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Philip's Favourite Picture

Thu Dec 10, 2015

By Philip Mould OBE

As an art dealer I often get asked what my favourite picture has been. Either that, or the rather more direct question: have you ever regretted anything you have sold? I usually brush this off with the answer that art dealers have to numb their nerves; rather like pet shop owners we cannot get emotionally attached to our wares.

But something happened a few months ago that has changed this. I have fallen for a painting in a way that I have warned myself from ever doing. I have been asking myself whether I can alter the habit of a lifetime and pilfer my own stock, take it home, and - artistically speaking - live happily ever after.

The painting in question is a portrait of a Cornish girl by Dod Procter. She stands alone in a sort of poetic solitude. Her chalky mauve dress falls in long folds that conjures late fifteenth-century fresco. A tantalising still life of two apples, edited like a cropped photograph, protrudes into frame lower right. Behind her, a dresser with decorated china plates evokes middle class 1920s Cornish interior – the place and time of the painting – while a bright patterned cloth above her head, as well as firing the scene with a flash of orange, alludes to Procter’s recent sojourn in Burma –exotic east melds with the English west.

We know the model by name as one Lilian Gilbert, a local girl whom Dod would have probably spotted in a shop or market place. She plays the part with consummate conviction. With one hand Lilian is drawing a green parrot from its cage with a morsel of apple. The door is open and the bird is protruding from its sanctuary, its red beak and primordially impassive eye indicating its imminent lunge. Lilian herself is causing the act - luring the bird from its sanctuary, but it is an action she cannot bear to look upon. Her hand screens the scene, her gaze is sharply averted – perhaps through shame, or fear, or an unspeakable excitement for the forbidden.

Its symbolism needs no explanation, but the language used to express it is serenely beautiful, bewitching and profound. Figurative art does not get much better.

Images: ©Philip Mould Ltd.