Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Exploring Grandfather's Paintbox - II

Chapter II


One day about thirty years ago my father took me to see his boyhood haunts. He led me around the ponds and woods and quiet suburbs until we came to the house where he had been born. He noted that the low wall along which he used to run as a child was still there. As he pointed to an intersection a few houses down the street he told me how he used to watch as his father left for work in the mornings. ‘I remember my father’, said he, ‘swinging round that corner in his top hat and tail coat, on his way to work’, striding down to the station to catch his train to the city. In those days suburban living and the middle class were comparatively new developments, resulting very much from the rapid spread of the railways, which had penetrated every part of the country over the previous fifty years. Now people could live in the leafy edges of the metropolis and yet still work in the very heart of the city.
I have come to understand that my grandfather had a love for the countryside, which may account for why he chose to spend a great portion of his retirement in the field, painting. He was a religious man, close to his God. He was a long time member of the London Banks Christian Union, one of the dozen men who made up its general Committee, and for twenty-two years he served as Joint Secretary of that Union. In a letter he wrote in 1936 to one of his sons, my uncle, he commented that – ‘I have sometimes consciously received help when out in the country, all by myself & I have seemed to hear the Still small voice in a way not realized at other times’. He went on to say – ‘We need to realize more how entirely we belong to GOD – we and all we possess, or all those talents of which He has made us steward & for the use of which we shall one day give account.’ Such a faith, which, (do I regret?), I cannot share.

But let us now turn our attention to the paintbox. First glance at this remarkable article shows that it is of the highest quality: It is made of neatly dovetailed solid walnut, with brass fittings. Overall the box is 40cm long, by 29.5cm wide and 8.5cm in depth, that is roughly 16x11.5x3.5 inches. Three brass butt hinges fasten the lid at the back. At the front a pair of small hooks hold it closed, and to carry the box there is a flat leather strap handle, now decayed and broken. In addition there are three fairly heavy brass castings mounted on the outside of this box, one on the lower edge at front centre, and one at each lower back corner. These fittings are threaded, and a trial showed that they accept a three-eighth inch outside diameter coarse thread (12 per inch). So the box is designed for three legs to be screwed in from underneath to support it at a convenient height in the field. The back corner fittings are designed so that the legs angle outwards at about 15 degrees. From the centre front fitting the leg drops vertically, the whole arrangement making a stable tripod. The legs are missing.

When opened, the lid of the box is held in position by a brass strap housed in the left side of the box, which hooks in variably at the lid end to provide a range of working angles for the built-in easel, which is fitted into the lid itself. This easel can hold two panels at once, one behind the other, within the depth of the lid. Panels up to fourteen inches in width and ten inches high can be accommodated, and by means of a sliding adjustment of the easel frame smaller pieces may be held, down to as little as seven and a half inches in width. Two panels (of the same size) may be easily worked on and transported home, even when still wet.

The first thing to be seen, snugly fitting in the main box, is Grandfather’s palette. At 14¾ x 10⅝ inches, rectangular, this is just barely within the inside dimensions of the box. It is made of a thin panel of solid walnut, the thumbhole cut for a right-handed artist. It isn’t dirty or crusted with old paint, though upon it there are indeed still remnants of the paints last used.. Remembering how many paintings it helped to make, it is clear the owner took good care of it. I have now put this palette back into use, lefthanded, so the surface I am using is relatively clean.
Setting aside the palette reveals an interior sectioned by neatly made tin liners. There are compartments for brushes and tubes of paint, and included also are both a small single dipper to clip onto the palette, and a little screw-topped tin can to hold medium or turpentine.
Altogether an ingenious and convenient setup, well designed for the field.

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