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By Emily-Jane Hills Orford
The much-anticipated return to school in September always came with the much expected first assignment: an essay, of course, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation”. While my classmates were considering stories centered around playing outside, swimming and going to the cottage, I knew what I would write about. I even had a title (or subtitle, considering the given assignment being the main title): “I Had My Portrait Painted.” Now that was something not many other Grade 7 students could boast about.
Mom was active in a lot of groups and supportive of the local arts community. It’s small wonder she came to know Joyce Allen, an artist who recently moved to London from England where she had trained with some of the best artists of the 1950s. She painted landscapes in the English landscape model, like Constable, Turner, Gainsborough (not that I understood any of this in the summer of 1970, as I wouldn’t start studying art at the University of Western Ontario until 1974). Some of her landscapes would win her awards in the 1970s and a few ended up in the permanent collection of Museum London. But, her passion, however, was portraiture. Mom was suitably impressed and decided that our grand old Victorian mansion should be graced with portraits of each of her four children, professionally done, of course.
As the youngest, I was the last to be painted. I was fine with that, as I wasn’t quite sure with the whole idea of having my likeness painted in oil on canvas then framed, hung in the living room for the world to see. Well, Mom’s world, anyway.
When my turn arrived, I reluctantly dressed in my Sunday best: a sleek, purple dress with a long chain of pearls, both birthday gifts. I wasn’t too keen at the idea of having to walk to Mrs. Allen’s home. By myself. In all my dressed-up finery. Past several friends and not-so-friendly classmates’ homes. It just wasn’t the thing to do on a warm, summer day in August, with the threat of returning to school looming on the horizon.
Fortunately, my first sitting was in the early morning. It was cool enough that walking in my good clothes, I wouldn’t over heat. It was also early enough that my friends hadn’t ventured outside to mock me on my trek. I arrived at Mrs. Allen’s house, 9 a.m. sharp, looking quite sharp myself. I had only met the artist a few times before, so I was nervous. I was entering a stranger’s house after having walked several blocks on my own to get there. Well, it was the 1960s, after all, and we didn’t worry too much about street smarts. Mrs. Allen was Mom’s friend and that’s all that mattered.
“Good morning, Emily,” Mrs. Allen greeted me. Her sweet voice laced with the lovely accent of the land over the pond. “You look lovely this morning. Come in. I’m all set up in the back.”
She led me the way, past the living room, through the kitchen and into a charming sitting room in the back. The walls were covered with shelves full of books, more than I’d seen anywhere else except at the public library. And, a large picture window opened up to the garden in the back.
“My little bit of home,” Mrs. Allen chuckled softly, noticing how I looked at her garden. “An English garden.”
The large window was opening, allowing a soothing breeze to sweep into the room. Refreshing. She led me to a chair along the opposite wall, behind which draped a cloth, the backdrop. I knew all about backdrops as both my parents were avid photographers and we all grew up posing for one photograph after another. “I thought you would appreciate looking at the garden while I painted your likeness,” she explained. I merely nodded. Shy at the best of times, I was totally spellbound by the woman, the set-up and the intended project that awaited. I noticed the easel sitting to one side, a drop cloth underneath to collect splatters and a blank canvas waiting for my likeness.
It was happening. It was really happening. I was having my portrait painted.
After positioning me on the chair and gently touching my face to move my head this way and that, Mrs. Allen took her place behind the easel and started sketching. As I listened to the scratch of brush against canvas, I pondered what I would look like in a painting. Would I recognize myself?
“When can I see it?” I couldn’t resist any longer. I’m sure I had only been seated for about ten minutes, but holding one’s position for any length of time was difficult, even for a fourteen-year-old.
“Oh!” Mrs. Allen gasped, surprised at my sudden outburst. “Not until it’s finished, of course.” Her lyrical voice soothed me, but I was getting restless. She noticed. “You have to sit still, Emily. Keep the pose. Don’t move your head.” And then she started regaling me with stories. About the other London. Across the pond, so to speak. Stories of her childhood in the English countryside. While I listened, mesmerized, both by the tone of her voice and the stories themselves, she painted and sketched. The time passed more quickly, as we set up a rapport between us: artist and model.
I was surprised when she announced, “Well. That’s it for now. You may move.”
“Can I see it now?” I asked, jumping down from my perch.
“Oh no!” the artist exclaimed. “It’s not done yet. You’ll have to return every morning at the same time for a couple of weeks. We need the same lighting.”
“Oh!” I felt deflated. I remembered my siblings making multiple trips to Mrs. Allen’s house. I had hoped that, with the practice of painting them, Mrs. Allen would be faster completing my portrait. That was not to be.
“How about some milk and cookies before you leave,” she suggested. “I bake them fresh this morning before you came.” Never one to turn down cookies, especially homemade cookies, I readily agreed.
We talked some more while I enjoyed my snack, not caring if it ruined my appetite for the lunch that awaited me at home. I told her about my school, what I wanted to be, all the things adults ask and children share readily. After two cookies and a few discreetly handed to me to enjoy on my walk home, I said, “Good-bye,” with the promise to return the next morning.
And so it went on for a few weeks. The month blended into autumn and I was quickly immersed in preparing for the first day of school. I was pleasantly surprised, a few days before school started, to answer the door one morning and find Mrs. Allen on the doorstep, wrapped canvas in hand.
“My portrait?” I gasped. She nodded as I lead her into the living room. The family joined us for the unveiling. I already knew where my portrait would hang, as the other three had found their place on the wall facing the large picture windows.
My portrait and those of my siblings hung on the same wall in my parents’ living room until we were all grown up and had homes and families of our own. One Christmas, Mom surprised us by giving each of us our own portrait. Mine has hung on various living room walls, from coast to coast (wherever we happened to be living at the time) for almost thirty years. It’s more than a portrait of me at fourteen; it’s a painting full of stories and memories I’ll cherish for a lifetime.
Emily-Jane Hills Orford has published several books, creative nonfiction stories mostly about her family. Growing up in Toronto, then Hamilton and finally London, Emily-Jane has lots of family stories to warm the heart. In her most recent novels, “Mrs. Murray’s Ghost” and “Mrs. Murray’s Hidden Treasure”, the author returns to her roots and the fond memories and dreams, growing up in a haunted old Victorian mansion in London. For more information about the author, check out her webpage at: http://emilyjanebooks.ca