The Beauchamp Gallery was a glossy fronted shop in the most expensive part of London. It displayed sculptures on white pedestals and abstract paintings with terrifying price tags. Its assistant manager, Kornelia Siebert, had a degree in the history of art from the University of Heidelberg.
The intercom buzzed and Kornelia pressed it, expecting her boss, but in stumbled a shabby man. At first she thought him a tramp, with his long overcoat frayed at the cuffs, and considered pressing the panic button. But his thick glasses gave him a nutty professor air and he dragged a young child behind him by the hand. They stood on the doormat dripping rain, and a few dead leaves flew across the pale marble floor.
‘Kindly close the door,’ said Kornelia.
They advanced in a bit further between the white pedestals and stood in front of her glass desk. The man had an oblong parcel under his arm wrapped loosely in newspaper.
‘I’ve noticed that the paintings in here are, uh, very expensive,’ he said, his pale eyes vague behind the heavy lenses.
‘And they look like they’re by a six-year-old child.’
‘That is a matter of opinion.’
‘Well, this is by a genuine six-year-old child.’ He thrust the parcel forward. ‘My daughter. Here Gillian, you painted this, didn’t you?’
All Gillian could do was nod mutely.
‘Ah, I don’t think I…’ said Kornelia, ‘…you see, our clients are…how shall I say it…’
‘No, but see here,’ said the man, releasing the child and putting the parcel on the glass desk. He started to unwrap the painting. ‘Tell the lady how old you are, Gillian.’
The child looked up, her eyes wide, and pressed her lips together. She closed her fists at her sides, her arms straight and tense. Her dark hair was cut across in a fringe that was too high on her forehead.
‘Don’t be shy, Gillian.’ The man opened the layers of newspaper.
‘Six.’ Beneath her duffle coat her skirt looked home-made, the woollen dogstooth weave more suitable for a woman’s skirt-suit.
‘And what’s your painting called, Gillian? Tell the lady.’
Kornelia leaned forward to hear.
‘A Picture of My Family.’ Gillian twisted her foot nervously back and forth. Her over-large white sock collapsed over the ankle strap of her shoe.
Kornelia looked at the odd collection of multi-coloured smudges and smiled brightly at the child.
‘What a lovely picture,’ she said. ’Did you make that?’
‘She’s a child genius,’ said the father. He let go Gillian’s hand, drew himself up to his full height and looked down at Kornelia. His complexion was red, and his sandy hair was flattened by rain.
‘But I am very sorry,’ Kornelia said. ‘We do not have the space in the gallery to show it.’
The father slouched down, wreathed the painting in the newspaper, and took Gillian’s hand.
Kornelia watched them shuffle out into the rain with relief.
Weeks later she recognised the same multi-coloured smudges in the catalogue of another gallery. ‘A Picture of my Family’, by Gillian Hennessy.
She dialled the gallery, smiling.
‘David, it’s Kornelia here…Yes, I’m fine, how are you? Listen…’
After work, they went to the Star for a drink, David walking along with her past the Edwardian red-brick facades of Pont Street and the yellowing plane trees in Cadogan Place. Black cabs queued at the traffic lights.
‘I’ve known Joseph Hennessy for years,’ said David. ‘Self taught, never succeeded. Wife’s on the point of leaving him over it. I took the painting to help him out.’
‘But that painting is by a child.’
‘I know. There’s been fights with the wife over the so-called child genius. He’d got her in the papers and on TV.’
‘You can’t sell it as art.’
‘Art’s a tart, anyway,’ David grinned, and then apologised when Kornelia didn’t understand. ‘I was being glib. Something that should be an act of love being sold to the highest bidder.’
She shook her head, but it was true. Many clients saw paintings as fashion rather than art, searching for objects that would look chic with white leather sofas. Others saw them as investments to be preserved in bank vaults. But a child’s dabblings?
The pub was tucked away in a mews, unchanged for centuries. David held the door open for Kornelia, but she paused.
’It’s worthless, surely?’
‘The worth of an object is what someone’s willing to pay. I got five hundred quid for it. Ice and lemon?’