On a dull Sunday morning some years ago, I wandered in to a small jumble sale in Seacombe, an unremarkable little place on the banks of the Mersey not far from Birkenhead.
There were only a few tables displaying the kinds of things that their owners had decided they could now live without .... a second-hand toaster, chipped crockery, books by long forgotten authors and clothes, masses of clothes.
Under a table, in a box destined for the rubbish bin, I spotted something. A small wooden framed picture, caked in years of dust and grime. I'm always intrigued by a picture in a frame, after all it shows that someone has at some time valued the picture enough to display it.
Through the dirty glass I could see what I thought was a postcard of a ballet dancer. It piqued my interest enough for me to part with twenty pence (around thirty cents in US money). Last of the big spenders!
At home I pulled it from the grimy carrier bag in which the stall holder had wrapped it and rubbed at the glass with my fingertip. Now I really was intrigued, the colours were more vibrant than I had imagined. I stripped the back off the frame and to my astonishment I found that this was no postcard but an oil painting – and stunningly beautiful it was too. Not only that but it also appeared to be signed and inscribed.
It was a jewel of a painting and I couldn't take my eyes off it. There were two ballerinas, the impressionistic style of the artist making them appear to dance out of a mist in a blaze of extraordinarily beautiful colours. It was utterly captivating.
The inscription said: “to Natasha Sokolova, with love and best wishes for Xmas, Theyre.”
Who was Natasha? Who was the mysterious Theyre? I vowed to find out.
What followed was a long and evocative journey of discovery, and a tale of love, intrigue and romance that echoed across the years from a time long gone....
Natasha, I eventually discovered, was the daughter of the celebrated ballet dancer Lydia Sokolova. Lydia was very famous as a principal dancer for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, a renowned dance company based in Paris between 1909 and 1929. They performed all across Europe and in South America – and it was in Brazil that Natasha was born, out of wedlock, to Lydia, who had vowed to keep her baby in spite of much pressure to have an abortion. In 1917 when Natasha was born it must have taken an extraordinarily strong woman to make such a decision and it is testament to Lydia's courage and determination that she did so.
During the course of my research into the little painting, some illustrious names had begun to emerge. Lydia Sokolova was born Hilda Munnings in 1896 and her relatives included the renowned artist Alfred Munnings, later to become president of the Royal Academy, though her own father was known as a charlatan medium - and a former burglar.
Through my research into Lydia and Natasha, I discovered a blog about ballet and I contacted the blog owners to tell them of my little painting. What began as a small blog post (you can see it here): (http://oberon481.typepad.com/oberons_grove/2009/09/memento.html) turned into a lively discussion about my painting, the image seemed to resonate with many people around the world.
Now that I had discovered a connection with Diaghilev, even more famous names began to emerge including that of Pablo Picasso who designed the scenery for Lydia's ballet company. I flirted with the idea that the little painting I had discovered in a box at the jumble sale might be a work by Munnings or even Picasso.....
But then I remembered what the inscription read. It seemed to be signed by someone called Theyre. This, I eventually discovered, was Theyre Lee Elliott, a British artist born in 1903. He made his name as a designer of high profile logos and significantly he worked on the scenery at Sadlers Wells where he also painted portraits of the ballet dancers. These paintings were included in a book 'Paintings of the Ballet' and his works were purchased by many famous Hollywood actors after an exhibition of his work there in the 1940's. And that is where my little painting fitted in. Although I could find no record of Natasha herself appearing at Sadlers Wells (she is noted for roles in some films of the time and is also listed alongside Evelyn Laye in a 1943 London production of Cinderella), it became obvious to me that Theyre Lee Elliott and Natasha Sokolova were more than mere passing strangers. The beautiful painting, reproduced here, is clearly a work of passion, a message of love from the artist to the dancer. It speaks volumes and yet still holds a secret. Was their love forbidden? Or is it an echo of a passionate affair? We shall never know but I feel very privileged indeed to have been on a journey with my little painting and I hope that in the coming years it may reveal just a little more of its story....
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