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Wednesday 12 January 2011

‘Princess Grace.’

After a flu-flattened opening to 2011, I have been cheered up by learning that I can now resume my account of nine hours of tapes recorded in Guadalajara between 2005 and 2007 -(See blogs from July and August last year)- with the ‘original’ of Peter Cotton.

I am very grateful that the Spanish lawyers contacted me to tell me this and, through his step daughter, Caroline, have learnt that ‘things have been settled’.

Our sessions were always held in his study with its glass wall facing north. On the book-lined south wall, I noticed there was a panel for an oil portrait of his second wife Helen. This was rather a fashion in Spain – in case you did not know whose house you were in a portrait was there to remind you. The portraits usually flattered – an old-fashioned sort of photo-shop in oils. It was not simply a matter of regularizing the features within a likeness. I once talked to a portrait painter on the Costa del Sol – he said ‘the camera adds ten pounds, I can take off up to thirty.’ His earnings were fabulous. And he worked very quickly. He had drawn, in pastels, separate portraits of a mother and three daughters in the morning and worked on the mother’s oil painting in the afternoon. His fee would have bought a medium sized car.

‘We were married in April 1973 in Chelsea. We were second timers and rather wanted a quiet wedding. It was, but Helen’s uncle took umbrage that he had not been invited, so he invited us to Cannes where he lived and gave us this portrait as a wedding present. Helen always called it ‘my Princess Grace moment’ – meaning Grace Kelly, then living along the coast in Monaco, and something of a yardstick. The Côte d’Azur is the Costa del Sol of France.’

We considered the painting. It showed a strikingly cool lady wearing a green gown and a string of pearls and brought to mind cheesy old expressions like ‘alabaster skin’ and ‘golden hair’.

Since there were several photographs of Helen in the study, the contrast between the vivacity of the snaps and the flattery of the painting were marked.

‘Have you come across the Picasso/Dali divide?’ he asked.

I had. In Spain, very generally, politics did not just divide into left and right but Picasso and Dali.

‘Helen’s uncle behaved as if we had planned our wedding to coincide with Picasso’s death. He was determined to correct an impression that only he had. We kept it partly because her uncle sometimes visited us here and partly because I became quite fond of it. It was so far from her.’ He shrugged.

‘I think of it as art subverted to social aspiration. Some art reveals, some closes things off, presents an idealized front. The painting is worthless but it is worth something to me, mostly as a contrast to my own memories.’

Helen’s daughter Caroline has told me they don’t know what to do with it. ‘It’s like an aged piece of Angel Cake. I can’t help feeling my mother’s uncle was a sentimental misogynist. You know, the kind of man who uses words like ‘fragrant’ for some women and wants all to be lady-like and contained.’

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