This is the fourth chapter of John Griffith’s memoir about his time in the village as an art gallery owner.
If you have missed the previous chapters – please click HERE
Difficult customers came in all sorts of guises, though mostly in male form. The phrase, ‘Where are we going to put that?’ in reaction to a lady who had just found something she would love to hang on a wall, or display in a cabinet, generally killed the prospect of a sale stone dead.
It wasn’t always a man. A husband had spent a long time and careful thought trying to find something special for his wife only for her to stalk into the gallery a day or two later, gift in hand, demanding the money back, with the words, ‘What on earth would I want something like this for?’ I never argued, simply reflected on the sadness of an unenviable relationship..
Most customers, of course, weren’t like that at all. Another lady came back to the gallery, gift in hand, but for a very different reason. The gift was in a brown paper bag, in a multitude of pieces, and she was in tears.
She told me it was the last thing her husband had bought for her from the gallery, just before his sudden death. She wondered if there was anything I could do to restore it. I wondered too, when I saw the mass of broken pieces. It took days of patient construction work on the three-dimensional ‘jig-saw’ that had once been a beautiful, hand-crafted ceramic vase. Luckily there was a distinctive, colourful decoration over the entire surface and, by gluing small sections at a time, much to my own surprise, the original vase rose from the wreckage. I was even able to fill all the fine cracks and paint the filling to match the original decoration. No one was more delighted than me, when I was able to telephone her to collect it. Her joy was all the payment I needed. It simply reinforced my conviction, however, that I was a very poor business man.
I certainly lacked that vestige of ruthlessness needed to make the successful entrepreneur. This was exemplified in two typical incidents.
A major part of my business consisted of offering a picture framing service which became very popular. I didn’t do the framing myself, I didn’t have the space, but had a professional framer collect my order one week and return the finished pictures the next, for which I received a commission. I advised my customers on the appropriate mount, if required, and the frame to suit the picture. I had many samples to help the customer decide.
A pretty, dark-haired young Irish lady entered the gallery one day. She was in tears, just like the broken hearted lady with the vase. The picture she was holding was an oil painting of a lovely little boy, dark-haired just like her, aged about five. She had had the painting done, just before he died, she told me, still in tears. Somehow, I was able to talk her gently through the process of selecting an appropriate frame, took her details, and she left.
When the framed picture was returned the following week, there was not the slightest chance I was going to keep it on the premises in case something happened to it; I had no intention of adding to that young woman’s grief. I immediately closed the gallery and drove to her home to deliver it personally.
I became aware one day of a young couple on the pavement staring intently at something on one of the gallery walls. For a young couple they looked strangely old fashioned, even innocent. They held hands and were obviously devoted to each other.
I didn’t think for one moment they were likely to be potential customers, they had probably never considered entering a gallery before, I thought idly. It was to my surprise, therefore, when they obviously came to a decision and entered. Somewhat shyly, they approached a rather lovely oil- painting of a local church hanging on a rear wall.
For some time they stood gazing at the picture, close together, hands still clasped, the odd, whispered comment the only sound. I had made it a principle to allow visitors the freedom and time to enjoy everything I had on show without any pressure from me; but this young couple had started to intrigue me. Their clothes looked dated and well worn; you would not immediately think of them as considering a picture a top priority.
I introduced myself and we began to chat. It soon became apparent why there was such interest in the painting.
‘We’ve just got married,’ the young lady explained, ‘and my husband has just been appointed as verger in that church.’ She looked at him with evident pride; he responded with a wide grin. ‘It’s such a lovely painting, isn’t it. We couldn’t help admiring it from outside.’
Probably the price was a little beyond them, for, with a few more words, they thanked me for the opportunity to see it and went on their way, still hand in hand. That was the last I expected to see of them.
About half an hour later, the door opened and the young man hurried in.
‘Please,’ he said, conspiratorially ‘Would you reserve that picture for me? I want to buy it as a surprise for my wife. I can collect it next week but I don’t want her to know, so if she should happen to call in, please tell her it’s sold. Would you do that?’
It was all so sudden and unexpected, I could only stammer, ‘Y.Yes. Of course.’
He left, grinning broadly, and I placed the customary red dot by the side of the picture.
An hour or so later, his young wife appeared, a happy smile lighting up her face.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘My husband loved that painting of the church so much. I want to buy it for him as a surprise. It will always remind us of our happy time here.’
The memory of the look of disappointment on her face as I had to lie to do as her husband requested and tell her it was sold remains with me to this day. She would, of course, have the pleasure of the picture as a surprise gift, eventually, but at that moment it was the most disappointing moment of her young, married life, when it should have been one of the happiest.
© John Griffiths 2017