The internet auction site that cannot be named—America’s attic and garage sale—is replete with portraits, painted, photographed and otherwise, and virtually all of them are unidentified. Even more puzzling, however, is that many of them are named. How does that happen. For a nation so currently occupied with questions of family [what constitutes one and who gets to decide], you’d think the family structure and its lineage would be sacrosanct. Yet thousands of portraits—images of people who were presumably parts of a families—are tossed into rubbish bins, put on the curb for clean-up week, or offered at flea markets as the stuff of decoupage every day of the week. I know, because I buy a lot of them.
Two small but remarkable portraits showed up one day that were irresistible: Kenneth and Rachel Goodall, identified on the reverse (of the paintings, not on the backsides of Mr and Mrs Goodall) along with the name of the artist (Enedina Pinti Zambrini) and the date of the sitting. I was the only bidder. And even before they arrived, I was able to use google and ancestry.com to flesh out their biographies. Even Mrs Zambrini became a know quantity. Yet the story of how the painting came to be offered for sale was tragic.
The Goodalls had done well in life. Ken’s career had been in the military, and before he and Rachel died they had set up a trust fund for their only child Mike. Court records are readily available outlining the circumstances by which the trustee absconded with the bulk of the estate and left Mike (a well known chess player) with virtually nothing. He died a few years later (and much sooner than he ought), not quite derelict but several steps beneath the station in life intended by his parents. You could make this stuff up but it wouldn’t be nearly as poignant.
Enter this lovely woman, unidentified as to either artist or subject. How does anyone willingly divest themselves of such beauty? Whether you’re related to them or not.
Her quiet dignity found an almost instantaneous place in Agincourt’s story: She had to be Claire Ball Tennant, youngest sister of our anti-hero Anson Tennant; the person for whom Anson had built a legendary dollhouse as a Christmas gift in 1905, while Claire was not likely to survive a bout of diphtheria; and the “party of one” who trekked to Bordeaux in 1937 to bring her brother home from twenty-one years of amnesiac recuperation in Spain. Claire (Mrs John Michael Oliphant) was one of the earliest characters in the Tennant family story, but other than her marriage to Mike Oliphant, I didn’t know much else about her. The imminent arrival of “her” portrait changes all that, however, and Claire must become more than a two-dimensional cutout in the tableau of the extended Tennant family.