The Portrait in the Shed

Last month I returned to Scotland again for a short visit. And in a brief sunny two-day window bookended by cold and wet weather, my mother and I headed over to the west coast to visit my younger sister. Since we’d last seen each other, she’d moved into an old quarryman’s cottage in a tiny Ayrshire village. Set on the banks of the river Ayr with a nature reserve at her back door and a welcoming neighbouring pub with great food  it was the perfect location for a weekend away, bringing back memories of our Ayrshire childhood in the seventies.

My sister’s terraced cottage was decorated in her eclectic style with objects old and new. In the entrance porch I was surprised but pleased to see the twin brass eagles that had graced my grandparent’s mantlepiece for all the years I’d know them. They were made by Robert Neilson, my grandmother’s father, who was a brass finisher by trade. As a child they’d always fascinated me – as they obviously did my sister – and they were just as exquisite as I’d remembered, with the strange detail that had intrigued me at the time: the birds’ flat-topped heads and outsized feet; their arched wings and the indentations of their feathers. I automatically reached out to touch them, as I’d always done, and felt that same unexpected coldness and roughness. 

One of a pair of brass eagles my great-grandfather made

In the small room at the front of the house was an even greater surprise: the lost portrait of our Great Uncle Adam that I remember so well from the day we triumphantly unearthed it from my grandfather’s garden shed. That warm afternoon we’d set ourselves the task of emptying the shed of all its accumulated junk in order to make some play room for ourselves. I still can recall the musty damp smell of the tiny wooden building and the wonder as the area outside the shed filled up with all the tools and boxes that had been stored there (looking like it had doubled in amount once freed from its confines). Soon we could see a wooden floor and knew that we were on target to achieve our goal. Except we hadn’t quite worked out how everything would go back in.

With my grandparents in summer 1964 – the shed is behind us

We were lucky that day that my grandparent’s were fairly sanguine about the enterprise, using it as the spur they needed to get rid of some of the unwanted items they’d forgotten about over the years. But I’m not sure what they thought when we came proudly back into the house carrying a large and unwieldy framed photographic portrait of a young smiling man in military uniform. Oh, it’s Uncle Adam they exclaimed. When he was in the war. By that they meant the 1st World War, in which Adam Neilson had enlisted in the Signallers in 1914 at the age of 16 by saying he was older than he actually was. His parents had been furious and tried to get him out of the contract, with Great Grandma seemingly upset about the fact she’d just bought him an expensive new winter wool coat. Yet he had survived the conflict – like my London grandfather he felt it better to choose his regiment rather than be conscripted later – and gone on to become a much-loved uncle and now our oldest great-uncle. 

Adam Neilson, c1915

Uncle Adam was very much alive when we found his dusty portrait (he died in 1982), but according to my mother he did not actually want the photograph after my great-grandmother’s death in 1968. Perhaps it was because he preferred not to be reminded of that time: my mother said that he never spoke about the war to anyone in his family. Seemingly my great-grandmother brought Adam’s picture with her (along with the rest of the boxes of photographs) from her Dumbiedykes tenement when she moved in with my grandparents shortly after being widowed in 1949. It hung on the wall in her  bedroom in their Carrick Knowe house, but once she died it had seemed rather dark and old-fashioned with its thick wooden frame and so had been put into the shed and forgotten about. 

I found it strange that Adam was the only child whose image had been turned into the equivalent of an oil-painted portrait, yet it was perhaps natural as he was the only child who saw active combat in the Great War, and left home while still a bairn (to his mother) and not by the usual route of a twenty-something marriage. And Adam had been (so the family story goes) her favourite son, although this was said more in the spirit of light-hearted teasing. After all, he was the first-born child and a beautiful looking, good-natured boy who looked very much like his father. In fact, as Adam aged he appeared to grow more and more to resemble my great-grandfather, Robert Neilson, and it is easy to confuse them in photographs. 

Adam Neilson c1900

There had also been an Adam Neilson in the family for several generations and Great Uncle Adam shared a name with his father’s older brother, who had been named after his father (who also shared a name with his uncle, who had been named after his father). And so we can trace a line from the original Ur-Adam Neilson, a farm labourer from Athelstaneford in East Lothian, born in the 1770s, to the last Adam Neilson, born over two hundred years later.

