I didn`t have to think too long about this – I was able to identify my hero almost immediately. Now there is a pause as I go through the names of my father`s brothers (there were a lot of them) – Uncles Charles, Bert, George, Jack and Polly. Yes, seriously – he was called Polly!!!! I can`t remember his proper name but all his siblings and indeed his parents referred to him by his nickname earned from his constant singing of `Polly Put the Kettle On` when he was little.
But Polly, although a dear, was not my hero – that title was reserved for my Uncle Jack. He was the youngest of them all (there were girls as well). Tall, handsome and such fun. I remember well his bear hugs when I was little. His head thrown back in laughter displaying his strong, white teeth. His curly light brown hair. His hazel eyes, flecked with light. He was in the army during WWII and I can see him now in his uniform – buttons and shoes shining. He gave me a red armband with a swastika on it and an Iron Cross. I never wondered how or where he got them – now I have a good idea. But they were the envy of all my friends (mostly boys).
One day he brought to my grandparents` house the young woman who was to become his wife and my Aunt Margaret. I remember feeling jealous – I was all of 8 years old!
He continued to tease and wrestle with me – sometimes a little too enthusiastically for my taste but I was a sturdy youngster and enjoyed the rough and tumble. And then I discovered his hidden talent – he could paint. I would sit for ages watching him at his easel, marvelling at the paintings he produced. On a few occasions he asked me to sit for him and I can remember sitting for what seemed like hours without moving – I wish I still had those paintings.
Each year he would take me to the Summer Exhibition of Art at The Royal Academy in Piccadilly, London. He would buy a catalogue – in those days they were quite small and chunky and bound in blue. I amassed quite a collection of them on my bookshelf. He was an architect so we did that section thoroughly, examining all the models – usually encased in glass. And looking at the drawings. Then on to the painting – oh what joy! All the `greats` of British art were exhibiting – Dame Laura Knight, Stanley Spencer, John Bratby, Sir Alfred Munnings – the list was endless. But not only was I fortunate to see all this work, I had my uncle by my side and together we examined them and discussed their respective merits. What a grounding I had. How very lucky I was.
On my 11th birthday I had the usual abundance of presents from friends and family. Uncle Jack and Aunt Margaret gave me a largish parcel which contained a cardboard box – inside were tubes of oil paint and instructions as to their use written in Uncle`s beautiful script. He had also made me a wooden palette and given me some brushes, linseed oil, turpentine and a couple of prepared boards on which to paint. He told me to use mother`s dining chair as an easel and I was off! I honestly can`t remember the subject of my first oil painting – I think I was a little inhibited and frightened of spoiling it. I didn`t have the confidence to realise that, if I messed it all up, it was so easy to paint it out and start again.
Family upsets later on led to a row between him and my mother but I secretly continued to visit my aunt and uncle – risking mother`s displeasure. They adopted two children quite late in life – in fact my cousins were very near in age to my own two sons and they played together regularly.
Jack continued to paint and, to his credit, didn`t nag because I had given it up due to the pressures of my own family life. He did submit one painting for the Royal Academy one year – it was accepted but rejected later by the Hanging Committee. I was so proud of him!
He, aunt and my cousins moved to the Channel Islands and, although I kept in touch, I never saw them again. I know aunt and uncle died quite a few years ago. He is so close to me now as I write this – I can see his laughing face watching me and I am sure he is with me as I paint these days. My hero …