Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Story of the Lost Portrait of Roy

A 1920s portrait of my grandfather, Joseph Roy Chapman. He was always called Roy.

My grandfather, Roy Chapman, of Goodwater, Alabama, was the executive for Alabama Outdoor Advertising, a job he held his entire life. He was also president of the Homewood, Alabama, City Council. I never met him. He died before I was born.

But my Aunt Helen said he was a wonderful man and his death affected her in such a way that she was unable to talk about him--at least to me--for the rest of her life. In the letters I have read of his, and in the love he gave my father, I know he must have been a good and kind man.

We used to have a portrait of him, and therein hangs the tale.

A photo of Roy in the 1930s.

When Roy died, World War II had just ended, and my parents had been married only few years. They were on the other side of the continent from Alabama, in California, building and decorating their first home. My grandmother sold her home and sent my father some of the family things she thought he might want.

One thing was a baby grand piano. Another: an oil portrait of my grandfather.

My grandfather knew a lot of sign painters in his business, and during the Depression, the story goes, one of them borrowed some money from Roy Chapman that he could not find the means to repay.

So, he offered to paint a portrait of Roy, and, in further evidence of Roy's kindness, he agreed to the barter.

My mother didn't like the painting, though none of us knows exactly why. In any case, it was never given a place of honor in our home. It was in a closet for a while, and then it was in the garage.

My Aunt Helen was visiting one year and found it in the garage and told her brother that this was not a nice thing to do with a portrait of their father. She told him she would take it back home to the South with her. My mother didn't mind--obviously--and my father wanted whatever my mother wanted. Thus the portrait vanished from our lives.

After the death of my father's sister--my Aunt Helen--I knew my cousin had the portrait. And, with my interest both in family and art, I called her last year and asked if she was interested in our grandmother's baby grand piano. She was. If I sent her the baby grand piano, I asked, would she send me the old portrait of Roy Chapman? No, thank you, she said. Roy was very happy where he was. But she volunteered to have it copied--which was a nice thing to offer, though it was not what I wanted.

Well, I tried! We had lots of nice photos of Roy in any case.

My grandfather in his World War I uniform.

Yesterday, my sister and her husband were rummaging through the boxes in the space above the garage, and my sister came in and said there was a box labeled "Dad's portrait." It must be mislabeled, I said, as that portrait is no longer on this coast.

But, in a way, I was wrong.

A few minutes later, in came the portrait of Roy Chapman as a young man.

My Aunt Helen was as thoughtful as her father and, though she had taken the original, and knew my mother didn't like the painting, with an eye to the future, she had made a copy of it for her brother. The copy was hidden away, as had been the original: but Aunt Helen may have thought that one of us would eventually come across it, as we did, and it would re-emerge into the daylight.

I always liked my Aunt Helen.

The copy isn't as much fun as having the real thing: but it does appear that the original was indeed a good painting--as I had long suspected. The shadows on Roy face and the other details are wonderful, and it has the American primitive style of a self-taught itinerate sign painter that now marks the era.

I like it very much, even though it is a copy: for the funny story behind it and for the charm of the portrait itself. I can see my father in that face and something of my cousin in it too.

And I love the 1920s collar he is wearing.

I now have another reminder of family in this beautiful home my father left me. Roy's portrait took a long and circuitous route to get to this place, but that isn't unusual. We all do that, in life, to get where we are going. And we never know where that is going to be.

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Devon C. said...

And the piano went down south again.

Robin Chapman said...

So everything is in its place, and all is right with the world.

Don Meuler said...

I like this post a lot. That's all.