Art For Art’s Sake
By Alec Lamberton
She took my hand gently, looked into my eyes with sadness.
“I’m dying, and that’s a fact. I want it all in order.”
“No, Auntie, there’s always treatments to--”
She held her hand up, firm this time. “No, Angie. It’s beyond any kind of treatment.” She sighed. “Some people would call it a good run” – she was seventy-two – “and it has been, for the most part.” Her glance flickered down the hallway, where Benita was admiring the pictures on the wall, and I could tell my cousin’s gaze was passing over the photo portraits and holiday snaps to the paintings collected over a lifetime, while her brother George looked over her shoulder. My cousins seemed to epitomise the Oscar Wilde saying about the price of everything and the value of nothing, never truer with the corporate lawyer and the investment banker speculating on a soon-to-be inheritance. “I shouldn’t say it, but I wish they’d grown up more like you.”
I had to laugh. “Why? They have all the money and success. I live hand to mouth, my photographs don’t sell like those paintings.”
In a previous life, Aunt Elise Grey had been a famous art buyer for museums, galleries and corporate clients, and every now and then found a piece she purchased for herself. She even once found a Francis Bacon, thought lost, and bought by a mining company for the chairman’s office; goodness knows what he thought of it “It was just money on the wall to them,” she’d said.
George and Benita had never wanted for anything; now they had grown indifferent to her. No family is perfect, and I thought of my own, Elise’s sister and my mother, who was bitterly smoking herself to death, lost to any ambition. My father had slipped out of our lives long ago, except for the occasional card or present.
I pulled a notebook out of a box. “What’s this?”
“Oh! I haven’t seen that for years!” she said, and began flicking through it. She suddenly paused at one page and stared at it for a long time, before saying “Huh,” a rarity from a normally eloquent woman.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s, well… a mini-sketchbook. I was travelling through Europe in my twenties, and met some famous artists, then came back to Australia and met more.” She sighed. “What a time…” she whispered, regret and joy mingling in her voice, then she looked at me, then her children.
“Benita! I’m going to give Angie my old notebook! My gift to her, alright?” Benita was distracted by yet another picture.
“Sure, mum, all hers.”
“Good. I’ll make sure you get it… later.” She paused. “Can you take me into the city tomorrow? A few errands to run.”
The trip consisted of visits to various art galleries, but she insisted I wait in the car, then made up by buying me lunch at an upmarket café on Sydney’s North Shore. Under the trees, looking across a park to the sparkling Harbour, she seemed pleased if tired, making the most of a day out.
“Sydney really can be a beautiful city.”
“On a good day.”
“On a good day,” she conceded. “But when the days are good, they’re very good.” She turned to me. “It goes away too soon.” She tilted he face back, as the sun flickered down through the leaves, and smiled. “But while it’s here, it’s very good.”
It didn’t last. Her cancer spiralled out of control, and all I could do was stand to one side as her children crowded her, jockeyed for her attention. But I managed to see her alone one last time, and as before, she smiled and took my hand.
“I’ve got everything set up, I’ve made sure they are looked after, and you too.”
“They should get the most of it, I’m just…” My voice trailed off. She was more like a mother to me than mine. She squeezed my hand tighter.
“I know…” then she ran out of words too, and we sat for a long time just holding hands as the sun slowly moved in blind-split bands across the wall.
Then she was gone.
The funeral service was held in a small church in Balmain, the suburb she grew up in. Like that day at the café, the sun flickered through the leaves as her casket slid into the hearse, and slowly driven away. My cousins were cool and quiet. I was a mess.
Three days later, I received a call from a solicitor.
“Ms Muir, I have the bequest from my client here for you, a, ahh, notebook.”
“Oh, yes. The will’s been read?”
“Yes, her, ahh, children said you didn’t want to attend.”
“Mmm.” I wasn’t asked. “Well, I’ll pick it up this afternoon.”
I sat in my car and took it out of the envelope the lawyer handed me. It was the same dusty little book I remembered from that day six months before. I flicked through it, and saw pictures: squiggles, crosshatched monochrome abstracts, some faces that suddenly loomed out from their page, cruel or smiling, ethereal or realistic, then sailing on into tiny jewels of landscapes, or a house, or a sleeping cat. All different hands.
A slip of paper fell from inside the back cover, which turned out to be a note from my aunt, and I read it through a blur of tears.
Here is the notebook I promised you. It’s important you take it to the Marston Gallery at Artarmon, the owner Graham Marston is expecting you.
Please make the most of this gift. Don’t ler anyone hold you back.
I put the book down on the seat beside me, and gripped the steering wheel tight. Why was she sending me there? What was the point?
