It’s hard to explain…but I’ll try. This is what works for me. I study the picture and try to immerse myself in the moment. I think of the laughter of the children and wonder to myself, what game are they playing? I imagine the sun, the filtered light and shadow dancing on the garden. I think of flowers moving softly in the breeze - looks like a cottage garden to me. I think about the colours of the flowers - all the different shades and variety. I look at the tree and try
‘You make it sound so simple!’
‘Oh for goodness sake, come along!’ snapped Elspeth. ‘You’re an artist! Don’t deny it – just give over to it! Stop all this negativity and get on with it – or leave it alone all together!’
Elspeth was immediately sorry for her outburst and her heart melted in a moment at the hurt look in Anna’s eyes.
‘Sorry…I’m sorry darling’ said Elspeth. ‘I’m old and tired and grumpy today. Please forgive me. I’m an old grump that’s all.’
‘No you’re not – not all the time anyway,’ joked Anna. ‘Come on, I know you’re right. Leave this old thing with me, and I’ll see what I can come up with. Let’s get you settled inside for a rest.’
Later in the afternoon, Elspeth spied Anna, wandering through the garden, picking flowers at random. Anna came inside, collected a large glass jar from under the kitchen sink, plonked her flowers in roughly, filled the container with water and returned to the studio. When she was finished for the day, Anna asked Elspeth for the key to the door and locked the room behind her.
‘No snooping!’ warned Anna.
‘Wouldn’t dare darling – the thought never crossed my mind.’
Anna worked on the painting for nine days. As far as she was concerned, it was complete. She couldn’t do anymore with it. Time had beaten her anyway. She had to give it to Jasmine on the Thursday, wet paint or no wet paint. Elspeth was summoned to inspect the piece.
‘Well, well…there you go! I like it! I really do. Gorgeous! Are you pleased? You should be!’ said Elspeth with genuine enthusiasm.
‘Um…I think so. I think I’ll always be harsh of my own work…but yeah…better than I thought. I hope she likes it.’
‘I’m sure she will,’ said Elspeth, rounding the easel for a final perusal.
Instead of trying to capture the facial expressions in exact proportions, Anna had taken a more abstract approach. While not identical, it was immediately obvious which child was which. They were instantly recognisable by posture, hairstyle and clothing. Anna had let her hair down with the flowers too. In the foreground she had splashed and swirled lots of colour around – but to her utter amazement when she stood back from the canvas, she could actually differentiate the flowers.
Most important of all, thought Elspeth was that Anna had caught the mood, two children playing, in a spring garden. Elspeth was deeply moved.
‘Darling Anna…did I tell you…when I’m gone…the family will no doubt sell this old place. A bit run down I’m afraid. But I have left something special for you…the entire contents of this studio are to go to you my love…to do as you see fit. Keep what you like, or sell what you like – it’s up to you.’ Elspeth choked up, full of emotion.
‘Hey…hey, don’t talk like that. I think you’ll be around to boss us for quite a while yet,’ said Anna, hugging the little woman to her.
Anna had been saving for two years to travel overseas, and she had finally realised her dream. She couldn’t have done it without a helping hand from Aunt Elspeth.
True to her word, Elspeth had left the entire contents of her studio to Anna, which included - to the absolute astonishment of the whole family - a series of original sketches by Australian artist, Norman Lindsay. The family had not been aware of them until Elspeth’s will was read. She had left them in the care of her family solicitor.
There were four ink sketches on paper, roughly A3 in size and all unframed.
The first sketch showed three women undressing under a willow tree, the next two sketches depicted them bathing in a large pond of water and the fourth showed them drying and dressing again. Although there was nothing to indicate if it was so, the trio could easily have been three generations of the one family. The youngest bather, perhaps in her late teens, appeared slightly hesitant and more reserved than her two older companions.
Anna was delighted, completely overwhelmed but delighted. Her grandmother, after a thorough examination of the pictures, thought the women looked vaguely familiar. Anna’s mother was moved to tears. Her father was utterly stunned.
“Typical of the old duck,” her father had said, “to keep something like this stashed away all these years!”
Not sure if they were the real thing, the family had the pictures valued immediately. They were genuine and Anna decided to sell them to boost her holiday fund. She sold all the sketches to a keen collector - except one. Anna kept the third sketch in the series for herself.
The third sketch, showing the three women bathing, was overlaid with a soft pink wash. A hand-written inscription roughly scrawled on the rear of the page amazed and intrigued the whole family. It also made it more valuable, as Anna’s father constantly reminded her. The family talked of nothing else for weeks on end.
The inscription read:
Thought you might like these…only rough…but not bad! Reminds me of ‘Three Women’ – first oil I ever finished in the lower studio. I like to think of this one as ‘Summers Blush’ – in memory of you. Thanks for posing with the gals - all in the name of art! How clever of Meredith to ask you along for company – the train can be such a bore when travelling alone. She and Rose had fun catching up! Off to the big smoke at end of week…expect to be at the Bridge Street studio for some time.
Keep up your drawing and don’t be afraid, try some colour! I was delighted to meet you, and Rose insists that I mention this - young Harry at Springwood station has been struck by cupids bow, completely lost his heart to you apparently!
Fond regards Norman…Rose… & cherubs
The inscription was dated 9th January 1934, and Anna’s dad had been a little confused by the date. ‘Nineteen thirty-four? Elspeth would only have been a kid,’ he said. ‘And does that mean the famous Australian artist - Norman Lindsay?’
‘It certainly does mean Norman Lindsay,’ said Anna’s grandmother. ‘The property where he lived and worked is now managed by the National Trust, in the Blue Mountains. Elspeth would have been about eighteen in 1934. I know that because I was five at the time - she was thirteen years older than me.’
‘But, who was this Meredith woman?’ asked Anna’s mother.
‘I remember talk of Meredith, she was a cousin of mum and Elspeth’s, a distant cousin, and a good deal older than them,’ said Anna’s grandmother thoughtfully. ‘She’s been dead for a very long time now. She was a teacher at a Ladies College somewhere, never married, a bit eccentric, but a keen supporter of the arts. Perhaps she knew Rose Lindsay from her younger days.’
‘Well…I never!’ said Anna’s dad, shaking his head in total disbelief.
Before leaving on her trip of a lifetime, Anna and her family made time to visit the Norman Lindsay Gallery at Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains. The tour group dawdled along, following the informative guide. The ancient timbers of the verandah creaked and groaned softly underfoot, and Anna suddenly felt a wave of nostalgia. Her eyes filled with tears of joy as she remembered dear old Aunt Elspeth, their walks around the sprawling garden, their discussions about art, sharing pots of tea and, of course, her poignant bequest, and she said a silent thank you to her great-great aunt for helping her dream come true.
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Summers Blush by LibO'Neill / History & Fiction have rating 3.5 out of 5 / Based on35 votes