The scene is set; the actors in their places. The room is over-filled – witness the grubby legs dangling from rafters, where their youthful owners have found an excellent view of the proceedings. A gentle hum of excitement pervades the space. If we examine the crowd, three oddly still figures catch our attention.
Mabel Sherman is dressed in her Sunday-best; a painfully patterned (though thankfully faded with time) summer dress, and an elaborate straw bonnet artfully decorated with cherries and hyacinths. She sits very upright and stares straight ahead, the only external sign of her inner turmoil a handkerchief that she twists compulsively in her lap.
Beside her and in contrast, Jack Sherman is weeping quietly and unashamedly, tears sliding down his face like the streams of new rain on a desert-floor. He has also dressed for the occasion, wearing his only suit and well-polished shoes.
Elizabeth Harwood lounges casually, seeming relaxed and comfortable. Her trouser-suit is unrumpled despite the heat. She has a slight smile on her perfectly made-up face. Only her eyes betray the truth behind the insouciance: they are hard and glittering with a combination of triumph, anger and grief.
All three protagonists share the same intense focus. The object of their interest follows convention and occupies a raised position at one end of the barn. It is solemnly attended by no less than five persons in black suits and collars. One of these now raises his voice and his hand: “Going, going, gone.” The gavel slams down, “Self-portrait by Susan Sherman sold to Mrs Elizabeth Harwood.”
To understand the significance of this scene, we must investigate events commencing fifty years before the auction. Let us begin.