When I was a child my uncle Al was living out his retirement in a bungalow adjacent to the tennis courts at the end of Eldindean Place in Bonnyrigg. Born in 1887, Alexander John Lothian was the son of the local master painter and decorator, my great-grandfather, and the eldest of five children. He was brought up at 10 Polton Road in the village of Lasswade. He attended the Edinburgh Art College in the late 1900s and later, during the First World War, served in the Royal Artillery. Along with his two brothers, Bill and Harry, Al survived the ordeal. He was always involved in the local community, and was an Elder of Lasswade Parish Church for over thirty years. As a boy I knew my uncle as a mild mannered, gentle man. I would often watch him attending to his bee hives in his back garden with the dull thwock of tennis balls and the restrained cries of the players in the background.
Days before my fifteenth birthday, I sat with uncle Al on the sofa in our lounge in the thin winter sunlight, as he taught me the principles of parallel and angular perspective, drawing elegant diagrams on a sketch pad. I carried this memory and used the knowledge as a student at Napier Technical College and throughout my career as an interior designer. At the end of this impromptu lesson he handed me a birthday present wrapped in brown paper. On the morning of my birthday I carefully unwrapped the gift. It was a picture. The picture, a watercolour sketch, disinterred a childhood memory.
It is 1960 and I am 10 years old. I have called to see uncle Al who is busy in his workshop, a long wooden shed set in the garden behind his bungalow. I open the door and step into a world of familiar smells; the sweet smell of wood, pipe tobacco and the slightly sour smell of wood glue. I sit on a high stool, amongst the dust motes that hang in the sunlight and watch my uncle. He is stooping over the upturned hull of a model ship, carefully shaping it with a spoke shave, the metal blade making a dull rhythmic hiss as it carves through the wood. Near to me, on the workbench, there is a completed sailing ship, a Man o’ War, that seems to float on a sea of curled wood shavings, sails billowing with nonexistent wind. A backdrop of small saws, chisels and files, the accoutrements of joinery, hang orderly on the wall.
Leaning against this array of tools is a small watercolour painting. Elbows on the bench, chin cupped in my hands, I look at the picture and ask where he painted it. He tells me that it is a sketch for a much larger oil painting that he has been commissioned to do for a wealthy farmer. In the picture, a landscape, a small mountain stands under towering clouds with the farmer’s fields and a copse in the foreground. Uncle Al, abandons his ship, to come and stands at my shoulder. He explains the composition, shares with me, his knowledge and his time. Later, I will be shown the completed oil painting, but I think it lacks the simple spontaneity of the sketch.
In the winter of the year that he gave me the picture, uncle Al died, shutting the door to his treasure trove of knowledge. My uncle, before he retired, ten years earlier, had been the curator of the Chambers Street Museum in Edinburgh. He restored ancient artefacts, built fascinating working models and miniature ships, that I, as a child on visits to the museum with my father, would look at with my nose pressed up against the glass of the display cases. He was also was an artist of great skill.
Many years into the future, my mother would tell me how, after her father, Clem, was killed in the First World War, Uncle Al, her mother’s brother, became a surrogate father of sorts. In the Scottish tradition I carry a string of family names, like a line of wagons transporting the freight of family history into the future. The picture is signed in neat initials with the name of my uncle: A. J. Lothian. Of my names, Alexander James Lothian Wilson, the Alexander and Lothian were given to me by my mother to honour her beloved uncle.