Although the next generation was to feature a great number of Roberts, Catherines and Davids (David being the name of the Ur-Adam’s son – the line of Neilsons from which my grandmother had descended) there were to be no more Adam Neilsons after this one. Not only were less descendants being born (four of the nine Neilson children only had one child, including my grandmother and Great Uncle Adam), but the old-fashioned Scottish family naming traditions were dying out. My grandmother had expected me to be called Catherine (and was none too pleased when I wasn’t), even though that would have led to the inevitable confusion caused by four generations of living Catherines. Yet it is many of these ‘modern’ names (my own included) which now sound outdated in comparison to timeless classical names, and can be more of a give-away as to someone’s age. 

Three Generations of Catherines – and a Carolyn – and that shed!

For Scottish family historians, the following  naming patterns (taken from Scotland’s People) can be helpful when tracing a tree farther back. However, it is true to say that many families might have bucked this trend for various reasons:

  • 1st son named after father’s father
  • 2nd son named after mother’s father
  • 3rd son named after father
  • 1st daughter named after mother’s mother
  • 2nd daughter named after father’s mother
  • 3rd daughter named after mother

Adam’s namesake – his paternal uncle, Adam Neilson c1910

And now – and this is where my memory confuses me as to exactly what happened – there was a plan to hang up Adam’s photograph on the wall of my grandparents’ living room/dining room so that he would see it when he next came to visit with Aunt Lily. As usual there would be high tea with sandwiches and cakes on doily-covered cake stands with the best linen and the wedding china. Grandad would be jovial and crack his silly jokes. My grandmother would bustle around anxiously. My mother would become younger than we knew her. And we would shyly wait to be fussed over. 

That Sunday afternoon,  Uncle Adam was wearing a burgundy pullover and his white hair wisped around his shining pate. His round ruddy cheeks and dark lively eyes gave him away as a Neilson. What was it like for Grandma to look into the face of her father every time they did ‘the visiting’? Or for my mother to see her long-dead grandfather in her uncle? It must have been 1974 as Seasons on the Sun was played constantly on the radio, blaring out of houses and cars and back gardens. It was a song that managed to be both heart-breaking and schmaltzy, and defined that year in the way that popular tunes once did. It might have been Easter as I seem to remember there were gifts of chocolate eggs – too many as I later discovered when I was ill in the night. Or was that another time?

Adam with his mother, Christmas in Edinburgh,  c1958

In any case, all I can now recall was that everyone in the family was good-natured about the appearance of the photograph in the place where there had been some seventies pin-art my mother had made for her parents. Then it stayed up on the wall beside the entrance to the kitchenette (the kitschy pin art had had its day) until my grandmother moved into her smaller sheltered home seven years after Uncle Adam died. It never went with her, but instead followed my sister from house to house. And now it was here in this Ayrshire quarryman’s cottage, where it seemed most at home.

It was only when I looked at it closely that I realised it looked more like a painting than a photograph, even though it had clearly been taken with a camera. Some investigating led me to the discovery that enlargements of small studio portraits were often enhanced using artists colours, such as oils or watercolours to make up for the loss of detail that occurred during the process . So that would explained why Adam’s features looked so soft and otherwordly, and why the sepia background seemed to be composed of delicate brushstrokes.

A search through the boxes of albums back in Edinburgh did not come up with the original portrait of Uncle Adam or indeed any other image of him in uniform. However, there was one photograph of Adam from this period that I came across which I found even more haunting than the dreamlike portrait. It showed a group of men – some in uniform, others without – at the end of the war. It would appear to have been taken at the time they were being demobbed, and was obviously in order to commemorate their wartime cameraderie.

Adam Neilson (back right) with soldier friends 1918/9

This the photograph that I would have liked to have shown to my Great Uncle Adam that Sunday afternoon in 1974. It might have been the way to gently generate some memories of his time on the Western Front, if the topic had been handled sensitively enough. Sadly we never got the chance. Yet even without any living voices to tell their tales, the faces of the young soldiers who survived the conflict are replete with their own stories.

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2022

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Portrait in the Shed

  1. dalesbred

    This is a real lesson in analysis, excellent. Your interpretation of photographs and the way you make them speak is really perceptive. I agree that looking for family likenesses is so absorbing, trying to see who has inherited particular physical resemblances, but we also inherit mannerisms as well, ways of speaking, natural ablities. It is what links generations together. Lovely, as always. Thank you

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    1. The Incidental Genealogist Post author

      Thanks Marion. Again I found out more about the photographs through writing than by seeing and remembering alone. And I’d completely forgotten about how we hung up the portrait in the house to surprise Uncle Adam until I started putting the story down.

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