A Miracle in Manhattan

It was a miserable July 4 weekend calling every cab company to see if anyone had found the precious watercolours
Lisa Choegyal
July 4, 2018
Quince (Cydonia Oblonga) by Jessica Tcherepnine Collection Dr Shirley Sherwood

The sickening realisation hit as the door slammed behind me and I froze on the polished wooden floor of our fourth floor 81st Street apartment in Manhattan. Damn! The watercolours!

I had just paid off the yellow cab on the corner at the end of a long week at the office, and lying carelessly abandoned on the back seat was the navy canvas portfolio that contained every single painstakingly created botanical watercolour that my English room-mate Jessica had ever painted. Her entire life’s work-exquisitely wrought flowers and plants on thick creamy paper, each one the fruit of hours of meticulous dedication and diligence. Lost. Left behind.

Jessica had entrusted me with her precious cargo only because I had persuaded her that they should be shown to a gallery-owning acquaintance with a view to an exhibition. She managed a major art auctioneering business, but was far too modest to seek fame or fortune from her secret life as a self-taught botanical artist. Besides, each creation took so many months to craft she was the very opposite of prolific. With no pets, kids or lovers for distraction, these watercolours were her total passion and purpose.

Older than me and a bit pedantic for my personal taste, I was trying to thank Jessica for welcoming me into her carefully furnished apartment and for generously putting up with my neophyte enthusiasm for her life in New York’s art world. I had found work with a posh antique dealer that included a boss who was a baronet. This was 1970 when Brits were welcome additions to the Manhattan social circuit, and the art scene was flourishing. But we always carried cash in case of the inevitable street muggings, and venturing into Central Park at night was considered the height of recklessness in those crime-ridden days.

White Bird of Paradise (Stretitzia nicolai) by Jessica Tcherepnine

My route to this charmed life in the USA had been circuitous and opportunistic. I started with a rather oblique job cooking for a former senator on a picture-perfect bird-hunting plantation near Thomasville on the Georgia-Florida border. Grey green Spanish moss decorated the trees and alligators lurked amongst the bulrushes, but the family stood to attention when the President appeared on television, and even now I prefer to forget their explanation of the mental capacity of their army of faithful black servants.

Friends fixed me up with a role in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and another chance meeting at an antiques’ fair had landed me my current life at Mallets in Bergdorf Goodman, an elegant outlet selling vintage English furniture on the second floor of the revered retail institution, strategically located to entice wealthy New Yorkers between Lingerie, the Givenchy Boutique and the Fur Department.

Anyway, good intentions aside, Jessica had to be told about this appalling catastrophe. I spent a miserable July 4 weekend calling every cab company to see if anything had been handed into lost and found, hanging around the hot summer sidewalk in case my driver felt moved to return, reporting it to the police (as if they cared) and generally praying that some miracle would restore them or that the ground would swallow me up before she returned from some Long Island beach house.

I had no real excuse, just pure negligence, and abject apologies that felt dry on my tongue as I saw the light fade in her eyes. She was admirably calm and British about it. But the already stuffy air in the apartment was heavy with grief and resentment that only thickened as the weeks wore on, and hope receded. Her painting gear lay untouched on the lowest shelf of the bookcase.

Bulrushes (Typha latiolia) by Jessica Tcherepnine Collection Dr Shirley Sherwood

Life had settled into an uneasy truce and the trees outside 151 East 81st Street were fading to gold. The call came one sleepy Saturday morning as shafts of sunlight penetrated the traffic sounds and smudged window panes. Jessica was again away for the weekend, avoiding me. Although she had many friends, the voice on the phone did not sound like one of them. In those nervous New York days one did not take kindly to cold callers with a Brooklyn accent who asked if Jessica lived there.

“Who wants to know?” I countered unhelpfully.

“My Dad brought home some flower pictures that look like someone took a long time to paint them, signed with a name that I can’t really make out. I’m calling everyone in the phone book that has a similar name from around the area where they were left in his taxi. It’s taken me a long time, I’ve hit lots of dead ends, it’s become a sort of obsession with me ’cos I reckon someone must be really sorry to have lost these paintings. I think they are really lovely but my family think I’m nuts to go to so much trouble. But, sorry to bother you …”.

The world stood still, time suspended. “Wait, wait, wait …” I yelled into the phone. My breath returned, and so did all of Jessica’s paintings.

A series of fateful twists and turns would deliver me to Nepal several years later, but my flatmate’s destiny was sealed by the miracle of this man’s perseverance. Marrying late, she stayed in America and with restored confidence found time to pursue her plant painting. Today, as Jessica Tcherepnine, she is an acclaimed artist with solo exhibitions and two gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society, and is represented in major botanical art collections all over the world.

I’m still not sure that she has forgiven me.