A saddle sketch by Harmon Pritchard, a relative of John Kelly's wife. A box containing this and other artworks was ruined by a leak. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

In May 2004, burglars set fire to a warehouse in east London. They wanted to cover their tracks after stealing electronics equipment. They probably didn’t know — and I doubt they would have cared — that the warehouse also happened to contain artwork stored by a company named Momart, primarily works by acclaimed British artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Up it all went, consumed by the flames.

I thought of that conflagration — known in the art world as the Momart warehouse fire — when our contractor, Steve, called my attention to something he’d found in our basement.

We’re having a new bathroom installed down there. When Steve pulled down a wall, he saw that a pipe from an upstairs toilet was leaking into a storage closet. We had shoved all sorts of things in this crawl space: old toys, a pair of crutches, an empty guitar case. . . . Also back there was a long, flat cardboard box that was sort of a Momart warehouse of our house. It contained artwork by Harmon Pritchard and Charles Eugene Moss, My Lovely Wife’s paternal grandfather and maternal great-grandfather, respectively.

Who knows how long the water had been dripping. Probably months. A flood we would have noticed, but a drip is more insidious. And basements, after all, are often damp and occasionally visited by puddles of dubious origin.

A figure drawing by Charles Eugene Moss, a relative of John Kelly's wife. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The water had dripped onto the box, swelling it, turning its corrugated surface into a breeding ground for mold. Over time, drip by drip, it had worked its way through the box, like a slow-motion oxyacetylene torch. Water can seem benign, but let’s not forget it’s what carved the Grand Canyon.

Steve pointed out that the cardboard box had taken the brunt of the damage. It could have been placed anywhere in that closet, but it was at Ground Zero. When I saw the box — collapsed, suppurating, mottled by mold — I was almost physically ill. Oil paints do not do well when exposed to moisture. Nor do pencil sketches. Water, perversely, is especially unkind to watercolors.

My wife, Ruth, never met Harmon Pritchard or Charles Eugene Moss. They were gone long before she came around. Neither artist was what you’d call famous. Pritchard fascinates me because of his Walter Mitty-like life. He was a New York Jew who changed his name from “Herman” and the family name from “Prichep” and dreamed of being a cowboy artist. He worked as an accountant but in his spare time drew and painted such subjects as calves being roped, broncos being busted and cowboys riding the range. He drew from life, after a fashion, finding inspiration in the rodeos and cowboy shows that visited New York City every year in the 1930s and 1940s. We have a photo of Harmon. He’s wearing a 10-gallon hat, Hopalong Cassidy from the Bronx.

Moss grew up in a small Nebraska town and showed such artistic promise as a boy that the citizenry raised money so he could study in the fashion artists were supposed to, in Europe. He was packed off to France. His was a much more classical education than Pritchard’s. Moss painted dreamy landscapes, impressionist portraits and vaguely Cassatt-like pictures of mothers and children. He exhibited in Paris, immigrated to Canada and was active in Ottawa art circles.

The cardboard box contained just a fraction of the work my wife has from these two forebears. In fact, this wasn’t finished work at all, just doodles and sketches — scraps, really. The best stuff is hanging on our walls. We have another assortment in the attic in a metal box.

At least we did till last week. The attic’s the wrong place for stuff like that. I’ll put the box somewhere safer, though I’m not sure exactly where that might be.

As I went through the cardboard box, pulling at the damp and stained paper and canvas inside, I silently asked forgiveness from these two long dead men, so very different from one another but each vital to the eventual arrival of My Lovely Wife.

I reflected on Art and the battle it fights: to take something as fragile as a piece of paper and a pencil, a square of cloth and a dab of paint, and attempt to forestall the drip, drip, drip of Time.


Share your stories of loss. What was the Momart warehouse fire of your family heirlooms? E-mail kellyj@washpost.com or write 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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