Almanac Life: The Painting


A typical J A Turner piece (source: wiki commons)



After emigrating to Australia in the early 1950s, my Irish grandparents settled in Newport, which was a vastly different suburb in those days to what it is now. It was working-class, hardscrabble. Even I can remember my grandmother rushing out to the clothesline to bring in all the washing, lest it be covered in the afternoon coal soot belching out from the chimneys of the infamous Newport Power Station. I cannot imagine today’s residents tolerating that.


Like most post-war immigrants, my grandparents worked their butts off to build a new life in Australia for their family. My grandfather worked as roofing contractor. He and his gang put the roof on both the old Southern Stand prior to the Melbourne Olympics and, not long afterwards, the intricate shell-like Myer Music Bowl. By the time he retired, there were hundreds of factories and warehouses dotted across the outer suburbs of Melbourne which he had roofed.


My grandmother occasionally worked locally as a house cleaner. Although she passed away from cancer when I was only five years old, I can recall her taking me along with her to the expansive home of an elderly woman in Power Street. Before she passed away, the woman, Mrs Rooney, gifted a painting to my grandmother. Mrs Rooney had explained that when she was growing up in country Victoria in the late 19th century, she worked in a bakery. A poor young man, who was nonetheless a talented artist, would barter and exchange his paintings for loaves of bread.


Grandma had no use for the painting and passed it on to my mother. But not before my grandfather had stripped the elaborate frame from the artwork and reconfigured the timber for staking up the tomato plants in his garden. Painted gold, they were the most attractive garden stakes upon which you could hope to lay your eyes.


For a few years, the painting lay veiled and unloved at the bottom of my mother’s wardrobe with her shoes stacked on top of it. Until, during a spring clean, Mum decided to take a closer look at the work of art. It depicted a rural scene and featured a number of men on horseback preparing to set off for a ride. The initials of the artist, “J.A.T.” were in the lower left corner. I recall all this only because I once set it face down on the lounge room floor and adorned the back of the canvas with colourful crayon daubings.


A friend suggested that my parents have the painting valued. Knowing nothing about art, they nonetheless took it to a city valuer, who thought he might ruse these west suburban philistines. “It is worth very little, but I will take it off your hands for $50”, said the man. To my battling 26-year-old parents, it was an amount not to be dismissed lightly. But they held their nerve and sought out a second opinion.


The second art dealer was more honest in his appraisal. “I can tell instantly that this painting is by the noted colonial-era artist James Alfred Turner. It could be worth as much as $1000.” At a city art auction to which my mum and dad were invited, it sold for around $800. A huge amount of money in 1973. When congratulating my parents, the art dealer appeared to be slightly perplexed. He commented that Turner had been known to personally frame his works with the most strikingly gorgeous of frames, and that it was unusual to find an unframed Turner work. “I wonder what ever became of the frame?” he mused. My parents didn’t have the heart to tell him.



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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. John Butler says

    Smokie, that’s a hoot. :)

    I think it was wise to keep schtum on the frame.

  2. Daryl Schramm says

    As a relatively recent member but longer term reader of this site, it is of no surprise to me that art would not be one of Darren’s interests.
    Maternal or paternal grand parents please.
    Are the said pieces of the original frame existing?
    A very pleasant read once again.

  3. E.regnans says

    Auction houses will be aflutter with this revelation of an original Smokie (crayon) on the back.
    That’s a beauty, Smokie.

    Do you remember a sooty taste to the tomatoes?

  4. Brilliant Smokie. I love these stories. When I lived in the UK programmes like Antiques Roadshow and Cash in the Attic gave me the view that most Brits had a small fortune under their roof and they just had to dig around to find it. Well done to your family on getting the Australian average up! I wonder where the painting is now?

  5. Kevin Densley says

    I enjoyed this piece, Smokie – and was particularly annoyed on behalf of your parents when a city valuer attempted to rip them off. How unethical!

  6. Colin Ritchie says

    Great read, thoroughly enjoyed it Smokie.

  7. Jarrod_L says

    Finally got around to reading this one Smoke – what a great story of families, history and a conman!

    Nice little Irish diaspora link with your outfit on Friday too!

  8. Ripper story Smoke. What a windfall! $800!! Happy days.

    I wonder what treasures are lying on wardrobes around the country. When my old man died we found his Stawell Gift medal and sash in his jocks drawer. Seems its importance diminished over the years!

    My mother has an old, circular mahogany dining table that came off the Baddaginnie farm of the Dalton clan (my grandmother). That farm house had an earthen floor and the table sat in front of the kitchen fire for decades resulting in it developing a warp across the surface. It must be 130 or 140 years old. I wonder what that’s worth?

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Love this Smokie, as Dips said there are no doubt many treasures hidden away in cupboards and boxes.

    I’ll bet those well staked tomatoes were magnificent.

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