The Way We Lied

The next day, after a frugal breakfast of toast and black coffee, they walked to the Tate St Ives through the lanes of old cottages, bulging organically like so many strange bulbous fungi from rocky walls and alleyways. Several of the little houses were shops and galleries selling souvenirs and work by local artists.
“You can ignore most of this,” Mary said, dismissing them with an impatient wave of her hand. “It’s nearly all cheap crap churned out for the summer visitors.”
And in the gallery, she marched him past the huge colourful panels in the entrance, up clanging stairs and along a shining white corridor until they stood before some small paintings in muddy colours depicting childish boats and houses.
“Now this,” she said, pointing directly at the first picture, “this is what I wanted you to see. It’s not big, it’s not showy, but it illustrates the contrast between what you would normally consider buying and what I am trying to help you understand and appreciate. This speaks with a true and honest voice.”
He didn’t answer her. He just stood and looked, trying to comprehend, trying to see what she meant by showing him these simple, crude pictures. Finally he gave up and just said, “So I take it these are meant to be good then?”
Thankfully, she didn’t mock or admonish him, she merely said, “They are simply wonderful. Alfred Wallis was untrained and he didn’t even begin to paint until late in life, but they are quite beautiful. He painted what he had seen, what he remembered and what he felt. He painted for the rest of his life on anything he could lay his hands on. See? See here?” She pointed out a rough wooden edge with a little of the original print showing through. “This painting is not even on canvas. It’s part of an old wooden packing case.”
“But they’re so crude. They look as if a child could have painted them.”
“But a child didn’t. A grown man with years and years of experience of the sea, of the fishermen who risked their lives here, a member of this community did. He had lived and worked here all his life, seeing the ships come and go, watching the seas change from calm pond to violent storm. He didn’t need expensive materials to paint what was in his heart, he just had to paint what he saw and how he lived. And other artists, many of them already well established and successful, came here to paint and saw his pictures. They recognised that he was a true, natural artist and they became great admirers of his work. It is because of them that examples of his work have survived. When he died all his possessions were burnt by his neighbours because they claimed his house was infested with fleas.”
Nick looked at the paintings again. Perhaps they were beginning to grow on him. Knowing more of their origin certainly made them more appealing. “So does that mean these little paintings are valuable?”
Mary gave him a frosty glare. “They’re worth a fortune. But that is not the point. Don’t start judging according to monetary worth. Forget their value.”

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