A few months ago, Paul, one of Brendan's cousins, stayed over with us for a night on his holiday in Ireland with his wife Meg (they live in the UK). He came over with a rather large painting of their aunt Mary Kate. They were flying Aer Lingus, thankfully, as Ryanair would have charged them an arm and a leg for the extra luggage (it's a good size painting, and it was very well wrapped up too). This painting had been mentioned a while back, probably at a funeral, and apparently, Brendan was the only one of the family who was interested in having the portrait.
Paul and Meg were delighted to hand it over to us - nobody in the family knew anything about how this painting came about, except that the artist was somewhat famous (but nobody had any idea who it was).
I can't resist a good mystery, so I started googling. All I had was the name of the artist from the signature- S Linhart. It took a bit of searching, as my original google didn't bring anything up. When I searched for "S Linhart painter", I came across a painting on TwitPic with the exact same signature, and I knew that our artist was a woman - Susanna Linhart. I contacted "ReallyLinda" (a UK TV presenter - Linda Barker - she does interior design programs - you'll know her as soon as you see her picture), who had posted this picture on her Twitter, but no luck.
Once I had a name, my Google searches started giving me a tiny bit more information - South of France, gardens, not much really.
Then I searched "Susanna Linhart France" and found an artist who referred to studying with her in a place on the French Côte d'Azur called La Garde Freinet. We were getting closer.
When I searched "Susanna Linhart La Garde Freinet", I got a website from the tourist office of this little town, where there was a mention of a painting exhibition with our mysterious artist.
So I wrote to the La Garde Freinet Tourist Office, explaining - in my perfect French - that I was looking for an artist called Susanna Linhart, as we had a painting that we believed was one of hers, and we wanted to find out more about it. I included a photo of the painting.
And a few days later, we got an email from her partner, who told us that she remembered the painting very well and would be delighted to talk to us. So we set up a time and called her one evening. She is a lovely lady, of 80 years of age, but she sounds younger. She told us that seeing that painting in an email was a real blast from the past. She remembered Katherine Corbett well (that's the name that Aunt Mary Kate was using while working in England). Katherine Corbett had set up a beauty salon in South Molton Street, where she had developed a special technique for removing facial veins. Apparently, she had a deft hand and was very popular with the London IT crowd of the time. Susanna knew Katherine through her own aunt, if I remember correctly, and offered to paint her portrait (this was in the 60s I think). As Katherine was a busy woman, with a successful business and busy social life, the deal was that Susanna would come to the salon and set up her easel in a little closet and Katherine would come and pose in between clients. Hence the white coat! The painting was completed in a day.
According to Susanna, Katherine wasn't crazy about the it initially (apparently, most people don't like their portrait, as they normally see themselves in reverse, through a mirror, and they don't recognize themselves in a portrait.). But she must have got fond of it, as it is one of the few possessions she kept throughout her life, right through to the end (She died in England in her 90s. There is longevity on that side of the family). Susanna and Katherine remained friends for a long time.
I think the painting is an oil. It is painted on a rusty-coloured board, which you can see at the bottom. It is somewhat warped, but we're hopeful that a good framer will be able to straighten it for us.
Susanna now lives and paints in La Garde Freinet - she still paints every day - not so much portraits any more!