‘What do you think of these paintings, Audrey?’ asked Hannah Arden of her friend, Audrey Shannon.
Audrey viewed a series of six abstract paintings on the wall with a jaundiced eye.
‘Looks like a dog’s breakfast to me.’.
‘Don’t be such a philistine, Audrey. They’re by Hugo Lance. He uses symbols.’
‘He should try using brushes.’
The pair were wandering around a modern art gallery in the centre of town. It had a cafe where they intended to eat their lunch.
‘I know Hugo Lance,’ said Hannah.
‘Do you? How?’ asked Audrey.
‘He's the nephew of my brother-in-law Norman. You remember Norman?’
‘The one with the eyebrows that meet in the middle?’
‘He wouldn’t thank you for pointing that out, but you are correct. Anyway, Hugo used to have tea at Norman’s, the odd time I was there. I got to know him quite well.’
‘How old is this Hugo, then?’ asked Audrey.
‘Forty-two. Hang on, I’ve a photograph of him in my bag.’
Hannah rummaged in a bag large enough to hold a stone of potatoes and withdrew a six-by-four black and white photograph which she handed to her friend.
Audrey studied the head-and-shoulders portrait.
‘I don’t much like the look of him,’ she said.
‘He’s got beady eyes and an arrogant, sneering expression on his face, as if he thought the photographer was dirt beneath his feet.’
‘I took the photograph. He didn’t think I was dirt.’
Audrey ignored the jibe and went on.
‘Thick lips, a snub nose, and those awful hostile eyes - no, I don’t like him at all.’
‘You are talking about a relative of mine.’ said Hannah.
‘A distant one.’
Hannah put the photograph back in her bag.
‘He’s a brilliant artist,’ said Hannah, ‘on this wall are six of his very best. Take this one for example - it’s called From the Earth - it represents the millions of soldiers who were slain in World War Two.’
‘It looks like one of those eye-charts full of coloured dots,’ replied Audrey, ‘you have to see if any of them are purple.’
Audrey shook her head in bewilderment. She quite liked those pictures of matchstick men that the chap from Bolton, or was it Burnley? painted - what was his name - Lawrie something? She’d seen a painting of his of a football ground, with men like ants scurrying towards it and loads of factory chimneys belching smoke. That was a real painting. Men liked football and chimneys did belch smoke - Audrey preferred realism.
‘This one is Woman in Taupe, said Hannah. ‘You can see how Hugo represents the entire female sex by painting an ethereal image to capture the fractured nature of the female gender.’
Audrey looked closely. All she could see was a pyramid wearing a brassiere.
‘This one’s The Door to the Sea. Observe how the weak sunlight refracts on the surface of the glistening waves, and how that tiny ship fights against the elements. It’s a masterpiece.’
Audrey failed to see how a number of pink vertical stripes and two horizontal flashes of yellow, with a black speck on one of the pink stripes, represented the door to anything, let alone the sea.
‘Is it not time for lunch?’ she asked.
Hannah nodded and led the way to a small cafe at the side of the main gallery. It was a spartan room with formica-topped tables and a bare floor. The seats were hard and basic, and the walls were white, except on one side, where a window ran from floor to ceiling the whole length of the wall. A number of spotlights in the ceiling were trained on a single large painting, that of a vase of curiously mis-shapen yellow dahlias, which adorned the end wall. The pair took seats away from the window, because it was much colder next to all that glass.
‘It’s an O’Keefe,’ said Hannah.
‘That painting. Georgia Totto O'Keeffe. She was an American modernist artist. She
was known for her paintings of enlarged flowers.’
‘I thought they had some sort of blight,’ said Audrey.
A waitress in a white apron took their order of bacon rolls, scones and a pot of tea.
She returned with a tray containing their lunches and set it down. Hannah distributed the comestibles.
‘What happened to him?’ asked Audrey.
’What happened to who?’
‘Eat your sandwich.’
‘I said “eat your sandwich’’ - it’ll go cold.’
‘I asked what your Hugo is doing now,’ said Audrey.
Hannah’s face suddenly flushed beetroot red.
‘I’d rather not talk about it.’
‘Why, is he dead, then?’ asked Audrey, hopefully.
‘Of course he’s not dead. He’s only in his forties.’
‘Then why don’t you want to talk about it?’
‘I know - he’s got a young woman, one of his models, in trouble.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous - he’s a happily married man. He has two children.’
‘He’s an artist, isn’t he? They don’t care where they put their hands.’
Hannah knew better than to argue with her obtuse but extremely dogged friend, and relented, though her words were issued through teeth clenched as tightly as a mechanic’s mole wrench.
‘He’s in jail.’
To Audrey, this was something even better than Hugo’s early demise.
‘Jail? Whatever for?’
‘I told you he’s a brilliant artist. It’s just that he forged a painting and said it was an original by Willem de Kooning.’
‘Willem de Kooning - a Dutch abstract artist who moved to America. His paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.’
‘How was he found out?’ asked Audrey.
‘He sold shares in the painting far in excess of their worth. The Fraud Squad arrested him and he went to jail.’
‘Don’t worry. The publicity has earned him a fortune. The paintings hanging here will sell for thirty thousand pounds each.’
‘And they say crime doesn’t pay,’ reflected Audrey, taking a bite of her scone.
© RT Hardwick