Mary Horlock | Excerpt adapted from Joseph Gray’s Camouflage: A Memoir of Art, Love and Deception | Unbound | September 2018 | 22 minutes (5,778 words)
This story starts with a picture: a vast turquoise sky, an endless yellow beach, a mother and her child playing in the sand.
My grandmother lifts a trembling hand and points towards the smallest figure.
“That is me.”
She now has a room measuring nine feet by five. There isn’t much wall space, so the picture hangs in the corridor outside, beside the sign: “No.18: Maureen Barclay.”
Maureen Barclay is a widow and there are many here. Some don’t know where they are, nor do they remember the lives they have lived. Maureen is different, she remembers plenty. But with this blessing comes a curse: the older she becomes, the more she worries what she might soon forget. She has moved into a nursing home quite by her own choice, but as she downsizes, reducing her life to the essentials, the more she is stripping back memories, the memories embedded in clothes, objects, papers and pictures.
There simply isn’t room for them here.
The only solution is to pass them on to the people she trusts. She has given me many things over the years — her love and time above all else — but now she surrenders a most treasured possession. It is a pencil-drawn self-portrait of her father and my great-grandfather, Joseph Gray. This is the man who first painted that small child playing on the beach.
Joseph Gray is an artist most people have never heard of, but for much of my early life he was the only artist I’d ever heard of. His paintings filled all the rooms of my grandparents’ flat and much of my own family home. Smoke-filled streets and blitzed churches lined our staircase, thickly painted still lifes crowded in corners, restless seas churned over each mantelpiece. While the houses of my friends contained candy-colored Impressionist prints or tastefully anonymous landscapes, we had this curious mix of styles and subjects, all courtesy of an artist I’d never even met.
But at least I knew what he looked like. I would stare for hours at this pencil-drawn self-portrait: darkly piercing eyes under hooded lids, a wide curving nose, a proud, rounded jaw. With a crumpled hat pulled low on his head Joseph Gray stood straight and returned my gaze. Now that’s what an artist should look like, I thought.