After letting him into the house I introduced him to my wife. ‘I need to make a phone-call,’ I said, leaving the two together – ‘You two get to know each other’. It was ten minutes before I found myself walking back towards the room where I had left them. I could hear Anthony’s voice well before entering. ‘Oh my love, my beauty!’ he was saying, ‘I want to embrace you, I simply must embrace you! Oh God, let me plant a thousand kisses on your…’ I entered the room to find Kelf busily admiring the painting – his own – that was hanging above the mantelpiece. My wife wasn’t even in the room.
(Lord Armondsey, quoted in Kelf-Portrait: The Life of Anthony Kelf, by Jon Harzinger)
Writers have it lucky. Their work is quite au fait with the perils of reproduction (such as they are). A book is always a special object, of course it is, but rarely is it unique. Most paintings, on the other hand, can never be properly reproduced.
This can make it hard for some artists to let go of their precious creations; to uncage their cherished chickens from the creative coop. Still, few have ever taken it as badly as Anthony Kelf, for whom each sale was nothing less than an emotional wrench. As Armondsey’s anecdote reminds us, Kelf found it almost impossible to completly let go of his paintings; treating them like old flames or beloved children – sometimes even sending them letters (his Christmas card list is said to have consisted of nine people and seventy-two paintings).
On receiving an invitation to dine with a friend he had not seen for twenty years Kelf is said to have responded thus: ‘My heart beat fast. It was not so much the excitement of seeing J again, but the possibility that she would still own that oil sketch of mine’. In fact, J had sold the sketch some years before, the knowledge of which sent Kelf into near mental breakdown as he tried in vain to track the old work down. ‘It felt like the death of a close friend’ he claimed in a typical display of histrionics, quietly overlooking the fact that J was dealing with problems of her own (many of which were, all things considered, of a slightly more serious nature).
What’s more, as it happened, the sketch in question was not dead at all – and was able in time to be reunited with its anxious creator. ‘The Prodigal Painting has returned,’ Kelf is said to have exclaimed, reaching for the telephone to order a fatted calf curry.