Monday, June 20, 2011

What am I bid for Grumpy Chet?


My mother left me many things—her love of babies, nature, and family; some nice clothing (the woman had taste!); a lifetime supply of stationery, envelopes and sheet protectors; and a nearly-century-old pastel portrait of her brother Chester Charles, aka Uncle Chet.

Chet was the oldest living child of their parents. When the portrait was taken, he was about three years old, wearing high button shoes, knee-pants, a satin tie, and a frowny expression.

Yes, cute as he was, Chet was grumpy in this picture. Mom wrote on the back:  “Chester Charles (after Grandpa Charley) Our mom used to say ‘Oh yes—he does look scared and sad. The darn photographer was such a spook and scared our little ‘Chet boy’ to pieces! Usually he had a happy little grin.  The pictures cost a lot and we couldn’t get the man to change and try to get a happy smile. The high button shoes were hard for little kids to fasten with a button-hook."

Reading between the lines, I can imagine how the story played out.  Perhaps a traveling photographer went from homestead to homestead, taking photos. (Traveling photographers were fairly common—for an interesting video, see http://lc.celebrateoklahoma.us/video/the-traveling-photographer-2) Or perhaps the young couple saved money for a trip to the photographer in town. Either way, Chet was yanked from his carefree life of romping with dogs, cats and lambs, scrubbed within an inch of his life, dressed in scratchy Sunday attire, and told to “Look at the birdie! Smile!”

He exercised his only manly option—he furrowed his brow and refused to cooperate.

The photographer, apparently not a very patient or ethical businessman, created this unhappy portrait and took grandma’s hard-earned money. If Mom’s narrative is to be believed (personally, I take her with a grain of salt) our young grandmother protested but to no avail. Maybe she was afraid to complain to the fast-talking man in a three-piece suit, or, she never knew what the photo looked like until later, when she received the finished product.

Thus, a high quality portrait of a handsome but grouchy child has been with us for 97 years.

I’d have to study antique photography to be certain what method was used. The photograph is in color—Chet’s hair is light brown, his worried eyes are dark blue, and his cheeks are rosy. Though it seems reasonable that he would have had a white shirt and a contrasting colored tie, his shirt, vest and tie are all a monochromatic blue-gray, which makes me think it was somehow “colorized.”  His high button shoes and the lower part of his pants look contrived and two-dimensional, making me wonder if the photographer didn’t sketch in parts of the photograph.

The portrait may have some value as an antique. Though it is cracked in two places and the frame is long gone, the overall quality has remained good for these many years.

Except, of course, for Chet’s frown.

In June, at the 11th hour before family reunions, I look for something great—not to eat, because my relatives gave up on my cooking long ago—but something that will sell at the family auction.  I don’t knit or crochet, and my quilting isn’t worth beans. I have homemade jam on the shelf, but my husband assures me that it needs to stay there.

My one genius project is scanning family photographs and putting them into yard-sale frames—they sell every time,

I’m never going to hang Grumpy Chet on my walls.  I wonder if he’d come back to haunt me if I put him on the auction block?