Two years ago a quiet residential street in leafy Twickenham hit the headlines when it had to be evacuated following the discovery by a team of builders of a cache of arms and ammunition in one of the houses. What made the incident all the more newsworthy was the fact that the house had belonged to a recently deceased elderly lady: not at all the sort of individual you might expect to possess a submachine gun (in full working order) or any of the other wartime bits and pieces of equipment that the men who were renovating the building uncovered. In fact, after a bit of detective work, it was discovered that in her previous life the shy and retiring Eileen Burgoyne had enjoyed a very colourful career indeed: as an interrogator of Nazi prisoners after 1945 and later as some sort of Cold War spy!
One of Eileen’s neighbours who took a particular interest in the story of her secret past was London-based artist Morgan Penn. For him, it confirmed his belief that, once you break down their natural reserve and persuade them to talk, most seemingly ordinary elderly people will have fascinating stories to tell. This led Morgan to wonder about the hidden lives of the men he saw working and chatting each day on the local allotments. Then came the idea for an oil painting…
Following an advert in his local newspaper for gentlemen gardeners over the age of 80, Morgan was inundated with replies. He selected seven “applicants” from the same allotment and after stocking up his studio with bottles of brandy and whisky and his wife’s delicious home-made sandwiches and cakes, invited them over for a sitting. As Morgan expected, they were indeed a cast of colourful characters, including among their number a 97-year-old veteran of Dunkirk, a 93-year-old who had been a rear gunner on a Lancaster bomber and an 83-year-old former royal chauffeur.
The men entered into the spirit of the occasion and the subject of Morgan’s painting wholeheartedly, so during the next few days and weeks neighbours were continually distracted by the sounds of shouting and cheering from the excited group. As they glanced in the direction of Morgan’s house they must have wondered what on earth was going on. Wasn’t posing for a painting usually a quiet and rather tedious pastime?
The seven gardeners had a wonderful time, and if any of those puzzled residents ever saw the finished canvas they will have understood immediately what all the commotion was about - and probably burst out laughing themselves! We are delighted to have been able to reproduce Morgan’s painting in the autumn issue of This England and I am sure that everyone who looks at it and reads about the gentlemen gardeners of Twickenham won’t be able to resist a smile and a chuckle!
We will also be featuring an artist and his work in our winter issue - watercolourist John Lowerson whose paintings of steam locomotives, wartime aircraft, classic cars and motorcycles are absolutely superb. To arrange an annual subscription to This England, please click here.