Frame of reference

16 Jan 2021

Anticipating (correctly) that our cleaner would not be coming today as lockdown 3 was announced yesterday evening, I was doing some preliminary dusting in our bedroom this morning when I came face to face with a work of art I had not given a thought to for some time.

It is very easy to overlook this piece, approximately A4 in size, in what must once have been quite a splendid frame, gilded wood with crimson velvet, but now so faded that the red is barely discernible. The picture too is discoloured and dull, with not much of the original colour remaining. It is a tapestry of a parrot with a small bird with widespread wings at its feet and grapes and leaves. At the bottom are two initials and a date, faint but clear: 1830

It had belonged to my husband’s parents. After they both died, my husband being an only child, we triaged the contents of their house. Although I had intended to keep it, the picture was sent with other bits and pieces to an auction house, where it failed to sell and was returned. Although my husband suggested getting rid of it because of its lack of artistic merit, I put it on the wall in our bedroom.

When I looked at it more closely, I realised that what was framed was not tapestry but a template for a tapestry sampler, designed to be sewn over to make the picture. It was largely uncompleted, hence the dullness, but a few places had been filled in with black thread and tiny stitches: on the sparrow’s head, the parrot’s wings, half the first stroke of the first initial.

I know the story behind this from my father-in-law. The picture was given to him in gratitude by the family of his friend. They were aristocratic and lived in some splendour in Hungary until the Second World War. Despite both men serving in the Hungarian Army and thus fighting initially on the German side, later both were captured because they were Jewish. I don’t know any more about the exact circumstances of their mutually supportive friendship.

My father-in-law was liberated from a concentration camp. As often happened, the friend was used to locate mines – by walking ahead to identify a safe path for the following troops.

And that’s where the story, like the tapestry and this blog, ends.


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