The picture

imageDays before my fifteenth birthday I sat, with my Uncle Al on the sofa in our lounge, in the thin winter sunlight, as he taught me the principles of parallel and angular perspective, drawing elegant diagrams on a sketch pad. I carried the memory and used the knowledge throughout my career as a designer. At the end of this impromptu lesson he handed me a birthday present wrapped in brown paper. On the morning of my birthday I carefully unwrapped the gift. It was a picture.

The picture, a watercolour sketch, disinterred a childhood memory.

It is 1960 and I am 10 years old. I have called to see Uncle Al who is busy in his workshop, a long wooden shed set in the garden behind his bungalow. I open the door and step into a world of familiar smells; the sweet smell of wood, pipe tobacco and the slightly sour smell of wood glue. I sit on a high stool, amongst the dust motes that hang in the sunlight and watch my uncle. He is stooping over the upturned hull of a model ship, carefully shaping it with a spoke shave, the metal blade making a dull rhythmic hiss as it carves through the wood. Near to me, on the workbench, there is a completed sailing ship, a Man o’ War, that seems afloat on a sea of curled wood shavings, sails billowing with nonexistent wind. A backdrop of small saws, chisels and files, the accoutrements of joinery, hang orderly on the wall.

Leaning against this array of tools is a small watercolour painting. Elbows on the bench, chin cupped in my hands, I look at the picture and ask where he painted it. He tells me that it is a sketch for a much larger oil painting that he has been commissioned to do for a wealthy farmer. In the picture, a landscape, a mountain stands under towering clouds with the farmer’s fields and a copse in the foreground. Uncle Al, abandons his ship, to come and stand at my shoulder. He patiently explains the composition, shares with me, his knowledge and his time. Later I will be shown the completed oil painting, but I think it lacks the simple spontaneity of the sketch.

In the winter of the year that he gave me the picture, Uncle Al died, slamming shut the door to his treasure trove of knowledge. My uncle, before he retired, ten years earlier, had been the curator of the Chambers Street Museum in Edinburgh. He restored ancient artefacts, built fascinating working models and miniature ships, that I, as a child on visits to the museum with my father, would look at with my nose pressed up against the glass of the display cases. He was also was an artist of great skill.

Many years into the future, my mother would tell me how, after her father was killed in the First World War, Uncle Al, her mother’s brother, became a surrogate father, of sorts. In the Scottish tradition I carry a string of family names, like a line of wagons transporting the freight of family history into the future. The picture is signed in neat initials with the name of my uncle: A. J. Lothian. Of my names, Alexander James Lothian Wilson, the Alexander and Lothian were given in honour of my mother’s much loved Uncle. My name continues its journey as the middle name of my grandson Charlie Alexander Driver who will inherit the picture and this memoir.

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