Heat, sand and concrete – that was what surrounded me growing up in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in the early years of its existence as a nation and amid the building boom sparked by the discovery of oil.
It was my father’s work as a doctor that took us there in the mid-1970s and we lived in a bungalow within the hospital compound. There were no glossy facilities – not even a playground – so in the late afternoons when the heat subsided my brother and I would be out in the patch of ground by the house, devising our own games and watching out for the biggest possible excitement: a helicopter coming in to the hospital from one of the offshore rigs.
Inside the house, however, was something that looked as though it was from another place and age. It was a portrait of a woman seated in a green velvet armchair, dressed in a sari and looking directly at the artist with an expression containing the very faintest hint of a smile. Because of its size – about a metre across and probably twice that in height – it was impossible to miss, finished off in the bottom right hand corner with the artist’s signature.
He was Bernard Hailstone, a society portrait painter of the time, I later discovered. She – the subject – is my mother, Shama. What the artist captured is a very good likeness of her as she was in her 30s and the image not only delighted me as a child but filled me with pride. It meant that my mother, whose world by then revolved around us children, her husband and the house, had a status beyond – she was important enough to have had her portrait painted.
It was my father’s idea. He had grown up in Pakistan without much exposure to art but had always had an eye for beauty and colour, and in later life began to use pastels to paint family members himself. Perhaps that hobby was sparked by seeing this, his own commission, come to life. My mother remembers them both going to see Hailstone in his studio in Chelsea, she dressed in the sari she wanted to be painted in. He offered her a choice of chairs and once she had taken up position in the green one, asked how she would like to be seen. “Just looking at you, as I am now,” she told him.
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He took out his camera and took a series of pictures, telling my parents he was known as “the fastest brush in town”. Sure enough, a few days later they went back to his studio and the painting was nearly finished. She was dressed as she had been before and sat for him again, so that – he told her – he could get the colours right. And that was it. The portrait came back to the Abu Dhabi house with them.
Sadly, that was the last place I remember seeing it. In the mid-1980s it was boxed up when we moved to Saudi Arabia and none of us can remember it being unpacked there. My mother thinks there were concerns that when they had colleagues of my father’s over, few of whom brought their wives, it would appear quite an intimate image to have on the living room wall. And it didn’t really work anywhere else.
In the period after that, my parents sent possessions to the UK at various points, ahead of their own move back, and the portrait ended up stored in a garage in London that belonged to relatives. One day in the early 1990s there was a break-in and the entire contents were cleared out. As everything was still in boxes or trunks, the burglars would only have been able to go through their haul later, when they were probably disappointed to find they had mostly books, linen, the odd ornament and a painting of an unknown woman in a sari.
I am not sure the burglary was even reported to the police at the time, partly because no one was sure precisely when it had happened – the garage was slightly away from the block of flats it was attached to and rarely accessed. When we realised the painting had been in there it was like a punch in the gut – obviously something so precious should never have been stored in such a way.
It was some years later, while working as a business journalist at the BBC, that I began thinking about trying to find it. I had interviewed a contributor about art restitution and when we were chatting afterwards and I mentioned it, he suggested putting the painting on the Art Loss Register.
For a variety of reasons it didn’t happen – one immediate problem was that there was no picture of the painting available. My mother did write to the Hailstone estate, asking if they might have one – or a copy of one of the photographs Bernard had taken to help paint it – but they didn’t. My father had, by this stage, taken the view that there was little point being sentimental about something that was long gone. And we all had a sense of how small our loss was compared to the historical importance or circumstances of other items on the register, particularly art seized by the Nazis.
And then, just the other day, my mother told me that after all these years, she had discovered that a photograph of the painting does exist – she had found one tucked inside an old album at home in London. Once she saw it, she remembered having taken it herself. And while the print itself has decayed over time, we finally had something to go on. Social media seemed a good place to start, so I put it on both Twitter and Instagram in the knowledge that it was a long shot, but with nothing to lose.
There is – as yet – no happy ending to this story, but the reaction to the posts has made me smile many times over. From the childhood friends – and their parents – who responded by saying they remember the original portrait, to the people who improved the image for me and offered to create digital versions or even paint a new one, to those telling me Hailstone had also painted them or their parents, and those simply wishing us well in finding it.
My mother is amazed, and my father would be, too. It is nearly five years now since he died but if he was still around I suspect he would be spurred on to use the long-lost photo to recreate it himself in pastels. And I haven’t given up hope – maybe there is someone, somewhere, with a portrait on their wall of an unknown woman in a sari who will now be able to discover its story.Internet Explorer Channel Network