My lovely cousin Arleen and her family have been clearing the house of my ‘uncle’ Richard, who was the last of my mother’s cousins. Kindly Richard and his intimidating older sister Veronica were the products of a marriage of first cousins (a family habit not without consequences) in India and both were titans of my childhood.
Even when the postie handed it over, I could hear and feel that sickening crunch of broken glass inside.
All genealogists know that bereavements are a risky time for family ‘treasures’. The grieving offspring may seek to sweep away everything in their agony of loss (or at worst their relief at having got their life back after a lengthy demise). Dustbins are filled. Skips are ordered and are soon piled gleefully or mournfully high. Photos may be saved – but only if the younger generation knows who they are.
It also takes effort to read spidery handwriting. So much easier just to consign bundles of letters to the flames. My own father burnt my paternal grandfather’s diaries. They detailed his time rounding Cape Horn on one of the last tea-clipper three-masters, but also his many infidelities, and presumably my father thought it was the right thing to do. Sob.
Arleen, her husband Richie and his sister Rosemary are not especially genealogically-inclined and knew they had their work cut out but said they would keep an eye open for anything I might like. Kindly old Richard and his ever-cheerful wife Betty had never thrown anything away – just in case it came in handy – an identifying trait of the generation which lived through the war (Richard was an army photographer). The family had to clear shelf upon cluttered shelf, box upon grimy box from their house in Queen’s Parade. As anyone who has done this will know, it can be soul-destroying labour.
The first parcel contained three pictures, one with brittle glass probably shattered in transit. All three (two certain, the third probable) I recognised as the work of Lucien Jonas, the French war artist, who features in Major Tom’s War sketching these very portraits. Two show Indian Cavalry sowars and their horses.
The third is the original charcoal portrait of Tom which appears in Major Tom’s War.
Let me explain further. Within our archive there is an album of Lucien Jonas prints and in it there is a photo of a portrait of Tom – we supposed the original to be lost. One, possibly two of these images have been cut from the album and separately framed – the knife-cuts certainly match on one.
My grandfather had no sons and was fond of Dick, his brother and his son Richard, whom he helped to raise while Dick and his wife Vera were living a butterfly life in India. Perhaps for this reason these two prints plus the original portrait were given to Richard. Or perhaps Evie my grandmother gave them to him when Tom died.
Either way, Richard must have hung the portrait sketch in bright sunlight and the paper is badly faded, unlike the album version. How do we know it is the original? Because Jonas has written the words ‘respectueux hommages’ beside his signature on the original and then obscured them on the print, where they are still faintly visible due to their reflection through the glass plate.
To say I was thrilled is an understatement so imagine my astonishment to receive another message from Arleen to say that among some other family bits and bobs she had found another portrait photograph of Tom, and would I like it. Would I!
This is now the best portrait of my grandfather Tom that I possess. In some he looks rather testy (he was known for his quick temper). This one I think shows his good looks and his humour. I am hoping it will make its way into the paperback edition of Major Tom’s War, out later this year.
Long live keeping in contact with kind cousins – thank you to my Tenby family – Arleen, Richie and Rosemary Westmacott!