In 1928 Edward Barnsley, one of the most important master craftsmen of the 20thcentury, made a bureau for a 12 year old girl called Gonda Neale. The bureau was exquisite. Both delicate and sturdy, hand-carved from oak, it was mounted on a stand with chamfered posts and block feet. In the front it had three panels and along the brass handles on its drawers ran a diamond-shaped motif. It would be Gonda’s most prized possession and eight years later, when she went to Berlin to study photography, she took the bureau with her.
Forced to flee from the Nazis, she left the bureau behind in her flat. And that, as she told me over dinner in Ireland decades later, was the last she saw of it. After the war, friends who went to visit her flat, on the second floor of Number 53 Joachim Friedrich Strasse, found her possessions were still there – except for the bureau and her books.
‘The Nazis confiscated my books,’ she said, ‘But, at a time when popular taste was for French-polished furniture they wouldn’t have had the nous to appreciate my bureau! I suspect the diplomat who lived in the flat downstairs.’
I knew I couldn’t find the bureau, but I had to write a novel about it. The book is called The Image of Laura and though it isn’t Gonda’s story and its heroine, Laura Conway, bears no resemblance at all to her, in creating it, I did re-trace Gonda’s footsteps and so I went to Berlin. The street in which Gonda had lived had been the target of Allied bombs and most of its big ugly grey houses had been levelled during the war. But Number 53 was still standing and as I looked up at the windows of her flat the plot of the book took shape in my mind.
As The Image of Laura begins a retrospective exhibition of works by the photographer Laura Conway is being held in a London gallery to commemorate her 75th birthday. The party has ‘attracted the rich, the gorgeous, the famous and the outrageous. Some looked stylish and elegant. Others were wonderfully ostentatious. Frilly knickers under a satin slip dress… cyclists’ gloves and Nike trainers combined with scarlet silk… A man with a cane in his hand lurked beneath cover of cloak and Ray-bans.’ By contrast, Laura ‘who wore only black, white and grey; whose eyes were grey and whose once pale ash blonde hair has long since turned silver, might have been a ghost, so shadowy is her appearance.’
In the gallery another ghost is waiting. Behind a screen, ‘in mint condition, mounted on a trolley and all ready to be presented with a flourish to its rightful owner, is Laura’s long-lost bureau,’ which her grand-daughter Cassie has found in Berlin. Laura, thinks Cassie, will be delighted by this special birthday gift. Laura is certainly moved but not in the way that Cassie expects. Instead, confronted with the bureau, she trembles’ with the wrong kind of shock.’ Pale at the best of times, she is ‘now completely devoid of colour.’ For Laura has lied to her family about her life in Berlin. She has created and carefully nurtured an image of herself. With the re-appearance of her bureau, that image is about to be shattered.
Next week: Walking in a Ghostly Garden.