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Even in the dim light of the second-hand store, it didn't take a trained eye to see that the oil painting was exceptional.
Admittedly, stuck in a box of faded prints, tattered posters and bland watercolours, almost anything would have looked good, but this had all the hallmarks of a trained eye and a practised hand. The dealer was curiously indifferent, and with a $10 price tag it wasn't worth raising his suspicions by trying to haggle.
It wasn't until I had the painting home and hanging on the wall that I was able to fully appreciate how good it was. A picture of a small grove of trees in autumn, it was a subtle composition in soft dappled yellows and browns captured with quick, sure strokes before the light on the foliage faded. And in the corner, in small precise letters, the artist's name – Norman Davies Williams.
The question, of course, was who was Norman Williams? Where did he come from? What else had he done? And was this picture worth more than the few dollars I'd paid for it? Not that I was expecting to run down to Sotheby's to top up the retirement fund, but I was hoping to find confirmation that the picture had some intrinsic worth.
I scoured the Web, checked auction sites, pored over art catalogues and searched newspaper archives, all without success. That should have been the end to the story. But I couldn't shake the sense that I was missing something. Someone somewhere must have recognized his talent, I thought, so every now and then I'd take up the search again.
It took 15 years to put the mystery of Norman Davies Williams to rest. A solitary hit in a most unlikely place, but enough to tell me all I wanted to know: a long, richly detailed celebration of his life in The Brandon Sun written shortly after his death in 1962.
As I had suspected, he was more than a talented amateur. Born in 1900 in Wales and trained at the Liverpool Art Institute, he moved to Canada in 1948. Quite why he picked Brandon, an isolated Manitoba outpost of fewer than 20,000 people, to pursue an artistic career was not explained. Nevertheless, for the next 14 years that was what he did.
He taught art in his workshop for a nominal fee, visited the local psychiatric hospital twice a week, using art as "gentle therapy to draw patients back from the wilderness of mind," and enjoyed a few commissions. The rest of the time he spent at his easel, classical music playing in the background.
As the obituary writer noted: "The monetary returns to the artist in a materialistic society are lean scrabble. He worked for the joy of the working while his wife, Doone, brought home the paycheque – an arrangement precisely as they both wanted it."
When he died, he left some 40 paintings in his home studio. They had never been entered in competitions, never pushed toward a one-man show. "They're not good enough," he had said.
Not good enough? By all accounts he was a modest man, but also a perfectionist who sometimes spent months of meticulous work on a study. Perhaps he could never live up to the standards he set himself. Or maybe it was the sad realization that it takes more than talent to make it in the precarious world of art.
And that in turn has changed the way I look at his painting. It's no longer a celebration of light and shade in a sunlit glade, it's a much more melancholy scene. In Williams's autumn the colours were fading, the leaves falling, the green promise of summer a distant memory.
There may still be other pictures of his around. I rather hope so. Even a man of Williams's modesty must have hoped his paintings would be his legacy. Perhaps there is an official portrait or two hanging in the halls of Brandon, or a few landscapes on the walls of distant relatives.
But for the most part, Williams has been forgotten. Not even his local gallery had heard of him. As the art director wrote to me, somewhat wistfully: "Unfortunately, it is the sad life of an artist that talent doesn't always mean a living wage or long-lasting fame. … I always remind people that an artwork is valuable if it speaks to you in some way, regardless of its fame or value."
She is, of course, perfectly correct. I was captivated by the painting when I bought it, and I continue to enjoy it. And if anyone asks, I tell them with confidence: "Yes, that is a genuine Norman Davies Williams. He never knew quite how good he was."
Keith Davey lives in Mississauga.