Life at the Museum

Our origins; who we believe we are, where we come from, the struggles and triumphs of our ancestors; these are the threads that weave the stories of our collective family histories. In some families, as in mine, this information is treasured by one member, the family storyteller, and in my own family this was my mother, Dorothy.

I was born in Hartlepool, a seaport and village which grew into a town, on a cold northerly coast of England. The town has a rich cultural heritage, an excellent maritime museum and a wonderful new art gallery (formerly Christ Church, where I was christened). This is where my own personal story began, but not relatives, whose origins, on my mother’s side, where from across the stormy seas of Europe.

My grandmother’s family where originally from the South of France; although not the glamorous palm tree-lined promenades of Cannes and Nice, they came from one of rural villages and were probably poor, although I don’t know the exact location, as facts always seemed to be in very short supply in these family tales: the story itself was the thing! I was told that my original family left France and moved to the Cornish coast in southern England, then later migrating further north to Nottingham and the North East. But time has not completely lost its Mediterranean legacy, as on a trip to France as a teenager, after an annoying mechanical breakdown in Reims, a young couple came to the rescue, speaking in French, far too fast for me to understand, and the girl looked bemused at my sad incomprehension and said, “But you look like you come from the south!”

My grandfather‘s family were originally from Denmark. I can see him clearly in the photograph my mother gave me, of this distinguished looking man, smoking a pipe. My granddad was a sailor in the merchant navy, who contracted a deadly strain of malaria while docked in Africa, which troubled him for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, this terrible disease eventually killed him; only a couple of months before I was born.

My mother never really got over his death, and I remember one day when I was small, she took me to a magical place, in order to share her memories of him, with me. We arrived at a very grand house; the former home of Gray Art Gallery and Museum in Hartlepool. My mother explained her special reason for the visit – after leaving the merchant navy, my grandfather Granville, who preferred to be called George, became the caretaker of the museum. His love of this amazing place, and depth of his knowledge of the artworks and exhibits, ensured that against latter-day expectations, he became the museum’s curator.

Gray Art Gallery and Museum was a beautiful place, in its day, resplendent with a stunning stained glass window, a large fish pond in its perfectly kept gardens, and a huge, flower-filled conservatory.  The house and original collection of paintings were given by Captain W. Gray, as an offering of thanks for the safe return of his son from the First World War. Since its opening in 1920, new collections in social and maritime history, have been added and also collections of Asian art, natural history and decorative arts. The maritime collection, which my own children loved, includes: fishing cobles, a merman, an exhibit which allows you to identify different bird cries, and a lighthouse! In the art gallery, there is an impressive fine art collection including works by James Carmichael, Lucien Freud, Basil Beattie, James Clarke and Frank Henry Mason, and these new collections, no doubt, would have delighted my grandfather.

For my mother, the visit brought memories of her childhood, flooding back, as my mother’s family lived in the museum; inhabiting the former servant’s quarters on the first floor. Life at the museum was never dull, she once told me; and also how lucky she was to have lived in such a magical place! I envied her childhood spent in such idyllic surroundings,  and have always felt the loss of the grandfather , whom  I was never able  to meet:  what  I do understand about him, although it’s not that much, is that he was very cultured, appreciated art, and that there was a great deal that he could have taught me.  Sometimes, I have this strange, fleeting feeling, that, as if by some inexplicable magic, he is still close to me; and I breathe in the scent of a newly smoked pipe, which seems to linger, long after there is no one around…


First published in English and Romanian at Contemporary Literary Horizon   2015

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