My thoughts were interrupted by my phone. No sooner did I answer than Benita’s voice was spitting out.
“Did you know?!”
“Uhhh, know what?”
“Did you know what Mum did?!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Take a deep breath and tell me.”
I heard the intake of air, but couldn’t tell if it was advice taken or shock at insolence. “My mother” – the word laden with venom – “stipulated that George and I were to get all the paintings, to be divided between us, plus the proceeds of the house sale. We were fine with that because we’d had them appraised, they were worth three million dollars! We had a security team pick them up after the funeral and taken to a gallery, where they were reassessed. And they were all forgeries! Very good ones, but there were little clues in them that the appraisers picked up straight away! I was so embarrassed! It turns out she’d had art students come and copy them as part of their course, and purchased the best ones. She replaced them all, then sold them, and donated the money to the hospital that looked after her! They’ve all gone to private collections so we can’t recover them! The copies are worth nothing!” Her despairing tone became sharply accusatory again. “Did she tell you what she was going to do?!”
“No! I had no idea! If I did I would have tried to stop her!”
“Yes! I promise, I had no idea! Alll she left me was the notebook!”
“Mm.” It was so dismissive, I couldn’t help bite back.
“Maybe if I’d been invited to the reading I could have helped,” I said sweetly.
“Huh! I’m going to get to the bottom of this! If I find out you’re involved, you’ll regret it!” A click at the other end.
Mildly satisfying though that was, it was still a mystery.
Marston Gallery was a cool-white building in an affluent part of Vaucluse, and my car looked scruffy parked out the front, but I strode in with a confidence I didn’t feel, asked for Graham Marston, and was shown immediately into an office. Marston himself was a short, tidy man, exactly the type you would imagine would run an art gallery, walking the tightrope between bohemian and art collector.
“Ah, Ms Muir, I’ve been expecting you!” He seemed genuinely excited. “You have it? The notebook?”
“Yes.” I rummaged in my bag, and gave it to him.
He held it up, admiring the shabby cover. “Oh, excellent!”
“I’m sorry, why does it interest you?”
“You don’t know?!” he exclaimed. “My dear girl!” – the first time I’d ever been called that – “The notebook is invaluable!”
“I don't know why.”
He curbed his excitement for a moment. “Perhaps this will explain.” Reaching into his sportsjacket pocket, he flourished an envelope. It was another letter in my aunt’s sweeping hand.
This is Graham Marston. He’s the highest bidder for the notebook. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but it was never yours to keep. There was a silent auction in the weeks before I popped my clogs, as they say, and he was the winner. He’ll explain what it is, then he will give you a cheque. Take it and run to the horizon! Use it to explore the world, and take all the photos you can! Make your art great! Go before Benita and George come after you. They have no legal recourse, but I anticipate they’ll make your life difficult. Go and do all those wonderful things we talked about.
With my blessing,
“I’m sorry,” I said to Marston, “I don’t understand.”
He beamed, a sun appearing from behind a cloud.
“When your aunt was a student, she travelled Europe, meeting many, many artists, and, frankly, seducing most of them, in return for a quick illustration in her notebook.” For a moment, I thought, Good on you, auntie! “Her notebook… they are all in there!” He opened the notebook. “Let’s see… Picasso… de Kooning… Warhol… Hockney… goodness knows how she got something from Bacon... so many others… there’s a Lindsay!” He was beside himself. “This book contains many examples by famous artists, Some later reused the ideas here for their most famous works! Here’s Etsey Hall’s ‘Triptych of Lost Souls’” – pointing to a monitor – “and here’s the earliest known sketch in your aunt’s notebook!” There was no doubt that one part of the triptych had begun as a drawing on an early page. “This little book is a key to the art of the twentieth century. So your aunt arranged the auction, and I was the fortunate winner!”
He reached into his pocket again, this time producing a cheque. It was in my name. It was for twenty thousand dollars, more money than I’d ever had in my life, and my hand shook a little. I looked back at the note, and a sentence jumped out at me.
Take it and run to the horizon! Use it to explore the world, and take all the photos you can!
“I have to go,” I blurted.
That was ten years ago. That gift allowed me to travel to Europe and start the photography career that Elise believed was in me, which led to sales, which led to… everything from model photography along Mediterranean beaches to portraits to calendars to tense political standoffs to riots in East European cities for causes I still don’t fully understand, evolving from film to digital and back again.
My cousins were suspicious of me, but they had nothing to go on, and squabbled among themselves, sending lawyers hither and yon, and spending more than they should have. I wonder why they needed more money, when they already had so much.
My mother passed away, still bitter, I missed her anyway, and I never saw my father again. But I met someone, married, had children who I never take for granted.
Life became something else, and I will be forever grateful.