I bumped into the friend of a friend of a distant relative when I was on the bus recently, and, not knowing them so well wondered what on earth we were going to talk about for the ten minutes until I had to get out at my stop. I needn’t have worried. “I can’t tell you what pleasure we get from your drawing hanging in our dining room,” he said. (It was a drawing of a town in Cornwall.) “It brings back such happy memories of when we were there.” I settled back and was so carried away talking about it with him I nearly missed my stop.
The thing is, I had quite forgotten that he had bought it. I had an exhibition about 10 years ago and invited as many people that I could, and the trickle-down factor – the network of family and friends gossiping away - meant that quite a few people turned out. As I wasn’t present at the exhibition all the time it was on, I didn’t know just how many had turned up. But there were a few sales, mostly to people I didn’t know, and some to those I did.
My record of sales isn’t perhaps as well maintained as it could be, and is a document I should read more often, firstly so that I remind myself I have sold quite a few paintings over the years, which is kind of cheering, and secondly because those buyers are exactly the people I should be keeping up to date with current and future artistic ventures. But thirdly, it is worth remembering that those paintings and drawings, although largely forgotten by me, still mean something to the people who have them.
That our paintings go and have a life of their own when we part company with them was brought home to me even more forcefully just the following day when I had an unexpected phone call. It was from a man in Portugal who was trying, he said, to trace an artist called James Hobbs, as the collection of art in Lisbon he was employed to catalogue held a number of his paintings.
Perhaps I have been watching too much bad TV lately, but my first reaction was to look around to see where the hidden cameras might be. I was standing in an office corridor as I took the call and expected for a moment that I was going to be the subject of one of those fly-on-the-wall programmes. But the paintings sounded from his description to be like mine, and the phone number showing on my mobile phone was an international one. Besides, why shouldn’t my work be bought by someone on the other side of Europe? If someone was playing a trick it wasn’t a very good one, because a private collection is just the kind of place that an artist’s paintings could end up.
I gave him my email address, and later that evening he sent me jpegs of the four paintings. They were mine. He also sent me details of the collection of 4,000 works of art, built by mining millionaire Joe Berardo, which happens to have some of the biggest names from 20th century art among it. “But why have they got yours?” a friend bluntly put it later. My inner voice has also been asking that question and wondering how soon they will sell them, but another voice (perhaps a few too many voices in my head at the moment, but I promise I’m not cracking up), this other voice keeps saying, “You’ve been making work for years, and this is what can happen if you stick at it.”
I sold those paintings more than 15 years ago, and how I wish I could have been a fly on the walls upon which they have been hanging during that time. How the hell did they end up in Lisbon? Who has bought and sold them during that time? Where have others I have sold gone? Where have yours gone?